Visions of ARPA
New insights into how a UK ARPA could work
In September 2019, Dominic Cummings, adviser to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, met academics at 10 Downing Street to discuss setting up a UK version of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) that would tackle “really big societal challenges”. One of the premises behind the idea of creating a UK ARPA is the perception that, despite the UK’s extraordinary scientific infrastructure, institutional constraints have limited the ability to identify and promote new technologies.
In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the UK government committed to establishing a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, based on the ARPA model, with a budget over the five-year Parliament of £800m. This announcement has, understandably, generated a lot of interest into what this new agency could look like and its relationship with existing funders, including the UK research councils.
A new report produced this week by the think tank Policy Exchange analyses some of the key features of the US ARPA system and how lessons from this might be transferred to the UK. Experts in science and innovation, including former science ministers, vice-chancellors and leading academics add to the analysis with a discussion on how an ARPA could be established in the UK.
The report begins with a fascinating brief history of the UK science and innovation system since the First World War, highlighting seminal developments such as the establishment of the first research council (the Medical Research Council) in 1920 through to the more recent government decision to put the research councils as well as Innovate UK into a new organisation, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
Contributions from experts in science and innovation provide a range of different perspectives on the creation of a UK ARPA. A consistent message in these discussions is that the focus of a UK ARPA should be on advanced technologies, bringing in ideas from the laboratory to the prototype stage, where they can be brought to market and sold. Former Science Minister, Jo Johnson, argues that for the maximum impact, ARPA should be created within UKRI, cautioning that the government must ensure it does not create many of the structural problems (such as silos and duplication) with how research and innovation is funded that the creation of UKRI was intended to solve – other commentators within the report, however, disagree.
The report concludes that ARPA has the potential to have a transformative impact on the UK’s science and innovation landscape, arguing that the government should “tear up the rule book of research funding bureaucracy, allowing empowered and highly expert project managers to drive forward projects and allocate funding to the best people and projects wherever it can be found.” However, it also underlines that much remains to be determined about the nature, role and means of operation of the proposed agency, including the relationship between ARPA and the rest of the UK’s research base (UKRI, universities, research institutes and the private sector).
Download the full report.
Read the Science, space and infrastructure announcements in the Queen’s Speech.