A likely centre-piece of today’s Budget will be a new agency to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research.
Brainchild of the Prime Minister’s chief special adviser Dominic Cummings, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) is to be modelled after similar bodies in the US — most notably Darpa which has focused on defence related research.
Darpa has a mythical status in the world of research funding, especially in its most early years. It is a high-risk funder which seeks out key areas to fund which are not yet ready for the private sector to step in. It was an early investor in computer networking which eventually sparked the invention of the internet, for example, and funded work at Xerox which led to modern-day home computers.
But while the idea of Arpa has garnered support from some of the research policy community, the biggest issue this fledgling new agency will face is our political and public intolerance for failure.
Darpa works like a venture capital firm, recognising that most of the projects it backs will fail, but that the massive success of a small number will make it worthwhile.
The UK press, however, likes nothing more than picking over the carcass of government failure. The papers will no doubt give plenty of airtime to the annual reports of an agency that expects the majority of its investments to fail.
Cast your mind ahead a few years: this government’s honeymoon period with the public will be over, and Boris Johnson will undoubtedly face a more coherent opposition. If its key proponents are working on other things by then (who knows how long Cummings intends to remain in Downing Street), Arpa might find itself a lonely organisation with few defenders.
Good policies can die without public support. Matthew Taylor, a policy chief under the Blair government, regrets that the initiative which was his proudest achievement — the Child Trust Fund — was later cut with little public protest. It was, in his view, a well-crafted policy, but it suffered from a long payback period and little public engagement. It’s easy to see how Arpa could suffer the same fate.
You need look no further than the UK’s weak productivity growth over the last decade to observe how desperately we need greater support for moving the results of research out of university settings in order to influence innovation across industry and public services.
Unfortunately, even US attempts to create similar bodies to Darpa in energy research and intelligence have not been spectacular successes. So how can the new UK Arpa maximise its chances?
Clarity of purpose is key. The government has sometimes talked about Arpa as a body to focus on blue-sky basic research, but existing research funders should have this covered. It is widely accepted that the UK’s pure research is outstanding, but that we are less strong at commercialising it. The gap in the funding landscape is in helping to move research findings out of universities and into applications in industry and the public sector.
A key lesson from Darpa is that the agency has a focus on one area: defence. A UK Arpa needs to pick a lane, although it need not necessarily just focus on a narrow sector.
Given the need for a long-term and inspirational mission, tackling environmental challenges could be a good focus. The public would intuitively understand — it is worth taking some risks to deal with increasingly tangible threats such as climate change.
Such a mission would also allow science, engineering, social science and the humanities disciplines to come together to think about creating new technologies, and the associated behaviour shifts required.
It will not be easy to select the right high-risk investments to back. That is, after all, why they are high-risk. We live in a country with a public that has not shown itself to be comfortable with policy experimentation and failure, as demonstrated by the way the term “postcode lottery” has been the death knell to any local policy experimentation.
Building cross-party support for Arpa would also therefore be wise, although there appears to be little sign of this so far.
This is a government that is betting the farm on investment in science and research as the route to prosperity — it has promised to double investment in R&D. A well-formed Arpa could help the UK to apply many insights currently being developed in universities to the wider economy.
The biggest risk, however, is that in a decade’s time the public thinks Arpa has been a waste of money — and that this colours their wider attitudes to support for UK science and research, a key source of our long-term prosperity.
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