US President Joe Biden’s administration wants to set up a $ 6.5 billion agency to accelerate health and medical innovation – and revealed new details about the device last month1. Named ARPA-Health (ARPA-H), it is the latest in a series of global science agencies, now modeled after the famous US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), whose work a generation ago laid the foundation for the modern Internet. .
With more DARPA clones on the horizon, researchers warn that the success of replicating DARPA’s practical, high-risk, high-reward method is by no means guaranteed.
“The ARPA model has been a success and we have learned a lot,” said Laura Diaz Anadon, Head of the Cambridge Center for Environmental, Energy and Natural Resource Governance at the University of Cambridge, UK. “But ARPA is not a magic bullet that applies to everything.”
In love with the innovation that DARPA promoted in the United States, governments around the world, including in Europe and Japan, have sought to duplicate the agency within their own borders. Most recently, the UK announced plans to set up its version, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), with an initial allocation of £ 800 million (US $ 1.1 billion). And the Biden administration has proposed launching another $ 500 million US agency, ARPA-Climate (ARPA-C), to spur climate change technologies.
Researchers who have studied the DARPA model say that it works if used correctly and for the right ‘ARPA-compliant’ problems. But replicating DARPA’s recipe is not easy. It requires managers who build and run an agency’s grant programs to have the freedom to assemble research teams and pursue risky ideas in promising areas that have typically been neglected by conventional industrial research and development programs. Critics are not yet sure how ARPA-H, ARPA-C and ARIA will cope.
According to the recipe
The US Department of Defense established DARPA in 1958, a year after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. The goal was to avoid falling behind the Soviets and ensure that the United States remained a world leader in technology. DARPA was instrumental in early computing research as well as in the development of technologies such as GPS and unmanned aerial vehicles (See ‘Following in DARPA’s footsteps’).
DARPA works differently from other major US science funding agencies and has a slimmer budget ($ 3.5 billion). Its approx. 100 program leaders, borrowed over 3-5 years from academia or industry, have broad breadth in what they fund, and actively engage with their teams, enforcing aggressive deadlines and monitoring progress along the way. By comparison, projects funded by agencies like the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) typically see little engagement between program managers and the researchers they fund in addition to annual status reports. Projects funded by these agencies also tend to be the ones that are likely to succeed – and thus typically represent more incremental advances, says William Bonvillian, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who has studied DARPA.
The DARPA model will not work if presenters are not given room to fail, Bonvillian says. When the US government used the model to develop national defense technologies through ARPA in Homeland Security, he added that this was the problem. The effort eventually collapsed. “If you don’t get the culture right on the first day, you have a problem,” Bonvillian says.
Researchers also point out that a successful ARPA needs a customer for the technologies it develops. In the case of DARPA, the U.S. military was ready to buy many promising inventions. ARPA-Energy (ARPA-E), launched in 2009 under former President Barack Obama to promote low-carbon energy technologies, tackled this challenge by helping beneficiaries develop commercialization plans from the outset – a model that Bonvillian says , that DARPA has also now imported.
ARPA-E had the independence it needed to function well, researchers say. The agency, which still runs today, is housed in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and has invested $ 2.8 billion. In almost 1,200 projects, which have attracted an additional 5.4 billion. $ In private sector investment and led to the creation of 92 companies. Last month, one of these companies, 1366 Technologies in Bedford, Massachusetts, announced plans to build a $ 300 million plant to manufacture solar cells in India. The company, now known as CubicPV, received $ 4 million from ARPA-E in 2009 to develop a cleaner, faster and cheaper way to manufacture silicon semiconductors that go into solar panels.
Because it may take decades for new technologies to have commercial and societal impacts, it is still unknown whether ARPA-E will transform the energy industry. But researchers have documented preliminary signs of its success2,3, measured by patenting, publishing and in some cases attracting venture capital to technologies originally funded by the Agency.
“The answer is yes, it is [ARPA] the model works, or at least did in this case, ”says Anna Goldstein, an energy researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has analyzed the value of ARPA-E. But that does not mean that the model solves all problems, she warns.
The new generation
Researchers have reacted to Biden’s latest ARPA proposal with fear. Some researchers have questioned the need to create ARPA-C rather than expand ARPA-E. They point out that the two have similar missions, although DOE secretary Jennifer Granholm has said they will not overlap. As planned, ARPA-C would seek to promote “game-changing” energy and climate solutions, including technologies such as small, modular nuclear reactors and low-energy buildings – innovations that also fall within the scope of ARPA-E.
There are also many questions about ARPA-H. The Biden administration suggested that it should house within the NIH, which critics worry about being able to stifle innovation.
In a guest administration published in Science last month1, NIH Director Francis Collins and other administration officials acknowledged that the NIH tends to fund incremental research rather than bold new technologies that could transform the market, and agreed that ARPA-H’s organization should be “flat, slim and agile “with a culture that values” bold goals with great potential impact “. They cited potential breakthroughs in everything from vaccine development to drug delivery systems to portable medical devices.
The Biden administration says all the right things, Bonvillian says, though he still worries about whether ARPA-H will have the independence and authority it needs to function within the biomedical research mammoth. He also says the NIH will need to embrace the kind of interdisciplinary research that has been fundamental to technology development in places like DARPA and ARPA-E. “If they create an ARPA that is constantly biology, just like the NIH is, they will radically limit its effectiveness,” he says.
Others fear that the scope of ARPA-H’s mission is too broad. Healthcare is a big field. Given that there is already plenty of private investment in new drugs and medical therapies for widespread diseases, Goldstein says, ARPA-H may be better placed to have an impact on neglected diseases affecting the poor and disadvantaged. This area receives much less funding from other sources.
“The trick is to set the scope wide enough so that presenters can wander intellectually and follow their nose, but not so wide that you try to boil the sea,” says Eric Toone, a chemist who helped create ARPA-E and now works for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Kirkland, Washington. This is also a potential concern for Britain’s ARIA, the extent of which has not yet been defined, Toone adds.
Toone also recommends starting small and letting new agencies grow over time. “The challenge you face with too much money is people’s expectations end up in fun places.”