Skip to Main Content

Research Agencies See Diversity Key to Boosting Innovation

R&D leaders at DARPA and ARPA-H see promise in using emerging technology like AI to bring in critical tech talent.

4m read
Written by:
ARPA-H's Jennifer Roberts and DARPA's Whitney Mason
ARPA-H's Jennifer Roberts and DARPA's Whitney Mason speak at the Women Tech Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., May 15, 2024. Photo Credit: Capitol Events Photography

There is a vital need to broaden the candidate pool for research agencies to sustain a competitive edge in developing mission-critical technologies, officials from health and defense research agencies said this week.

Directors from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) discussed at the Women Tech Leaders Summit Wednesday the barriers they are seeing to the workforce and how agencies are scaling to execute long-term gender diversity in STEM.

“DARPA is a place where you go to start programs that change the world,” said DARPA Microsystems Technology Office Director Whitney Mason. “We push program managers to the place where failure is likely, and we try to turn disbelief into doubt to establish the foundation of what can become of magic. The return on investment should be huge, and the chance of failure should also be huge as long as we learn, so it’s an exciting place to be.”

Jennifer Roberts, director at ARPA-H’s Resilient Systems Office, said her agency is seeking program managers with revolutionary ideas to enhance the health ecosystem, such as preventing the next ransomware attack on hospitals, ensuring a safe trajectory of artificial intelligence moving into health care and creating a mechanism for high-quality care for individuals across the country.

“We are looking for folks coming from a diversity of different backgrounds because the problems that we choose to invest in vary based on the background of the program managers who come to us,” Roberts said. “We are looking for people who are looking at the problem a different way … so people can see an opportunity that most [people] would overlook.”

Recruiters from DARPA and ARPA-H are focusing on finding the motivating factors and interests that would cause individuals to become program managers in an effort to adapt their recruitment strategies, meet evolving workforce needs and advancements in technology, as well as retain women in STEM fields.

“The types of jobs at DARPA or ARPA-H are door openers where you have the opportunity to see what’s happening across a whole field, dip into any company in the country or internationally and see what is at the cutting edge,” Roberts said. “I think that helping folks see what is that long-term career trajectory so that folks can see that this is a stepping-stone to many great things is incredibly important.”

Mason added that the current approach to the recruitment process is difficult and needs improvement. AI can play a crucial role in streamlining the candidate experience, enhancing efficiency and making more informed hiring decisions, she said. By leveraging AI-powered tools and technologies, a new approach to talent acquisition can target a more diverse pool of candidates and take advantage of personalized outreach.

“I go into high schools, colleges, companies and conferences … but this doesn’t scale because I’m one person,” Mason said. “There are tools that exist in technology that we should think about how we can use those tools in a fair, unbiased and rational way so that we can do a more personalized recruiting without having to have a conversation with each person individually. We need to think about it bigger, not smaller.”

Roberts also emphasized the importance of attributing contributions made by individuals at all seniority levels while executing on moonshot visions and developing research and development portfolios. She added that providing a mechanism for people from different backgrounds to receive credit is critical for those individuals looking to open opportunities for advancement and show younger workers a meaningful pathway across their careers.

Mason added that DARPA is also considering implementing programs to aid in personalizing outreach, education and interest to bring more women and people from underserved communities into the field.

“The more voices that we have because of geographic diversity, racial diversity, gender diversity and people that are willing to stand up and raise their hand to say, ‘Have you thought of another way?’ I think that just makes our country and the world a better place,” Mason said. “That’s why I do my job.”

Related Content
Woman typing at computer

Stay in the Know

Subscribe now to receive our newsletters.