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Blue sky thinking – we’ve never needed it more

First announced nearly a year ago, as part of the 2020 budget, it seems that the government is set to go ahead with the £800m investment into a new “blue skies” science research agency. If it was welcome in 2020, it is surely essential now with everything that has happened in the interim.

Was the creation of the new UK agency in doubt?

There had been a question mark as to whether the government would go ahead with the agency after Dominic Cummings, the driving force behind the project, quit the government last year. But it has been reported that Kwasi Kwarteng, the new business secretary, is pushing ahead.

This new agency would need legislation because it will be set up as a separate entity from the UK Research and Innovation. This new UK agency will fund “high-risk, high reward science” and will be modelled on the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the US.

The ARPA project grew out of the Cold War, as the US government’s response to the launch of Sputnik. It went on to support some of the most innovative technological advances of the 1960s and early 1970s, notably in computing and the internet.

GovGrant embracing the R&D opportunity in the UK

GovGrant was involved in a conversation at the CBI R&D working group on this and was pleased to see the commitment in last year’s budget. This is an essential part of the UK’s R&D agenda in support of building back better after Covid-19.

This agency will give the government the opportunity to back investments that are at the same time highly ambitious and high risk. Often public money is only used to support lower risk, incremental advancements.

What we learn from the ARPA experience

Looking at the US model, we saw support of total moon-shot projects that if achieved could then be pushed into the commercial space to taken forward into production. There is also the potential that the government may benefit directly as the potential end client for groundbreaking innovation.

This creates two things. Firstly, clear signalling from government of what the moon-shots should be for the UK. The government will be taking total financial risk at the very earliest, very hardest stage. Secondly, it creates the much-desired spillover effect which allows other businesses to respond to those developments either as part of the supply chain or as buyers. It provides clear focus in the drive for expertise and it starts to foster a real culture of doing the impossible in the UK.

The detail of the new UK science research agency

At the moment we’re not sure who would run the agency, where it would be based, or its name. An interesting point will be where the agency is set up, instead of south there is an opportunity to think about a northern base which also plays into the levelling up agenda.

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