Tories plan UK science funding agency modelled on US Darpa

Queen’s Speech raises question of whether Dominic Cummings would seek to reshape entire research funding system

October 14, 2019
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Academics have expressed concern about plans announced by the UK’s Conservative government to create a new funding agency modelled on the US research organisation that created the forerunner to the internet.

Plans to create a UK equivalent of the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and cut down on research funding “bureaucracy” are longstanding priorities for Dominic Cummings, the most senior adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But their inclusion in the Queen’s Speech on 14 October raised concerns about whether he would bypass existing funding mechanisms or reshape the entire research system to reflect his own agenda on science.

Mr Cummings’ blog, written in his years outside government, spelled out his belief that the government should offer far greater support to research that could lead to technological breakthroughs. 

The briefing document for the Queen’s Speech says that the government would combine “increased investment in science” with “a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology”, which would be “broadly modelled” on Darpa. The government also wants to “[reduce] bureaucracy in research funding to ensure our brilliant scientists are able to spend as much time as possible creating new ideas, not filling in unnecessary forms”, the document says.

The US government created the Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1958. It was subsequently renamed Darpa to reflect a focus on defence-related technology.

In 2014, Mr Cummings advocated the creation of 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”.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, said that the proposals reflected suggestions that Mr Cummings felt that the creation of UK Research and Innovation – an umbrella body for the country’s research councils – “was a failure, at least in terms of playing the role of supporting emerging technologies”.

But, while Darpa had played an important role in shaping the US IT industry in the 1960s and 1970s, there was “no reason to suppose what worked for one specific industry at a specific moment in history is transferrable to emerging technologies in general”, Dr Flanagan said.

“The creation of a new agency could help bring back some of the diversity lost in the creation of UKRI,” Dr Flanagan said. “[But] this notional benefit has to be set against the opportunity costs and risks of policymakers and the research and innovation communities getting bogged down in the creation of new processes and institutions.”

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said it was unclear whether the new Darpa-style agency would “sit within the UKRI umbrella or outside it”.

“I hope the science and research community won’t allow its enthusiasm for extra investment to buy its silence in asking tough questions about the evidence, justification and accountability of this ‘new approach’,” Professor Wilsdon said. “What the UK research and innovation system needs is a period of stable growth with multiple funding streams – not dilettante tinkering by unelected advisers.”

Times Higher Education reported last week that Chris Skidmore, the universities minister, wants to combine increased funding with the creation of a five-year financial framework programme to fund research. Whether Mr Skidmore’s vision meshes with that of Mr Cummings remains to be seen.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Concern over UK Darpa plan

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Reader's comments (2)

I think it's interesting that the venerable radical Noam Chomsky says very good things about DARPA funding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Av96iIRa0f8 (6 minutes). His view is that very little of DARPA funding is used for military purposes: most goes for fundamental research with 30 year time horizon. There is even a finance term, the "Chomsky trade", which describe the fundamental role that DARPA plays in economic development. Excerpt below is from this article: http://archive.is/OvgMw "Mr Chomsky once pointed out that, if you want to know what’s worth investing in, look at what US federal research funding organisations such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) are investing in today, and then go long 30 years. "In the 1950s, the big thing was transistors, which gave us the microelectronics revolution in the 1980s. In the 1960s, it was digital processing, which gave us personal computers in the 1990s. In the 1970s it was biotech, which started to come on line in the 2000s. And in the 1980s, it was the beginnings of machine learning and big data, which will transform much of the world of work in the 2010s and beyond. "Despite the ill-informed claims of politicians, the US government and the US taxpayer are the critical investors in basic scientific research, not the private sector. Private foundations fund only 6 per cent of US research and development. The federal government funds 55 per cent." Another YouTube of Chomsky, with a slightly different angle, but the same message: the military is cover for public investment in basic research, to develop the next wave of technological innovation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSJjlaggbK0
Yes, but the uk equivalent will be radically different, I suspect much more weights towards technology The US has a diverse range of funding opportunities, unlike the UK The EPSRC is now primarily funding the same kind of stuff Those doing fundamentals research are screwed There is no place for them in England and Wales Better leave for a more enlightened place

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