The origin story of a new Government research funding agency, broadly modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency — ARPA — and announced by the UK government in 2019. Related background reading on the UK Government and its research and innovation system, complete with a brief Who's Who.
Drama, intrigue, and procedural machinations in government departments, and among MPs in the Commons. Selections from a series of science policy hearings.
The quest for a new funding agency and the challenge of making it fit in the existing landscape.
I've got a new favourite show: the oral evidence sessions of the science committees of both houses of Parliament.
The science committees, filled with MPs in the Commons and Lords in the upper house, regularly invite officials from government departments and leadership from public bodies to present evidence on various issues. They invite professors in and hear from industry experts, from leading figures in all kinds of organisations near and far.
These inquiries amount to a body of knowledge that is assembled for the benefit of the public. The committees serve as guides to Government thinking and upcoming legislation and new initiatives. They keep the Government in check. The committee members ask often insightful questions for the benefit of their constituents and the general public.
Few things are as entertaining as hearing brilliant people discuss some timely topic of interest. And these truly are leading figures in public policy that the committees receive evidence from. Each expert alone could provide wise commentary on any subject in their field, but typically there's a panel full of them, each speaker building on the previous one. The consistency and quality of the conversation is remarkable, almost unbelievable. On the other hand those without good answers duck and weave around the questions in a highly entertaining fashion.
Sometimes one can catch fascinating reactions and sentiments, because these are real people, this is real life. The witnesses are truly concerned, truly under pressure, truly squirming under incisive questions, truly enthusiastic. And there's humour. Everyone understands the context, they understand the process and protocol and how to work within various systems. There's references and nods and contrasts and conflicts if you know where to look.
This write-up is also a chronological report of sorts. Reflections on a subject I find particularly interesting: the creation of the new UK research funding agency. This new agency — modelled after the legendary ARPA, the US research organisation with roots in the Cold War era — was granted some serious funding in 2020, but at the end of the year, it's form and integration into the existing research ecosystem remains shrouded in mystery. And, of course, there are some fantastic characters mixed up in all this.
At the centre of the story is one man, Dominic Cummings, a contrarian dreamer with great ambitions, little patience, and the opportunity of a lifetime. Cummings had a vision for a particular flavour of greatness, but he wasn't quite able to clearly articulate or deliver it. And yet, he set in motion a process and potentially a new institution that might well amount to something remarkable one day.
Her Majesty's Government
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The UK is unitary in the sense that the sovereign state is not a federation like Germany and the United States. Notably, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have autonomous devolved powers granted by the central government — autonomy within a unity.
The UK parliament has two houses: the elected House of Commons and the appointed House of Lords. Both houses can introduce legislation, and both have to approve it. There's a thousand years of tradition as to how this is done.
Due to the long and varied history of the nation, the UK has an uncodified constitution. No single document outlines the fundamental laws of how the state works. Instead, it's all just tradition: statutes, conventions, treaties, and judicial practice. Her Majesty The Queen is the head of state, and as monarch appoints the prime minister to head the government. By convention, the monarch respects the prime minister's decisions on government.
The prime minister is typically the leader of the political party or coalition that holds the largest number of seats in the House of Commons and who in this capacity is most likely to command the confidence of the chamber. The Commons is made up of 650 Members of Parliament (MP) who represent their single member constituencies. The MPs get elected in general elections using the first-past-the-post system, meaning that the electorate primarily votes for the single candidate from their preferred party. While MPs represent their constituency on the national stage, in effect the general election is an election to select the next prime minister.
The prime minister selects all other ministers of state by invitation from the monarch. This Cabinet comprises elected members from the Commons and selected members from the House of Lords. Cabinet ministers usually head their respective government departments and serve as secretaries of state. Some cabinet ministers have no department, some departments have no minister, some ministers are not secretaries of state, and so on. Select departments maintain the traditional ministry designation: Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Sound.
The purpose of government departments is to prepare and implement policies regardless of the government's composition. They therefore adhere to political neutrality. A legion of employed officials, the civil servants, do the actual heavy lifting in public policy, forming the permanent bureaucracy of the Crown. On the civil side the head executive in charge of managing the department is typically the permanent secretary. Below the permanent secretary there are director generals in charge of policy areas, and then directors and managers and officers all the way down.
Government departments work together with various non-ministerial departments, executive agencies, tribunals, corporations, and other public bodies and units. There are currently 23 ministerial departments, 20 non-ministerial departments, ~400 agencies and public bodies, ~100 "high profile groups", and 13 public corporations. The Cabinet Office maintains a list of government organisations.
In addition to a cabinet minister, government departments may have several ministers of state who assist the secretary as department executives. The lowest of the three ministerial levels is the parliamentary under-secretary of state, responsible for some particular policy area — these are commonly junior MPs from the ruling party or coalition. Finally, rank and file MPs may serve as parliamentary private secretaries (PPS), effectively unpaid assistants to a minister. Government ministers may also appoint special advisers (SPAD) to assist with government policy work. These un-elected characters often have an influential role feeding ministerial vision to the civil service.
In addition to representing their constituency and possible ministerial duties, members of parliament can participate in committees that look at particular issues in detail, including government policy, expenditure, and new laws. Select committees in both houses check and report on a range of areas. Commons committees primarily shadow the work of government departments, while the Lords investigate specialist subjects. There are also joint and grand committees for special topics.
Finally, to improve processing speed, a general committee of fewer than 50 or so members is appointed to see through each proposed Bill of legislation. Each Bill is read several times in both houses, chewed up in committees in between, then amended and reconsidered. Ultimately all successful Bills get sent to Her Majesty for royal assent to become law as Acts of Parliament.
All of the above is a rough approximation at best. Every detail has an exception and special cases.
The UK Research and Innovation System
The state distributes funding through its departments. The Ministry of Defence has its own laboratories and initiatives, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs runs its own agencies, the Department of Health and Social Care has its own research bodies, and so on. The largest and the most extensive of government research machines can be found under the auspices of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
In addition to the work done in the departments, the prime minister has his own science policy units closer to No 10. The Government Office for Science (GoS), led by the Chief Scientific Adviser, reports to the prime minister and the Cabinet on forward-looking science matters, often referred to as "horizon scanning". The GoS also hosts the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology (CST), effectively a Government-internal policy think-tank.
Some recent publications:
- Principles for science and technology moon-shots — CST, 1 July 2020
- Investing in research and development — CST, 28 February 2020
- Areas of research interest — GoS, 8 September 2020
- UK Research and Development Roadmap — BEIS, 1 July 2020
BEIS funds some organisations directly, including the Met Office and UK Atomic Energy Authority, but directs most of its research funding through a non-departmental public body, a kind of a research umbrella organisation. This funding agency, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), launched in 2018 with a mandate to distribute billions in research and innovation funding every year. UKRI charter is found in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.
UKRI is made up of nine funding councils: seven disciplinary research councils plus Innovate UK and Research England. The research councils, reformed to fit inside UKRI in 2018, fund research projects in their respective focus areas, and also invest in research infrastructure and related human capital. In its umbrella role, UKRI tries to help the whole research sector work better together, including across the research council boundaries.
The two other UKRI councils work more on the innovation front. Innovate UK "drives productivity and economic growth" by supporting businesses in developing new ideas, including spin-offs from the existing research base. Research England supports England-specific research and knowledge exchange between universities and the wider UK research ecosystem. The devolved nations have their own funding bodies (and agencies) for knowledge exchange.
UKRI research funding is available to individuals and teams in research organisations. In both cases certain criteria have to be met. Fellowships and other individual funding opportunities typically require a PhD and association with an eligible UK research institution. Some individual grants target specific career stages. Funding for a research team effort requires a principal investigator at a qualifying research organisation. The calls are competitive, but open to all qualifying research organisations. Submissions are carefully examined by the host councils.
In addition to the "academic route" through higher education and public research units, UKRI funding is available to UK registered businesses. Business funding proposals typically do not require a PhD from the key people, but equivalent research/innovation experience and the ability has to be demonstrated somehow. Other eligible host organisations include Catapult Centres, which are purpose-built sectoral government tech innovation hubs; research institutes; NHS bodies and public sector research establishments; and independent research organisations with existing capabilities and capacity for research.
On the policy side, UKRI's independence as an organisation "at arm's length from the government" is often highlighted. The reality may be different. In any case UKRI has a close relationships with both the parent organisation BEIS, and the Government Office for Science.
The UKRI councils follow a standard proposals and grants process, including peer review. This is in agreement with what politicians like to call the Haldane principle, roughly the idea that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers themselves. Another "term of art" for science policy is found in "the linear model", a research policy straw man one can try to torch for reform support. Historian David Edgerton has comments on both.
Notable programmes that UKRI runs directly include:
Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) — an innovation programme targeting four grand challenges: Ageing Society, Clean Growth, AI and Data, and the Future of Mobility; substantial funding, some DARPA-like genes
Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) — for multi- and inter-disciplinary research that touches multiple councils and government departments; current themes include the environment, bio-science, AI, and productivity
Future Leaders Fellowships — for universities and businesses to develop their most talented early career researchers and innovators or to attract new people to their organisations, including from overseas
Strength In Places Fund — for advancing regional economic growth through investment in R&D clusters
Fund for International Collaboration — for global partnerships, collaborations with international partners
Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) — Official Development Assistance funds, the overseas aid budget
Newton Fund — another ODA project to support economic development and social welfare through investment in global research and innovation capacity
Research in Numbers
The UK Government has made a commitment to increase overall research and development spend across the whole economy to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (and 3% in the longer term). 2019 UK GDP was £2.17 trillion, so total research and development spend would amount to some £60 billion. Total UK research spend was some £37 billion (1.7% GDP) in 2018, with public funding accounting for £9.6 billion (26%) and the business sector for £20.3 billion (55%). The rest comes mostly from overseas (£5.1B) and private non-profits (£1.9B).
