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New UK Science Agency remains a 'brand in search of a product'

12 February 2021

MPs from the Science and Technology Committee have urged the Government to give proposed 'UK ARPA' a clear purpose. The Government's planned ARPA-style funding agency has the potential to address gaps in the UK's current research and innovation landscape, but the agency's purpose has yet to be defined. 

Report findings

In its report the Science and Technology Committee calls on the Government to clearly identify the need for—and remit of—the new agency, first announced in 2019.

The new agency is said to be broadly modelled on the US's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The purpose of the body, for which £800 million has been allocated, remains unclear despite its inclusion in two successive Queen’s Speeches.

Urging the Government to shape UK ARPA's 'initial focus' by giving it a clear client, for example a Government department, the Committee stresses the importance of making the organisation free to pursue research with a greater tolerance for risk than in the research system generally.

The Report also makes a number of recommendations for the broader research landscape.  

Key recommendations

Drawing on evidence taken from international research bodies, universities, scientific societies, UK researchers and industry, the Report recommends that the new UK ARPA should: 

  • Focus its research on no more than two strategically important missions aligned with the long-term needs of the nation.
  • Serve a clear 'client.' It would be beneficial to know who the new body will exist to serve. In the case of US DARPA, it serves the Department of Defense. Potential candidates for a UK ARPA could include the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Ministry of Defence. 
  • Establish a culture which allows research to be pursued which is currently considered too risky to fund within the existing research and innovation framework. The Government must also accept the long-term nature of high-risk projects and be prepared to wait 10–15 years for such research to pay off.

Commenting on aspects of the current research and innovation system, the report also finds multi-year funding settlements, such as the one set out for UKRI in November 2020, provides the flexibility needed for 'agile and efficient' research to take place.

The Government is urged to conduct a review within the next financial year exploring how it can allocate funding to UKRI with fewer bureaucratic constraints, allowing the sector to contribute to the post-pandemic economic recovery. 

Chair's comments

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." 

Further information

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