Plans for a UK-based research agency focused on high-risk, high-reward science, which was a pet project of Dominic Cummings have been endorsed by MPs, but they warned the vision is currently “a brand in search of a product”.
Last year’s Budget stated that the government would invest “at least £800m” in the UK Advanced Research Projects Agency – modelled on the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA counts the internet, automated voice recognition and laying the ground for GPS among its achievements with civilian applications.
In a report on the need for UK ARPA, members of parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee said the organisation could play an important role in the research and innovation system by pursuing goal-oriented research, driven by societal need.
They said the agency, which was championed by prime minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, could produce “lasting, transformational changes” for the UK. However they cautioned that the £800m outlined by Sunak related to the agency’s “first few years” and research of the kind envisaged required “potentially 10–15 years” to bear fruit.
MPs said it was “strange” that despite more than a year passing since the UK ARPA plans were included in successive Queen’s Speeches – and almost a year after the March 2020 Budget – the government had still not clearly articulated the need for the proposed agency, or its intended remit.
They concluded that the size of the budget suggested UK ARPA could have no more than two central missions, and that no director for the organisation should be appointed until ministers had decided what those missions should be.
“Questions about UK ARPA’s remit, organisation and governance would be made much more straightforward if the agency was established to serve a clear client – most likely a government department, as is the case with US DARPA, which serves the Department of Defense,” they said.
“Potential candidates for a UK ARPA could include the Department of Health and Social Care (for a life sciences-focused agency), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (for a Clean Energy/Net Zero mission) or the Ministry of Defence.”
The report concluded UK ARPA should have a “distinct and flexible” organisational structure and that ministers should “seek to create an environment characterised by a high degree of autonomy and limited bureaucracy”.
The added that the government should explain how it intended to establish such a culture in the new agency and how UK ARPA’s programme managers could be appointed outside normal pay restrictions in order to ensure that they were properly paid.