Ex-minister: high-risk research funder must not be ‘destructive’

Jo Johnson tells MPs that new research funding agency could damage rest of system if allowed to be an ‘island’ in Cabinet Office

October 7, 2020
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Dominic Cummings’ plan to create a new UK science funding agency must not become “destructive” to the rest of the research system, former universities minister Jo Johnson has warned.

Mr Johnson spoke at a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee hearing on the aim to create a 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, is so central to the vision of Mr Cummings, the mastermind of Brexit and the prime minister’s most senior adviser, that his WhatsApp profile reportedly says: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa.”

He is said to want to establish the new agency outside UK Research and Innovation, the body established by Mr Johnson in 2018 to provide strategic oversight for the research system.

Mr Johnson told MPs that Arpa “could be a useful contribution to our research and innovation ecosystem, but provided it is complementary and supportive of existing institutions rather than destructive in how it is conceived and organised”.

The government is now “a year on” from the original plan for Arpa and has made “rather slow progress” in defining “what the function of Arpa is going to be”, he said, calling for ministers to clarify the agency’s function and position in a Green or White Paper.

The former minister argued that UKRI should “incubate” Arpa, warning that if it was set up outside, that could “do damage to the rest of the research system” by eroding UKRI’s ability to provide strategic oversight of the whole system and to provide a single point of accountability to the Treasury on research funding.

That could also increase the possibility of “duplication and overlap” in research, given that some of Arpa’s focus could mirror the work funded by UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, he argued.

“The idea that it [Arpa] could…be answerable to some committee of senior ministers in the Cabinet Office is very risky” and could make it an “island” separate from the rest of the research system, Mr Johnson said.

Sir Mark Walport, former head of the UK’s research system as UKRI chief executive, told MPs that it was “slightly odd in a way” that Arpa was being created “without working out in advance what it is it’s actually going to do”.

Mariana Mazzucato, professor in the economics of innovation and public value at UCL, an expert on mission-oriented research and innovation systems, said: “That kind of high-risk, basic R&D which is guided by mission-oriented thinking – I think that is currently a gap in the UK, and Arpa could potentially fill that gap…It really depends how it is designed.”

If the agency is “not connected to what the big government objectives are, then it’s actually not going to be very useful”, she added.

Professor Mazzucato suggested that it might be better to emulate the US approach of creating separate Arpa agencies in fields such as health and energy.

Richard Jones, chair in materials physics and innovation policy at the University of Manchester, said the UK needed to be “innovative and risk-taking in the way we fund research”.

But he said that in the US, Darpa success had come from establishing extremely “specific” aims for research, such as the creation of location technology for the military that ultimately became GPS.

The UK Arpa “should focus on something”, such as meeting net zero targets in energy or “huge challenges” in healthcare, he added.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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