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UK Arpa has money—now comes the tricky part

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£50m commitment is welcome, but success depends on getting the details right, says Adam Clarke

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s recently ousted chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, divides opinion. But his support in No 10 helped secure government announcements on R&D investment that, if and when delivered, will ensure universities, businesses and others can protect and enhance their leading role in global research.

Cummings’s departure cast doubt on this agenda, in particular the future of UK Arpa, the funding agency modelled on the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). 

Happily, it looks as if the government’s science agenda is bigger than one individual. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 25 November spending review confirmed that £50 million will be available through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) budget for “high risk, high-payoff” research in 2021-22. This is presumably the first tranche of the £800m pledged for five years of Arpa in the March budget. 

It is an encouraging start, but financial pressure on departmental spending is set to increase. The case for investment in R&D will need to be made repeatedly if the government is to hold its nerve and deliver on its commitments. 

The Russell Group supports funding for high-risk, high-payoff research, so confirmation that UK Arpa is going ahead is a big positive. Ideas from individuals and teams working in universities will be at the heart of the new agency’s programmes, and we are ready to work with government to ensure its success.

Transforming the economy

With its first year’s budget confirmed, the question now is how to give UK Arpa the best chance of delivering technological breakthroughs that will transform the economy and change lives.

First, the agency’s role and responsibilities must be clear. This means detailing the problems UK Arpa is seeking to tackle and ensuring people understand the gap it will fill in the UK research ecosystem. 

Judging by Darpa’s example, its UK equivalent will need a high tolerance for risk, with an acceptance and expectation that a significant proportion of the projects it funds could fail. 

This might be the biggest change. The possibility of failure may discomfort policymakers. A recognition that operating at the frontier means some bets won’t pay off, and embracing that would make UK Arpa distinct.

Using UKRI to deliver the first £50m suggests the new agency will stand within the existing research funding infrastructure. One of Darpa’s strengths is its ability to operate outside standard funding processes. This makes its spending and decisions speedy and nimble. If UK Arpa is embedded in UKRI, this should still be possible, but achieving it will require careful thought.

UK Arpa will need organisa-tional independence and a flat structure, powered by entrepreneurial programme managers engaged with the research community. These principles and cultural traits would also set the agency apart from current funding structures.

Attracting the right people 

Related to this is the question of how to attract the right people to lead the new agency. Darpa’s programme managers are seen as fundamental to its success, and the job carries prestige in both academia and industry.

Programme managers shape research projects in partnership with universities, businesses and others, working to identify talent and create interdisciplinary teams. Arpa’s will likewise need the wherewithal to build strong working relationships across higher education if we are to leverage academic human capital and deliver research breakthroughs.

The agency’s relationships with research customers will also be critical. Darpa’s sustainability and achievements are built on a close relationship with its primary client, the US Department of Defense. 

The US experience suggests that no similar agency could survive on private-sector support alone, and UK ARPA will probably have government departments as its main customer. The challenge is that no UK government department operates on the same financial scale as the Pentagon. 

Building a diverse, engaged customer base across the public and private sectors will be essential. On the public sector side, frameworks governing engagement between UK Arpa, research teams and bodies such as the National Health Service may be required. 

UK Arpa could turbocharge work on major health, social and economic challenges, and help build a global Britain by attracting international talent. The funding confirmed in the spending review is an essential part of the jigsaw. But delivering on these aspirations means getting the details right. That is the challenge now facing the government.  

Adam Clarke is policy and communications manager at the Russell Group

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight