Some of the ISN’s other advances have included experimenting with a new system that could make vaccines far more effective, and helping to develop a fiber-optic laser surgery system that has been used to treat more than 60,000 patients to date. In 2003 it was licensed to a company called OmniGuide.
Joannopoulos says academics are drawn to working with the military because the goal is to develop not incremental advances but game-changers. “People are going to come after me for saying this,” Joannopoulos says, but the Department of Defense “is by far the most flexible and risk-taking when it comes to resources. They’re willing to take a risk and try something—something that might not work out, but is more revolutionary than evolutionary.”
Like I said, though: Take the federal dollars out of all this military research and development, and the whole thing falls apart. Nobody is more aware of this than the state’s defense contractors. In November, the Globe ran a story, titled “Defense industry closely watching Elizabeth Warren,” that contained some warnings from contractors for the just-elected senator. Christopher Anderson, of the Defense Technology Initiative, was quoted as saying that the “defense technology community in particular is not quite sure of whether she is going to be supportive at the end of the day. She has an obligation to major sectors of the Massachusetts economy that are inextricably linked to the federal government.” The message was clear: Defense firms may have given 30 times more in campaign donations to Warren’s opponent, former Senator Scott Brown, than they did to her, but Warren was going to have to line up behind them anyway, lest she damage the Massachusetts economy.
The next day, Anderson released a study showing that in 2011, Massachusetts defense firms received $13.9 billion in contracts from the departments of Defense and Homeland Security—an 83 percent increase since 2003. When I spoke to Anderson, he told me that the “current state is that you have a tremendous amount of uncertainty as a result of un-resolved deficit strategies down in Washington.” He was talking about the fiscal cliff, and he said the state had a lot to lose if the standoff wasn’t resolved soon, or if the deal that resolved it wound up resulting in significant cuts to military spending. “It will affect Raytheon,” he said, “but it also affects all the sub-contractors that Raytheon brings in to do work.”
Raytheon, of course, is the $25 billion gorilla of the Massachusetts defense industry. Based in Waltham, the corporation is the fifth-largest military contractor in America and the ninth-largest employer in the state. It was founded in 1922 by three scientists, one of whom, Vannevar Bush, would go on to oversee the Manhattan Project and become dean of the MIT School of Engineering. Today, Raytheon is best known for the development of the Patriot missile, but it’s involved in all kinds of other research, including air traffic control and satellites.
The Raytheon subsidiary BBN Technologies, which is based in Cambridge, is an example of just how interwoven contractors are with both academic institutions and the government. The company helped develop ARPANET—the progenitor of the Internet—in the 1960s and 1970s to aid communication between university- and military-research labs. “What BBN has done is have a lot of close relationships with academia. And there are some things that academia doesn’t want to do,” Zachary Dutton, the lead scientist of Quantum Information Processing at BBN, told me. “Our interest is: Can you take the discovery and find an application for it?”
The applications I saw during a tour of the company included the Boomerang, which uses directional microphones and a computer to determine the location of a sniper. The technology, which was based in part on the work done in the 1970s to figure out the location of President Kennedy’s assassin, was introduced in Iraq in 2004. TransTalk, meanwhile, is an Android smartphone app the company developed to translate Arabic and Pashto into English, and vice versa, and which has since been expanded to include an English-Spanish version. The possibilities for the app seem endless.
Elsewhere at BBN, researchers are working on advancing the new field of quantum computing, which uses powerful quantum bits (“qubits”) instead of traditional binary digits (“bits”) to perform advanced calculations. Dutton said that quantum computers are today where regular computers were in the 1950s. He’s confident, though, that in time quantum computers “will vastly outpace the speed of classical computers. They’ll be orders of magnitude larger.”
BBN executives acknowledged some concern about proposed cuts in defense spending, but they seemed hopeful that Congress would work things out. And anyway—and despite what Anderson may believe—a 2011 Credit Suisse report found that Raytheon, because of its diversified product line and international sales, is actually the major U.S. defense contractor that’s least vulnerable to spending cuts.
It’s true that, as I heard many times, Massachusetts has a lot to lose when it comes to any cuts in military spending. Then again, we’re probably better off than most states. While the country’s standing army is likely to decline in size, most of the pain in that regard will be felt by bases like Fort Hood, in Texas. Warfare is becoming far more technical and advanced, giving Massachusetts, with our renowned academic institutions and our powerhouse technology industry, a decided advantage.
Anderson predicts that the federal government will be spending a lot more money on cyber security. “Assuming the investment in research and development and technology remains a federal priority,” he says, “that will be something that—if we do our job in Massachusetts—we can benefit from.”
And as warfare continues to evolve, the companies and universities of Massachusetts will evolve right along with it. “Our business,” BBN’s Dutton says, “is to closely follow what the government wants and is interested in.”