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Holy Bureaucratic Gibberish, Batman!

This post is by Adam Martin, a post-doctoral fellow at DRI.

On July 1 the Department of Defense rolled out two notable new projects that will undoubtedly inaugurate a new era of peace and safety for the streets of Gotham international community. Even the world’s greatest detective could not have seen this coming.

Like their caped crusader namesakes, the DoD versions of BaTMAN and RoBIN are shrouded in mystery, their real identities cleverly disguised. BaTMAN is:

Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature (BaTMAN) could develop an understanding of the relationship between biological systems and the spatial-temporal universe through the application of advanced principles from the physical sciences… Topic areas that may be of interest include, but are not limited to: quantum biology and molecular clocks; resetting and synchronization of biological clocks and rhythms; microscale recapitulation in macroscale; evolutionary pressure and time; physiological signal processing and clocks; timing and cognition; and robustness of clocks in development.

His faithful sidekick RoBIN:

Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks (RoBIN), seeks to apply the critical control features of biological networks to build unique models for adaptable networks, and create a dynamic biologically-inspired network of scientists and other experts for crisis response and complex decision support.

What does any of this have to do with foreign aid? Most prominently, it serves of a reminder of just how bad an idea it is to ask the military to be more involved in aid. Despite the distilled frenzy of a few prominent voices in the air, the defense establishment is more likely to lead us into a funhouse maze than solve the riddle of development.

But it’s not just military involvement itself that should resisted. The BaTMAN and RoBIN projects are perfect examples of the obfuscating language and flagrant non-accountability that accompanies bloated bureaucracies. These megalomaniacal ideas work great at keeping the funding flowing but achieve little else. The dynamic duo of massive government budgets and weak feedback mechanisms are a source of mischief in military and non-military organizations alike.


Editor’s note: BaTMAN and RoBIN sound almost too outlandish to be real. We did call Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to confirm that we were not being had, and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, I work at New York University and write for a blog called Aid Watch.


Me: I am wondering if you could confirm that Biochronicity and Temporal Mechanisms Arising in Nature and Robustness of Biologically-Inspired Networks are in fact DARPA programs.

DARPA: Uhmmm…you want to try that in English? (laughs)

Me: Your language, not mine! The acronyms are BaTMAN and RoBIN…

DARPA: (Looks up the programs on his screen…) Well, what we issued was a Request for Information so they are not technically programs per se….They are potential new DARPA programs.

Me: So you can confirm that they are real potential DARPA programs.


There you have it, BaTMAN and RoBIN are not a spoof.

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  1. Couldn’t I just as easily find a grass roots solution that was ridiculous and didn’t work and then say that individual people shouldn’t be more involved with foreign aid?

    This proves nothing, but it does fit into the Aid Watch schema: “Government sucks! Military sucks!”… so it gets posted. Great work, Adam!

    Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:33 am | Permalink
  2. David Wofford wrote:

    I gotta say I think you kind of missed the joke. My guess would be the creators of that acronym were having a good laugh making fun of all the ridiculous government acronymns. And laughing at themselves. I’d encourage more of that spirit. Not sure DARPA is exactly where to hit DOD over waste. And not sure the AID world has that much of a leg to stand on criticizing the military for its inability to solve problems. Cheers.

    Posted July 14, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  3. Adam Baker wrote:

    For what it’s worth, these sound like plausible biomimetic research projects. I tend to think this line of research is mostly hype, but similar approaches would be found in the business literature if you looked (“crowd sourcing,” “distributed” anything, etc.). It’s actually a bottom-up processing approach rather than a top-down one, which is something Aid Watch might have been expected to be supportive of.

    While you had them on the phone did you ask them about progress in developing the gay bomb?

    Posted July 14, 2010 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Amar wrote:

    Ha! That silly DARPA. What’s next? A project that lets me use my computer to read your opinions of your computer from a thousand miles away?!

    Posted July 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  5. McKay wrote:

    You’re being a little harsh on acronyms of the DoD specifically given how every university research project, military project and NGO project seem to have cute and oh-so-witty acronyms.

    But given that you actually called DARPA to confirm and got them to say BaTMAN and RoBIN are programs is awesome, so you’re forgiven!

    But in a general sense of “why do we possibly need such complicated project names?” your argument does stand.

    Posted July 15, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  6. MT wrote:

    Another couple acronyms from DARPA’s basic research agenda:

    ARPANET (now known as “the internet”)
    GPS (Global Positioning Systems — now used in cars, watches, pets and more).

    In terms of accountability and feedback, the Return on Investment to humanity from DARPA with these two technologies alone is probably 1,000,000,000,000:1.

    I’d say stick with criticizing programs that waste money, not those that have revolutionised the world and created incalculable surplus wealth. Not every bureaucracy is poorly organised or unproductive.

    Posted July 15, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Glenn wrote:

    Hahahaha. This is so awful it’s funny. I guess it’s a way to get their programs noticed by higher ups. I don’t know if it will help them any since it does sounds so outlandish to be true.

    – Glenn @ The Mortgage Facts

    Posted July 15, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Derek wrote:

    Ah, the irony of a blogger unwittingly criticizing DARPA! According to an earlier post, technological progress stopped mattering in 1000 B.C., so who needs R&D anyway?

    Posted July 15, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  9. Dave Larson wrote:

    I’m waiting for JoKER.

    Posted July 23, 2010 at 10:17 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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