A British Advanced Research Projects Agency? – War on the Rocks


Political landscapes the world over are plagued by the ruins of “white elephant projects” — costly, pointless, and finally ineffective. The U.Ok. authorities has introduced it’s establishing a British model of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now known as DARPA) — the Pentagon unit answerable for large technological advances throughout the Cold War. But can they keep away from it turning into a failure?
As a part of this yr’s finances, Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced funding of £800 million ($1.04 billion) to ascertain the brand new company. “We are the country of Newton, Hodgkin, and Turing,” he mentioned throughout his speech to the House of Commons in March. “Ours is a history filled with ideas, invention, and discovery … To compete and succeed over the next decade and beyond, we need to recapture that spirit.” However, some within the British analysis neighborhood are perplexed. As one Sheffield University professor mentioned, “If you talk to science funders in Washington, they are baffled that Britain is fetishizing something that came out of the Cold War and a very particular context.”

This new company is the brainchild of Number 10 advisor Dominic Cummings, a person identified all through Westminster for his iconoclastic strategy to authorities and his eclectic mixture of concepts. His love for American innovation tradition is obvious, from his penchant for carrying Silicon Valley-style hoodies within the workplace to his current creation of a Lockheed-esque “skunkworks” unit to drive change throughout the civil service. A British model of ARPA was his first precedence for a post-Brexit United Kingdom — a lot in order that his WhatsApp standing throughout final yr’s election was “Get Brexit done… then ARPA.”
A contemporary have a look at how the United Kingdom helps homegrown technological innovation is welcome. However, Cummings doesn’t appear to completely recognize the precise context that made ARPA profitable, underestimating the protection side of the company whereas probably permitting the challenge to turn out to be politicized in a manner that makes it unsustainable in the long run. If the brand new company is to achieve success, Cummings and his colleagues ought to take the chance to reevaluate key elements of this plan.
Lessons from ARPA
ARPA was created by the Eisenhower administration in 1958 throughout the Department of Defense as a direct response to 2 situations of technological shock: the Soviet Union’s profitable launch of Sputnik in 1957, and their breach of the nuclear testing moratorium simply months later. The U.S. authorities was caught unprepared, and thus the company’s singular mission all through the six a long time of its historical past has been to make sure that the United States turned the initiator and never the sufferer of technological shock. It makes investments throughout the wider analysis ecosystem of governmental, educational, and company establishments, and consciously goals for transformational change somewhat than incremental scientific advances.
In his intensive writing on ARPA, Cummings seems to be intently at what he sees as its most efficient interval, from 1962 to 1975. He focuses on the work of one in all its departments particularly, the Information Processing Techniques Office, and its head, J. C. R. Licklider. The partnership between ARPA and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center below Licklider’s management produced a lot of ground-breaking improvements, together with the primary private pc, and Cummings highlights key classes to be realized from this. Firstly, he notes that the company’s high-risk strategy to analysis produced trillions of {dollars} of worth regardless that many particular person tasks failed. Secondly, he rightly argues that Licklider’s administration type, bringing in nice individuals and never fettering them in forms, gave the company the leeway to be artistic and led to the emergence of high-performance groups. The classes that Cummings attracts from this era converse to his personal post-Brexit priorities for the United Kingdom: selling scientific analysis (making Britain “the best place in the world to invent the future”) and boosting authorities efficiency by chopping purple tape and hiring the very best expertise.
His place is supported by a current in-depth report produced by the suppose tank Policy Exchange (as one would possibly count on given its shut relationship to the present authorities). The report concludes {that a} British ARPA has nice potential to remodel expertise analysis and growth within the United Kingdom. The report recommends a deal with growing superior applied sciences on a 10 to 15-year timescale and advocates the embrace of threat, the empowerment of proficient analysis managers, and the decimation of forms. As the report’s authors summarize, “The agency should be prepared to fail fast and fail often, with its success judged by the impact of its successes, which should be transformative.”
Where Is Defense?
Given the express nationwide safety mandate constructed into ARPA from its creation, made much more apparent by the including of “Defense” to its identify in 1972 and once more in 1996, surprisingly little thought appears to have been given to how a British model would work with protection innovation. Cummings seems to both ignore or underestimate the protection implications in his exploration of ARPA’s historical past, as does the Policy Exchange report.