In other words, the UK plan is to increase total research spending by doubling the public research funding effort (to ~£20B), with an aim to win an equal amount of further research investment from the private sector (another ~£10B). This would bring the total spend to around £55―£60 billion, which would more or less meet the target 2.4%. This figure, 2.4% of GDP, is the OECD average. Germany is at 3.1% of GDP, the US at 2.8%, France at 2.2%.
For comparison, Alphabet (parent of Google) spent £16 billion on R&D in 2019, Samsung spent £13.0 billion, Microsoft £12.9 billion. Top R&D companies in the UK in 2018 were AstraZeneca (£4.6B), GlaxoSmithKline (£4.1B), HSBC (£1.6B), Rolls-Royce (£1.3B), and Lloyds Banking (£1.2B), followed by APTIV, Unilever, Royal Dutch Shell, BT, and Micro Focus International.
For more, see, for example, this House of Commons briefing (17 June 2020).
Following the devastation of World War II, there were two major players standing on the international stage: the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers entrenched their position by building alliances with like-minded nations that needed a strong partner. The US joined forces with Western Europe and formed NATO (1949), while the socialist republics of Eastern Europe signed the Warsaw Pact (1955) to band together with the Soviet Union. These two teams would engage and rival one another in games of cultural hegemony, proxy wars, and propaganda for the next thirty years of the Cold War.
One of the theatres of Cold War was science and engineering. In the West, people were trying to figure out what do with all this nuclear power that now seemed within reach. In the East, rocketry developed further, with ever greater range and payload capacity. The 1950s marked both the beginning of the nuclear era and the beginning of the space age. By the end of the decade, the arms race was in full swing. Both sides were engaged in a desperate game of simultaneous pulling ahead and catching up.
In the aftermath of WWII, the US had set up the Department of Defence, the Defence Science Board, the National Science Foundation, and various programmes for scientific inquiry, but it was still institutionally unprepared for the fireworks that the Soviet Union put together between 1957 and 1958. Not only did the Soviet Union reach parity with the US on nuclear armament, but the Soviets also demonstrated a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering these bombs. To top it all off, the Soviet Union was able to launch the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into low Earth orbit in October 1957. Radio amateurs across the globe could easily tune in to the satellite's chatter.
The US Congress created ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, in 1958 at least in part as a response to the threat posed by Soviet advances. Ever since, the ARPA mission has been to invest in breakthrough technologies" and to "catalyse the development of new capabilities" in order to prevent and create technological surprise. ARPA added an extra D in the title for Defence in 1996, and has ever since been known as DARPA.
Throughout its existence, the agency has relied on a number of principles that distinguish it from other funding bodies and research initiatives:
- substantial budget, but not in the grand scheme of its parent organisation, the Department of Defence; some $3.6 billion for FY2020
- no laboratories, or fixed test facilities, or long-term career employees linked to the programs
- world class program managers and professional staff, on 3-5 year contracts
- an ecosystem approach to R&D, one that stimulates and sustains innovation
- well-defined (military) use inspired needs, and capacity to push basic science to solve it
While DARPA research is done for defence purposes, in many cases its impact is later felt more dramatically in the civil sector — both nationally and globally. Through the visionary leadership of its key people, and the broader ecosystem it catalysed, DARPA brought about the digital age. ARPA set in motion an intricate academic and economic engine that eventually produced innovations such as GPS and the Internet, and turned the science fiction of self-driving cars into a viable future.
In 2019, the UK government announced plans to set up a research funding agency, modelled broadly on the early days of ARPA. In January 2020, leading UK think tank Policy Exchange published a report on this opportunity. The report, "Visions of ARPA", has insightful essays from top UK science policy names, great introductory notes on ARPA, a brief history of UK science policy, and a set of (fairly general) recommendations.
Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser — Chief Executive, UKRI (since May 2020); Regius Professor of Botany at the University of Cambridge
Professor Sir Mark Walport — First Chief Executive of UKRI from 2018 inception; numerous senior positions in government science bodies, including Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science
Sir John Kingman — Chairman of Legal&General and Tesco Bank, chair of UKRI; former permanent secretary to HM Treasury
Sir Paul Nurse — Chief Executive of the Francis Crick Institute; former President of the Royal Society; Nobel prize winner; author of an influential review of research councils that launched the formation of UKRI
The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP — Prime Minister; Leader of the Conservative Party; former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, former Mayor of London
Dominic Cummings — Political strategist, special adviser first to minister Michael Gove and then to Boris Johnson; one of the architects of UK ARPA
The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP — Chair of the Science and Technology Committee; former Secretary of State for BEIS; a minister in Cameron and May cabinets, a backbencher in the Johnson era
The Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP — Secretary of State for BEIS
Amanda Solloway MP — Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for Science, Research and Innovation) at BEIS; the government minister most directly responsible for UKRI
The Rt Hon Lord Johnson of Marylebone PC — former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation; several roles in the Cabinet Office; brother to Boris Johnson
BEIS civil servants:
- Sarah Munby — Permanent Secretary
- Jo Shanmugalingam — Director General for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation
- Alexandra Jones — Director of Science, Research and Innovation
- Sarah Hodgetts — Deputy Director for UKRI Sponsorship and ARPA
Dom Cummings Writes a Blog
The story of UK ARPA begins with a peculiar character. Dominic Cummings (born 1971) studied history at Oxford, graduated in 1994, and then spent a few years doing odd jobs home and abroad. At the turn of the millennium, Cummings turned his attention towards British politics and ended up working in various Conservative campaigns for the next 20 years. He was Michael Gove's chief adviser, ran the successful Vote Leave campaign, and then ultimately found himself in the Cabinet Office as Boris Johnson's chief special adviser.
Never charismatic or likeable enough for political office himself, Cummings found his true calling working in the shadows of shrewd political opportunists. He was able to combine his own nonconformist disposition with an appreciation for the nationalist political right, and developed a Brexit message that proved effective. In Boris Johnson, Cummings found a fellow "get it done" results-first believer with great ambitions and little patience. As the doors to No 10 opened for the two in late 2019, the stage was set for Cummings to bring his radical reforms to life.
In his writing, Cummings has repeatedly argued against bureaucracy and bloated government. In Cummings' view the government, as it stands, is no longer able to carry out complex projects of any kind: the capture by the civil service is complete. If only things were done his way, all would be well. Education, the civil service, policy- and decision-making — it all had to be overhauled, and as quickly as possible. Unsurprisingly, in the real world these plans were met with considerable resistance.
It's not difficult to see why Cummings' message would sound appealing to upstart Conservative politicians who look back to the golden age of the Empire and the powerful political personalities of decades past. Cummings the historian wants us to go back to the era of mega-projects and strong leaders, a simpler time when policies from the central government could really move the nation. He wants to explore what is possible with the right mindset, supercharged with modern information technology.
However, as I'm sure many political strategists before Cummings have learned, the civil service is a formidable adversary. In government, it's much easier to build new things than to shape something old to your liking. And so we arrive at Cummings' vision for the ultimate quango. If there could be a new organisation, a government body for great projects and radical research, what would it look like?
It's clear Cummings has been thinking about research funding and the legacy of the ARPA era for a long time, probably ever since his Oxford years. A late 2014 blog post calls for a new agency outside Whitehall HR and EU procurement rules. It's a nice introduction to both Cummings' interest in ARPA, and his erratic style of writing.
In 2017, Cummings wrote more on the ARPA mentality and the extraordinary wealth generated by the wider community that it seeded. ARPA funding brought together a whole generation of American researchers, who eventually delivered what was to become the foundations of the information age. Xerox PARC and other commercial ventures had an important role in that unfolding, but it was the agency and its inspired leadership that set the stage.
"As we ponder the future of the UK-EU relationship shaped amid the farce of modern Whitehall, we should think hard about the ARPA/PARC example: how a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure, the right ways of thinking, and the right motives."
In his 2017 post, Cummings quotes at length from Alan Kay, one of the legends of that story. Kay speaks about the "almost invisible context" of early ARPA, that "catalysed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers". ARPA "funded people, not projects" and promoted "visions rather than goals". Research today is about avoiding failures, when it should be about trying to "capture the heavens". Cummings took Kay's argument, mixed in ideas from a few other visionaries, and packaged it all up in a Government policy proposal in his distinctive style.
"I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently."
A New Agency
Cummings further developed his vision for UK ARPA in 2018. He produced a short blog post that barely introduces his 50 page screed of a vision for ARPA, an attempt to bring together two of his blog series.
In September 2019, only a couple of months after Boris Johnson assumed office, No 10 convened a round table discussion on what a UK ARPA might look like. Jo Shanmugalingam of BEIS was part of the initial discussions, Alexandra Jones from BEIS sent out the invitations on behalf of then secretary Andrea Ledsom. This discussion paper starts with a Kay quote and then outlines what is missing from the UK R&D sector, and how a new agency on the US ARPA model could make a difference.
What might a UK ARPA do?
What can we learn from the original ARPA model?
Are there gaps in the current UK funding system when it comes to funding ground-breaking,
high risk / high return research? What could success look like for ARPA?
What could its approach be to:
2. selecting people/ programmes?
3. specific themes such as net zero?
Her Majesty The Queen delivered a most gracious speech to both Houses of Parliament on 14 October 2019. This speech outlines the government's programme for the parliamentary year, which this time included provisions for the development of a new funding agency. The detailed briefing that accompanies the speech elaborated that the government is indeed preparing a UK ARPA:
"[We are] backing a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology, broadly modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency. We will work with industry and academics to finalise this proposal."
It was starting to look like Cummings would have his agency. He wanted to get his house in order, too, so he decided to kickstart 2020 by trying to recruit help through unorthodox channels. This is the point where I and much of the Internet heard about Cummings for the first time. There was an unusual character running the show in No 10, and he wasn't happy with Whitehall. The government needed more Bret Victor. (NB: Every administration has tried to reform the civil service to their liking. See also Sir John Kingman's recent presentation on civil service reform.)
