The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award (YFA) is designed to give researchers a good look at the challenges and needs of the Department of Defense (DoD) and national security as a whole. The purpose, like the other young faculty programs, is to give researchers the opportunity to build relationships and understanding that will help them get future funding from the organization.

The YFA is for untenured assistant or associate professors within five years of appointment to a tenure-track position at a U.S. institution of higher learning. DARPA especially is looking for those who have not been involved in DARPA programs before and there is citizenship requirement. The full proposal is due on January 18, 2017.

The award provides up to $500,000 for 24 months. For exceptional project performance over the 24-month base period, a limited number of researchers will be awarded a “Director’s Fellowship” with a maximum of an additional $500,000 in follow-on funding for an additional estimated 12-month period.

The current solicitation has a list of 22 topic areas in which DARPA is interested:

  • Analysis, interference, and control of time-varying networks
  • Geometric methods in optimization
  • Functional mathematical tools in design
  • Emergent properties of nano-engineered materials
  • How, when, and why the social becomes the biological
  • Characterizing micro-macro dynamics in social-like systems
  • Rapid countermeasure discovery via functional evolution
  • Designing metasurfaces using inverse scattering methods
  • Designing structured materials for improved parametric processes
  • Synthesis of three-dimensional molecular assemblies
  • DNA encryption
  • Ecological niche-preference engineering
  • Engineered neurobiological systems
  • Biopolymers on demand
  • Reprogramming larval behavior in the sea
  • Novel approaches to reduce agricultural loss and increase crop productivity
  • Life-long learning
  • Online machine learning for sequential decision making
  • Collaborative RF systems
  • Millimeter-wave passive components
  • Improving utilization of open source software
  • Innovative SDR uses

These topic areas are broad on purpose to allow researchers to be creative in their research. However, it is key your proposal is only submitted to one topic area, even if it crosses into a few areas. Pick your strongest area and focus on that.

While the broad topic areas do allow for creative research areas, it also can lead to questions. Unfortunately, once the solicitation is out, topic area points of contact (POCs) are not able to meet with potential researchers.

So, what is a researcher to do?

Although not required, I recommend you take advantage of the executive summary submission DARPA allows. The deadline is November 1, 2016 by 4pm. DARPA will review the summary and let you know if it is of interest. This will let you know if you are on the right track with DARPA and, regardless of the response, you are still allowed to submit a full proposal. Should DARPA not be interested in your proposal, this information will help with revisions. Should you decide not to submit a full proposal based on the results of the executive summary, you can use it as a starting point towards future discussions with the DARPA POC after the proposal deadline in January.

However, if we assume that your executive summary attracts DARPA’s interest as well as your full proposal, you will find being a member of a DARPA YFA cohort has a lot of advantages.

Where the DARPA YFA differs from many other young investor programs is its efforts to build a cohort among the researchers who receive the award. The program provides funding and mentoring as well as DoD contacts to awardees so they may develop their research ideas in the context of DoD needs. Part of the awarded funding is to take part in visits to DoD sites and facilities. These trips not only give you a chance to meet DoD personnel and learn of their needs, but you also will get to meet the other researchers and perhaps gain some excellent research collaborators. While the visits are optional, again, I highly recommend you attend. Not participating in any events will negatively impact the chance of getting the Director’s Fellowship. It also negatively impacts your ability to get everything out of the program that you could. Researchers who apply for this program should be committed to going on these trips and tours in order to meet their fellow researchers and contacts within DARPA.

If your research has a connection within DARPA, this is a quality program that will help set you up for future funding.