UK Arpa ‘would be laughing stock’ if led by Cummings

Plans for new research funding agency expected to go ahead despite exit of former top adviser to PM, but mission yet to be defined

November 23, 2020
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Dominic Cummings’ plan to create a new UK funding agency for “high risk” research seems likely to go ahead despite his dramatic exit from government – but allowing him to lead that agency would make it a “laughing stock”, science policy experts have warned.

Mr Cummings, who quit his post as the prime minister’s most senior adviser amid turmoil in Downing Street, had made it a priority to create a UK equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

The agency, dubbed Arpa and with a planned £800 million budget, appeared central to Mr Cummings’ vision for a post-Brexit UK economy centred on the creation of technology companies.

A major injection of funding for the UK military, announced on 19 November after Mr Cummings’ exit, raises the question of whether the plan could be reoriented to make the agency more Darpa-like, if the UK military will now have greater capacity to invest in research.

Despite Mr Cummings’ departure, science minister Amanda Solloway and No 10 were said to be still keen to pursue the Arpa plans, which were a Conservative manifesto commitment and featured in the Queen’s Speech but remain in the early stages of development.

James Wilsdon, Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, said the controversy and “mythology” around Mr Cummings had “inhibited proper debate” about the potential role of the new agency.

If the government, he added, holds to its pledge of a huge increase in research funding, “there’s the scope for…new institutions to spend bits of that money”.

But it was “still not entirely clear what this thing is going to do”, whether it will focus on fundamental, breakthrough, discovery research or address the UK’s “perceived failings” in translation and commercialisation of research by focusing funding on future industries and emerging technologies, Professor Wilsdon continued.

Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, thought it likely that “something called UK Arpa will be set up, which will probably be quite different to whatever Cummings had in mind”.

He added: “I think it is likely to be ‘recaptured’ by the scientific community, which in a way will be a missed opportunity.”

The Financial Times said there was an “expectation among Whitehall mandarins” that Mr Cummings could now lead Arpa.

Given the controversy around him, “if he were appointed, it would almost instantly discredit the agency from its moment of birth”, said Professor Wilsdon.

Dr Flanagan said that if Mr Cummings led Arpa, “it would be an £800 million laughing stock”.

Westminster figures saw little chance of that happening, pointing to Ms Solloway’s recent statement that the government wanted a respected scientist to head Arpa.

“However, I can certainly see him being a board member or non-executive chairman [of Arpa] or something like that,” Dr Flanagan said.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

If Bojo's science- related decisions over the past year, from his handling of the COVID-19 debacle to his recent "green" economic decisions, are representative of Cummings advice, then I think we can do without his input on science funding.
Many UK University Research Departments who already work on DARPA contracts would welcome a UK equivalent, without the usual mandarins and funding councils involvement & jealous interference. As to DC, he might have a role, as whipping boy, if nothing else.

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