White House Stands up ARPA-H, Names Anthropologist Adam Russell to Lead Launch

A health science initiative modeled after the United States’ renowned Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officially launched Wednesday. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra formally established the Advanced Research Project Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, as an independent entity within the National Institutes of Health. Anthropologist Adam H. Russell will head the new agency as acting deputy director; Russell currently is the chief scientist at the University of Maryland’s Applied Research Laboratory for Intelligence and Security.

Adam Russell
Adam Russell

Russell spent more than a decade as a program manager at other federal ARPAs, first at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and then at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A release from the National Institutes of Health notes that “with broad technical and management experience across several disciplines, ranging from cognitive neuroscience and physiology to cultural psychology and social anthropology, Dr. Russell will guide the early stages of building the administrative structure of the agency and oversee the hiring of initial operational staff to ensure the agency is stood up as effectively and efficiently as possible.” A permanent ARPA-H director will eventually be appointed by President Joe Biden.

Applying the ARPA model to public health has been on the Biden Administration’s front burner since last summer. The Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held 15 listening sessions in July and August with “stakeholders across the biomedical ecosystem” on a putative ARPA-H.

The sessions were generally based more on health issues – i.e. cancer, translational research or mental health – than on discipline, although the discussions centered more around technologies, rather than specific diseases. Despite that physical focus (ARPA-H has already been seen by some as primarily a “drug accelerator”), the sessions did call for interdisciplinary approaches and for collaborations with organizations that offered social and behavioral approaches.

In March Biden proposed creating ARPA-H and funding it with $6.5 billion over three years drawn from an enlarged NIH budget. While the agency itself was greenlit by Congress, the full budget was not: ARPA-H’s initial funding is for $1 billion, although there is legislation to increase that on the table.

There have been criticisms of the new initiative, from concerns it will cannibalize NIH funding to critiques that merely calling something an ARPA doesn’t mean it will replicate the advances seen from DARPA. “The ARPA model has been successful, and we’ve learned a lot,” Laura Diaz Anadon of the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance told Nature’s Jeff Tollefson, “but ARPA is not a magic bullet that will apply to everything.”

According to material from the White House, “ARPA-H will be tasked with building high-risk, high-reward capabilities (or platforms) to drive biomedical breakthroughs – ranging from molecular to societal – that would provide transformative solutions for all patients. … [it] will provide a novel pathway to catalyzing transformative health breakthroughs that cannot readily be accomplished through traditional research or commercial activity.”

A ‘frequently asked questions’ sheet from the White House explains that the existing basic-research structures at NIH don’t do this at present: “Whereas most NIH proposals are ‘curiosity-driven,’ ARPA-H ideas will be largely ‘use-driven’ research — that is, research directed at solving a practical problem.”

The model is described as “placing bets on different approaches.” As described in the FAQs, it begins with program managers identifying important needs that traditional research or commercial activity isn’t meeting or that requires a high-risk/high-reward approach. Program managers will pitch their ideas to the ARPA-H director, who – if granting approval – would solicit and review applications. Program managers would then assemble a portfolio of complementary approaches, drawing experts from multiple disciplines in unique teams.

Russell, who is leading the launch of ARPA-H, joined DARPA as a program manager in July 2015. According to NIH, his work there focused on new experimental platforms and tools to facilitate discovery, quantification and “big validation” of fundamental measures in social and behavioral science and human performance. Before that, as a program manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity he oversaw projects for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He came to IARPA from private industry where he was a senior scientist and principal investigator on a wide range of human performance and social science research projects.

Russell  earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology from Duke University, and a master’s and a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

He begins his new job in June.

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