The U.K. government is working to establish a “blue sky” funding agency similar to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.K. science minister Chris Skidmore told the Science and Technology Select Committee of Parliament’s House of Commons today.
The idea was unveiled last week in the Queen’s Speech, in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new government announced its legislative plans, but details about the agency are scarce. Skidmore told the Parliament committee that this new agency would sit outside UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the main government funding agency, to have the independence to focus on cutting-edge projects. He said it would “distinguish itself from the traditional grant-led application processes” by having minimal bureaucracy and core leaders who see the projects through.
Committee Chair Norman Lamb pressed Skidmore on whether the new funding body would be under the control of the government. Skidmore didn’t answer directly, but said it could be aligned with government missions, such as the U.K. goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “We would still want the blue skies discovery-led approach” to be emphasized, Skidmore said. Skidmore said full details would be available early next year.
Meanwhile, the immediate focus is on the science budget, which is being negotiated with the Treasury. “We are still incredibly keen on having a significant lift to the science and research budget of which UKRI would be overwhelmingly the main beneficiary,” Skidmore told the committee. The Treasury will reveal next year’s budget on 6 November.
The committee also questioned Skidmore about Brexit. A long-standing concern for scientists is that an abrupt departure from the European Union would mean that U.K. scientists would not be able to apply for grants from the European Research Council (ERC), or win EU international fellowships. “It’s pertinent to resolve that issue ASAP,” Skidmore said. In March, the government asked Adrian Smith, who leads the Alan Turing Institute in London, to look at options for international collaborations after Brexit.
In a talk at Imperial College London earlier this month, Smith previewed the main recommendations of his report. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, Smith said, the United Kingdom should start a “bigger and brighter” alternative to ERC. The United Kingdom should create partnerships with other countries and allow their scientists to apply for these new grants. Asked about this post-Brexit scenario, Skidmore said the government wants to implement some of the recommendations for enhancing international partnerships even if a deal with the European Union is approved.
The future of such a deal is up in the air. Last week, Johnson and the European Union agreed on a new Brexit plan in advance of a 31 October deadline. But Parliament remains deeply divided on whether to approve it. Johnson has proposed a 3-day timetable for members of Parliament to approve the deal. If Parliament doesn’t greenlight that schedule tonight, he has threatened to call a general election instead.