A new UK research funding agency Contents


The December 2019 Queen’s Speech set out the Government’s intention to establish “a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology”, which would “provide long term funding to support visionary high-risk, high-pay off scientific, engineering, and technology ideas”. The previous Queen’s Speech—in October 2019—had explained that this would be “broadly modelled” on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was created in 1958 (initially as ARPA) with the purpose of forming and executing research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science.

This Report examines the Government’s proposal to establish a new UK research funding agency and sets out our findings on the need for the new agency, the role the new agency could play and how the new agency should be established and function. We also set out a small number of recommendations which relate to the current research and innovation landscape.

Key findings—a new UK research funding agency

In this Report we welcome the Government’s commitment to allocate £800 million of public money for the funding of high risk, high reward research that has the potential to address a number of perceived gaps in the current UK research and innovation system. However, more than a year after its inclusion in two successive Queen’s Speeches, the Government has not clearly articulated the need for, or intended remit of, the proposed agency. To date, it seems to be a brand in search of a product.

We consider on balance that there can be a role for a body that sits outside and operates in a different way to the established UK research funding mechanisms, with a different culture and which is able to operate free of some of the structures that are necessary for the dominant research funding institution.

We conclude that UK ARPA can play an important role in the research and innovation system by pursuing goal-oriented research, driven by societal need, with the potential to produce lasting, transformational changes. We recommend that UK ARPA should focus on ‘mission-based’ or ‘challenge-led’ research, aligned with the long-term goals of the nation, which has the potential to make transformative changes with implications for the economy and wider society.

Questions about UK ARPA’s remit, organisation and governance would be made much more straightforward if the agency was established to serve a clear ‘client’—most likely a Government department, as is the case with US DARPA, which serves the Department of Defense. Potential candidates for a UK ARPA could include the Department of Health and Social Care (for a life sciences-focussed agency), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (for a Clean Energy/Net Zero mission) or the Ministry of Defence.

We conclude that if the Government wants UK ARPA to pursue research programmes with the potential to have transformational effects on society—and its proposals suggest that it does—UK ARPA must, firstly, fund research that would be considered too risky by the existing research and innovation system and be prepared for some programmes to fail. Secondly, the Government must accept that these projects will take a long time, potentially 10–15 years, to ‘bear fruit’. Therefore the Government must guarantee long-term funding for the agency and the programmes it will fund.

Further, we recommend that, given the size of UK ARPA’s proposed budget, the new agency should focus on no more than two central missions. The Haldane principle should not apply to how UK ARPA’s overall focus is determined. Ministers should play a role in shaping ARPA’s initial focus.

We call on the Government to think carefully about what the new agency’s focus might be before recruiting a director. The Government should be open minded on who the agency’s director might be, should not disregard anyone at this early stage, and should be open to appointing an individual with a bold vision, creativity and drive. Further, we find that the new director must be committed to creating a culture that empowers and emboldens UK ARPA’s employees.

We conclude that UK ARPA should have a distinct and flexible organisational structure. The Government should seek to create an environment characterised by a high degree of autonomy and limited bureaucracy. The Government should explain how it intends to establish and foster this culture in the new agency. UK ARPA’s director should play a key role in the recruitment of its personnel. We recommend that the Government explain how UK ARPA’s programme managers can be appointed outside normal pay restrictions in order to ensure that they are sufficiently remunerated.

In this Report, we recognise that although there could be advantages to establishing the new UK research funding agency inside UKRI (it would be quicker and would facilitate its communication and collaboration with the existing research and innovation system), we note concerns that UK ARPA might not be able to operate effectively with sufficient freedom if it was situated inside UKRI’s framework, for example, by being unable to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ activities without case-by-case Ministerial approval. On balance we agree with these concerns. To be effective, the new UK research funding agency must be able to pursue ‘novel and contentious’ activities without case-by-case Ministerial approval. If this is not possible within UKRI then we find there is merit in the Government establishing UK ARPA as a separate entity. Therefore, the Government must clarify whether it intends to establish UK ARPA as a separate body or an agency within UKRI. In doing so, it should be clear about whether this will require primary or secondary legislation and the likely timescales involved.

Key findings for the R&I system

In this Report we also explore some wider issues that apply to the existing research and innovation ecosystem, which arose in the course of our inquiry.

The multi-year funding settlement for UKRI set out in the November 2020 Spending Review is welcome and not only provides much-needed certainty to UKRI and the wider research community but helps UKRI support public and private sector contributions to the post-coronavirus pandemic recovery. We urge the Government to maintain multi-year funding settlements for science and encourage it to build on this through additional multi-year settlements in future Budgets and Spending Reviews.

We conclude that it is right that UKRI is held accountable for the public money it spends, but the temptation to micromanage it must be considered alongside its need to operate in an agile and efficient way. We call on the Government to carry out a review, commencing before the end of the next financial year (i.e. 2021–2022), to explore how UKRI can operate with fewer bureaucratic constraints and more freedom and flexibility in how it allocates funds, while ensuring that it is held accountable.

We find in this Report that there is scope for improvements with respect to equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in the current research and innovation system, as illustrated by the 2014–15 to 2018–19 data from UKRI. We welcome UKRI’s commitment to expanding its equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility data collection and analysis capabilities. We recommend that UKRI set out when it will publish its equality strategy and call on the strategy to outline how UKRI intends to improve the effectiveness of its equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility processes and policies and how the effects will be measured and demonstrated.

Published: 12 February 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement