‘Embrace failure’ – plans for government blue-skies research unit gather momentum

Minister responds to think tank report by claiming government could establish UK ARPA unit this year

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The government should “embrace failure” and forge ahead with plans to establish a “blue skies” UK research body modelled on the multibillion-dollar US body DARPA, a conservative think tank has said.

Setting up a UK equivalent to DARPA, the US Defense Department agency tasked with blue-skies R&D for emerging military technologies, could have a “transformative impact on technological innovation”, Policy Exchange said in a report.

The Queen’s Speech last October promised a “new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology, broadly modelled on the US [Defense] Advanced Research Projects Agency”. 

Establishing such an institution is a long-term ambition of the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, whose WhatsApp status reads: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”.

The Conservatives’ general election manifesto then promised £800m to set up a DARPA-esque research institute “which funds high-risk, high-reward research that might not otherwise be pursued, to support blue skies research and investment in UK leadership in artificial intelligence and data”.

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Policy Exchange has now urged the government to “tear up the rule book of research funding bureaucracy” and push ahead with the move. It said the UK must not be afraid to fund research with a high failure rate – which is likely using such a “high-risk, high-reward” model.

The think tank said that rather than carrying out research itself, UK ARPA – as it has become known – should fund research in a small number of “missions”.

The report’s authors, who include academics and former ministers, said the agency should have between two and four such missions, selected by the science minister, “each addressing a major societal challenge or scientific area”.

“But the government must embrace failure if it is to be a success. Learning lessons from the US, ministers must tear up the rule book of research funding bureaucracy and recognise that the majority of projects will not achieve their objectives, but that those that do will be transformational,” the think tank said.

The report estimated that more than half of the projects funded through UK ARPA would probably fail, based on the US agency’s success rate. “Most projects will not achieve their objectives,” the report said.

But failure is inherent to blue-skies research, the report argued. It noted that DARPA – which is “quite tolerant of failure where the payoff from potential success is high” – has “played a critical role” in developing technologies including the internet, supercomputing, GPS and robotics.

“The key to success will be allowing empowered and highly expert project managers to drive forward projects and allocate funding to the best people and projects wherever they can be found,” the report said.

Contributors to the report include the former science ministers Jo Johnson and David Willetts; William Bonvillian, an MIT lecturer who has written extensively on DARPA; and Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

‘Blocked by Whitehall’
Several politicians have backed the idea of a UK ARPA in the past – among them Michael Gove, who as a Conservative leadership candidate in 2016 said he wanted to create “our own equivalent to DARPA, providing the capital for new tech innovation and helping the tech sector grow even faster”.

“The government must embrace failure if it is to be a success. Learning lessons from the US, ministers must… recognise that the majority of projects will not achieve their objectives, but that those that do will be transformational.”
Policy Exchange report

But the most recent iteration of the idea is Cummings, who has coordinated meetings of ministers and academics to discuss how to set up such an agency.

Cummings has previously criticised civil servants for being too risk-averse and “blocking” proposals to set up UK ARPA.

On his blog in 2017, he wrote: “Note that every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA and JASON (the semi-classified group that partly gave ARPA its direction) in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing!

Responding to the report, science minister Chris Skidmore said it could be set up this year.

“The UK punches well above its weight in influencing science globally,” he said. “A new UK ARPA will complement our world-class research system with a remit for experimenting with new funding approaches, while giving our researchers greater freedom to pursue long-range projects to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges. As we look to embrace the opportunities that leaving the EU can bring, we’re working at pace with the research community to get a UK ARPA up and running this year.”


Sam Trendall

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