High-risk, high-reward health research is the mandate of new, billion-dollar US agency

A new multibillion-dollar federal agency was created with a goal of supporting “the next generation of moonshots for health” in science, logistics, diversity and equality. And the agency now has it’s first leader, as President Joe Biden announced Renee Wegrzyn as director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, on Sept. 12, 2022.

Since the announcement of the intention to establish ARPA-H two years ago, this new agency has sparked interest and questions within both academia and industry.

I have been a director of innovation-driven health institutes for decades and have worked with many of the government agencies that fund science. I and many of my colleagues hope ARPA-H will become an agency that can quickly turn scientific discoveries into real-world advances to detect, prevent and treat diseases like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. But questions still remain surrounding how it will work and what makes it different from other government-funded agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

A large complex of brick buildings.

ARPA-H will act independently even though it sits within the National Institutes of Health, which is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.
National Institutes of Health

What is ARPA-H?

ARPA-H is the newest entity established within the National Institutes of Health. ARPA-H was explicitly set up as an independent agency within NIH, in theory allowing it to benefit from the NIH’s vast scientific and administrative expertise and resources while still being nimble and forward-thinking.

ARPA-H was inspired by and modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to rapidly develop cutting-edge technologies. DARPA is small compared to other federal research and development agencies, but has long been hugely successful. It played a critical role in spawning many technologies ranging from the internet to GPS, and even funded Moderna to develop mRNA vaccine technology in 2013.

ARPA-H is not the only DARPA spinoff. In 2006, the federal government created the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to tackle difficult challenges in the intelligence community, and in 2009, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy was launched. Though its budget is small compared to the Department of Energy, ARPA-E has been incredibly effective in funding ambitious research into fighting climate change. By funding ambitious mid- and long-term projects, IARPA, ARPA-E and now ARPA-H are meant to operate in between slow, government-funded basic research and short-term, profit-driven private sector venture capital.

Three old personal computers sitting on a table.

ARPA-H is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which played a key role in developing many modern technologies, including personal computers.
Tim Colegrove/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

How will the agency function?

Biden wants ARPA-H to replicate the…

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