15 Oct 2019   |   News

UK government sets out plan for DARPA-like funding agency for research

Proposals to protect UK science from the dampening effects of Brexit include new agency to fund breakthrough research, a space council and a points-based visa system to attract scientific talent

Prime minister Boris Johnson wants to slash research red tape and create more flexible funding

The UK government is proposing to set up a funding body as part of “a new approach” to backing emerging fields of research and technology, to be broadly modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which claims credit for technologies including the global positioning system and the internet.

Other research-related items put forward in prime minister Boris Johnson’s proposed legislative programme, announced on Monday, include a new National Space Council and a revised points-based visa system – already in the works – to attract global scientific talent.

There was also a general commitment to reduce funding red tape more broadly, “to ensure brilliant scientists are able to spend as much time as possible creating new ideas, not filling in unnecessary forms.”

But with the government having no majority, many of the proposals may not go anywhere. And with three days left until a vital EU summit, whether and how Brexit happens will have a much bigger influence on the plans presented by government. 

The chancellor, Sajid Javid, announced plans for a budget on November 6, which should say how much funding there will be for the proposed agency. That is days after the 31 October Brexit date. If Brexit hasn’t happened before then, or MPs reject the programme, it will trigger renewed calls for a general election.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn rubbished the government’s plans, saying, "There has never been such a farce as a government with a majority of minus 45 setting out a legislative agenda they know cannot be delivered in this parliament.”

What about UKRI?

The reaction from UK scientists, who have witnessed a huge reshaping of the funding landscape in the previous two years, with the formation of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), was muted.

The DARPA proposal, one of several ideas for boosting UK R&D post-Brexit, prompts many fundamental questions, said James Wilsdon, digital science professor of research policy at Sheffield University.

“The ink has barely dried on the significant changes to the architecture of the UK’s research system. UKRI has been up and running for only 18 months,” he said.

An umbrella body created from the merger of all the UK research councils and the innovation agency Innovate UK, UKRI oversees the distribution of over £6 billion of research funding annually.

This centralised vision has been controversial, with scientists fearing that it could result in a diminishing role for the individual research councils.

It’s not clear whether the DARPA-like agency would sit inside or outside UKRI, said Wilsdon. “And if it’s outside, why has the case for integration – which was the driving rationale for UKRI’s creation – suddenly evaporated?”

Sarah Main, executive director of the lobby group Campaign foe Science and Engineering, agreed, saying, “We look forward to working with the government to develop its proposals. In particular we await further details on the proposed creation of a new funding agency and how it will complement the work of UKRI, itself just a few years old.”

UKRI already runs a funding programme, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which is designed, like DARPA-led projects, to pursue near term economic benefits.

The ambition to create structures that allow for even more rapid and flexible funding chimes with proposals contained in a forthcoming government report setting out a broad vision for the UK’s post-Brexit research system.

Adrian Smith, director of the Alan Turing Institute in London and the report’s author, was due to meet the UK science minister Chris Skidmore on Monday to lay out the case for a new “agility fund” to quickly seed new opportunities that arise unexpectedly.

Smith is arguing that there should be slack in the system, leaving the government able to take advantage of new collaboration opportunities as they spring up. “We don’t have any form of agility,” Smith has said. “We don’t have access to money we can use to fund collaborations that might come about with the likes of Israel or Singapore.”

Spending on gimmicks

The UK DARPA proposal is thought to originate with Boris Johnson’s chief strategist, Dominic Cummings.

Cummings's private blog repeatedly comes back to the necessity of establishing some sort of UK DARPA to fast-track innovation.

In one 2014 entry, he writes, “We could easily afford this if we could prioritise – UK politicians spend far more than DARPA’s budget on gimmicks every year – and it would provide huge value with cascading effects through universities and businesses.”

Wilsdon said the proposal has to be properly tested. “I hope the science and research community won’t allow its enthusiasm for extra investment to buy its silence in asking tough questions about the justification and accountability of this ‘new approach’,” he said.

“What the UK research and innovation system needs is a period of stable growth with multiple funding streams.”

As uncertainty around the date and terms of the UK’s departure grows, scientists in the UK are increasingly concerned about future access to EU funding.

“Whether you create an ‘initiative fund’ through something like a new DARPA says little to me about whether you should continue associating closely with the EU – one does not preclude the other,” said Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-intensive Universities.

The UK has previously committed to paying its way into the next EU research programme, Horizon Europe, unless the EU blocks its path.

Currently, the UK receives around £850 million of research funding each year from Brussels. Leading science figures are adamant that this scientific relationship needs to be protected, whatever the Brexit outcome.

In a bid to take some of the sting out of Brexit, the government aims to increase public and private spending on R&D from 1.7 per cent of GDP to 2.4 per cent by 2027. At the current rate of economic growth, this means an extra £6 billion.

“Being an EU member, or being associated with Horizon, does not stop you from strengthening your national R&I spend,” said Palmowski. “The UK government has big ambitions to increase its R&I spending in the medium term, so it can and should afford continued membership of Horizon (Europe), alongside what any domestic priorities need to be.”

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