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What is everyone ‘ARPAing on about?

On Wednesday 16th September, Ursula Von Der Leyen, President of the European Union, announced in her State of Union address that they plan to develop BARDA, a Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency. This follows on from the Conservative Government pledging in their manifesto in late 2019 to develop ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Both of these agencies are direct descendants of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency founded in the USA in 1958 to create “Nation technology-based options for preventing – and creating - technological surprise.” Technological surprise is a wonderfully euphemistic phrase which refers to military “surprise” in the context of the Cold War. However, in the context of a global pandemic and the politicisation of the race to find a vaccine many are now drawing Cold War comparisons. But can DARPA, ARPA or BARDA actually deliver technological surprise? Jennifer Blainey, Director, Hanover Health explores.

The author of the Policy Exchange paper on ARPA published earlier this year warned “The government should not, however, underestimate the difficulty of this venture: efforts to create DARPA analogs, both within the USG and in allied countries abroad are, thus far, ‘unblemished by success’.”1

This question goes to the very heart of how innovation occurs. Many industries reliant on innovation had bought into the idea of creative clusters prior to the pandemic. Kings Cross in London was becoming an exciting creative cluster of science, technology and art with Google, St Martin’s Art School and pharma companies all in close proximity hoping to benefit from these different disciplines existing in close proximity. But then we all had to start working from home.

Professor Terence Kealey who wrote a paper “No to ARPA” for the Adam Smith Institute claims it was the defunding of DARPA which actually created the Silicon Valley we are so in thrall today. “The newly redundant scientists streamed out to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where they invented the likes of the mouse, laser printer and the Ethernet network”.2

So who’s right? Do taxpayers need to fund an agency to develop the technological surprises of tomorrow? Or do the scientists need to be free to roam in the private sector and respond to real world commercial opportunities?

Perhaps a sort of answer lies in a paper produced by Rand in 1964 which sought to make predictions about the future. It looked ahead to the year 1984 and 2000. It predicted that advances in automation would lead to social upheaval and we would be mining the moon. What it didn’t predict was the mobile smart phone. It's impossible to predict the future, but what helped to create the world after 1964 was increasing collaboration between scientists, engineers and creatives of all types for commercial reasons rather than national policy interests. Maybe what we today need is GARPA?

1. https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Visions-of-Arpa.pdf
2. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/copying-us-defence-research-agency-is-a-waste-of-money-ds25vfgd6

6th October 2020

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