In March 2020, the government published the 2020 budget, with significant provisions of new funding for the sciences. Also included was a statement that the government will invest at least £800 million in a new "blue-skies funding agency", modelled on the US ARPA. "This agency will fund high-risk, high-reward science."
As the spring rolled on and the highly infectious virus situation in the East started to turn into a global pandemic, the Commons' Science and Technology Committee resolved to inquire into the nature and purpose of this new UK research funding agency. Much later in 2020, the Lords also opened up an inquiry on related research and innovation policy, focusing on Catapults.
The pieces were moving. Everything was set up, Cummings had the support and the funding. All he had to do was articulate what exactly he wanted to do with UK ARPA and then make it a reality. But first, somebody had to figure out how to put it together and pass it through Parliament.
The Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology has an open inquiry on the topic "A new UK research funding agency". The Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology have a related one on the role of innovation Catapults. The committees do a number of things, but most interestingly for the general public, they may gather written evidence and hold oral evidence sessions.
In advance of the oral evidence sessions, the Commons committee called out for written evidence on what a UK ARPA might look like. The committee posed a series of questions for the UK science community:
What gaps in the current UK research and development system might be addressed by an ARPA style approach?
What are the implications of the new funding agency for existing funding bodies and their approach?
What should be the focus be of the new research funding agency and how should it be structured?
What funding should ARPA receive, and how should it distribute this funding to maximise effectiveness?
What can be learned from ARPA equivalents in other countries?
What benefits might be gained from basing UK ARPA outside of the ‘Golden Triangle’ (London, Oxford and Cambridge)?
Written submissions to this call, published at the committee's discretion, are intriguing, though quite numerous and somewhat repetitive. In the case of UK ARPA, the committee received contributions from individual professor level senior researchers, a good many universities, all kinds of agencies inside and outside the government, businesses, think tanks, and more.
Some highlights from the written submissions, many have excellent further reading references:
- Professor Nick Bostrom (of Superintelligence fame) et al. from institutes at Oxford and Cambridge (Evidence)
- National Audit Office on government guidance for new bodies, value for money, and independence (Evidence)
- Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), a sectoral lobby organisation (Evidence)
- Professor Peter Grindrod, scientist and entrepreneur, with very clear evidence that actually answers the questions (Evidence)
- Professor Terence Kealey for the Adam Smith Institute — "Science is not a 'public good,' it is a 'contribution good,' and therefore needs no public funding." (Evidence)
- Fraunhofer UK, the UK branch of the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft, a proponent of the "Fraunhofer model" (Evidence)
- Coventry University, one of many to suggest that the new agency would fit nicely in the back garden (Evidence)
- BT Group, a top UK R&D spending business (Evidence)
- Unilever, another top R&D spender (Evidence)
- The Catapult Network, offering to be a delivery partner (Evidence)
- The Royal Society (Evidence)
- Dr Jane Gregory with a terse submission that is dismissive of the whole proposal (Evidence)
- CBI, leading UK business lobby organisation (with whom Cummings has had some testy dealings) (Evidence)
Oral Evidence Sessions
The Commons Science and Technology committee has held three public evidence sessions on the subject "A new UK research funding agency". The Lords have met twice on Catapults, with another session scheduled for January. Recordings from these events — and many more — are available at Parliamentlive.tv. A query like this should yield all of the recordings.
I find the oral evidence sessions of the select committees fascinating. Given the subject is of interest to me for a variety of reasons, I find the discussion itself interesting, but in addition to the content, there's all this procedure that I find charming. Many great characters in the Commons and the bodies, plus the external experts. Even the Lords are gamely — I've included one entertaining session from the Catapult review as well.
Commons CST (18 March 2020): 2020 Budget Spending Review (non-inquiry)
Rt Hon Greg Clark MP — CST chair; former Secretary of State for BEIS (less than a year before!)
Alexandra Jones — BEIS
Harriet Wallace — BEIS
Professor Sir Mark Walport — UKRI chief
Sir John Kingman — UKRI chair
Dr Rupert Lewis — Royal Society
committee MPs (Bell; Logan; Stringer; Sultana)
- Right out of the gate Walport puts the government in line
Jones: The Government are firmly committed to becoming a global science superpower and continuing to collaborate internationally on scientific research.
Walport: I really want to contextualise my remarks in the present, in relation to the coronavirus. The truth is that the UK is a science superpower.
- Former Secretary of State grills a fairly senior public servant Jones from his old department on the government's plans for the new fiscal year
Chair: Harriet and Alex, perhaps you can help us — and help Sir John and Sir Mark — as regards to when they might know how much money they will have for next year.
Jones: We are working at pace on the detail of that—the specific numbers, which UKRI needs, of course—and hope to be able to give it in the coming days.
- Walport and Kingman are veterans at this game and speak on science policy with authority
Stringer: I do not want to labour the point, but we might reach 3% of GDP this year, because the denominator shrinks.
Kingman: But only if the British economy were to halve in size. [Kingman is amused and sceptical.] The thing that will be affected by the virus is the rate of growth in GDP, not the level of GDP.
- MPs wish to discuss ARPA
Jones: The key is people; those we bring in will be critical. We are very much talking to people about how we design this and answer questions about how tight or broad a focus it should have, and we are very keen to make sure we engage with people by holding a whole range of sessions to ensure that it complements the great work UKRI is doing. It does fund many bold, risky projects itself. We are keen to ensure we use this opportunity to do something that is slightly different that complements it.
- Jones gives the government line on the necessity of UK ARPA, Walport comments that it would not be that radical of a departure
Jones: We are also looking, if it is high-risk, high-reward — there is £800 million of public money in it — at how to make sure it allows risks to be taken but manages public money effectively. It is very much at the design stage. We are talking about a great deal of people, but that focus on the high-risk side and testing funding approaches, where we can look at what might be most effective and understand what works best, is very much there.
Walport: I want to make the point that UK Research and Innovation [already] funds high-risk, high-reward projects. We have a long, distinguished history of doing so through our constituent organisations.
- Kingman points out that UKRI ISCF is modelled on ARPA
Sir John Kingman: Another good example would be the industrial strategy challenge fund, which is at least as big an intervention as ARPA. We have already employed a set of challenge directors for each challenge, which was very consciously modelled on what DARPA/ARPA had done in the United States and is proving rather successful. It is completely different from the way in which the research councils have traditionally operated.
- Royal Society has advised the government on ARPA
Lewis: There is a lot of speculation about how to do [ARPA] well, and there is debate about whether it should be mission led or not, and about whether it is about basic research or particular challenge-based research. Many of our fellows who have some experience in this area have been personally advising the Government on this.
Lewis: We do not have a strong view on [ARPA location], because we have not yet seen very clear plans from the Government for their conceptualisation of it.
Commons CST (9 September 2020): University Research Funding (non-inquiry)
Rt Hon Greg Clark MP — CST chair
Professor Julia Buckingham CBE — Vice-chancellor of Brunel University; President and Chair, Universities UK
Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli — Principal and vice‑chancellor of U of Glasgow; departing chair, Russell Group
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell — President and vice-chancellor of U of Manchester; new Chair, Russell Group
committee MPs (Bell; Clarkson; Fletcher; Griffith; Logan; Monaghan; Stringer; Sultana)
- Universities want clarity on research funding bodies
Muscatelli: When decisions are taken on investments by research councils, ARPA or other mechanisms we need to make sure it all fits together; otherwise, it is not an even, competitive landscape.
- If the UK drops out of Horizon 2020 and Erasmus, and so on, things might get interesting
Monaghan: On the question of Horizon Europe, or replacement funding for it, the UK Government said they would aim to replace any lost funding. How soon would universities need to get that funding, and has there been any discussion with the universities on that?
Rothwell, Muscatelli: Immediately.
Buckingham: I concur with that. I think there is general concern that we are getting very close to the wire and it is urgent that we have some solutions.
Rothwell: Otherwise, we are going to lose very talented people. Research depends ultimately on people. It needs funding, but it is about those talented people. If they come to the end of their contract and there is nothing, they will seek employment elsewhere.
- A very happy solution
Chair: Finally, to link that to the comments you made on the road map and the move to £22 billion a year, I think I am right in saying that the likely scale of Horizon Europe is about £10 billion a year over the seven years for the whole of Europe, whereas if our domestic funding for R&D is going up from £12 billion a year to £22 billion a year there is a £10 billion increase just for the UK. Is there not a very happy solution here, in that if the money were to be put into the appropriate hands, whether it is through QR [block funding] to particular universities or into a pot for universities collectively, universities in the UK could have negotiations on new arrangements with counterparts in Europe and beyond, given the buoyancy of research funding?
Muscatelli: That is an interesting scenario. If some of the money came to the universities in an unfettered way through the likes of QR, it would certainly allow us to do much more bilateral-type collaboration. Indeed, some of us are doing that in the teaching sphere with other European universities because we are anticipating the end of participation in schemes like Erasmus. That is certainly a scheme we could look at. The dimensions you mention are absolutely correct. If the UK increases spending to £22 billion a year, it would allow us to do quite a bit of international collaboration within that envelope.
Commons CST (23 September 2020): A new UK research funding agency, first hearing
Rt Hon Greg Clark MP — CST chair
Dr Peter Highnam — DARPA
William Bonvillian — MIT, an authority on "the DARPA Model"
Dr Regina Dugan — Wellcome Leap chief, DARPA alumna
Dr Antoine Petit — Chairman and CEO, French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)
committee MPs (Bell; Fletcher; Griffith; Logan; Stringer)
- Right-left model
Bonvillian: Historically, it is focused on what can be called a right-left model. If you envision innovation as a pipeline, DARPA has been interested in the right side of the pipeline first. What needs to come out of that innovation pipeline? What do we need? What breakthrough technology advances do we need to get? Then it goes back to the left side of the pipeline to think about the research that could lead to these breakthrough technologies. In a nutshell, that is a quick summary of what it is about.
