By highlighting the limits of traditional military technology, the drawn-out conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the US defence department to shake up its US$12-billion science and technology research programme. The defence research and engineering office, headquartered at the Pentagon in Washington DC, is overseeing a budget shift away from applied research that supports weapons and into areas such as biology, computer science and the social sciences. All of these have "a potential for being game-changers" on the battlefield, says Zachary Lemnios, the defence department's chief technology officer and director of defence research and engineering.
Lemnios, who is nearing the end of his first year as research director, recently testified before Congress for the first time since he was confirmed for his position, and answered questions fromNature about his scientific priorities. He says that the new emphasis will have reverberations outside the Pentagon, noting that US universities will receive more than half of the $1.8 billion that the defence department will spend on basic research in the current fiscal year. "Basic research funding not only leads to the next generation of technology but, just as importantly, supports a pipeline of researchers and graduate students," he says.
Among the areas that are fast becoming a priority for the Pentagon is synthetic biology, which seeks to build new organisms or re-engineer existing ones to perform specific functions. Lemnios says that the Pentagon is interested in understanding "how organisms sense and respond to stimuli — such as chemicals, ions and metals, or electrical, magnetic, optical and mechanical impulses — at a genetic level". That knowledge, he says, could help researchers to design "living sentinels" that can monitor the presence of explosives or chemical pollutants. "We can also develop tools that will allow us to detect adversarial uses of synthetic biology," he says.
According to Lemnios, the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Virginia, is looking at how to biosynthesize targeted antibiotics that work by sensing and attacking specific pathogens. President Barack Obama's proposed budget for next year would also provide $20 million to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), another research arm of the Pentagon, to fund work in synthetic biology.