British government’s high risk, high reward research and tech agency is a ‘brand in search of a product’

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez February 12, 2021 Audio version
Summary:
The agency is modelled on the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but is yet to find its feet in terms of leadership, mission and culture.

An image of Houses of Parliament

Back in 2019 the British government laid out its plans to create a "new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology", setting aside £800 million to back "high risk, high-payoff scientific, engineering and technology ideas". However, over two years have gone by and the agency - ARPA - remains a "brand in search of a product". 

That's the view of MPs sitting on the influential Science and Technology Committee, which found that the ambitions of ARPA still lack progress in areas that include leadership, mission and culture. 

ARPA is being modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agence, which was created in 1958 to develop projects to expand America's frontiers of technology in science. The British version was the brainchild of ex-advisory to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, who saw it as central to the UK's post-Brexit plans. 

However, despite being included in two successive Queen's Speeches, ARPA still has some way to go in terms of filling the perceived gaps in the UK research and innovation system. In particular, there are questions around how ARPA can avoid the trappings of Whitehall bureaucracy and operate to the beat of its own drum. 

Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, said: 

A UK version of ARPA has the potential to find solutions to help address some of the greatest challenges facing our society-whether achieving net zero, preventing disease outbreaks or defending our nation against emerging threats.

The Government's financial commitment to supporting such an agency is welcome, but the budget will not be put to good use if ARPA's purpose remains unfocused. UK ARPA is currently a brand in search of a product. 

The Government must make up its mind and say what ARPA's mission is to be. Only then can the necessary high-risk, but hopefully high-reward research commence.

I look forward to the Government setting out its plans in some detail and hope that the Committee's findings will help to inform the shape of UK ARPA." 

Recommendations

MPs on the Committee made a number of recommendations for the government to successfully pursue the new agency. It found that on balance - despite concerns - that there is a role for ARPA to operate outside of and in a different way to established UK research funding mechanisms (most notably the government's existing UK Research and Innovation department). 

MPs believe that there is benefit in ARPA operating with a culture that is free from some of the structures that are necessary for the dominant research funding institution. 

The Committee argues that ARPA should pursue "goal-orientated research, driven by societal need, with the potential to produce lasting, transformational changes". It argues that the agency should focus on ‘mission-based' or ‘challenge-led' research, aligned with the long-term goals of the nation. 

In addition, UK ARPA's remit would be made much more straightforward if the agency was to service a clear ‘client', the Committee's report states. This would most likely be a government department, as is the case in the US with DARPA. Potential department's for ARPA could include the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Ministry of Defence. 

The MPs argue that the agency should focus on no more than two central missions and that the government should think carefully about what its focus might be before recruiting a director. On finding someone to lead ARPA, the Committee states:

We call on the Government to think carefully about what the new agency's focus might be before recruiting a director. The Government should be open minded on who the agency's director might be, should not disregard anyone at this early stage, and should be open to appointing an individual with a bold vision, creativity and drive. 

Further, we find that the new director must be committed to creating a culture that empowers and emboldens UK ARPA's employees.

The Committee also wants the government to explain how ARPA's programme managers can be appointed outside normal pay restrictions, in order to ensure they are sufficiently remunerated. 

The organisational structure of the agency should also be unique for Whitehall, in that the government should seek to create an environment characterised by a high degree of autonomy and limited bureaucracy. 

Finally, whilst some have argued that ARPA should exist inside the existing UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) department, the Committee believes that there are advantages for it operating as its own entity. For example, there are concerns that ARPA would not be able to pursue ‘novel and contentious' activities without case-by-case Ministerial approval inside UKRI. 

My take

The case for ARPA is clearly ambitious and I don't think many would argue that there is room for a government-backed project that aims to deliver high risk, high reward research projects. This could be particularly helpful for the UK operating separately from the European Union. However, as ever, it needs to exist in a space that isn't stifled by the bureaucracy of Whitehall. That's not easy when there are so many (often necessary) checks and balances in place. Equally, as the Committee states, the government needs to be prepared to wait 10 to 15 years for some proper results. That's not an easy ask when operating in a political climate that exists on cyclical changing faces every three to four years (if we are lucky). If the government is serious about this, it needs to put in place these recommendations ASAP, define the agency's mission, and protect it from the whirlwind of Wes