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Increasingly eclectic Pentagon innovation board adds Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jeff Bezos

🕐 3 min read

The Pentagon’s increasingly eclectic Defense Innovation Advisory Board has reached full strength, with celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and founder Jeffrey Bezos among the latest named to a group that includes some of the private sector’s most successful leaders.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter established the board in March with Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt as its head. Already, some of the members have spent time with airmen in Nevada and sailors in San Diego, and they’ll meet with other service members Tuesday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Wednesday in Tampa, Florida, at the headquarters of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, Carter said.

“Not everything in the private sector will make sense for us because we’re . . . always mindful the military isn’t a company, it’s a profession of arms,” Carter said. “And for important reasons, we’re not always going to be able to do things the same way – but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ourselves in the mirror and look around the country for new ideas and lessons we can learn for ways we can operate more efficiently.”

Carter spoke Tuesday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the Defense Department opened an East Coast office for its Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, better known as DIUx. The first DIUx office was opened last year in Mountain View, California, to build new relationships between Silicon Valley start-ups and the Defense Department; the new one is expected to do the same in Massachusetts, which includes companies that have such specialties as robotics and electronic textiles.

“Like San Francisco, Austin, Seattle and so many other places, Boston is a technology hub of great importance, an ecosystem of companies, university and research institutions that exemplifies America’s unrivaled innovative culture,” Carter said.

The DIUx office in Cambridge will be led by Bernadette Johnson, the chief technology officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Lab. She will serve as a liaison between companies and a variety of Defense Department labs and research facilities across the country. The office’s top military official in Cambridge will be Air Force Col. Mike McGinley, a reservist who serves as a cybersecurity lawyer in civilian life, Carter said.

It’s the advisory board, however, that has the most star power. Tyson, a popular author and television host, has appeared in several movies and TV shows, often explaining science to a general audience.

In addition to founding Amazon, Bezos started the aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin, which is now developing technologies to allow private human space travel. He also purchased The Washington Post in 2013.

The board now includes 15 members and is at full size. Other members named Tuesday include Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America; Milo Medin, Google’s vice president for access services, broadband and fiber network; Instagram chief executive Marne Levine; J. Michael McQuade, United Technologies’s senior vice president for science and technology. Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; Richard Murray, a bioengineering professor at the California Institute of Technology; Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar at Harvard; Danny Hillis, co-founder of Applied Inventions; and Eric Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, whose focus includes biomedical and genomic research.

Carter announced in June that he had named retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Aspen Institute chief executive Walter Isaacson to the board.

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