Budget 2020: £800m funding for the UK ARPA

Published by Michael O’Brien on 11 March 2020

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The Budget included £800m of funding for the creation of a UK version of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a blue-skies research centre. This comes as no great surprise as the creation of a UK ARPA has been a long held dream of Dominic Cummings, adviser to the prime minister.

The US formed ARPA in the late 1950’s as a way to compete with the Soviet Union’s engineering brilliance, including the launch of Sputnik. However over the decades ARPA went on to play a fundamental role in shaping the modern world; with its teams and researchers ultimately being instrumental in the creation of the internet, missile defence systems, personal computers and much of what we now know as Silicon Valley and the innovation culture that has centred there.

The US ARPA was reorganised in the 1970s and effectively became DARPA, with a focus on just defence research projects. Nowadays DARPA is more of a venture capital fund, providing funding to numerous projects in the defence sector, most of which will undoubtedly fail, but the small number of projects that prosper make that risk worthwhile.

So what will the UK’s ARPA look like?  Well back in 1958 the US ARPA was given a budget of $500m – over £3bn today – so the initial Budget funding of £800m pales somewhat in comparison; making it ever more important to focus these funds on the right projects. The critical thing for ARPA to do is create a tight focus on the types of areas it wishes to invest in; with the example model in the US having a relatively narrow “defence” focus.

Also how ARPA interacts with other research funders in the UK ecosystem will be interesting. When this new agency was first mooted last year there were some that were confused how this would compare with the UK Research and Innovation body (UKRI), which itself is relatively new and where much of current research funding is rooted. So is another new agency needed when the same goals could potentially be achieved with UKRI?

So more information is needed to understand exactly what the UK ARPA will be. Undoubtedly providing more funding for research is a good thing, but work needs to be done to ensure the research communities and various political parties are supportive of the venture as it could quite easily simply become the folly of current government rather than a new research powerhouse that it could potentially be.


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