Friday, April 1, 2011

Wired Reporters Trash Unsung DoD Science Hero

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Wired's Noah Shachtman & Spencer Ackerman have been publishing a series of investigative articles attacking the ethics of DARPA head Regina Dugan.  The controversy centers around the fact that prior to her appointment to head the US DoD's premier research organization, she helped launch a startup company, RedXDefense, devoted in part to creating better detection of explosive devices.  The problem highlighted by Shachtman & Ackerman & Manymen is that when she was appointed head of DoD by Secretary Robert Gates, she disclosed being the company's co-founder & owning 15,000 shares.  Although she followed accepted procedures and recused herself from any dealings concerning RedXDefense, it was later awarded a contract by DARPA. Then another.  Oh, her father, uncle & sister work for the company & it owes Dugan $250, repayment for a loan or something.

Great material for a govt scandal article right?  Wrong.

Regina Dugan was appointed head of DARPA precisely because of her competence as a researcher & entrepreneur--> the exact profile of persons DARPA courts to conduct its research.  Dugan has a 1984 BS, 1985 MS & 1993 PHD in mechanical engineering. She wrote her dissertation about un-detonated bombs.   She entered the workforce as a researcher at a premier non-profit DoD think-tank called Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in 1993.  She must have impressed many because 3 short years later, DARPA hired her to manage a $100Mil research portfolio that included projects to detect land mines & help Marines storm mine infested beaches.  Between 2001-2003, the Army asked her to study what was happening in Afghanistan with IED's.

In the 10 years after she completed her PHD, do you know what she discovered?  Good people were getting blown up by bombs created by terrorists. Companies weren't producing technology to detect explosives.  God bless her, she started her own company to address the need in 2005.  Not only that, like many American entrepreneurs she enlisted the help of her family, ie, her father and uncle. Together, they started a venture capital fund devoted to finding new technologies.  Well, I wonder where she learned how to do that?

The purpose of DARPA is to provide financial incentives for inventors to address the needs of the US Military.  Companies who invest the time and effort in responding to these calls for research, occasionally succeed AND THEN GO ON TO COMMERCIALIZE THEIR DISCOVERIES.  It's risky because what the DoD wants is not always obtainable.  It's difficult to build a business out of failed projects.  Large companies often ignore such unpredictable opportunities in favor of exploiting existing technologies for larger sales to the government.  So, the collection of people pursuing DARPA funding is not always so sizable.   But to someone familiar with the system, therein is an opportunity.  

In addition to her DARPA work, Dugan was one of the rare people who were literally in the middle of DoD research having served to support the (1)Defense Science Board, (2)Army Science Board, (3)National Research Council, the (4)Science Foundation, the (5)Naval Research Advisory Committee and the (6) Defense Threat Reduction Agency and (7) Technology Panel.  Should I even mention that she has several patents?

Around 2007, Dugan endured the devastating loss of her 18yr step-daughter, Rachel Crites, who committed suicide after being diagnosed & treated for mental health issues.

Dugan is exactly the type of person I want leading an organization like DARPA.  The Shachtman & Ackerman articles invite the reader to believe that after she left her potentially extremely lucrative position at RedXDefense, it should go out of business and everyone should lose their jobs.   Oh no, not that--we just don't think it should win contracts from an agency headed by the company's founder.  OK geniuses, let me ask you question.   Does FEDEX develop explosive detection technology?  Does Bank of America?   What about Time Magazine, do they fund explosive detection technologies?   Does any industry other than DoD/DHS fund such research?   No. So just because RedXDefense was on a trajectory to be a viable candidate to fulfill the research needs of DARPA, they should shut down the farm & fire everyone so Dugan can run DARPA?   Ridiculous.  She followed the procedures. She disclosed. She recused herself.   Other personnel, with integrity and legal guidelines awarded those contracts.   Bring forward real evidence of wrong-doing and then we'll have a story here.  But to me, it reads like a character assassination of someone who deserves praise not scorn.

Is it really worth the time to write about a $400,000 contract when the annual DoD budget is $1Tril/yr?  Isn't there more and better corruption out there that real investigative journalism should be attempting to uncover?  What's sad here too is Wired didn't even break this story--they sort of copy/pasted from

If I were WIRED, I would delete all of the Dugan articles and put up a new one pointing out what is actually informative---Regina Dugan happens to be one of the more attractive nerds on the planet.

Full Disclosure: I have no personal or business ties to Dugan, DARPA, or RedXDefense.  If anything, I should be upset with DARPA because they totally botched two FOIA requests related to our favorite subject.

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