Government agency for high-risk STEM research to launch next year

Written by Beckie Smith on 22 February 2021 in News
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Cummings-backed unit, which will be called Aria, will be up and running by the end of 2022

Credit: Pixabay

The UK’s high-risk research funding agency will be “fully operational” by the end of 2022 according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It also announced the name for the project, known until now as UK ARPA.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency – the UK’s supposed answer to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US – will fund high-risk technology and science research that offers the chance of high rewards.

Legislation to create the agency will be introduced to parliament "as soon as parliamentary time allows", BEIS said. The announcement follows a call from Liaison Committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin for ministers to make progress with their legislative agenda that referenced the lack of detail on UK ARPA.

Recruitment for a “world class” interim chief executive and chair, who will shape the “vision, direction and research priorities” for Aria, will begin in the next few weeks BEIS said.

Plans for the agency, which was a pet project of Boris Johnson’s former top aide Dominic Cummings before he left government last year, were backed by MPs earlier this month.

And in last year’s Budget, the chancellor committed “at least £800m” to setting up Aria over the course of this parliament, which ends in 2024.


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But critics have pointed out that the funding commitment comes nowhere close to that of the US agency whose success it aims to mirror. Last year alone, DARPA had an enacted budget of nearly $3.6bn, (£2.6bn). There are also concerns about transparency, given that Aria is expected to be exempt from Freedom of Information legislation that normally applies to public bodies.

Science minister Amanda Solloway said the agency would enable scientists to “explore game-changing new ideas at a speed like never before”.

“To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to equip our R&D community with a new scientific engine – one that embraces the idea that truly great successes come from taking great leaps into the unknown,” she said.

Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of the public funding agency UK Research and Innovation, said the creation of the new agency has “tremendous potential to enhance the UK and global research and innovation system”.

“The agency will have the freedom to experiment with pioneering new funding models, extending the reach of the current system to support people and ideas in new and different ways,” she said.

“Working closely together, UK Research and Innovation and Aria will catalyse an even more diverse, dynamic and creative funding system that will ensure transformative ideas, whoever has them, can change people’s lives for the better.”

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @Beckie__Smith.

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