Highnam: DARPA’s very clear mission is to avoid and impose technological surprise. [Everything we do supports the mission.]
- DARPA secret
Highnam: Temporary people, everything begins and ends — projects have a life cycle, no in-house capabilities, no careers to manage.
Bonvillian: Small and flexible organisation, flat, non-hierarchical. Focus on impact, not risk. Fairly autonomous, freedom within a bureaucracy. Private-public hybrid engagement, academics and business. Team-oriented, tolerance for failure. Isle and bridge: isolated from Pentagon, but there's a strong link back.
- Heilmeier catechism; How specific are the goals?
Highnam: The elevator pitch? Do you know a state of the art to solve this problem — do you know what you are talking about? Why DARPA, why now? What makes it DARPA-worthy or DARPA hard? If you succeed, who cares? How do you measure success?
Highnam: We hold people to account with rigorous independent testing all the way through. The other metric of success — we are an agency in defence — is transitions to use. [..] Purely achieving commercial success with any project is not the primary objective, which is to avoid and impose technological surprise.
What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?
What are the risks?
How much will it cost?
How long will it take?
What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for success?
- DARPA culture
Highnam: [Quotes on DARPA culture]:
"If you’re not taking enough risk, you don’t belong at DARPA.”
“Mission oriented, not process-oriented.”
“If you don’t invent the internet you get a B.”
“Ordinary people think of spending time; DARPA people think of using it.”
Bonvillian: An issue for DARPA, whether or not it is going to be successful, is whether it can create these resilient thinking communities that will be enduring and stay on the problem to move it towards fruition. When you think of DARPA, not just as the existing formal organisation but beyond it, it becomes more of a network. How strong is that network, and will it be strong enough to see these problems through?
Bonvillian: DARPA is a culture and its rules largely are not written down. This culture is passed to programme managers, office directors and directors. Getting that culture right at the outset is absolutely critical. DARPA had great early leadership from people like Herbie York, Jack Ruina and others—great technology thinkers and leaders. That was absolutely critical. Getting that early leadership and culture will lock in and determine the future of that organisation. Absolutely key to your endeavour is making sure you have a very talented initial team to do the start‑up.
Highnam: If the goal is to create something that is close to DARPA, I do not see another way of doing it, except having people there who have been through it and believe in it. I watch other organisations attempt to copy even with DARPA people there, but they add a new speed stripe; they add bells and whistles and do something different. They change a process because they did not like that process when they were in DARPA and you get something different. If you want a DARPA clone, or very focused DARPA system, that is necessary but not sufficient.
Highnam: To get people to serve at DARPA, that notion of avoiding and imposing technological surprise is an exquisitely focusing concept. The absence of something like that, which in some sense is the lodestar, makes things harder.
Bonvillian: There is a real issue with the multi-generational transfer of projects. The life of a project at DARPA is the life of the programme manager. When they leave, what happens? Will that get picked up and will it be continued? That is a complicated process. How do the successors come in, pick up the interesting pieces and keep advancing those?
- Pasteur’s Quadrant — use-inspired basic research
Dugan: Pasteur’s Quadrant is so-called use-inspired research. Bill described it as this right-left phenomenon: the idea that you have a very specific problem or capability you are trying to create, but you cannot do it unless you have a breakthrough somehow in the science, the engineering or technical underpinnings.
Dugan: Pasteur’s Quadrant — use-inspired research — requires some understanding of the use or capability that you are trying to effect. This is notably a fine line to walk. You need to be close enough to the users to understand the problem set but not so close that you are not free to challenge conventional wisdom. This is a very important attribute of creating programmes that are successful as breakthroughs as opposed to evolutionary work.
- Recruitment — where to look for the right programme managers?
Dugan: We have found great programme managers who come from academia and companies. What is important about these attributes is that they very typically have a PhD in one of the sciences. It need not be in the particular field of endeavour. You may find that someone who has a PhD in computer science contributes dramatically to a programme that is life sciences-focused, for example. They very often are entrepreneurial in their ambitions. They are impact oriented. These are often mid-career types of individuals. They are not typically MBAs. They are very much focused on the advancement of the science and engineering but they have CEO-like qualities. In Silicon Valley we would say that they are the best in class scientists, engineers and CEOs.
Dugan: At least from my own point of view, that clarity of thought was an important part of my accepting the [Wellcome Leap] role.
- French system
Petit: CNRS is not an agency but a huge public resource institution. It employs about 32,000 people. One particularity of CNRS is that all our labs—we have about 1,000 labs—are joint labs with French universities. That is a particularity of the French system.
Our main job is to do basic research, but we try to apply that basic research. For us, it is important to say that we focus on basic research. That does not mean that we have no relationship with industry. On the contrary, we create every year between 80 to 100 start-ups. We have more than 150 joint structures with industry and partners throughout France.
We are also very international. About one third of our researchers are non-French citizens. If I look to the PhD students, it is more than 50% and to the post-docs it is more than 75%. We are based at the European level and are an institution that benefits the most from the European Framework Programme. If I consider the last programme, the current programme and the Horizon 2020 programme, more than €1 billion comes from this programme to CNRS.
Petit: In fact, there is no objective reason, except that if you want to study genomics then precisely you have to put together people from biology, mathematics or computer science. That is a key point — to push people to study.
- Dos and don'ts — freedom vs. focus
Dugan: Think about what is fundamental to the organisation. This project-focusing, this time-boxing of programmes, is, probably, one of the most important things you can take on. The reason for that is that many of the other essential attributes flow from that. The project orientation in Pasteur’s Quadrant—this use-inspired research—is critical. Then you also need to think about impact, and the impact has to be realised at transition to scale. Those are the two attributes that I think are most important. The culture flows very naturally from those things. You can begin to get a sense of how the culture has to align if those are your objectives.
Dugan: Focus is important in the beginning. The idea of committing to programmes with a fixed duration and no fixed facilities and having the power within the organisation to form the programmes and execute them with high agility are very important. You need fast-contracting mechanisms that allow you to reach multiple parts of your ecosystem from academia to companies. You want to be able to formulate programmes very much like Peter described in previous testimony at this intersection between the scientific opportunity and the particular problem.
It is important to get the function and execution elements of the organisation right in addition to the programmes themselves. If those conditions are not different from what you currently have, you will not get different outcomes. Setting that foundation correctly from the beginning — independence of decision making, project focused, speed and agility, and that sense of urgency and moving forward — is very important.
My personal feeling is that you will need to focus. It is important with the resources available that you focus and use that as a way to launch successfully, to get the attributes right and build out from there into other areas.
Dugan: If what you seek are breakthroughs, it is important to recognise that in their earliest phases those breakthroughs or the activities associated with creating those breakthroughs can feel quite controversial. Having the independence to make those decisions separate from political influence is an important attribute. The agency must operate independently for its decisions on individual programmes.
Dugan: One of the purposes of creating these project-oriented activities, and particularly building a discipline to do that, is that the project, in having a specific capability and goal, has to demonstrate that capability on what we would say is a convincing scale — namely, at a scale sufficient to convince those who would invest on the commercial side, that you resolve to the parts that people thought to be impossible and now you can actually see a path to scaling and commercialising.
You want those incentives to exist. In the US we have something called the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities, as an example, to commercialise the IP that they develop under Government funding. It is a very important part of commercialisation.
Petit: Private-public relations are very important. A key point in the success of DARPA is the quality of the relations between the public institutions and particular US universities and the private sector. We know that usually in Europe—for what it is worth, the UK has left Europe—these relations are not always so good. That is also a point to be taken into account.
Dugan: I think that Fraunhofers in Germany are an interesting example of the partnerships that have stood the test of time. I agree that the quality of the relationship between the funding organisation, universities and the private sector is very high and deeply collaborative. It comes from the belief that the breakthrough itself does not make impact. The impact has to be scaled and that happens outside your organisation. We need those partners to do that tough work.
Dugan: Getting the IP structures set up properly is important so that the performers have a shared incentive in scaling and commercialising activity.
Commons CST (7 October 2020): A new UK research funding agency, second hearing
Rt Hon Greg Clark MP — CST chair
Professor Mariana Mazzucato — University College London
Professor Richard Jones — University of Manchester
Professor Sir Mark Walport — until recently UKRI Chief
The Rt Hon Jo Johnson — former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research & Innovation
committee MPs (Bell; Butler; Griffith; Logan; Monaghan; Stringer)
- Premise — is the Government right in creating the proposed research agency?
Mazzucato: The big question the Government are asking themselves is whether there is a gap [between basic research and applications]. [Can the government] take high-risk big bets in an area that is important for the country? [Is there capacity] for challenge-based thinking and creating dynamic linkages, different from, say, what the Catapults have been set up to do.
Mazzucato: For that high-risk basic R&D, which is guided by mission-oriented thinking, there is currently a gap in the UK, and ARPA could potentially fill it.
Jones: We talk about the need for risk taking in research, and we need to be a bit innovative and risk taking in the way we fund research. It is worth being experimental about trying some different things. Pluralism is a virtue, so having different approaches is good, too. In principle, I do not think there is anything wrong, as a starting point, in thinking about whether we can try to do something slightly different and looking at models overseas.
Jones: There are multiple goals that a research system needs to try to solve. A research system needs to have something to support fundamental disciplinary research. Our research councils do that. It needs to have something that supports interdisciplinary research better. In principle, UKRI should do that; it is perhaps too early to see whether it is able to deliver it. We should be able to support innovation in businesses. We have Innovate UK and the Catapult centres to do that.
Jones: The question of what you are missing is trying to find solutions to problems of the Government that they do not know how to go about solving. I think it is connected to the question of procurement and what the Government want — not now but in 10 or 20 years’ time.
Jones: I do not think there is any problem in the Government setting strategic goals. This is a question about the state’s long-term strategic goals.
