After the formal presentations, the speakers were joined by Sarah Hodgetts, Deputy Director in the R&D Directorate at BEIS, to form a panel to answer questions from the audience.
Where will it fit?
One topic raised by a number of the audience was how the new institution would fit into the existing complicated innovation landscape with a range of organisations addressing differing remits and with a number of funding bodies. In the USA, ARPA was specifically designed so that it did not align too neatly with other bodies but was connected to the wider research environment. DARPA, in addition, has its own culture, distinct from that of the other parts of the US funding system.
It was suggested that the new body needs to focus on challenges that people are already trying to solve, whether these are within our current structure for research and innovation or currently outside it. There is an argument for providing a budget line specific to the challenge and the person tackling it, letting them draw on whatever technology is available in search of a solution.
One speaker commented that the agency needed to “reach the science that the other parts of the system don’t reach at the moment”. It needs a unique cultural identity that will be complementary to what is already in place.
A concern was expressed about the desirability of creating a coherent and clear landscape. Research into reasons why businesses do not engage with the innovation support that is available, suggests that they are often not aware of it. And that in turn can be due to the fact that changes to funding programmes happen quite frequently. Here, there is an opportunity to build something new that excites businesses and international investors.
Blue skies or applications?
The panel was asked if the agency risked being too narrowly focussed on applied technology. Is the aim to bridge the ‘Valley of Death’? Or should it explore some of the more esoteric areas of research – or both?
One speaker suggested it should focus on solving problems that the business community has identified in the innovation ecosystem, particularly the pull-through to market. This would be user-generated research. The closest model so far in the UK has been some of the Catalyst programmes, looking at basic innovation and taking that all the way through to market.
The already has processes to deliver outstanding blue skies research. What is missing is very fast, entrepreneurial development of technologies for a specified purpose.
If the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is retained, then ARIA can be more blue-sky focussed, as the UK will still have the mechanisms to translate the resulting ideas and to gain competitive advantage from them. But it would not be prudent to place too many expectations and requirements on a single instrument, otherwise it could collapse under the strain.
It is suggested that the new body will be able to take bigger risks than conventional funding streams. Yet taking risks comes with a high political price. Will it be able to take as much risk as is claimed?
One speaker said that if there is no appetite to take risk in a specific area, if people are not given freedom to deliver, then should be funding on that area should be provided via existing organisations. Another argued though that the agency would have to be high risk, high reward. It would need to take a portfolio approach and one would hope that it will succeed in a big way on at least a few of its projects.
Risk-taking is absolutely fundamental, which is why the new body will be different from what we already have. Establishing a new level of risk tolerance, both in the minds of those running it and those regulating it, will be critical to its success.
The remit of ARIA is to engage in areas that are novel and may even be contentious. It will have to be explicitly licensed to take risks.
Developing a UK ARPA – blog by Adam Clarke, Policy and Communications Manager at the Russell Group
UK ARPA – podcast with Phil Smith, Chairman of IQE, former CEO and Chair of CISCO UK, former Chair of Innovate UK
UK ARPA – podcast Rachel Coldicutt, Director of Careful Industries
BEIS announcement of new funding agency
House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry
Research and Development Roadmap
Advanced Research and Innovation Agency Bill