It is significant to not overlook the significance of the protection context when assessing how and why ARPA labored so nicely within the interval Cummings depends upon for his evaluation. Flexible administration and a concentrated expertise pool clearly contributed to the company’s success, however he neglects to acknowledge one of many key underpinnings of this mannequin — the function of the Department of Defense because the funder of a variety of analysis and “customer of first resort” for profitable tasks. ARPA was designed to complement present protection analysis and growth by bridging the hole between fundamental analysis and business functions; the Pentagon facilitated this by offering demand for applied sciences forward of demand from the non-public sector, backed up by a beneficiant finances. While Cummings briefly notes that “military funding in America has often been much more far-seeing and patient than civilian funding,” he doesn’t explicitly deal with this level concerning the Pentagon’s key function.
While this place needn’t essentially be crammed by the protection forms, it does should be crammed by a authorities division, and it’s unclear whether or not Cummings has given thought to the place this function will fall within the British context if not the Ministry of Defence. The solely different apparent candidate inside Whitehall (the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy) could not have the clout to realize this; the innovation portfolio has been shunted between civil service departments a number of instances during the last decade alone, and the division itself has gone by means of appreciable reorganizations and mergers (full with a sequence of baffling acronyms) over the identical interval. Some have floated the thought of constructing the brand new company sit inside an present one below the division’s umbrella, akin to U.Ok. Trade and Investment, however putting it deep in an entrenched hierarchy like this would appear to negate the benefits of bureaucratic flexibility Cummings has recognized.
A Model for Innovation
The Ministry of Defence has a big finances, a superb analysis and growth construction, and an excessive amount of expertise in coping with trade and academia; it might be wasteful to not benefit from this, or to aim to copy it elsewhere for no good motive.
The analysis arms of the assorted elements of the armed forces have been consolidated in 1995 into the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which sat throughout the Ministry of Defence and have become the nation’s largest science and expertise analysis group. This company was cut up into two in 2001. The majority half turned a business agency, QinetiQ, which was floated on the inventory trade in 2006 with the Ministry of Defence retaining a “golden share”; the agency has since acquired a lot of smaller protection contractors and does an excessive amount of work internationally, together with as a trusted provider to the U.S. authorities. The the rest of the company turned the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, an government company of the Ministry of Defence. It performs capabilities that have been deemed to be higher executed by authorities, together with nuclear, chemical, and organic analysis on the Porton Down laboratory, the place the Novichok used within the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury was recognized.
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is the first channel by means of which the Ministry of Defence engages with trade and academia, operating a variety of competitions and procurement actions within the analysis and growth area. The division additionally preserve its relationships with the bigger contractors by means of the Defence Suppliers Forum, which has a subgroup specializing in innovation. There can be the Defence and Security Accelerator, a cross-government staff that finds and funds exploitable protection innovation tasks by means of themed competitions.
Recent governments have explicitly acknowledged the significance of protection innovation. Following the 2018 Modernising Defence Programme session, the Ministry of Defence revealed the Defence Innovation Priorities white paper in late 2019, coupled with the Defence Technology Framework. These paperwork present the British authorities’s laudable willpower to understand the alternatives of latest applied sciences within the protection enviornment, acknowledging that the nations which are greatest capable of exploit technological advances could acquire a decisive edge in future conflicts. There is an express recognition of the necessity to higher carry collectively the United Kingdom’s governmental, educational, and industrial analysis capabilities to additional the development of protection applied sciences — and it will little question be a giant a part of the forthcoming Defence Review, which has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the Pentagon for ARPA, the Ministry of Defence is greatest positioned to help the brand new company, and Cummings ought to take into account this extra intently.
Can ARPA Be Replicated At All?
The seductive simplicity of ARPA’s structural tenets, mixed with its success at boosting innovation, have led different areas of the American federal authorities to aim to copy it. Two of those stand out, each established throughout the second time period of the George W. Bush administration: the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Each is oriented to its particular sector, however each benefitted of their early years from the experience of these intently acquainted with the ARPA mindset. While their existence could but be too brief to critically assess their success in fostering vital expertise transitions, there are some encouraging indicators. A current National Academies report discovered that the Department of Energy’s company has made vital progress in the direction of its objective of fostering breakthrough power applied sciences. While the intelligence model focuses on its company clients somewhat than on commercialization, virtually three quarters of its developed tasks have achieved at the least one transition to the intelligence sector. However, the query stays as as to whether these achievements may have been made with out the institution of an ARPA-like construction — the Department of Energy, for instance, has an present community of laboratories that might nicely have created comparable outcomes if they’d been on condition that funding.
