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January 25, 2022

Will ARIA bite the dust? Dominic Cummings’ ‘UK DARPA’ faces uncertain future

The UK's new innovation agency is set to have its funding approved, but experts say it will need focus and freedom to succeed.

By Matthew Gooding

It was billed as a key pillar of the UK’s ambition to become a global science superpower, with the potential to help Britain develop the key technologies of tomorrow. But almost a year after it was officially announced, big questions still surround the future of the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA). The purpose of ARIA has been queried in the House of Lords, which has been scrutinising its £800m budget, while problems recruiting tech leaders to run the agency have slowed progress too.

ARIA


ARIA could help scientists pursue high risk, high reward projects to boost the UK’s tech and science capabilities (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images/Cancer Research UK)

Modelled on the US military innovation agency DARPA, which is credited with a leading role in the development of key technologies including the internet and GPS, ARIA was the brainchild of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s controversial former chief of staff Dominic Cummings, and is set to fund “high risk, high reward” R&D projects, allowing scientists to develop new technologies without fear of failure.

“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,” said business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng when the agency was formally announced last February. 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.”

Earlier this month the ARIA bill passed its final reading in the House of Lords, meaning it will return to the House of Commons for approval before it receives Royal ascent and is made law. But whether the finished version of the agency can match Kwarteng’s heady rhetoric remains to be seen.

Does UK R&D need ARIA?

The announcement of ARIA initially received a positive reception from the R&D and business communities. “I hope this ambitious new funding mechanism will help to unlock radical innovation and enable step-changes in technology that provides value for our economy and society at large,” said Royal Academy of Engineering president Sir Jim McDonald at the time.

However, doubts were already being raised about the agency. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee called ARIA “a brand in search of a product” in a report that coincided with last February’s launch. “The purpose of the body, for which £800m has been allocated, remains unclear despite its inclusion in two successive Queen’s Speeches,” the report said.

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A year later similar doubts remain. Green peer Natalie Bennett wrote last week that she is “not hearing the research community cheering from the rafters,” as ARIA moves closer to fruition. “At best, the response is a grumble of discontent, a weary shuffling of feet of the often underpaid, insecurely employed people who’ve spent many years of study only to be left in a sector suffering a continual state of uncertainty,” Bennett wrote. “Many feel that ARIA – with its expected reach of £200-300m a year – does nothing to tackle the issues they face.”

Indeed, the scale of funding being committed to ARIA, which is likely to be even smaller than Bennett’s estimate, is a big part of the reticence being expressed about the agency, says Rob Anderson, principal analyst, public sector at GlobalData. The government has committed £800m over five years to back ARIA, but this comes against a backdrop of chancellor Rishi Sunak delaying a £2bn increase to overall R&D funding which was due to arrive by the 2024/25 tax year, instead pledging the funding will arrive by 2027.

“I think there’s been a little bit of confusion about [ARIA’s] purpose among MPs and the Lords,” Anderson says. “And the initial funding which is being provided by the Treasury over a time period of several years is a drop in the ocean compared to overall UK R&D spending.” The most recently available ONS figures show that, in 2019, the UK spent £38.5bn on R&D, with more than £10bn of that coming from the public sector through established bodies such as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Successful periods for the original DARPA in the US have been characterised by substantial budgets and the willingness of government departments, particularly the Department of Defense, to act as a 'customer' to supply further funding. Professor Tim Softley of the University of Birmingham, who until recently served as the university's pro-vice chancellor for research and innovation, says he "worries that the amount of money allocated to [ARIA] is rather small given the objectives." But, he says, "there is a place for a different kind of funding scheme one for which the technologies to be developed are not pre-defined by government, and one that has more emphasis on the ‘R’ of R&D than the ‘D’."

Can ARIA attract the talent it needs to succeed?

"The appointment of the leadership of ARIA is crucial" to its success, Professor Softley argues. But so far, efforts to recruit the expertise required to head up the new agency have floundered.

In February's ARIA announcement, the government said it would "identify a world-class interim chief executive and chair to shape the vision, direction and research priorities for the agency" and engaged headhunters Saxton Bampfylde to identify suitable candidates. But Sky News reported in October that the search was being put on hold, and so far no public announcements have been made about executive appointments for ARIA.

Anderson says the struggle to find the right candidate "reflects what's going on in the rest of the public sector IT space." He explains: "The government hasn't been able to recruit a chief digital officer, and that search has been going on for two years." As reported by Tech Monitor last year, the government scrapped its search for a chief data and information officer, instead advertising two roles – chief data officer and chief technology officer. Though the CTO position has been filled by ex-IBM man Dan Bailey, the CDO job remains vacant.

The vagueness of ARIA's remit is also likely to be putting candidates off, Anderson says. "The [recruitment problem] is probably mainly down to scepticism about ARIA's lack of focus," he adds. "They can't specify the role of ARIA specifically and what the job will entail on a granular level."

Will ARIA be kicked into the long grass?

Cummings, ARIA's architect, exited Downing Street in December 2020, and Anderson says that without its chief cheerleader the agency may struggle to gain traction when it does begin its work. "As with lots of things in government, if there isn't a heavy-hitting political sponsor behind a project then it won't go very far," he says. "Without someone with clout behind it, there's always a danger of it falling by the wayside, especially given the disparity between the funding that's being made available to this agency and the much larger amount that is available to the scientific research councils."

UKRI's budget for 2021/22 is £14.9bn, which is distributed through seven research councils covering various areas of science, as well as Research England and existing innovation agency Innovate UK. With so many existing – and more lucrative – funding routes available for businesses and researchers, "there is a danger [ARIA] will fall in a hole and be forgotten about," Anderson says.

Professor Softley says "it is not altogether surprising that progress with ARIA is now slow," given that Cummings is no longer part of government. "It looks like it will happen," he says. "But the back-loaded phasing of increases in government R&D spend over the next few years is such that the government is in no hurry to get this started."

He adds that for ARIA to succeed, scientists must be given freedom to work on projects they feel are most promising. "I am in favour of giving this a try, provided it is set up in the right way and gives the research teams the freedom to develop their adventurous ideas and inventions, without the bureaucratic intervention and multiple layers of approval of government departments," he says.

Anderson agrees, but fears politics will come into play. "The original intention, looking at what Cummings has spoken about previously, was for the scientists to set the priorities, not for the government to put its stamp on it," he says. "But I think the current administration might want to interpret this so it matches what their priorities are politically, rather than necessarily what the scientific and research community thinks ARIA should be focusing on. If that happens I think it might struggle to find the right projects to invest in."

He adds that researchers are probably more interested in the UK's ongoing participation in the Horizon Europe programme, which has been threatened by Brexit. Talks are continuing as to whether to allow UK organisations to be part of the scheme, which is worth €95bn. "I think trying to fix the way we interface with Horizon is going to be a lot more key for research than ARIA," Anderson says.

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