Agency should be built ‘into a reinvigorated Innovate UK’
THE UK’s national innovation agency is being stripped of power to “act genuinely innovatively”, its executive chairman has warned, even as Britain doubles down on investing in research and development.
Writing for The Daily Telegraph, Dr Ian Campbell, the current interim chairman of Innovate UK, and Dr David Bott, a former director at the agency’s predecessor the Technology Strategy Board, said “out of the box thinking [has been] dragged back into the box”.
The pair said they were supportive of the creation of a UK agency, similar to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which has been championed by Dominic Cummings. However, instead of “implicitly jettisoning some of the institutions so recently created”, the Government could use those organisations it already has to drive innovation, the pair said.
They said the new agency should be built and integrated “into a reinvigorated Innovate UK”.
In the March budget, the Treasury earmarked £800m for a new agency, which it said would focus on “highrisk, high reward science”. This Darpastyle arm is expected to be separate to Innovate UK, which sits under the UK Research & Innovation umbrella.
The Treasury said this was part of plans to increase public investment in research and development from £11.4bn to £22bn per year. The concept is thought to form a major part of Mr Cummings’s ambitions for the UK, with his personal motto during the last election reported to be: “Get Brexit Done... then Darpa”.
The new agency would differ from Innovate UK in that it would focus on “blue sky” ideas rather than providing “challenge-led” programmes around specific issues, as Innovate UK does.
But, when the idea was first mooted last year, some doubts were cast on how the two agencies would map together, and whether Darpa would supersede Innovate UK. “There must be a British Arpa. But build it and integrate it into a reinvigorated Innovate UK, and give the new institutions autonomy,” Dr Campbell and Dr Bott said.
The Government says it is intent on transforming Britain’s research and development potential by earmarking the biggest ever peacetime commitment to research. It is a landmark, and exciting, moment. But to achieve the target, the Government needs to be more creative.
The standard ideas have surfaced once again, such as a British version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). The hope is that this would have the autonomy to take big risks.
The ambition can only be lauded – but others have had similar aspirations in the recent past. It was only 15 years ago that a reboot of UK innovation support was launched with parallel ambitions. This time round we must do better.
Already this government is spending more – but instead of implicitly jettisoning some of the institutions so recently created it could build on them.
In 2003 the Government recognised that scientific excellence alone did not lead to economic growth. Funds needed to be channelled through better co-ordinated processes, with more business input and crucially with sufficient autonomy to take risks – essential to the innovation process.
The emergent new organisation was the Technology Strategy Board. One of its first acts was to move from “technology push” programmes to what it called “challenge led” programmes, overtly trying to emulate the Darpa approach in the UK.
Sectors were trawled to see what ideas might be turned into reality; specific areas of work were identified that would address these challenges and commercially relevant links between companies built to develop production capabilities that would address them. Later analysis of these projects showed they delivered what was promised.
But sadly, over time, out of the box thinking was dragged back into the box. The Government sought to control the focus of these areas into things it thought were important, or would produce political dividends – while at the same time protesting its reluctance to “pick winners”. The crucial autonomy afforded Darpa and transplanted conceptually into the early TSB has been lost.
The organisation that is now called Innovate UK has, however, added to the original toolkit it inherited. Short timescale projects were introduced based in a single company where a new idea could be evaluated for potential. The key here was to minimise the technological risk associated with the new ideas.
They also recognised the necessity of support for “demonstration” projects. From putting 340 electric cars into the hands of real users, through retrofitting almost 120 houses to a high sustainability standard, to first stage in human trials for new gene therapies, business recognised that testing their “products” in the real world gave them valuable insights into what would be commercially successful at the end of the development pathway.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the realisation that government not only set the regulations but also was a sizeable user of many technologies (before Covid-19, it constituted about 40pc of GDP), so dialogue between government and business could also lower the commercial risk of investing in new products or services – as well as smoothing the path to policy implementation.
These were all aimed at getting beyond necessary scientific breakthroughs and persuading business to build on them.
It was not just about blue sky funding of outside the box great ideas: it was getting business to mobilise the resulting ideas big and small. In the early days, the TSB was afforded freedom to do this. Once government went back to picking winners and driving technology push activities, its effectiveness was compromised.
Rebadged as Innovate UK, and then integrated into UKRI, the organisation has been given steadily less prominence, less autonomy and less capacity to act genuinely innovatively at a time when government policy is restressing the critical role of research and its commercial development.
It is vital that Innovate UK’s original mandate is given a strategic role, accessing its cumulative knowledge, freely to deploy appropriate parts of the new funding streams across the mix of its grants, loans, investor partnerships and challengeled programmes so that its shoulder is put fully to the wheel.
And what of a Darpa lookalike being resurrected once again? We strongly support such an idea, but in tandem with what is already working in the UK innovation ecosystem and a renewal of Innovate UK. It should be free from all government interference. It should work, as in the US, through contracting intriguing companies. Above all, the Government must abstain from deciding what is good for industry and micro-managing the implementation. The UK Darpa’s remit should be to focus on the cutting edge and the hitherto unimaginable. To achieve that it must be supplemented by renewed efforts to get business to invest in the innovative as well. Yes, there must be a British Darpa.
But build it and integrate it into a reinvigorated Innovate UK, and give the new institutions the autonomy they need. Britain really could be on the brink of a revolution.
Dr Ian Campbell is interim executive chairman of Innovate UK, and Dr David Bott is the former director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strateg y Board
A British Darpa has been championed by Dominic Cummings