Ministers ‘still working through’ plans for new research funder

Key issues on mission, leadership and position of ‘Arpa’ agency within wider system yet to be decided, MPs told

十一月 11, 2020
Amanda Solloway
Amanda Solloway

Key decisions on the mission and leadership of Dominic Cummings’ new UK research funding agency, as well as its position within the wider system, are yet to be made, MPs have heard.

Members of the Science and Technology Select Committee pressed Amanda Solloway, the science minister, for details on the development of the planned UK equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which would fund “high-risk, high-reward” research in new technologies.

The agency, dubbed Arpa and with a planned £800 million budget, is central to the vision of Mr Cummings, the prime minister’s most senior adviser, for the UK’s future economy.

Greg Clark, the Conservative backbencher who chairs the committee, which is holding an inquiry on the new agency, noted that Arpa was included in the Queen’s Speech in October last year and asked Ms Solloway when the government expected to finalise its plans.

“Being frank with you, we are still working our way through a few of these particular questions,” the minister said in her reply.

Ms Solloway said that she was focused on making sure the “high ambition” and “high reward” new funding agency would be “fit for purpose”.

The minister also emphasised the blue-skies nature of the agency, saying that “when we think about Arpa, when we think about what we’re aiming to achieve, it really is, probably: we don’t know what it is that we’re trying to achieve, because it might not exist yet. That’s the whole glory of something like Arpa. It’s about allowing that freedom for discovery.”

Asked by Labour MP Graham Stringer what the mission statement for Arpa was likely to be, the minister replied that the “people who can lead the direction of this will need to be the scientists”.

Scottish National Party MP Carol Monaghan questioned whether it was right to set up an agency such as Arpa “and throw £800 million at it” if it does not have a “specific target”, for example coming up with solutions in fields such as driverless vehicles or the ageing population.

“There is a clear appetite within the scientific community – you’ll have heard from many witnesses – for this new funding to be able to explicitly to support the most ambitious long-term science that cuts bureaucracy…It will be unique in the way that it works,” the minister replied.

On the question of who will lead Arpa, Ms Solloway said that the government wanted an “expert scientist” who was “revered for the work they do” and who had leadership skills. She added that a decision on filling the post has not yet been made.

Questions also remain over whether Arpa will be situated within or outside UK Research and Innovation, created by the government to oversee the UK research system.

Appearing before the committee, Dame Ottoline Leyser, the new UKRI chief executive, was asked whether she saw the creation of Arpa as a criticism of UKRI. “I absolutely do not feel it that way,” said Dame Ottoline, adding that she “absolutely can see a role for this kind of experimental funding approach that currently doesn’t exist”.

If Arpa’s ability to fund novel research can be protected within UKRI, “it could operate entirely effectively inside UKRI; it could also operate entirely effectively, I think, outside UKRI”, she continued.

Asked about the UK’s potential association to the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme, which some regard as unlikely now, Dame Ottoline said that was “a very active topic of discussion”.

There was “widespread agreement” on the benefits of association, but, she added, “the question then becomes: how much are we willing to pay for that?”

The size of the UK’s financial contribution was “still an ongoing matter for negotiations”, Dame Ottoline said.

Many believe that failure to reach a wider UK-EU trade deal will make research association impossible.

“There is always of course the possibility that the entire issue will be sidelined by difficulties with other parts of the negotiation,” Dame Ottoline observed.



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