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Significant culture change will be required for radical innovation to work in the UK, says Academy

The government’s proposal for a radical innovation funding agency will require a significant culture change in a UK system previously based on value for money, according to a Royal Academy of Engineering briefing published today. The briefing responds to government plans for an ambitious new research and technology funding agency, modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).

An agile, risk-taking research agency could deliver innovative answers to solve ambitious real-world challenges but must be sufficiently independent of ministers and HM Treasury to succeed. The Academy also cautions that the beneficial outcomes of projects for wider society and consumers may not be measurable for 10-50 years. A truly ambitious ARPA-style agency would require large amounts of funding with the freedom to fail, says the Academy’s blueprint Radical Innovation, which draws on insights from its Fellows and network of partners, many of whom have experience of working with ARPA and similar programmes in the US.

Engineering is central to an “ARPA-style” agency, according to the Academy, as it often forms a two-way connection between research and innovation to enable technological and commercial breakthroughs. A new funding mechanism could address the UK’s historic under-investment in innovation, unlock positive disruption and enable step changes in technology that could reverberate far across society.

Recommendations in the Academy’s blueprint to enable the ARPA model to work in the UK include:

  • Set challenges with ambitious goals at the edge of possibility, where innovation is the only solution.
  • Allow projects to fail and encourage people to learn from the failure – if too many projects are successful, the ambition and risk-reward level of the challenge could be questioned.
  • Have sufficient independence and autonomy from minister and HM Treasury to facilitate fast decision-making, flexibility and freedom to allocate and release funds.
  • Adopt a strong customer focus – government and public procurement should act as the end-user for the technological solutions being developed.
  • Select projects for their potential to transform society, not immediate commercial gain, though opportunities for commercial opportunities would follow successful breakthroughs.

A funding mechanism that delivers innovative answers could help to solve real-world challenges, says the Academy, bringing together and developing breakthrough research and technology. If it could provide ample and flexible funding and support a high-risk appetite, it could be a positive disruptor and encourage healthy competition with existing research funding models.

Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, says:

“We strongly welcome the new government’s commitment to dramatically increase spending on scientific research. However, while we welcome the doubling of research spending this will not solve the problem by itself. Developing real-world solutions with commercial potential from the results is essential, and should be valued alongside the publishing of papers and winning Nobel prizes.

“A UK ARPA is an ambitious project, which can succeed with good design and significant culture change, but close collaboration with industry will be essential to deliver relevant and sustainable results. By strengthening local economies, creating sustainable jobs and addressing global challenges, opportunities can be driven in every part of the UK and improve people’s lives.”

  1. Radical Innovation

The Academy’s briefing Radical Innovation was prepared following a roundtable discussion with Academy Fellows and industry partners and forms part of an ongoing programme of policy work on research and innovation available here.

  1. Royal Academy of Engineering

As the UK’s national academy for engineering and technology, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers from academia and business – our Fellows – to advance and promote excellence in engineering for the benefit of society.

We harness their experience and expertise to provide independent advice to government, to deliver programmes that help exceptional engineering researchers and innovators realise their potential, to engage the public with engineering and to provide leadership for the profession.

We have three strategic priorities:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation and businesses
  • Address the engineering skills and diversity challenge
  • Position engineering at the heart of society

We bring together engineers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, business leaders, academics, educators and the public in pursuit of these goals.

Engineering is a global profession, so we work with partners across the world to advance engineering’s contribution to society on an international, as well as a national scale.

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