UK ARPA ‘a brand in search of a product’, says science committee chair

The committee of MPs told the government to prepare to wait 10–15 years for UK ARPA research to “pay off”

The government’s plan for a ‘UK Advanced Research Projects Agency’ (ARPA) is “a brand in search of a product”, according to the chair of the House of Commons science and technology committee (STC).

The conclusion reached by chair Greg Clark reflects the findings of a new report published today by the STC on the government proposal for an ARPA-style research organisation in the UK.

The report made three recommendations following a series of investigative hearings with two successive chief executives of UK Research and Innovation, the research minister, and others.

The new £800-million agency, modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has been trailed in two successive Queen’s speeches – but the government has yet to announce many details.

The March 2020 Budget stated that the government would “invest at least £800 million” over five years in a “blue skies” funding agency to support “high-risk, high-reward science”. Later that year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published the UK Research and Development Roadmap – but it did not lay out any further details of how ARPA would operate.

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
Greg Clark, chair of the science and technology committee 

The STC urged the government to focus UK ARPA research “on no more than two strategically important missions aligned with the long-term needs of the nation”. The government should also “be prepared to wait 10–15 years for [“high-risk, high-reward”] research to pay off”, the committee report continues.

UK ARPA should have one “clear client”, to which the agency would be responsible and responsive. The STC suggests BEIS, the Department of Health and Social Care or the Ministry of Defence.

The organisation could address gaps in the current research landscape but needs “initial focus” when launched, the STC concluded.

Research minister Amanda Solloway said during an STC hearing in November 2020 that the government was “still working our way through” the details of UK ARPA.

Ms Solloway suggested the agency would not have explicit research goals or government oversight. 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.”

Chair of the STC Greg Clark 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.”

Read more: Scientists will direct UK ARPA-style body, not politicians – Solloway

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