Scientists, not politicians, will direct the agenda of a future research funding body modelled on the American Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa), the research minister Amanda Solloway has told MPs.
Ms Solloway made the commitment while speaking to the the Science and Technology Select Committee yesterday.
The project follows a Conservative manifesto pledge to create an agency to stimulate blue-sky research. The UK’s Arpa would have an £800m budget over five years.
Asked by Labour MP Graham Stringer what mission statement the government would give the fledgling agency, Ms Solloway replied: “I really do believe that the people who can lead the direction of this will need to be the scientists… when we talk about really where the science will go on this, they will be the experts on this rather than politicians.” She did later add that politicians would stop research “if a project doesn’t seem to be going down the right route or isn’t succeeding”.
Minister Solloway said the government was “still working our way through” the details and could not offer a timeline for the establishment of the agency, which was meant to have launched this autumn. She told MPs that the body would “explicitly support ambitious, long-term science that cuts bureaucracy”, adding it would offer funding “as agile as having private investment”.
Asked if the organisation should pursue a particular set of goals, like zero-carbon technologies or solutions for an ageing society, the minister cited the examples of GPS and the internet as the unintended products of blue-sky research. Asked what she hoped a UK Arpa would achieve, she replied: “Probably we don’t know what it is that we’re trying to achieve, because it might not exist yet. And the whole glory of something like Arpa is about allowing that freedom for discovery.”
No decisions have yet been made on who should lead the organisation. The successful candidate would need to be an “expert scientist”, a leader and “visionary who can articulate what it is they want to do”, Ms Solloway said. Sarah Hodgetts, deputy director for UKRI sponsorship and Arpa at BEIS, added that the future chief executive should command a large salary determined “outside of the normal pay restrictions”.
The committee also heard from UKRI chief executive Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, who expressed her support for the Arpa-style agency.
She said the future body would operate like its US counterpart, which comprises around 200 employees who “pull in” collaborators from across the American research base.
Asked if the agency should be under the remit of UKRI or outside it, Dame Ottoline said: “I think it’s absolutely crucial that it has protections in in the context of its budget, it needs to be able to make long term very stable investments, it needs to work very freely and fluidly. And if those protections can be delivered inside UKRI, so that they’re not being endlessly asked whether [their research] is novel or contentious, then it could operate entirely effectively inside UKRI. It could also operate entirely effectively outside.”
“But I think in the long term, it’s really valuable to have a small percentage of the public sector R&D spend committed to these very experimental approaches,” she added.
Dame Ottoline was also pressed for her response to the government’s commitment to reduce bureaucracy within the R&D sector and in particular her view of the future of Athena SWAN in the funding landscape.
“I am a huge fan of the Athena SWAN process; I’ve led Athena SWAN submissions work at all the all the organisations I’ve worked at for the last 20 years. I find the process extremely valuable and useful, because it’s a deeply self-reflective process.
“A number of years ago, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) decided to make it compulsory to get a particular level in Athena SWAN to receive their awards. And whilst, in some ways, this has had a very positive impact by driving the issue up the agenda, in terms of doing the process in a high-quality way, I think there is a strong argument that it has had a negative impact, because people are forced to do it in a way that is against the philosophy of the process.
“That’s how I interpret the government directive, which is, don’t place an emphasis on particular schemes, ask the substantive question about whether the system you’re building is really high-quality, and in order to be high quality [it] has got to be inclusive and take into consideration diversity.”