Walport: I found the discussion about ARPA rather curious because I have always been taught that form should follow function, yet we are having a discussion about a form — ARPA — without actually being clear on what its function is.
Walport: The critical question is the extent to which Government and others are willing to procure the advanced research and innovation they need to tackle big problems. For an ARPA to work, it needs an environment where the products of innovation are sought, procured and there needs to be a long time horizon for doing it. It is about procuring problems in the future. It is slightly odd, in a way, that we are going to have an ARPA without working out in advance what it is going to do.
Johnson: [A new agency] could be a useful contribution to our overall research and innovation ecosystem, provided it is complementary and supportive of existing institutions rather than destructive in how it is conceived and organised. That is really important.
Johnson: I believe that we are making rather slow progress in some ways in trying to define what the function of DARPA is going to be. We are now well over a year on but are still having some fairly high-level discussions about its exact purpose.
Johnson: If we are going to make more rapid progress in bottoming-out this question, we seriously need something that resembles a Green Paper or a White Paper from Government, setting out clearly the purpose of a UK ARPA and how it will relate to existing institutions. We have had some very high-level comments today, but I do not think there has been a seriously argued presentation by Government of exactly how it is going to work and what it is going to do.
- What should be the purpose of UK ARPA? Where should the focus be?
Mazzucato: You need different ARPAs [for different challenges].
Mazzucato: What would be incredibly useful in the United Kingdom, would be a much more symbiotic and mutualistic public-private partnership.
Jones: We should focus on something. There is more than one possible focus, but having a customer [who knows what they need] is a tremendous focus. And we need to make sure [all of it] is aligned with what the nation and the state really think they need.
Mazzucato: It is absolutely true that specific problems that stimulate bottom‑up innovations are key to the DARPA success.
- Do you have a view on who decides the focus of ARPA?
Jones: I do not think the organisation should choose its own remit. What is needed is some long thinking by Government. The Nurse review talked about a ministerial Cabinet committee, did it not?
Connected to this, one needs to think about the mechanism by which the Government set long-term technological goals. The Government Office for Science is possibly the sort of body that could co-ordinate that, but it would need to have lots more serious input from different Departments. One needs to get out of those silos in Government. I am unashamed in saying that I think there is a place for Government to set big strategic goals. It should be a wider discussion with many people feeding into it, but one of the roles of Government is to decide what they want, is it not?
Mazzucato: I do not think [ARPA like agencies] should just pick pet projects. We need to be thinking [longer term] goals and challenges.
- Why was ARPA successful, and later replicants haven't been?
Jones: Ecosystem. [DARPA works in a certain context.]
- How do we decide what is the most important issue?
Jones: We should distinguish between two things: the big strategic problem — [e.g., the Cold War] — and the specific goals you might need, [e.g., GPS for positioning].
Jones: It is part of politics and political discourse that we come up with a societal consensus about what the big problems are. That is a discussion in which politicians have a very big role. Political discourse is really important in getting a sense of national unity.
Jones: Climate change is a massive one. Getting to net zero by 2050 is a great target. I am impressed that politicians have signed up to such a hard and important target.
Jones: This comes back to risk taking. One of the features of DARPA’s success is that it had programme leaders, and the very successful ones were [true] visionaries. They had their own vision about how some problem should be solved. I believe Licklider was the programme leader who was instrumental in all the early computer networking in the ’60s from which much of the internet architecture came. He was a man with a very strong vision about how he thought the problem ought to be solved, and he then had the freedom to do it.
Jones: On the one hand, you need a big societal consensus about what the big problems to be solved are, and then you need to empower people to try out different approaches that will deliver some aspect of the solution.
Mazzucato: You need the broad challenges, but you need an agency that is able to [take risk].
Mazzucato: If you have strong political will, that can be a real stimulus for innovation that an organisation like DARPA would then independently — it would not be subject to the political process — use to guide a lot of its thinking.
Walport: Ultimately, the decisions have to be made by Ministers. This is taxpayers’ money. If there are to be questions that the new ARPA is going to be permanent, ultimately Ministers will need to agree, but Ministers do not get out of bed thinking, “We must solve this problem.” It is part of a conversation. There needs to be a conversation between the research and innovation communities and Ministers. At the end of the day, Ministers will decide.
Johnson: It is inevitable that a programme of this profile and stature would be of great interest to Ministers and that they would want to set the broad missions, and to do so, maybe, after a national conversation. The only risk is that you see ministerial interests du jour chopping and changing and leading to a certain short-termism in how projects are identified and what the missions are from one moment to the next. That is the only risk I would see, that they end up being the subject of ministerial whims and buffeted around a bit.
Johnson: You could try to say, “We’re going to have a five-yearly process to identify these missions and allocate funds accordingly. They are going to run irrespective of the political cycle and changes of ministerial responsibility.” You can try to put in a political brake in that respect.
- Is short-termism a problem, when it comes to risk taking? If we are looking for quick impacts, are we pulling the rug from under our feet? Are we potentially spreading ourselves too thin with the money that is available if a lot of different groups are scrabbling for what is available?
Mazzucato: UK ARPA is not supposed to replace conventional science funding. We often come back to that false dichotomy of basic research, applied research or challenge orientation. A healthy science system — an innovation system — will have basic research and applied research. Organisations like the Catapults, the Fraunhofers or the NISTs in the US facilitate communication between basic and applied. What we are talking about here are particular institutions that will be going after some key, specific problems that are connected to the challenges that the country is facing. There has to be a very healthy discussion between those, as opposed to thinking that this is going to replace much more long-term blue-sky thinking.
Jones: There is a spectrum. There is a place for short-term projects. Companies need to get products out. Companies have problems that need to be solved. [Innovate UK operates in this space.] Academics should be free to go and do absolutely wacky long-term things.
Jones: [It is about] getting that balance right. My view is that ARPA should be in that place, which is both long term but with a focus. It should be about something long term, but it should also be a concrete goal.
- Should ARPA sit with UKRI? Sit with Cabinet Office or No 10?
Mazzucato: [Having an ARPA agency sit in a separate "Innovation department" is siloing, was siloed in the EU.] It really needs to sit above the departments.
Mazzucato: [The agency] is going to be much more successful if it is able to stimulate [cross-departmental action] inside the Government, and cross-sectoral [efforts in] the private sector, innovation and investment.
Mazzucato: Ideally, even the challenge teams [(the ISCF)] should be sitting above BEIS, for example. The Cabinet Office could be an interesting [home for] UK ARPA. The other possibility, as I mentioned at the beginning, might be to have ARPAs within each department, but designed in such a way as to inspire cross-sectoral and cross-departmental conversations. Having more than one could also facilitate that.
Jones: UKRI is quite a new organisation itself. In an ideal world, you might want to have [the new agency] in UKRI to have it connected to the research councils and Innovate UK.
Jones: There is an interesting thing about risk here. We accept a lot more risk in science funding than we do in innovation funding. Bluntly, that is because nobody really understands science. [Nobody cares if science project fails. In contrast] there are big political penalties for getting an innovation project wrong, as I think the Government are starting to see in some other areas, because it is much more visible. If you have a moonshot and the moonshot does not actually land on the moon, everybody notices it. A Minister can get very upset about that.
Jones: The argument for UKRI is that if [the agency] is set at a bit of a distance and someone else can take the blame for the inevitable things that will go wrong if you really do deliver.
Jones: There are lots of machinery of government changes around where science sits. In a sense, we have tried lots of things and, to be honest, I am not really sure it makes that much difference.
Jones: The argument in principle for it being a cross-Government thing is important. I regret that the recommendation in the Nurse review for a ministerial-level committee essentially to be what you could think of as the ministerial sponsor of Government Office for Science was not acted upon. You could imagine a structure that had a ministerial committee, a Government Office for Science that was able to do the strategic work to sort out what science ought to be funded, and then UKRI being associated with that.
Mazzucato: One of the key gaps was the lack of challenge orientation and mission orientation within the innovation system. The UKRI does not currently see itself as having been set up to do that. Maybe it could evolve to do that and ARPA could sit inside UKRI. Having an organisation that sits above this innovation system, [directly in touch with Government], and a programme-specific structure [in touch with key challenges] that the UK economy and society are facing [would be great], And that currently does not exist.
Why not experiment with that and give it as much freedom as possible, while being as connected as possible with the other bits of the system? If we do not connect it with the other parts of the system, I do not think it will work.
Jones: It is too early to see what kind of organisation UKRI is because it is still young. An organisation that could accommodate ARPA would need to be one that accommodated pluralism. It would need to be very responsive and flexible. I hope that is the organisation that UKRI is developing towards.
Walport: UKRI was formed with challenges in mind. As you know yourself, the industrial strategy challenge fund (ISCF) was a completely new form of funding that UKRI took on from the very beginning and has a number of ARPA-like features and a number of lessons to learn from it. We appointed challenge directors very much based on the model of DARPA. If you spoke to some of the challenge directors, you would find that one of their frustrations is that they have not had that degree of freedom in being able to run their programmes.
Walport: [Having UK ARPA inside UKRI] would be a sensible thing to do. UKRI was created to bring together the ecosystem. It would be perfectly capable of running ARPA-like programmes.
Johnson: I do not see any reason why UKRI, as a young organisation, could not quite easily incubate an ARPA-like body in a way that enabled it to do high-risk, high-reward, use-inspired research. It is quite within the existing powers that we have in the Higher Education and Research Act and the Science and Technology Act 1965 to use secondary legislation to set up an additional council within UKRI with a quite distinct remit to the other autonomous research councils and Innovate UK to do these kinds of projects with a far greater degree of autonomy than we are used to. It is possible to do it within UKRI. I worry that, if we set up this new body outside of UKRI entirely, we will inadvertently damage the rest of our very high-performing research system.
Johnson: We need to be very careful that we do not inadvertently, in setting up, as Sir Mark said, this relatively small body, do damage to the rest of the system. There is a risk that we impair UKRI’s ability to provide that strategic oversight of the UK’s research system. We do not have infinite resources as a science funder, as a Government. It is great that we are increasing resources, but we cannot seriously accept that we have so much money washing around our science system that we can accept the risk of quite significant duplication and overlap.
