A new UK research funding agency Contents


1.The December 2019 Queen’s Speech set out the Government’s intention for:

a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology. It will provide long term funding to support visionary high-risk, high-pay off scientific, engineering, and technology ideas.1

The October 2019 Queen’s Speech briefing note 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.2 US DARPA employs ‘programme managers’ on 3–5 year contracts to fund high-risk, high-reward research. Its budget in financial year 2019–20 was $3.43bn (approximately £2.65bn).3

2.The March 2020 Budget stated that the Government would “invest at least £800 million” in this “blue skies” funding agency, which would fund “high risk, high reward science”.4 It has been reported that this funding would be guaranteed over five years.5 The November 2020 Spending Review, which stated that the first £50 million of the £800 million earmarked for “high risk, high-payoff” research would be included in the £350 million allocated to UKRI for 2021–22, did not mention the new agency.6

3.The Government’s proposals for the new funding agency are set out in the written evidence it submitted to this inquiry, in addition to oral evidence from the Science Minister.7 Both are referred to throughout this Report.

Our inquiry

4.We launched our inquiry on 9 April 2020 with a call for evidence covering the need for this new agency, what it should focus on, and how it should operate. We received over 100 written submissions and took oral evidence from 12 witnesses, including representatives from international research agencies (including US DARPA), UK research and innovation policy experts, a former Science Minister, the current and former CEOs of UK Research and Innovation—as well as its current Chair—and the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, Amanda Solloway MP. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to our inquiry.

Aims of this Report

5.In this Report, we explore the rationale for a new UK research funding agency, what it should focus on, how it should operate, where it might fit in the current research and innovation system and, finally, its implications for the wider system. Specifically:

6.Unless stated otherwise, the recommendations in this Report ask the Government to set out its plans in a distinct policy paper that should be published before the end of the next financial year (i.e. 2021–2022).

1 Prime Minister’s Office, The Queen’s Speech December 2019 background briefing notes (December 2019), p106

2 Prime Minister’s Office, Queen’s Speech Lobby Pack 2019 (December 2019), p93

3 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Budget, accessed 7 January 2021

4 HM Treasury, Budget 2020, HC (2019–21) 121, March 2020, p 60

5 Policy Exchange, Visions of Arpa (January 2020), p 23; UK drops pledge on new innovation funding body, Science Business, 19 December 2019

6 HM Treasury, Spending Review 2020, Cm 330, November 2020, p 79

7 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (RFA0052)

Published: 12 February 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement