At a meeting, somewhere recently, with names not to mention and times unspecified, I was fortunate to hear, first hand, as to the UK opportunity for a DARPA style organisation. DARPA is, of course, the US agency that, for sixty years, has existed to ‘make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.’
The idea may emanate from a single blog post but it is none the worse for that.
The opportunity, to state it, an organisation to take on a very small number of high risk, potentially high return options for the benefit of the UK at large. The concept goes to the heart of public/private endeavour, how to effectively and efficiently collaborate between the two and achieve results – as yet largely stymied – through structures made for a past time and purpose. The aim, not to duplicate, but to be different to and additive to existing research and innovation, while effectively slotting into the UK Research and Development Roadmap published last summer (July 2020)
A UK DARPA-style organisation has the potential to be driven through an approach, independently minded and industry enabled. The proposed budget, £800 million, is significant, although real impact would come through its power to multiply, to crowd in both public and private funds. The funding cycle should similarly be reimagined. Perhaps a 10 year approach, with exit points along the way, rather than the more short term continual funding cycles.
Risk must be reimagined. A Government enabled organisation empowered to take high risks for high rewards with an accountability model, able to appreciate this environment and opine in the round. Not just focussing on what might be a 90%, characterised, failure rate. The 90% that so called fail, or the 10% that soar, that sort it. When I started my swimming career, at my first international meet, I finished 28th. Was that failure or a key point on the journey? I do not claim my swimming is of national import but it highlights the need for a perspective, rooted in the journey, or struggle, that should be the stages of successful innovation. Or, as others have put it, “in order to succeed your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.”
Covid has shown so much in terms of what has been swept away, not least the barrier of ‘not enough time’. Take for example, the ventilator challenge or indeed, the fabulous UCL, Mercedes collaboration. A Continuous Positive Airways Pressure (CPAP) concept, drawn up in hours, approved in ten days and currently, saving thousands of lives as it has throughout these terrible times. This demonstrates so much, not least: the critical importance of our excellent universities, the power of effective leadership, the power of the individual. Professor Rebecca Shipley, we salute you. You made the difference, in your own time, voluntary effort to save so many, that, is heroism.
It is crucial that any “DARPA” is neither duplicator nor distraction. There must be clarity of purpose and relentless focus on just a few significant challenges. Through such an approach it may also be possible to fully understand research and development (R&D) as individual entities, not just as ‘R&D’. In conclusion, I can’t improve on this:
“Science turns finance into knowledge. Innovation turns knowledge into finance.”
A UK DARPA could well prove a key part of enabling us to innovate the future.