Johnson: Certainly for the initial period of its existence, it should be incubated within UKRI. If in time it is found that it needs a greater degree of autonomy, fine — it can be spun out as a standalone organisation. We are now more than a year on. It is time to let UKRI use the powers it has to get this thing going quickly. We have all the tools we need to get it done now. We should get on and do it, and let’s have a go at making this a really useful contribution to our research and innovation ecosystem.
Johnson: It is not necessarily a disaster if it is set up outside UKRI. It is quite possible to make it work, because we have the tools to make it work well and quickly, within UKRI. [This route] has considerably less risk of creating confusion, duplication and overlapping areas of responsibility. I am not saying it would not work if you set it up outside UKRI — it could work fine — but it is a riskier proposition and is less likely to be rapidly delivered if we go down that road.
Johnson: I would not be concerned that [UKRI members] are not capable of significant independence within the UKRI structure. UKRI would, I believe, be well capable of setting up a new body using the secondary powers that the Secretary of State has under law, and to create an even more independent relationship to either the chief executive or the executive committee, if that were desired. I do not think independence is really the issue.
- How to pull it off?
Jones: The distinctive feature of ARPA, from a science policy point of view, is that it is based on the vision of programme leaders. If you are going to do it, you should do it around the vision of programme leaders. That means a very lean structure. The major job of the director will be to recruit the programme leaders.
Mazzucato: The director should be reporting directly to a Minister and be in constant conversation. The decisions occur through a portfolio perspective, driven by the vision of the leader and the team itself. Portfolio approach means that it would not just be one pet project. It would be different projects that would be driven by the DARPA director.
[Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund] is a £2 billion vehicle, approximately, with many of the missions that you would expect ARPA, when it is eventually formed, to be focusing on, so how are we going to differentiate ARPA’s role from those of the much larger missions within the industrial strategy challenge fund in a way that is not confusing and duplicative?
Walport: The real challenge for setting up an ARPA-like organisation is to make sure that you recruit the very best programme managers.
- UKRI weaknesses?
Walport: [Doesn't agree with weakness label — too early to say.] Being completely frank with the Committee, one of the challenges for UKRI has been, because it is new and a lot of money is associated with it, that there has been a desire across Government for quite a lot of micromanagement of UKRI’s activity. As it matures, it could be more arm’s length than it is at the moment. The characteristic of DARPA all along has been empowerment of the programme managers. Good people can make bad organisations work very well, and bad people can wreck perfectly designed organisations.
Walport: Eight hundred million pounds will not enable one to tackle more than one or two of these problems systematically. Again, one of the dangers in our funding system is that we are always under pressure to salami-slice, so do not tend to fund things as well as we should. That is a constant issue. We tend to fund for the first five years and somehow think that, after that, the funds will miraculously be found from elsewhere. Unless we take a sustained approach to tackling problems, we will not succeed as well as we could.
- UKRI vs ARPA
Walport: I want to challenge again the openness and boldness points you make. UK Research and Innovation is all about openness and boldness. It is a false dichotomy to think we want an organisation—UKRI—that is closed and cautious, and an ARPA that is open and bold. The very nature of the research that UKRI is funding means that it is bold.
Griffith: I sense that you feel that, with greater operational freedom, some of what is being advocated as the benefits of ARPA could be delivered through UKRI?
Walport: [It's the people.] The right question is: what can attract the best people to work? [Salaries and freedom.]
Stringer: This is an unusual problem for Government to have £800 million and not be quite sure what to spend it on. If the money is to be put not into UKRI but into some different kind of research and development body, what model would you choose if you had a free hand in that?
Johnson: What actually motivates me is the desire to see the best for our science and research system. UKRI has been absolutely pivotal in securing additional resources for science and innovation in the UK. It has provided the Treasury with what it needed: a single point of accountability for our public investment in R&D and innovation. I am concerned that, at the margin, that will be lost if we create a new, big public funding body outside of it that fragments the coherence that UKRI provided to the Treasury — a picture of the value for money that we get from our funding activities.
Walport: The reason I was shaking my head is not that UKRI is some dinosaur that has been there for a million years but that it is a new organisation. It is only two years old. It is far too early to be making judgements about the success or otherwise of UKRI. So far, so good, I would say.
Walport: The answer is that, if it was really to focus on a very big single area, it could well be doing something that is distinctive. The danger is that, if it tried to do all the things I just said, it would do none of them properly. The big opportunity is to make a very serious investment — an £800 million investment — in one challenge area.
Johnson: To say “high risk, high reward” is not a clear enough mission statement. It is not a clear enough defining purpose. We need to know how it is going to be different from the mission that is funded by the £2 billion Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and how it is going to be different from the nearer-to-market innovation support provided by Innovate UK and its network of Catapults, for example. It could well be different.
Johnson: If [the new agency] had a very distinct single or dual mission to identify a couple of technologies that we know we are going to need as a society in 10 or 15 years’ time but which do not exist today and we could help to create, I agree that that would be qualitatively different.
Walport: The overall ingredients for the success of ARPA were summarised at the time as, first: “Strong office directors to develop their separate technical programmes; very high-quality project officers; attraction of recognised external expertise with freedom to have influence; knowledge of the whereabouts of the best ideas, people and organisations in the private and public sectors; developing an organisational setting that solicits and uses contributions, rapidly identifies critical problem area and makes necessary decisions or interventions as needed; delegation of detailed technical administrations and actions in monitoring subordinates.”
All of those, frankly, are the features that you need in, for example, Innovate UK and, to a large extent, in research councils.
Johnson: The skillsets are pretty rare: people who are world class at both the blue-skies research and at knowing how to see products develop that are going to be deployable in the existing business world or of use to Government right now. We will be fishing in a relatively small pool of talent. We will have to be flexible in how ARPA is set up in that respect.
Walport: We have, over time, recruited very good programme managers and project directors for the industrial strategy challenge fund. Initially, it was hard because people did not quite know what this was, but, over time, we are able to recruit very good people. They get frustrated by the lack of freedom, and that is the challenge that has to be created, but it is a challenge that UKRI faces. As I said, we can get good people, but pay does matter.
- Primary legislation
Bell: Is primary legislation required to put on a statutory footing the freedom that people would have? Is that a case for taking the primary legislation approach?
Walport: It is the whole issue of Treasury control. The business cases that are needed by BEIS and the Treasury are quite difficult to write for high-risk, high-return use-inspired research.
- Dominic Cummings
Stringer: We are looking at ARPA because it is an idea from Dominic Cummings. Did he talk to either of you about his idea for creating a facsimile ARPA?
Johnson: I have had many discussions with him about it, although not recently. I have waded my way through the blogs as well. I am familiar with his thinking, yes. Walport: I, too, had several discussions with him about it. I have written to him about it. Yes, we have been discussing.
Stringer: That is evidence that he has consulted quite widely, and with at least two of the correct people on that issue.
- "Valley of Death"
Walport: Discovering things is one thing, but it is how you apply them. The market tends to be quite risk-averse. Venture capitalism is not adventure capitalism some of the time.
Johnson: ARPA needs to clarify whether it is addressing the valley of death problem, which is certainly an important one, or whether it is trying to do use-inspired research, which is a very different problem and mission. My understanding is that it is trying to do use-inspired research—identifying a technology that we know we are going to need but does not exist today, and developing the research that will enable us to create those applications in future. The valley of death is a rather different problem. The point is that we have other bodies and other funding streams that are focusing on the important valley of death issue, which you mentioned.
Johnson: There is always a case for looking at where institutions can best be located. I would support a move to rebalance where we are investing public money in science and innovation, provided it is based on excellence and a competitive process. That is obvious. A more fundamental point is that ARPA, as I understand it, does not conduct its own research but outsources it to where it can best be procured. In terms of its physical imprint, it may not be that substantial as a contribution to the rebalancing of our science budget endeavour. I understand the politics and the need to locate more institutions outside the golden triangle. To the extent that that is helpful, I would be supportive of that.
Walport: The industrial strategy challenge fund is among the most widely distributed national funding we have. The actual organisation itself is a relatively small one — it is where it spends its money that matters.
Walport: There is also a potential issue, in that mixed-motive investing often goes wrong. The strength in places fund has been very effective, although it is still in its early days, in its specific mission to spread research and innovation around the UK. DARPA, for example, just looks to see where the best people are and the best possibilities. The truth is that when we have done this through the industrial strategy challenge fund, as Jo said, we have found that expertise is very widely distributed. I am not too worried about that.
- High Risk
Chair: The written evidence from the University of Oxford contains a striking sentence: “Most current UK funding programmes tend to focus on incremental advancements, and highly ambitious investments are mostly considered too high risk for public funds.” Is that an assessment that you would share?
Walport: No, I would not share it at all. [Examples. The fellowship programs are all about early stage career talent taking risks.]
Johnson: The peer review system that allocates a significant part of our research system could be seen as overly conservative. I would certainly recognise that. On the other hand, a very significant chunk of our research system is allocated in the form of block grants to universities such as the University of Oxford. If they feel they are not spending that money wisely, we ought to know about it.
Walport: I have joked in the past, albeit a slight joke, that decisions of committees are sometimes made by the least imaginative member. In DARPA, all along, the peer review is done by the programme managers and project managers. It comes back to the fact that the review will work most effectively if it is done by the most imaginative people. That is absolutely critical.
- Setup within UKRI
Chair: If the organisation was set up under the UKRI umbrella, do you have a feeling about how quickly that could be done?
Johnson: You would need to get the secondary legislation—the regulations—through both Houses. Then you would have to hire the director and agree the budget with the Treasury. That could be done in a matter of months, probably three months, if the Government put their mind to it.
Walport: I agree completely. It could be done very straightforwardly. The critical task is hiring the director. At the end of the day, these things are all about the people.
