UK Darpa to sit outside UKRI umbrella, says minister

Chris Skidmore reiterates desire for UK to associate to Horizon Europe, but says negotiations are unlikely to begin until the second quarter of 2020

October 22, 2019
Chris Skidmore

A planned new research funder modelled on the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would sit outside the main umbrella body, UK Research and Innovation, the science minister has said.

Since the proposal for a UK equivalent of Darpa was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 14 October, there has been debate whether it would sit alongside the country’s existing research councils under UKRI, or outside the existing structure.

Appearing before the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 21 October, Chris Skidmore said that the UK’s “Arpa” – it would not focus on defence – would sit outside UKRI because it would have a focus on “project-led, intensive project management and [would need] to be able to distinguish itself from grant-led processes”.  

“I welcome this as a helpful addition to the funding landscape but it will be important how we articulate that, so it is not seen as a distraction and that it sits alongside the work [that UKRI does],” he said.

The aim of the Arpa project – believed to be driven by Dominic Cummings, the chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson – is to channel more funding to emerging fields of research that are likely to lead to technological breakthroughs.

Mr Skidmore said that he saw the planned funder as “sitting at the top of a pyramid, [with] a larger band of basic and blue skies research [funding] beneath that, of which QR [quality-related funding] is an important part”.

He said that the government would launch a consultation before implementing any new agency. “I’m very keen, as core principle, not to see fits and starts of programmes,” he added.

It has previously been suggested by Kieron Flanagan, senior lecturer in science and technology policy at the University of Manchester, that Mr Cummings regarded the creation of UKRI as “a failure, at least in terms of playing the role of supporting emerging technologies”.

Mr Skidmore also told the committee that ministers still wanted to associate to the European Union’s next research programme, Horizon Europe, saying that he hadn’t met anyone in government who thought otherwise.

However, he added that the Treasury would still need to be convinced of its value for money.

“It’s absolutely the case [association with Horizon Europe] has to be the ‘hub and spoke approach’, the very centre of the future of international collaboration for British science. That’s my view,” he said.

“The government’s view is we must wait until we see what the association regulations look like to be able to judge the value for money case.”

Mr Skidmore added that he had hoped to see the association articles by November to begin talks but that, due to delays to the multiannual financial framework, the EU’s long-term budget, they weren’t likely to begin until the second quarter of 2020.

He said that he was continually making the case for association but that “we need to look at alternatives in case that doesn’t happen”.

Although the cost of participation was going up, “I hope that they [the EU] would see they need UK more than ever” to meet the costs, he added.

Asked about the fact that the number of UK applications to Horizon 2020 fell by 40 per cent from 2015 to 2018 and reports that UK researchers were being frozen out of partnerships, Mr Skidmore admitted that UK research would suffer if the trend continued.

However, he added that “we can’t send a message that we’re on a downward trajectory…we want people to see this as a place where investments will be made”.

“I don’t want the tone to be catastrophic,” he said.

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