I have to confess that I had never heard of DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency -- until they invited me to talk about my work at a meeting at a golf resort near San Diego one summer. I had just begun working on what is now widely known as 3d printing.
DARPA, I soon realized, was vastly important. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had created it to create and develop projects to develop technology and expand the frontiers of science. Soon, I learned both why DARPA leaders were so special in the scientific research community – and why they seemed acutely interested in 3d printing. Did you realize, one of their managers said to me, that the typical aircraft carrier takes more than 14 years to build -- and that parts need to be replaced all the time?
Why not find a way to store all of the parts digitally on the carrier, make sure the right materials to make the part are on board, and whenever a replacement part is needed, just 3d print it?
That was 1992. And you know what? Today we can do just that. Back in those early days, we used 3d printing technology to build plastic parts, mainly for their visual images. Plastic models were assembled from 3d drawings made by designers in design labs. The parts of the day looked more like plexiglass, but they weren’t meant to be used -- they were just for seeing the 2-d written world as it really was - in 3d.
Not anymore. Today, several modifications of printing methods and materials let one make functional parts from a digital file. Dentists use 3d printing to make braces, dental implants, and most anything one can think for tooth repair.
Long gone, one hopes, are the gooey molds we used to bite to leave an impression of our teeth. This can now done digitally; a 3d picture is taken, and then printed in a material that fits the patient’s need.
DARPA supported the research at the University of Texas that led to the Digital Light Processor, the DLP. DARPA funded work that brought us Global Positioning Satellites. Not only that, DARPA funded what became the internet.
DARPA was, and is a futuristic think tank. The funds I received from them we used to deposit photocurable resins that could be cured with a flash of light. The part was built, drop by drop, light by light, layer, by layer. An experiment then, this process is a commercial money-maker now. Later we used a DLP as the light guide.
I was reminded of all this when President Biden said in his State of the Union address, “The National Institutes of Health, the NIH – should create a similar Advanced Research Projects Agency for health.”
I think this is a wonderful idea, but I have a few caveats:
We have to worry first and most about future viral diseases. President Biden made the case for Representative Marcy Kaptur’s proposed National Institute for Viral Diseases. And any new health system must have as its first priority identifying, preventing, and treating new viral diseases.
We have a science manpower problem. We have a shortage of American scientists because scientific research and development has been underappreciated here for many years. We need many more scientists in our labs than America produces. Too few of the brightest young people are choosing careers in the sciences and engineering. We need to fix that if we are going to compete in the global economy.
More money alone won’t do it either. We need to make science exciting; we need to get those creative molecular biologists who want to clone George Washington or Albert Einstein to turn their attention to teaching that conveys the enthusiasm of excitement of scientific discovery.
America needs to put sparks, explosions, smells and even a little DNA in its classrooms.
How do we get there? First, we need many more immigrants. I would not have had a research career had it not been for students who came to my labs from all over the world. Many more former Soviet citizens took Ph.D.s with me than did students with undergraduate degrees from American colleges and universities.
Where are my former students now? They’re presidents and vice presidents of research all over this country, and all of them have become American citizens. America cut back on letting in the best and brightest scientifically inclined from around the world, just when we needed them the most.
Congress needs to forget politics and fix our immigration policies. Forget worrying about a relatively few undocumented people crossing the Rio Grande, and take care of staffing our university research labs!
Again, a new DARPA-type agency for health is a brilliant idea; but it needs the right generals to make it work. So, take a few molecular biologists and stir with vigor.
Then give them their heads – and get ready to look with awe at what they can and will produce.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster distinguished research professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He’s past chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center, Jamestown, NY 3dscienceblog.com