Cummings ‘winning battle’ for new Arpa to be outside UKRI

Debate over status of new agency for ‘high-risk, high-payoff research’ is non-issue compared with its direction and leadership, others suggest

February 5, 2020
Dominic Cummings
Source: Getty

Dominic Cummings is said to be winning the debate on creating his planned new agency for “high-risk, high-payoff research” as an independent entity outside UK Research and Innovation, although more fundamental questions about it are yet to be decided.

UKRI had been keen to be the creator and overseer of the new agency, Times Higher Education understands.

But Mr Cummings, the UK prime minister’s most senior adviser, is said to have been emphatic that he wants the new agency, planned as an equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not to be part of UKRI.

Jo Johnson, the former universities and science minister, argues in a collection of essays on the new agency, published by the Policy Exchange thinktank, that it should be part of UKRI so as to maintain that body’s role in strategic oversight of the research system.

Mr Johnson created UKRI, which was established on 1 April 2018 by the Higher Education Research Act and brings together the seven research councils, plus Innovate UK and Research England.

He warns in his essay: “The risk is that a pet quango, if created outside of UKRI, fractures confidence in an entity that is central to the successful funding of our national research and innovation endeavour, at a critical stage in its development.”

Creating what is for now known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency as a stand-alone entity or within UKRI would both have required primary legislation, but the latter course would be a much simpler process, Mr Johnson argues in his essay.

However, some suggested that the decision on Arpa’s independence has already been made.

Other sources suggested that the debate over Arpa’s status is a non-issue compared with questions yet to be settled on what new funding approaches the agency will take, who will lead it and how quickly it can be established.

Darpa, set up by the US government in 1958, created the forerunner to the internet (it was known as Arpa for a spell). Mr Cummings has often expressed admiration for the agency, writing in December 2014: “We should create a civilian version of Darpa aimed at high-risk/high-impact breakthroughs in areas like energy science and other fundamental areas such as quantum information and computing that clearly have world-changing potential.”

Mr Cummings’ vision for science driving tech breakthroughs is so central to his vision of the post-Brexit economy that his WhatsApp profile reportedly says: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa.” The agency is set to have a budget of £800 million over five years.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said he was “quite sympathetic” to Mr Johnson’s argument that Arpa should sit within UKRI. Doing otherwise, he argued, could represent another major change in the research system, at a time when UKRI was still bedding into a relatively new role of strategic oversight for the whole system.

Making Arpa independent sat with Mr Cummings’ desire to disrupt and not work within existing Whitehall structures, Professor Wilsdon said.

“I don’t understand why there’s a perception in and around the centre or top of government that UKRI has somehow not fulfilled its potential…It feels to me that is a premature judgement,” he added.

Some key questions in research policy will also centre on whether Chris Skidmore will remain as universities and science minister in the expected reshuffle, Professor Wilsdon said.

“Clearly at the moment, in many senses, Dominic Cummings is a part-time science minister, so you’ve got this slightly uneasy settlement between rival centres of decision-making in the system: the chief exec of UKRI, the science minister and now the No 10 operation,” he continued.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Separate or together: Cummings ‘winning battle’ for new Arpa to be outside UKRI

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Reader's comments (1)

800 million over 5 years is 160 million a year. The DARPA budget is about 200 times that amount and is of the same order as the UKRI budget. For 1/2% of the budget to revolutionise UK research is rather a tall order. "Get ARPA done", seems to have the same content as "Get Brexit done". However funding is funding and we will all be looking for ways to access it.

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