It can be vital to acknowledge that the expertise base has modified considerably since ARPA’s founding, and since its interval of heightened success within the 1960s and early 1970s. The major driver on the time was “spin-off” — the federally funded laboratories did the analysis and created the army advances, and the business sector took up these applied sciences that could possibly be translated into the business sphere. Commonplace civilian applied sciences just like the microwave, the navigation techniques in our automobiles, and the web itself all have their roots in protection analysis and growth that was funded by the U.S. authorities. This sort of context suits nicely with the ARPA mannequin, which did an important deal to fund fundamental analysis and to facilitate the spin-off expertise transitions that emerged consequently. However, in the present day’s context has moved considerably in the direction of “spin-on” — breakthrough applied sciences at the moment are simply as seemingly (if no more seemingly, in some sectors) to be created within the business sphere, and personal corporations are seeing the advantages of investing in their very own analysis and growth arms as an alternative of ready for manna to fall from the federal government. Innovation is more and more world and business, and militaries all around the world (together with these of the United States and the United Kingdom) have an appreciation of the rising salience of economic off-the-shelf applied sciences within the procurement combine. It is solely not clear that the benefits introduced by the early days of ARPA might be recreated in the present day given the far smaller function that authorities analysis and growth of any form now has within the expertise base.
Dangerous Politicization
Innovation, notably of the high-risk ARPA selection, includes frequent and repeated failure — not one thing that governments discover straightforward to climate. While non-public enterprise capital corporations can construct this into their long-term funding fashions, democratically elected governments face the prospect of explaining failure to voters regularly in a context the place their opposition will seize on any prospect of an costly “white elephant” to shout about. One can simply think about a basic election in 2025 the place the Conservative occasion is castigated for spending a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of kilos on an company that hasn’t produced an apparent success, even if 4 or 5 years is solely not lengthy sufficient to successfully choose the report of an company of this sort. A change of governing occasion might also see the company defunded fully; an incoming Labour authorities with no buy-in or attachment to a British ARPA may merely abolish it.
A profitable innovation challenge on an ARPA mannequin wants a long time of sustained funding, seemingly from a succession of governments of various political stripes. If a British ARPA is to thrive, it due to this fact must be depoliticized, however Cummings’s clear management of the challenge doesn’t make this a simple activity. He is a polarizing determine at the very best of instances, and is extraordinarily near the prime minister, Boris Johnson; many on each side of the political spectrum view him as the facility behind the throne. Following his successes in campaigning for Brexit, Cummings has chosen the overhaul of the Whitehall civil service as his new challenge and has expressly linked the ARPA concept to this wider plan of tackling the fossilized forms of the British state. If all of his tasks inside this context are so explicitly linked, there’s the danger of failure elsewhere bringing the entire edifice crashing down onto the brand new company. While a contemporary have a look at British innovation is a good suggestion, and deeper thought on this topic is at all times welcome, this a part of the plan could succeed extra readily if Cummings is keen to let go of it and permit a wider consensus to emerge.
Reevaluation Needed
ARPA supplies a transparent mannequin for a analysis company primarily based on artistic freedom, expertise outcomes, and reaching for breakthrough advances, and Cummings is correct to spotlight it as an excellent instance to attract upon when contemplating how greatest to enhance innovation within the United Kingdom. However, it can’t be divorced from its context, each when it comes to the time interval throughout which it was most profitable and its overt placement throughout the protection subject. While the early historical past of ARPA makes for interesting studying, that success can’t be replicated merely by means of fetishizing Licklider’s strategy. It is fully doable to enhance innovation within the United Kingdom (or, certainly, in any nation) by making the interconnection of presidency, trade, and academia run extra easily, however it’s not at all clear that the achievement of this objective requires the creation of an ARPA-like company.
If a British model of ARPA have to be established, it should certainly be really British: applicable to the present context, depoliticized, and designed to suit throughout the present innovation ecosystem and expertise base. Any new analysis company ought to benefit from the experience discovered throughout the Ministry of Defence, and this seems to be a severe blind spot in Cummings’s plans. The authorities must be constructing on what the United Kingdom does nicely, not merely transplanting a relic of the early Cold War from throughout the Atlantic. Hopefully these points shall be addressed as the method matures, and the looming prospect of an costly “white elephant” shall be prevented.

Emma Salisbury is engaged on her Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her analysis focuses on protection analysis and growth within the United States and the military-industrial advanced. She can be a senior staffer on the U.Ok. Parliament. The views expressed listed below are solely her personal. You can discover her on Twitter @salisbot.
Image: Wikicommons (Photo by Sun L. Vega)