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Where are the women?

Diana Beech on Arpa and gender, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to establish an agency for high-risk, high-payoff research. The Advanced Research Projects Agency will be based on the United States model that, for the past 60 years, has been investing in breakthrough technologies, specifically for national security, and catalysing R&D.

It is expected that the UK Arpa will sit at arm’s-length from the government and will receive more than £800 million over the next five years to promote blue-sky research across the entire innovation ecosystem—supporting developments in engineering, science and technology, right through to the hot topics of the moment such as artificial intelligence and big data.

But establishing such an agency is not as easy as simply lifting and shifting the idea from the US and transplanting it to the UK. For the past three years, researchers have been busy coming to terms with UK Research and Innovation, established as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to fund both world-class discovery and applied research, and to keep the UK at the forefront of the growing global knowledge economy.

Working out whether the UK’s Arpa will sit neatly alongside UKRI or within it will be the first major debate to be had—not to mention establishing how it will relate to other government funding streams to simplify the R&D landscape rather than further congest it.

Since the result of the 2019 general election became clear, many of these big conversations have started, with numerous think tanks and journalists speculating about what the new Arpa could look like.

Women at the coalface

Yet what is striking is how few of these contributions have come from women working at the coalface of UK science policy—save from the occasional nod to those already in positions of prominence, be it in government or university leadership. Following successive government drives to tempt more women into science and research careers, it is sad that the only women deemed worthy of an opinion or with the confidence to offer up their thoughts on the future direction of UK science policy are those who have already ‘made it’.

If the UK is to meet the target of investing 2.4 per cent of GDP in R&D by 2027 and if the government and institutions are serious about building the pipeline of talent to support it, it is essential not only to listen to what women have to say about the shape of the sector the country both wants and needs them to work in but to actively involve them in the process.

There is ample evidence worldwide, from both industry and the public sector, to show that involving women fully in decision-making and agenda-setting processes is a surefire way to ensure that resources will be allocated more fairly and effectively.

And an Arpa model is one that, on paper at least, women could really buy into—with its promises of bypassing peer review processes and appointing talent on the basis of genuine expertise and flair, rather than publication records or unbroken career histories—both of which are well-known reasons why women choose to leave science behind.

A UK Arpa, therefore, has a real chance to change the direction of UK science policy for the better, but only if women are allowed into the design process from the outset and if the shape of it is not solely a discussion for the men. An inclusive, open and fair research agenda depends on the government practising what it preaches and bringing to the policymaking table now the half of society that it relies on to bolster it.

Collaboration versus hierarchy

What’s more, as evidence shows, women’s approach to policymaking tends to be more collaborative and less hierarchical than that of men.

If the Arpa is really intended to be “a flat, non-hierarchical organisation with empowered programme managers” and “highly talented teams of researchers that are highly collaborative”, as per the scope of its American forefather, then it is high time we seek the input of women into the design and scope of the organisation.

There are also additional benefits to bringing women into the science agenda-setting fold—not least ensuring attention for “gendered innovations”, which can lead to safer and more sustainable research outcomes for the whole of humanity, or to provide much-needed female perspectives on the societal impacts of products and creations.

An Arpa that is committed to producing results for genuine civilian benefit must ultimately heed the female voice.

In short, overlooking the views of women in this dynamic piece of UK science policy is not a wise move if this government is serious about building strong foundations for its Arpa-charged future. If we continue to leave women out of these initial conversations, the only high risk that Arpa will bring is that of future failure.

Diana Beech is head of government affairs at the University of Warwick and a former adviser to three universities and science ministers.