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Government Affairs speaks out on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Diana Beech on Arpa and gender, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

In its 2019 manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to establish an agency for high-risk, high-payoff research. The Advanced Research Projects Agency will be based on the United States model that, for the past 60 years, has been investing in breakthrough technologies, specifically for national security, and catalysing R&D.

It is expected that the UK Arpa will sit at arm’s-length from the government and will receive more than £800 million over the next five years to promote blue-sky research across the entire innovation ecosystem—supporting developments in engineering, science and technology, right through to the hot topics of the moment such as artificial intelligence and big data.

But establishing such an agency is not as easy as simply lifting and shifting the idea from the US and transplanting it to the UK. For the past three years, researchers have been busy coming to terms with UK Research and Innovation, established as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 to fund both world-class discovery and applied research, and to keep the UK at the forefront of the growing global knowledge economy.

Working out whether the UK’s Arpa will sit neatly alongside UKRI or within it will be the first major debate to be had—not to mention establishing how it will relate to other government funding streams to simplify the R&D landscape rather than further congest it.

Since the result of the 2019 general election became clear, many of these big conversations have started, with numerous think tanks and journalists speculating about what the new Arpa could look like.

Women at the coalface

Yet what is striking is how few of these contributions have come from women working at the coalface of UK science policy—save from the occasional nod to those already in positions of prominence, be it in government or university leadership. Following successive government drives to tempt more women into science and research careers, it is sad that the only women deemed worthy of an opinion or with the confidence to offer up their thoughts on the future direction of UK science policy are those who have already ‘made it’.

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Tue 11 Feb 2020, 12:00