Morgan Schondelmeier is Head of External Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.
While we find ourselves in “unprecedented times” it seems that the Government is increasingly dipping into precedent policies. From revamping Milliband’s 2015 food advertising ban to proposing spending that would make Corbyn blush, the Government seems dead set on recycling old ideas.
So why then, if they can’t even think of particularly new policies, are they proposing that Government bureaucrats dream up scientific advancements?
We saw in the spring budget the creation of a grand narrative, and £800 million, devoted to reinventing British science, technology and innovation through the creation of the British Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Just like the first ARPA was a response to the Soviet Union, this agency would be the answer to China’s state-sponsored technological progress, cementing Britain’s place on the global scientific stage.
But what is ARPA? In a new paper out this weekend by Professor Terence Kealey, the Adam Smith Institute looks at the history of the state directed research project from the USA and the hopes of its champions in the UK.
It’s yet another example of old ideas dying hard. ARPA, soon to have a British sibling after being strongly championed by Dominic Cummings, was plucked from a project established in the United States during the 1950s. In response to the Soviet’s launching Sputnik, Eisenhower established ARPA to fund pure scientific research – in the hope of creating the technology to beat the Soviet Union.
Eventually, ARPA was found to be inefficient and expensive and so funding was cut and their purpose was limited to purely defense-related applications. Symbolically, the organisation became DARPA, with the D standing for defence. Its proponents thought this change in the early 1970s would lead to the downfall of American science. But instead, as history showed us, private innovation flourished.
You may have heard the story about how the Internet and personal computer technology were funded by the US government. In reality, ARPA made only tangential contributions that largely came to fruition after the leading minds left the organisation as it became focused on defence applications. The ‘brain drain’ from state-funded ARPA to privately backed research ventures like Xerox PARC was the real impetus for the technological revolution. Xerox PARC are the ones who created windows, the mouse, the laser printer, and ethernet.
So what has led Cummings to emulate, to the letter, a less than stellar project from the US? Firstly, he conflates the success of ARPA with the success later found in Xerox PARC and Silicon Valley, and as having all been borne of state funding.
But secondly, and perhaps more saliently, this Government is making the same mistake socialists have made across history; thinking that the genesis of economic growth is central direction rather than bottom-up, market-led innovation. That without government direction, we won’t ever reach the next technological milestone.
And that is the grand misconception with research and development. The idea that the market and private enterprise is failing to devote resources to new and untested technologies, because the risk is too great. So the Government must step in to ensure that our answer to Silicon Valley is Tees Valley. But in reality, instead of bringing jobs and growth to our left-behind towns, it will be a boon to PhD students in established university and metropolitan areas to pursue their pet projects.
Our approach to technological research and development is fundamentally broken. We need to rework our attitudes towards innovation, not just our funds. The Government is seeking to give with one hand, while taking away with the other. It has throttled innovation and enterprise through its policies and throwing money at the problem, without fundamentally changing the environment in which it hopes to make innovation flourish, won’t actually bring jobs or growth or create new technologies.
For too long, our adherence to the European Union’s precautionary principle, whereby we regulate innovative technologies like GM crops, has strangled new developments. Our approach to patents is overzealous and makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us. High corporation taxes and the factory tax make it too expensive to conduct business in the UK, pushing our leading minds overseas.
All of these things can be fixed, and without spending a dime. Far too often governments, like this one, fail to acknowledge their role in hampering the progress which would otherwise be brought around in a free marketplace. Instead of recognising themselves as the problem, they are set on trying to be the solution.
So instead of spending £800 million trying to copy an idea the United States gave up on 40 years ago, the Government should take a critical look at the ways in which they can revamp our approach to innovation.
Were we to step back and look at what works around the world to increase innovation and scientific progress, we wouldn’t find ARPA, but a free and liberal marketplace for ideas which allows great minds to pursue the radical notion that our best inventions are yet to come.