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‘Licence to fail’: £800m for new scientific agency that will focus on high-risk, high-reward projects

Written by on 19 February 2021

The government is pushing ahead with the launch of a new £800m “high-risk, high-reward” scientific agency to provide rapid funding for UK inventors and researchers.

The Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), said to be the brainchild of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, will support inventors to turn their ideas into new technologies, discoveries, products and services.

The ARIA is modelled on America’s long-running Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which aims to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings Image: The new agency is said to be the brainchild of Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings

DARPA’s previous projects have included an ancestor to the internet, prosthetic limbs, a predecessor to GPS, wearable jetpacks, unmanned vehicles, robotics, stealth boats, and an early version of the Siri technology now prevalent in iPhones.

It was also an early funder of mRNA vaccines and antibody therapies, which have since led to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Mr Cummings, who left Downing Street amid a bitter power struggle among Number 10 aides last year, has written extensively on his blog about the potential benefits of a British version of DARPA.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak previously announced the £800m funding for a “new blue-skies funding agency” for the UK, modelled on DARPA, at last March’s budget.

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the new independent agency will be able to act “with flexibility and speed by looking at how to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and experimenting with different funding models”.

It has previously been reported that ARIA will be allowed to circumvent usual rules on the investment of public money.

The autonomous ship Image: An autonomous ship developed by DARPA

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “From the steam engine to the latest artificial intelligence technologies, the UK is steeped in scientific discovery.

“Today’s set of challenges – whether disease outbreaks or climate change – need bold, ambitious and innovative solutions.

“Led independently by our most exceptional scientists, this new agency will focus on identifying and funding the most cutting-edge research and technology at speed.

“By stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators, the agency will be given the freedom to drive forward the technologies of tomorrow, as we continue to build back better through innovation.”

A recruitment campaign will begin over the coming weeks to identify an interim chief executive and chair to help establish ARIA, while the government will legislate for its creation with the aim of having it fully operational by next year.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said: “ARIA will build on the UK’s world-class scientific research and innovation system.

“The importance of scientific innovation has never been clearer than over the last year and this new body provides an exciting new funding mechanism for pioneering research and development.”

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Labour’s shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, expressed concern at previous reports ARIA could be made exempt from Freedom of Information laws and so prevent taxpayers from knowing how cash is spent.

“Labour has long called for investment in high ambition, high-risk science,” he said.

“From artificial intelligence to quantum technologies and life sciences, the UK has long been at the forefront of cutting-edge research and development.

“Labour will continue to support and champion the work of our country’s scientists.

“But government must urgently clarify the mission and mandate of this new organisation, following strong engagement with the UK’s science base – those closest to the work.

“And it is important ARIA does not have a blanket exemption from FOI laws as has been reported, so taxpayers know how their money is being invested.

“Many researchers have been hit hard during the crisis but have been excluded from government support, and there is still no clarity about what the science budget will be in just six weeks’ time and where it will be spent, leaving the industry in limbo.”