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UK ARPA is a brand in search of a product, MPs warn

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The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has warned the government that the new UK research agency – which will pursue high-risk, high-reward projects – lacks purpose. It recommended appointing a light-touch client and restricting research to no more than two areas.

The new agency was conceived by former Number 10 insider Dominic Cummings with the aim of establishing post-Brexit Britain as a world power through ambitious engineering projects. The Pentagon’s Darpa (formerly ARPA, or Advanced Research Projects Agency), which serves as a model for the new agency, was instrumental in the development of military and civilian technologies such as GPS and the internet.

The research agency was first announced in 2019. Last year, the government pledged at least £800m to support the body through its first five years of operation.

The Science and Technology Committee affirmed that there is a strong case for the creation of a strategic and interdisciplinary research agency to address gaps in the UK’s risk-averse research landscape. However, it said that this new agency still lacks a clear purpose.

The committee urged the government to shape its “initial focus” by giving it a purpose distinct from UKRI’s mission and a clear client; this could be the Department of Defence, Health, or Business. The organisation should be permitted the independence to pursue higher-risk research which may not deliver tangible outcomes for 10-15 years. This approach would plug a gap in the UK’s research and innovation framework, in which many areas of research are considered too risky to fund.

Evidence submitted to the committee agreed that the new agency should be driven by “missions” or “challenges” rather than the pursuit of specified technologies. These missions could be related to the government’s industrial strategy or could be independent from the government of the day.

The report also recommended that – given its budgetary limitations – the agency should focus its research on no more than two strategically important missions aligned with the long-term needs of the UK.

“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,” said committee chair Greg Clark “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 shake of UK ARPA.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, said: “We thank the Science and Technology Committee for its report and look forward to engaging with the Committee on its recommendations. The UK’s new research agency will have the independence to experiment with new funding models to back cutting-edge, high-risk, high-reward science right here in the UK.”

“The government will be setting out further details about the new agency in the coming weeks and will continue to work at pace to deliver this exciting new addition to the UK R&D landscape.”

Commenting on the wider research landscape, MPs concluded that multi-year funding settlements, such as the one set out for UKRI in November last year, provides the flexibility necessary to permit “agile and efficient” research. It recommended reviewing how UKRI funding can be allocated with fewer bureaucratic constraints, stimulating post-pandemic economic recovery.

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