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Prime minister has repeatedly put global leadership in science and research at the heart of his vision to unleash Britain’s potential. The Conservative Party manifesto was laden with references to increasing research and development (R&D) support, and in particular a commitment to create a new high-risk, high-reward research agency. This is believed to refer to a so-called “UK ARPA”, while Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings is rumoured to have “Get Brexit done, then ARPA” as his WhatsApp status.
But what is ARPA, and if it is set up in the UK, what should it look like?
The inspiration comes from the US ARPA – Advanced Research Projects Agency, subsequently renamed to Darpa when a D for “Defence” was added – which was integral to the growth and success of the US tech industry. Darpa projects have been foundational to the development of new technologies from the internet to touchscreens.
The Darpa model seeks to ensure that the best and the brightest have access to funds to attempt the impossible and push the boundaries of science. Within Darpa failure is valued as highly as success, with the lessons learned from these failures seen as essential stepping-stones to the breakthrough innovations that will define a new generation of tech products.
At TechUK we have long argued that successful innovation requires a much higher tolerance of failure. A UK ARPA would be a systemic change in the way we do technological development and research in this country and one that could allow the UK to lead in the next wave of tech innovation, an essential tool to achieve the Prime Minister’s aim of making the UK the best place in the world for science and research.
For a UK ARPA, there will be three priorities: people, size and culture.
The main resource of a UK ARPA would be its people. Identifying key talent and the programmes you want them to work on will be vital. A UK ARPA should build up a pipeline of talent and projects, putting the world’s best to work on demanding, limit-pushing ARPA projects for two to three years before letting them take what they have learned into the research and private sectors. This will mean a steady pipeline of tested talent flowing into the UK economy, capitalising on their successes or the lessons learned in failure.
To ensure talent is directed effectively, experienced, empowered and demanding project managers will be key. A UK ARPA should learn from the Darpa model and make a conscious effort to ensure that these skills are brought in from the beginning.
A UK ARPA will need to be a small agile unit. The main body should not be a massive organisation, instead a small group of leading minds drawn from public and private sector to set the challenges and delegate funding for a generation of ambitious scientists.
ARPA should be a challenge setter, not a micro-manager. To ensure this, and to get ARPA off the ground right away, the agency should not have its own dedicated facilities, instead identifying and coordinating across existing research centres.
UK ARPA needs to be able to take risks – it must therefore be kept at an arm’s length from existing public R&D structures to avoid “culture capture”. The UK’s existing research bodies in many places seek to manage risk out – this is contrary to the aim of a UK ARPA, which must be able to tackle high-risk, high-reward projects with pace and energy.
Beyond this, UK ARPA will need to have a mission statement. For Darpa, the primary mission was US national security. Our version of ARPA should set its sights on the UK’s industrial strategy, seeking to achieve UK technological leadership in key strategic priorities, global challenges and major export opportunities.
For example, if UK ARPA were to focus on energy or health, the UK healthtech and greentech sectors could benefit from a pipeline of world-class researchers tackling challenges previously considered too risky and too bold for the current UK R&D architecture.
Their failures will be lessons to others, while their successes may redefine entire industries.
A successful UK ARPA would establish the UK as an international leader in science and a premier destination for the world’s best, orienting the country to take on the big challenges such as the climate emergency, ageing population and many more.