The new high-risk, high-reward scientific research agency announced by the UK government.
With funding for research more and more competitive, there is an urgent need for new sources and increased diversity. There is often concern raised around the lack of options for more experimental science and technology research that does not yet have a clear payback. Many cases demonstrate the importance of wide-ranging research, such as the discovery of CRISPR, which has revolutionised the field of genetics since arising from the study of bacterial immune systems and whose inventors won the Nobel Prize last year.
As a step in addressing this problem, the UK government has recently announced the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), a new scientific research agency that will focus on funding high-risk, high-reward projects. ARIA will be based on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, previously ARPA), which is credited with the invention of the internet, as well as funding research into mRNA vaccines before the COVID-19 pandemic. Like its US equivalent, ARIA will have the capacity to start and stop projects according to their success, with a high tolerance for failure.
The move is part of the R&D Roadmap published last year, which included the need for more experimental research, as well as increasing diversity and research integrity. The plan is to make the UK a global leader in science and innovation, and for this, the R&D budget is being increased to £14.6 billion in 2021-2022, with plans to continue increasing it further. ARIA will receive a small proportion of this budget, £800 million to spend over the next few years and is planned to be fully operational by 2022. This is a fraction of the funding that US DARPA receives, so it is unclear if it will be enough to make the intended impact. ARIA will be led by world-leading scientists, and recruitment for an interim Chief Executive and Chair has begun. They will decide what the vision, direction and priorities will be. Possible focuses include disease outbreaks and climate change, where experimental, cross-disciplinary research may be able to make a large impact.
ARIA will function separately from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) but is intended to complement it. The UKRI was created in 2017 to bring many areas of science under one roof, allowing it to address cross-disciplinary challenges. It was intended at the time to reduce bureaucracy, and with the intention to change the UK science system, which is similar to what is now being said about ARIA, raising questions about how it will be different. The creation of the agency was part of the Conservative Party’s latest manifesto and has been credited to a push from Dominic Cummings, who criticized the existing UKRI for its bureaucracy.
However, the announcement has attracted a lot of criticism, including around the lack of clarity in the plans, including what funding model it will use. A key selling point for ARIA is the decreased regulation it will be under, allowing it to streamline the funding process and focus on more experimental projects. This has also raised concerns around whether the normal standard of peer and ethical reviews will be upheld, and whether it will lead to similar problems as the government faced last year, where allegedly appointments were made for personal relationships. There have also been rumours that the new organisation could be exempt from Freedom of Information requests, although the US DARPA are not.
Time will tell how ARIA is set up and whether it will be able to achieve its goals and help the UK become a global leader for research. However, it is important that the UK government is making space for this experimental research, as it has the potential to lead to large breakthroughs that may not be possible under current funding options.