Doubts over plans for £800m UK ‘moonshot’ research agency after Cummings quits

Dominic Cummings is stepping down as Boris Johnson's senior adviser

Credit: Eddie Mulholland

The future of Britain’s £800m Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa) has been thrown into doubt with the departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street, senior industry officials have warned.

Mr Cummings, who is stepping down from his role as Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, was a “strong advocate for public investment in research and development and therefore a positive voice”, according to Ian Campbell, the outgoing chairman of research agency Innovate UK.

“His leaving may reduce government interest and spend in this area, which would be hugely negative.”

Mr Campbell warned that the future of a new moonshot funding agency could be “possibly in doubt” after Mr Cummings’ departure because he had been “biggest advocate of this approach”. 

However, Downing Street says it remains committed to the launch of the agency and there has been speculation that Cummings could adopt a new leadership role at the funding agency after his exit from Downing Street. 

The Government is in the process of setting up Arpa, modelled on the successful US Defence Department’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which would fund “moonshot” research ideas that could prove successes in future and would sit separately to its current UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) agency.

One source described plans for the creation of a British Arpa as Mr Cummings’s “baby”.

Launched in the Fifties, the original DARPA was considered an instrumental player in US advances in space technology and GPS, as well technology used by billions of people such as Apple’s voice assistant Siri. Most recently it has been working on hypersonic weapons.

Concerns over whether political appetite for the new funding agency would be put at risk were echoed across the technology sector. Daniel Korski, a former adviser to David Cameron and chief executive of govtech fund Public, said Mr Cummings had “goaded innovation, been an agitator for reform and a friend of technology”.

“With him leaving there is definitely a risk that the jungle will grow back, and that projects will slow down,” Mr Korski said. 

David Bott, the former head of innovation at Innovate UK predecessor the Technology Strategy Board, said that Mr Cummings had been “very much the pusher of the ‘much more money goes into science and innovation’ idea, and given we have so much less money, I wonder whether what will happen is the £22bn [that has been pledged to UK research funding per year] will get whittled away over the next few years.”

Government insiders admitted that Mr Cummings had been the “driving force” behind much of the policy in this space. They said he was a “key ally” on bulking up research funding.

However, they insisted that Downing Street remains committed to the creation of the new agency. An announcement is expected in the coming weeks. 

A spokesman for BEIS said: "The UK’s new blue-skies research agency will have the independence to experiment with new funding models to back cutting-edge, high-risk, high-reward science here in the UK.

“The Government continues to progress plans to establish the agency as soon as possible, backed with at least £800m in funding.”

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James Wilsdon, a director at the Research on Research Institute said it was “clear that there’s a lot of political and promissory capital now invested in the idea, which it will be hard to row back on”.

The Government has already picked advisers in the Business Department to deliver Arpa in what Mr Wilsdon described as a “shadow Arpa”, although details remain closely guarded. Mr Cummings is said to have tried to hire Michael Nielsen, a top Silicon Valley quantum computing expert, to lead the division, but he declined the role.

Mr Wilsdon added that the purpose of Arpa, however, remained unclear. “The Government still hasn’t explained clearly why the logic of integrating research funding structures under one roof – in UKRI – no longer applies.”

Last month, the research agency came in for similar criticism from Jo Johnson, the former science minister and brother of Boris Johnson, who said the creation of Arpa could be “destructive”.

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