The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) is now a reality. President Biden first introduced the concept during his maiden speech to a joint session of Congress just over a year ago. In March, ARPA-H came to fruition when Congress included $1 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022 to create the agency. There was and remains significant disagreement in Washington about where ARPA-H should be organized in the bureaucracy, with many believing that having the National Institutes of Health as a parent would slow the agency down. The compromise reached by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra appears to include physically separating the new agency from NIH headquarters in Bethesda by locating ARPA-H well outside the Washington Ring Road. The jockey has already started. In fact, even before the ink on the president’s signature was dry, cities and states were advocating to welcome the newest federal government agency. Among the most compelling regions to defend is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), ARPA-H is designed to give the federal government additional capability to accelerate research and biomedical development. To keep the United States at the forefront of innovations that prevent, treat, and even cure disease, ARPA-H is tasked with making high-risk, high-reward investments in health research. Given Massachusetts’ track record of such breakthroughs and the collaborative environment between the state’s world-class universities, hospitals, state and local governments, and life science industries, the State of Berry is a natural choice.
Massachusetts is already home to a thriving quasi-governmental state agency, the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), whose mission complements ARPA-H. With state funding, MLSC invests locally in promising science to help accelerate the commercialization of treatments, therapies and cures. Ideas sparked at one of the research institutions that dot the state are candidates for MLSC funding. When concepts become companies, these companies tend to set up facilities locally, relying on the state’s advanced manufacturing workforce as well as engineers and scientists to help make evolve operations. Regional associations, including the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council (MassMEDIC) and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio), bring these companies together to collaborate and advocate. Finally, Boston venture capital firms play a vital role in taking businesses to the next level. Look no further than the critical importance of mRNA vaccines against the COVID-19 pandemic to prove Massachusetts’ ability to solve difficult public health problems through its cooperative approach.
Although the ARPA-H landing process remains unclear, cities, regions and states from coast to coast are preparing to make their presentations. Southern California, home to Secretary Becerra, is a contender. The San Francisco Bay Area, with its powerful congressional delegation, will also make a strong case. Governor Gavin Newsome may face a tough choice when weighing in with the White House. Even Texas, with the backing of Governor Greg Abbott, is mounting a campaign, though it will likely face strong political headwinds.
Conversations have started in Massachusetts and among state officials in Washington. Given the competition, however, a successful bid will require a concerted effort and significant political capital. The price is worth it. APRA-H has the potential to spur the development of treatments and therapies that could change the course of human history. Like NASA in Houston, a federal office like ARPA-H will have a tremendous local impact on its host region.