AIRTO responds to Commons’ Science & Technology Committee Inquiry: A new UK research funding agency

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is running a formal inquiry into the nature and purpose of the new UK research funding agency (ARPA), put forward in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech. AIRTO has responded to the Committee’s invitation to make written submissions, so that it may make recommendations to inform the government’s thinking behind the nature and purpose of ARPA and how it fits into the existing research and innovation ecosystem.

AIRTO, the Association of Innovation, Research & Technology Organisations, on behalf of its members, welcomes the proposal to establish a national Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), with the caveat that it does represent additional investment in research, development and innovation (as opposed to the redirection of existing funding). If established in this manner, it will be a powerful tool for helping the UK to implement the ambition stated in the Industrial Strategy to reach 2.4% of GDP for R&D by 2027, and will further bolster the UK’s reputation as a ‘Science and Innovation Superpower’. As things stand, time is running out to reach that goal, and in the wake of Covid-19, the government needs to take radical action to create attractive value propositions for industry to continue to invest in innovation. ARPA could be a successful mechanism for this.

AIRTO suggests that the mission of the new agency is to advance high-potential, high-impact technologies, that are too early for private sector investment, but have a clear end market in mind. Targets should be both individual products or essential underpinning technologies, and in both cases the output must be immediately exploitable once the ARPA project is completed. These technologies will be of national importance to government, society and the economy.

The UK’s ARPA should combine long-term funding with rapid decision making and effective involved, proactive monitoring. Its work should be ‘big picture’ led while utilising the UK’s existing, extensive infrastructure, and building comprehensive teams from all the different parts of the research, development, innovation, technology and industrial community – including both those that focus on cross-cutting technologies and those that support specific industrial sectors. These teams should comprise of the best organisations to undertake the work, irrespective of type, governance, ownership or location (see below regarding the specific question on location of the new agency). However, if there is no alternative, ARPA should have the ability to fund new facilities.

Information on the proposals for a UK ARPA is currently limited, with a stated government commitment to work with ‘industry and academics’ to finalise a proposal. There needs to be strong government engagement with industry; AIRTO believes it is crucially important that the Innovation, Research and Technology (IRT) sector is included in these discussions, as it provides an important component perspective of the UK innovation infrastructure, which is currently largely absent from policy discussions. This inclusive approach will enable cohesive programmes and projects with a clear, achievable, exploitable end-result to be successfully planned, undertaken and delivered. The IRT sector is a neutral convenor which interfaces with multiple parties: government, industry and academia. These institutions face into all sectors, and are a first port of call that can help engage existing industry sectors and supply chains and, where appropriate, assist entrepreneurial ventures with practical help on a whole range of their specialist needs. The sector helps both new and mature technology and innovation to reach into the marketplace, servicing the needs of its industrial client base. AIRTO is keen to represent the voice of the IRT sector in the ARPA discussions, and to play its role in the delivery of a national agency.

Read the full response here…