DARPA Head Praised by Forbes as top “Under-Appreciated” Leader of 2014

February 9, 2015 |   | Contact: M. Daniel DeCillis

Arati Prabhakar
Arati Prabhakar addressing the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology about DARPA’s mission and priorities. Prabhakar has been named one of the top ‘under-appreciated’ leaders of 2014.

Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was recently cited by Forbes as one of 2014’s top five “unsung and underappreciated” leaders, someone who makes a difference through “capability, reliability, and authenticity.” She is the only U.S. leader on the Forbes list.

Prabhakar also knows well the value of connecting the world of technological innovation with the world of policy discussion. She was an instrumental part of the original advisory committee that set up the CCST Science and Technology Policy Fellowship which places PhD level scientists in state legislative offices for one year to aide policymakers and their staff.

For many people, DARPA is probably best known for inventing the precursor to the Internet, developing stealth technology for aircraft, supporting the creation of the voice recognition technology that underlies commercial products such as Siri, and helping to miniaturize the global positioning system that tells us how to get where we need to go. DARPA also draws a lot of attention for its high-profile ‘robotics challenge,’ in which teams of cutting-edge engineers from around the world compete to build robots capable of navigating over inhospitable terrain and providing assistance during a disaster. While these accomplishments and events draw a lot of media attention, DARPA’s leadership and world-class program managers spend most of their days out of the spotlight, taking on some of the world’s most daunting technological challenges. As Director of this innovative agency, created in the aftermath of Sputnik with the goal of preventing – and at times initiating – technological surprise, Prabhakar plays a vital role protecting the nation and inspiring advances that will change how we live and work in the future.

Prabhakar, who took the helm at DARPA in 2012, has a long record of distinguished accomplishments. The Indian-born Prabhakar was the first woman to earn a PhD in applied physics from Caltech (1984) and the first female director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (1993-1997). She also has years of leadership experience in the private sector. As head of DARPA, Prabhakar has focused effectively on the agency’s founding mission to create and invest in breakthrough technologies that protect U.S. national security.

“Our job is to think outside and beyond the known issues and opportunities,” she said in a recent address to the Presidential Council on Advisors on Science and Technology. “We’re a place where the technologies that have changed how we fight originated and were demonstrated… and the technology community knows us as a place that helped lay a lot of the groundwork for the information technology revolution that’s in full bore today. We invest in core enabling technologies because of their national security promise, but we know [they] historically often spill over and form the foundation for products, companies, and even industries because of private sector investment.”

DARPA’s mission is, in effect, to foster both innovation and connections, supporting novel research directions some of which don’t succeed – and connecting this research with a range of possible applications, ranging from the private sector to law enforcement. Prabhakar has noted that “If everything we supported were to work, we’d know we weren’t pushing the boundaries enough.”

“DARPA’s role is to make those early, pivotal investments that change what’s possible, so we can make the big strides forward,” she said. “We’re opening intriguing doors into possible futures… It’s part of our job; we can’t shy away from challenging issues. But with it comes a responsibility to convene [a] dialogue about those ethics issues.”

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