New £800m research agency for high-risk projects needs clear purpose, MPs warn

The Government has been told a proposed science and research body is currently ‘unfocused' and a ‘brand in search of a product' .

Plans for a new £800 million science and research body are “unfocused” and need a clear purpose outlined by the Government, MPs have said.

The December 2019 Queen’s Speech set out proposals for a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology, similar to the US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

It comes after the Conservatives pledged in their election manifesto to invest millions in a new research institution, with the aim of exploring new ideas which do not yet have any obvious real-world applications.

Although MPs welcome the move, there is concern it has no clear direction and is “a brand in search of a product”.

A report by the Science and Technology Committee says that the agency needs to be given a clear client, such as a Government department, and stresses that wherever it ends up it should be free to pursue research currently considered too risky to fund.

The US’s DARPA serves the country’s Department of Defence, but the committee believes it could fit in the UK within a number of candidates, including the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Ministry of Defence.

It warns that the Government must be prepared to wait between 10 to 15 years for high-risk projects to pay off.

“A UK version of ARPA has the potential to find solutions to help address some of the greatest challenges facing our society – whether achieving net zero, preventing disease outbreaks or defending our nation against emerging threats,” said Greg Clark MP, chairman of the Science and Technology Committee.

“The Government’s financial commitment to supporting such an agency is welcome, but the budget will not be put to good use if ARPA’s purpose remains unfocused. UK ARPA is currently a brand in search of a product.

“The Government must make up its mind and say what ARPA’s mission is to be. Only then can the necessary high-risk, but hopefully high-reward research commence.

“I look forward to the Government setting out its plans in some detail and hope that the committee’s findings will help to inform the shape of UK ARPA.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said: “We thank the Science and Technology Committee for its report and look forward to engaging with the Committee on its recommendations.

“The UK’s new research agency will have the independence to experiment with new funding models to back cutting-edge, high-risk, high-reward science right here in the UK.

“The Government will be setting out further details about the new agency in the coming weeks and will continue to work at pace to deliver this exciting new addition to the UK R&D landscape.”

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