In the news:
"UK science chiefs push back against plan for new DARPA-like funder" (Science Business)
"Jo Johnson warns against setting up UK ARPA outside of UKRI" (Research Professional)
Commons CST (11 November 2020): A new UK research funding agency, third hearing
Rt Hon Greg Clark MP — CST chair
Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser — UKRI chief since May 2020
Sir John Kingman — UKRI chair
Amanda Solloway MP — Minister for Science, Research and Innovation (BEIS); Solloway basically has Clark's former job, or better still, only the best policy items that were previously under Clark's care
Sarah Hodgetts — Deputy Director for UKRI Sponsorship and ARPA (BEIS); 20 years in civil service
committee MPs (Bell; Fletcher; Griffith; Monaghan; Stringer + Peter Gibson from the Women and Equalities Select Committee)
Leyser: We have in one place, under one umbrella, the full range of disciplines and the full range of sectors that conduct research. That gives us extraordinary breadth and depth of reach across the system, which is, I think, exactly what we need now, from the point of view of 21st-century research and innovation, which is very heavily interdisciplinary these days, and requires those disciplines and sectors to be working together closely.
Leyser: The creation of UKRI is an opportunity to connect things up. That is my top priority: to harness the power of the fundamental research base, which is so strong, and the vibrancy in our business sector, and bring them together to drive an inclusive knowledge economy.
Leyser: I am very comfortable with the idea of [UKRI] activity being core to the industrial strategy. There are a number of reasons for public sector funding for research and innovation. A key element has to be the very strongly demonstrated role of research and innovation in supporting prosperity, high‑quality public sector services, and economic growth more generally. There is a tremendous opportunity, having brought together UKRI into a single umbrella organisation, to use that connectivity to enhance further the ability of research and innovation to drive productivity, levelling-up and a healthy and well-supported society.
Kingman: We are able to act under the UKRI structure in a way that simply was not possible before it, and in a way that is relevant to the economy and the industrial strategy. At the time the Bill creating UKRI went through Parliament, there was a big debate about whether Innovate UK should be part of the structure or not. I was always very strongly in favour of Innovate UK being part of the structure, and we have seen the fruits of that, in particular through the massive intervention of the umbrella of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which was a concept developed by Innovate UK, but critically dependent, in each of the challenges, on partnerships with the relevant research councils. That would have been very difficult to build under the old structure.
Leyser: I am keen to build the horizon‑scanning function of UKRI much more strongly. As I say, we reach right down and across the research base and research sectors, and we should be able very early to capture information about what is new and exciting and what the opportunities are, and integrate it and feed it through to Ministers. We have a very strong relationship with BEIS, where a lot of the industrial strategy sits.
Kingman: The [UKRI research] portfolio needs to be managed in a dynamic way. We need to be willing to take serious decisions about which of the challenges look incredibly promising, and we should be willing to grow them and fund them more ambitiously. We should also be realistic about the fact that not all of them will be phenomenally successful.
Leyser: I am very pleased with the relationships that UKRI has with BEIS, and we do indeed have a strong and active dialogue on exactly those issues. That is a very positive sign. I am also working very closely with Patrick Vallance [the Chief Scientific Adviser], who has of course done a fantastic job in bringing together the scientific adviser network right across Government. One of the key issues we face now is that most of the challenges require interdepartmental, multi-departmental, cross-governmental thinking and policy join-up. Interfacing that with UKRI research and innovation capability will be extraordinarily powerful.
Kingman: There were fears in the community when UKRI was created that it would be a hideous new bureaucracy and that the research councils would somehow be subsumed. In particular, there was a fear that it would not be possible to attract talented people to run the research councils. I think we have demonstrated conclusively that, on the contrary, we have been able to attract really good people into key roles in the new system. I think Sir Mark Walport said to you, so far, so good, and I echo that.
Leyser: I would very much welcome a long‑term budget settlement. It would provide a lot more opportunity to plan longer‑term commitments in a thoughtful and robust way. Having said that, we have institutes, for example, that have run for many years through a whole variety of funding cycles of various lengths. While it is more challenging to work with short‑term settlements, it is not impossible.
Leyser: So far, we have not had to curtail any of our grant funding rounds. Most of the research councils operate on the basis of several funding rounds per year.
Leyser: I am more concerned about the impact of Covid on the system, which means that universities, for example, are struggling with their finances and not necessarily appointing. There is a freeze on appointments in quite a number of universities to the longer‑term positions that early‑career researchers aspire to move into, where they get to lead their own groups—lectureships and principal investigator positions. Stabilising the pipeline across this period of great uncertainty is an important priority.
Leyser: There would be a huge number of benefits if it were possible to have a longer‑term settlement, a four‑year settlement for example, for research and innovation funding — UKRI is a core part of that — for a whole variety of reasons.
Leyser: It would be extremely helpful to have some clarity about our budgets as soon as possible, as we are seeking to make the best use of whatever money we are supplied with to drive the agenda of building, as I said, a connected and inclusive knowledge economy. The sooner we know, the sooner we will be able to get on with it, and I am very keen to do that.
Kingman: No, I do not have anything to add to what Ottoline said, other than that we are operating within the context, as you say, of the very strong commitments the Government have made to funding science. Obviously, there will be a debate within Government on the point about one year versus multi-year. I think the case for a multi-year settlement is well understood in Government. Whether it will prevail will depend on wider considerations that are outside our control. Whatever the outcome, there is, as you say, very strong recognition across the political spectrum of the value of what we are able to do.
- ARPA vs. UKRI
Kingman: I think Ottoline should speak to the concept of ARPA because she has been most closely involved in intense dialogue with key players in Government about that, what it is for, and what it will add. There absolutely is a case for the sort of concept that is being advanced. One can perfectly well make a case for doing it either inside the UKRI structure or outside. The principal case that is being made for doing it outside the UKRI structure is that it needs the freedom to operate in a more freewheeling way. Personally, I am very sympathetic to that argument. [Good to have a look at UKRI controls at the same time.]
Leyser: I have been listening very hard to the public debates around the whole ARPA concept. [Defence department pull wasn't there at the beginning.] [ARPA originally] had a much broader remit to do with creating technological strategic advantage for the US.
Leyser: The key drivers for establishing a UK ARPA: to bring in visionary leaders and give them the freedom to drive forward their ideas in a way that allows them to experiment very widely with alternative funding models.
Stringer: Have you been consulted about a UK ARPA? If you have, by whom? Leyser: I have been in quite a lot of conversations about UK ARPA, both outside and inside Government. Inside Government, I have discussed it at BEIS, at No. 10 and more widely, for example in the context of the CSA network.
Leyser: I absolutely do not feel [like ARPA is a criticism of UKRI]. As I say, the core priority is to create a pot of money to be available to a group of visionary researchers to drive forward experimental and different research programmes. It is a very particular part of the landscape.
Leyser: I see UKRI occupying a core role, as I described before, in the research and innovation system. I see our role as acting as a steward of that system, and to understand the whole system—what is there and what is not there—and how we need to take the money we have to best support the whole system. I absolutely see a role for the experimental funding approach that currently does not exist. I am very excited that the Government are keen to invest in that area. I am very happy for UKRI to work in the most productive way to make it a reality.
Leyser: It is absolutely crucial that [the new agency] has protections in the context of its budget. It needs to be able to make long‑term very stable investments. It needs to work very freely and fluidly. If those protections can be delivered inside UKRI, so that it is not being asked endlessly whether something is novel or contentious, it could operate entirely effectively inside UKRI. It could also operate entirely effectively outside UKRI. I would be very happy to collaborate closely if it wound up as an external body. You are the legislators, and you understand how best to set up an organisation that has those key characteristics, and the best way to do that is the way we should do it.
Leyser: [UKRI is absolutely willing to accommodate an organisation like ARPA.]
Kingman: We work very closely with massive funders of research who are not part of UKRI. We can make any structure work; it will come down to human interaction and doing business in a sensible way. We are very confident that whatever structure the Government choose we can make it work.
Leyser: To my mind, at some level the role of the [new] organisation should be to do things that are not being done elsewhere. If it gets the freedoms and flexibilities to experiment with alternative funding models, that is an absolutely unique role in the research and innovation landscape. That is how I would see it. Some of the duplication anxieties are based on the assumption that it is an innovation organisation very tightly focused on delivering for a particular industry, and that is not the framing I have for it.
Leyser: A protected pot of money to experiment with alternative funding models, and to bring together very high‑calibre individuals to do that, is a valuable thing. Having some money that is protected to do only things that are novel and contentious is quite a valuable part of the landscape, but it is difficult to protect through tougher times than might otherwise be the case.
Leyser: If one is talking about providing protected money for high‑risk approaches to funding research, that is less of an issue. The current budget being suggested is a significant sum of money. It is not trivial in any sense, and one could make good progress at that kind of level of funding...
Kingman: [Having a useful ARPA with top talent with the chunk of money being discussed] is possible. It is certainly part of the vision the Government have. We are able to attract incredibly talented people to UKRI, but there are horses for courses. It is important to remember that the Government are making the commitment to ARPA in the context of a much wider commitment to growing overall R&D spend. The two things hang together. If the Government were talking about creating ARPA at the expense of the very important investments we are able to make through the existing system, it would be a very different proposition, but that is not what the Government are saying.
- ARPA focus
Leyser: The discussion has been driven by the focus on ARPA in the DARPA model, where the emphasis has been on pull‑through to the defence and innovation space, whereas my view is that the emphasis should be on bringing together extraordinary individuals in a way that catalyses alternative ways of funding.
Leyser: [If the right main drivers are in place], at some level, there is not such an issue about what the focus is. Having said that, I see huge advantage in having a focus and bringing people together to tackle a particular broad problem. Either could work. To me, the core crucial element is to get the right people as the early hires. If one can get people in who are motivated by some collective vision to drive forward a key challenge such as net zero, it would crystallise the organisation around that. If the early people one gets in are more focused on a particular technology, perhaps it would crystallise around that, but I would want to retain the opportunity for the early appointments to shape it.
