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Departure of PM’s chief adviser adds to doubts over UK Arpa

Image: Cubankite, via Shutterstock

Dominic Cummings championed new funding agency but is reportedly leaving amid huge Number 10 row

Rumours of the imminent departure of the PM’s chief adviser have rolled through Westminster all week. But now they have been apparently confirmed there could be huge repercussions for the UK’s innovation and science policy.

After huge speculation about him quitting, Dominic Cummings told the BBC on 13 November that rumours of him threatening to resign “are invented”, but he also said that his “position hasn’t changed since my January blog”. In that blog post he said he wanted to be “within a year largely redundant”.

While a hugely controversial figure, Cummings has been seen as a champion of a certain type of research funding.

The government’s plans to create a new ‘high-risk/high-reward’ funding agency inspired by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and backed with £800 million over five years are widely seen as his pet project. Indeed, the Financial Times reports that some in Whitehall believe Cummings could leave Downing Street to become the first head of this UK Arpa.

But science minister Amanda Solloway said this week that the agency would be led by a scientist.

“It’s really important to me that…this particular person specifically is absolutely the right person because they will be driving forward the whole Arpa concept,” she said, adding that this person, would need to be an “expert scientist” who was “exceptional” and “revered for the work that they do”.

A promise from prime minister Boris Johnson to have Arpa created by the end of the summer came and went and it is now supposed to open in 2021. Cummings’ departure may mean the agency is kicked further into the long grass in the coming spending review.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at University of Manchester, said it’s possible that Arpa will “just quietly disappear from the agenda”.

Though, he added, given it was in the Conservative Party manifesto and that a lot of work has already been done, “it’s more likely that something called UK Arpa will appear but it will be ‘recaptured’ by the science community in terms of its role, where it fits into the system and what kind of person gets chosen to lead it”. 

Flanagan told Research Professional News that it is unlikely Cummings would be appointed the head of the new agency. “But you never know,” he said. “I suppose they might make him a…non-exec chair of UK Arpa.”

James Wilsdon, director of Research on Research Institute and a professor at the University of Sheffield said, “there’s sufficient momentum behind UK Arpa within Whitehall and the wider research community for it to survive Dom C’s departure”.

“It’s clear that there’s a lot of political and promissory capital now invested in the idea, which it will be hard to row back,” he told Research Professional News. “And if the government sticks to its wider commitments to double public R&D spending by 2025 it will need some big ideas to spend the money on—of which Arpa is one.”

“Perhaps a greater threat to Arpa than Dom leaving Number 10 would be a broader retrenchment in public spending, post pandemic, which would render the R&D commitments null and void,” he said. “But short of that…I think there’s now a lock-in to the idea that means it will persist for as long as Boris is PM.” 

Cummings has also championed the research policy ideas of Richard Jones, a professor of physics at the University of Manchester. In a blog published in November last year Cummings praised Jones’ work on how research and innovation can be distributed more fairly in the UK via a reduction in focus on the research that takes place in traditional universities, and more emphasis on the development of translational research centres. 

He is said to be enthusiastic about increasing funding and cutting red tape in science, two things that have been high on the government’s agenda.

But Flanagan noted that the goal of increasing R&D investment and the renewal of interest in industrial strategy “predated Cummings and indeed Johnson’s administration”.

“It’s part of a long-term trajectory that you can trace back to Brown and Blair,” he said. “So, I don’t see any question of it going away—though the shape and content of industrial policy, rebalancing and increased government funding for R&D might be somewhat different without Cummings than with him.”

Corrected 13/11—This story has been updated to reflect that fact that Richard Jones is now based in Manchester, not Sheffield.