The UK’s newest funding agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, lacks a clear defined focus and remit, according to the latest report from the House of Commons science and technology committee. ‘The government must make up its mind and say what Arpa’s mission is to be,’ summarised the chair of the committee, Greg Clark.
Modelled on the US agency of the same name, the UK’s Arpa was allocated £800 million in early 2020. It is supposed to support fundamental research that might be considered too risky to be funded by others agencies. The US Arpa, set up in 1958 as a defence research body, has seen several of its projects develop into technologies such as computer networking – a basis for the internet – and a satellite positioning system that became the precursor for the Global Positioning Satellite.
While UK Arpa has the potential to address gaps in the country’s research funding landscape, the agency ‘seems to be a brand in search of a product’, the committee’s report states. It is urging the government to shape Arpa’s initial focus by deciding which client it will serve – candidates include the life sciences focused Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for clean energy interests, or the Ministry of Defence.
Arpa should focus on no more than two missions or challenges at a time, the report recommends. If the government wants to establish high-risk, high-reward research it also means it will need to accept that the pay-off for these projects might take 10–15 years.
The committee calls on the government to be open-minded when it comes to choosing the agency’s director and should appoint someone ‘with a bold vision, creativity and drive’.