Call to speed up ‘blue skies’ UK research agency

Boris Johnson’s government should accelerate plans for a UK research body modelled on Washington’s “blue skies” technology agency without worrying about the potentially high failure rate of projects, according to a report by the think-tank Policy Exchange.

Dominic Cummings, the most influential official in Downing Street, is the key driver of a proposal to create an institute that would channel state funding to unusual research ideas.

The Conservative general election manifesto promised £800m over the term of the next parliament for a UK equivalent of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Originally known as Arpa, the agency was set up at the height of the cold war in 1958 in response to the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. The small agency, overseen by the Department of Defense, was designed to anticipate and prevent technological surprises and ensure that the US stayed ahead in novel technologies.

It now has a budget of $3.8bn a year and has contributed to the research behind the Global Positioning System, the internet and the first weather satellite.

Policy Exchange, a centre-right think-tank, argued in a report on Wednesday that a British agency could have a “transformative impact” on science and innovation in the UK. But ministers and the National Audit Office should be prepared for a failure rate of more than 50 per cent, the authors said, citing the US example. “Most projects will not achieve their objectives,” they said.

“A UK Arpa must encourage failure as a positive outcome,” said Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of top universities, one of the report’s authors.

Other authors included former science minister Jo Johnson, ex-cabinet minister David Willetts and Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester.

The report urged the government to establish the new body rapidly with minimal bureaucracy to pursue high-risk and high-reward research. That could make a significant contribution to the UK’s scientific and economic performance, it said.

The paper suggested that the UK Arpa should not carry out its own research or have its own laboratories. Instead, it should be given a small number of missions, each addressing a big societal challenge or scientific areas — such as finding a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The focus of the agency should be on developing advanced technology on a 10-15 year horizon.

“Learning lessons from the US, ministers must tear up the rule book of research-funding bureaucracy, allowing empowered and highly expert project managers to drive forward projects and allocate funding to the best people and projects, wherever they can be found,” said Iain Mansfield, head of science at Policy Exchange.

British research funding is at present provided through a much larger quango called UK Research and Innovation.

Mr Cummings has long been an advocate of a British version of Arpa, arguing on his blog in 2017 that “a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure”.


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