- Govt plans for the new agency
Solloway: ARPA is a fantastic opportunity. You are right that it was in the Queen’s Speech. We know that £800 million has been committed, and it is a manifesto commitment. We have reaffirmed it in the road map. You will see it very clearly stated that we will have £800 million for a new funding agency.
Solloway: It is not without its challenges. My major focus in all of this is making sure that it is absolutely fit for purpose. The start point is a position where we are as strong as can be as we work our way through it. To be perfectly frank with you, we are still working our way through quite a few particular questions, so coming before you today is helpful. I welcome the inquiry and maybe taking some lines from you as well. I have been working very closely with stakeholders, and I know that you have been doing so as well.
Solloway: To reiterate the ambition for ARPA, it is, as you know, to make sure that it is high in ambition and has high reward, and that it is a long-term supporter of the science system. Within that, it is to look at things like tackling bureaucracy and making sure that we work with UKRI in enhancing what they do.
Solloway: [We have been speaking with various stakeholders], but it needs to be ours. That is one of the reasons we are looking at it in a very considered manner. It has to be fit for the UK.
Hodgetts: One of the things my team, in particular, has been doing is looking at the more technocratic aspects, talking to some of the experts in DARPA, Google X and SPRIN-D, the German version of what we are trying to set up here. We are looking at how you deliver the vision that the Minister has clearly set out.
Hodgetts: We are looking at strategic operations like financial freedoms, how you put in the appropriate governance and assurance, with an appropriate regime, and how you do the funding. One of the key elements of giving the freedoms we want for this organisation to deliver its vision and ambition is how you give agility and freedom while having the correct control and assurance about the governance. I want to make it clear that we are having those kinds of conversations, as well as conversations with leading scientists like Professor Hopper and members of the Royal Society.
Stringer: Mission statement?
Solloway: We are working our way through that.
Stringer: What problem is this agency trying to solve?
Solloway: That is a really good question. I will hand that over to the scientists.
Monaghan: What specifically will be the tasks of ARPA?
Solloway: That is one of the challenges we are working through.
Monaghan: How do we ensure that [the new agency] is not isolated from any existing research and innovation system, and how do we ensure that there is not duplication of research that is currently taking place?
Solloway: BEIS and UKRI have been working together to make sure that this actually fills a gap, as opposed to just doing something that exists already. We will have those conversations, but the clear steer will be from the scientists, making sure that what it is doing is filling a gap. ARPA will work with UKRI to ensure that their activities are complementary. I see that as a key part of what they will be doing. It is also important that we share what the Government and UKRI are working on, so that when we develop this agency there will not be an overlap, but it will be fit for purpose.
Monaghan: How will we determine success [with this new agency]?
Solloway: If a project does not seem to be going down the right route, or is not succeeding, we make sure that that project will be stopped and we can move on to something else. The key thing is that the finance pot will be agile and can be used on long-term projects, but if a project is not getting to where it should be, we can stop it.
Bell: How will you appoint the director of UK ARPA? What qualities are you looking for, and who will they report to?
Solloway: We are working through how we are going to do the appointment. It is really important that we get the right person, and we are working through what that process will look like. At the moment, no decision has been made on that.
Bell: Will they be reporting to you or the Department?
Solloway: We are in the process of looking at that.
Bell: I think the early personnel will be absolutely key. Having got a director, will the personnel and project managers be hired outside the normal civil service processes, to ensure that they have sufficient remuneration and freedom to operate and that they are of sufficiently high calibre?
Solloway: Exactly what we are working through at the moment is making sure that we look at that. We are very keen to get exactly those people. I am sure it is apparent, but the agency we are setting up — we have not defined how many people will be working in it — is a funding agency that will distribute funds throughout the rest of the country.
Hodgetts: I reiterate that a decision is not yet made. We recognise that remuneration will be key, because attracting the calibre of person the Minister has just described is likely to be outside the normal pay restrictions.
Bell: Wrapping it all up — you may be working on this at the moment — how will you ensure that a UK ARPA has operational independence, while still maintaining the accountability and transparency we would expect?
Solloway: This area is an absolute challenge as well, and it is one of the things we are working through.
Fletcher: What gaps in the current landscape is this trying to fill?
Solloway: The answer will be from the scientists as to specifically what the projects will be, as I think I mentioned before.
Solloway: ARPA itself will be a funding agency. However, it is not just a funding agency.
Hodgetts: The new agency is a funding agency, but one of its tasks will be to experiment with funding models. Normal, uncontentious spending involves a longer process. One of the tasks of the leadership of this organisation will be to come up with novel ways of injecting money into the system. UKRI does not have the freedom to do that at the moment.
Fletcher: How close are we to making sure that that is happening and that it does not get captured as an arm of the British state?
Solloway: That is exactly one of the things we are working through at the moment.
Fletcher: Who have you consulted to make that happen? Have you gone out to the private sector? What lessons learnt are coming into the Department?
Hodgetts: We have had very interesting conversations and evidence given to us by the CBI and other institutions like AIRTO and the Life Sciences Council. One of the things I picked up from those conversations is that the private sector does this well.
Solloway: It does not finish there. This is one of the things we are working through. We are continuing to engage from an R&D community point of view, and we continue to have stakeholder meetings. We have made a commitment to deliver this new independent funding agency.
In the news:
"Leyser and Kingman doubt UK ARPA would flourish in UKRI" (Research Professional)
"Solloway: scientists will set UK ARPA mission, not politicians" (Research Professional)
Lords CST (8 December 2020): Contribution of innovation Catapults to delivering the R&D roadmap
Lord Patel — CST chair
Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser — UKRI chief since May 2020
Dr Ian Campbell — Former chair of Innovate UK
Alexandra Jones — BEIS
committee Lords and Baronesses
- Endless reviewing
Campbell: The Catapult network has been subject to a number of reviews over recent years. I would like to see less reviewing and more enabling the Catapults to flourish. As my chairman said to me, it is a bit like planting a tree and digging it up to see if the roots are still there. We have to allow them to build and substantiate themselves as a core part of the ecosystem going forward.
Leyser: My one thing would be to stop the endless reviewing and try to let the system that we have built deliver in a constructive way.
- Chair mistakenly addresses Jones as Dr, much hilarity ensues
Chair: We thought you were restrained the last time you came to visit us, because you were with a Minister. This time you are totally unrestrained and hopefully we will have an exciting session with you.
- Jones has the details on the Catapults, reviews
On your question about success, yes, they have been successful. As the previous witnesses set out, there are different Catapults, different sectors and lots of different stories about what has happened and how they have worked. There have absolutely been some huge successes.
[BEIS review, halted due to COVID] is not intended to be a review questioning whether Catapults should exist, but a review to understand how we can make the most of them.
Cummings Exit, Stage Left
On 14 September 2020 Business Insider reported that Dominic Cummings' top candidate to lead the UK ARPA, physicist and computer scientist Michael Nielsen had declined the position. This is well before Solloway's hearing in the CST committee, during which she made it clear that the Government still didn't have a solid plan on how to go about putting UK ARPA together. One might conclude from this that Cummings had an active role in shaping the plans, and didn't want to commit to anything prematurely.
Nielsen apparently felt that he would not have enough freedom to run the agency as he wished. This can be seen as a comment on the incomplete state of the UK ARPA bootstrapping effort, but it's possible that interference from Cummings himself or the wider administration would have been the main concern. As Dr Dugan explained about her own appointment to Wellcome Leap, the focus of the mission made a huge difference to her. High calibre people see through Cummings' half-baked plans.
Failing to get Nielsen on board was the beginning of the end for Cummings' tenure at No 10. All through his stay, Cummings was an easy target for politicians and the media alike, and he got tarred and feathered for his lockdown manoeuvres. More problematically, his personality and frustration with the civil service and politicians probably got the best of him, and on 13 November 2020 Boris Johnson had to let his special adviser go. It was reported that Cummings had spoken against the prime minister.
The idea man's departure meant that UK ARPA was left in a bit of a limbo. Some speculated that the mission would be "kicked in the long grass", postponed indefinitely. Instead, the Government was quick to reaffirm its commitment to both increased funding for science and research in general, as well as continued support for the new "high-risk, high-payoff" funding agency. Indeed the push to increase research funding predates both Cummings and Johnson.
On 25 November 2020, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak published the 2020 Spending Review, which had and item about extra funding for UKRI, the initial setup funds towards a new funding agency. In other words, the new agency will be incubated inside the existing research umbrella.
"The chancellor also confirmed that Cummings’ pet project, a UK version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is still going ahead, with a modest start-up budget of £50 million allocated to UK Research and Innovation for next year."
As the strange year 2020 draws to a close, we still have no details on what UK ARPA will look like. In any case, it will be interesting to read the Commons STC report on the new agency once it is published, and of course, to see what kind of an agency the Government will produce in 2021.
As for Dominic Cummings, he has certainly demonstrated a talent for picking up interesting ideas, and also some ability in seeing how things might fit together. He was able to convince a lot of people about a novel idea that might well amount to something. For all his faults, that is to be commended. And something tells me we haven't seen the last of him yet.
In the news:
Dominic Cummings' plan for a $1 billion UK moonshot agency was set back after his top candidate to lead it dropped out (Business Insider, 14 September 2020)
Doubts over plans for £800m UK 'moonshot' research agency after Cummings quits (Telegraph, 13 November 2020)
"Boris Johnson boots out top adviser Dominic Cummings" (Guardian, 13 Nov 2010)
"Departure of PM’s chief adviser adds to doubts over UK ARPA" (Research Professional, 13 Nov 2010)
"Spending review says more about the destination than the route" (Research Professional, 2 Dec 2020)
"UK ARPA has money—now comes the tricky part" (Research Professional, 16 Dec 2020)