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Science minister hopes to get UK Arpa ‘up and running this year’

Image: Nelson Pavlosky [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Minister’s comments follow a Policy Exchange report offering various perspectives on the agency

Science minister Chris Skidmore has said he hopes to get a UK funder modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency established this year as policy experts set out their vision for a ‘UK Arpa’.

“As we look to embrace the opportunities that leaving the EU can bring, we’re working at pace with the research community to get a UK Arpa up and running this year,” he said.

Skidmore said such an agency would “complement our world-class research system with a remit for experimenting with new funding approaches, while giving our researchers greater freedom to pursue long-range projects to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges”.

The agency, inspired by the US agency, which later added the word ‘Defense’ to its name (pictured), will have a budget of £800 million over five years.

The minister’s comments come after the Policy Exchange think tank published a report providing a “rainbow of different perspectives” on the agency, with essays from seven authors including former science ministers Jo Johnson and David Willetts.

In a series of recommendations based on the essays, the think tank advises that the government “move rapidly” to establish the agency, while clearly setting out its role, objectives and mission.

However, it advises the agency not to carry out research itself or have its own research laboratories. “Instead it should fund the best research and individuals wherever they are found, in pursuit of its objectives,” it suggests.

The think tank recommends that the agency adopt a 10-15-year horizon for developing advanced technologies, adding: “Unlocking transformative technologies, rather than basic research or incremental near-to-market innovation, is where Arpa’s efforts should be centred”.

However, the report added, the government must also recognise that “most projects will not achieve their objectives—and that Arpa should be judged on the impact of its successes, not the proportion of its projects that fail”.

While agreeing on several points, the authors were at odds over the future agency’s relationship with UK Research and Innovation, with Johnson arguing that it should fall under the UKRI umbrella.

He warns the government not to “recreate many of the structural problems with how we fund research and innovation that the creation of UKRI was intended to solve”.

By separating the agency from the funder, Johnson said, the government risks “depriving UKRI of its raison d’etre as a single-point of accountability to government for science spending” and “preventing UKRI from operating as a funder with strategic oversight of the UK’s research system”.

Moreover, he added, it risks “re-creating the silos that prevent the efficient funding of interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary research” and “creating unhelpful, confusing and duplicatory overlap with Innovate UK and UKRI’s challenge funds”.

“Although it would be possible to establish Arpa as an independent agency, creating it within UKRI would be much less disruptive than legislating to create a new standalone quango,” Johnson argues. “The risk is that a pet quango, if created outside of UKRI, fractures confidence in an entity that is central to the successful funding of our national research and innovation endeavour, at a critical stage in its development.”

Conversely, Willetts suggests that the UK Arpa and UKRI “keep distinct identities” while working closely together.