Opinion: How government can help make Aria sing

The government’s new research agency needs the freedom to set its own mission, says former Downing Street adviser Daniel Korski
A project submitted to the DARPA Robotics Challenge for Autonomous Emergency Response Robots in 2015. Photo: John F. Williams/U.S. Navy/Planet Pix via ZUMA Wire

By Daniel Korski

23 Feb 2021

Last Friday saw formal confirmation of the launch of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria). Often controversial, seen as a pet project of former No.10 advisor Dominic Cummings, and thought to have stalled following his departure, the agency – modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – will finally launch in 2022.  

For the agency to succeed, Aria’s designers will need to decide key aspects now – at this formative stage – to allay concerns that it might be just another R&D agency, with no unique selling point. The government has offered reassurance against many of the concerns, but questions of leadership, delivery model and funding remain.

Firstly however, Aria’s leaders must be empowered to embrace a significantly enhanced appetite for financial risk. Those who spend public money should do so responsibly, but few would argue that there are many private sector organisations better placed than those in the public sector to take on high-risk “moonshot” innovation projects. 

Embedding this appetite in Aria would create a UK body uniquely well placed to take on such issues. Early reports had suggested this might become a legal commitment. While no reference to this was made in the announcement, those responsible clearly see this as a defining characteristic for Aria; as the press notice asserted: “freedom to fail is often also the freedom to succeed” 

The agency will be “led independently by our most exceptional scientists”; protection perhaps from the short-termism sometimes seen in government-led projects. It will take experimental approaches to delivering funding “flexibly and at speed”; this will “complement the work of UK Research and Innovation”, Aria’s closest UK analog. 

Areas where detail is less clear include on leadership. With a recruitment campaign to launch shortly, the “visionary scientist” chosen will have a key role, not just in setting Aria’s agenda, but also its structures. The challenge will be to identify a candidate that balances scientific credentials with skills more often seen in private sector R&D or finance. Investors like Kate Bingham, the vaccine czar, and Balaji S. Srinivasan, who predicted much of the Covid-19 crisis, are the sort of people that should be appointed. The more international its leadership the better as well. 

It may be tempting for legislators to codify an operating model similar to that of DARPA’s. BEIS will no doubt be considering the “programme manager” model that has been so effective for DARPA thanks to the staff there and their efforts to coordinate projects and partnerships with teams within the US Department of Defence.

Budget may still present a challenge, too. The £800m announced so far should be seen as a good first tranche; Aria’s ambition is to deliver funding quickly to high risk projects and this will be expensive. This figure, spread out over five years, may not be sufficient to achieve all that the agency’s sponsors hope for.

Then there is the question of purpose. While the Commons Science and Technology Committee report on the new agency was favourable, the committee’s chair, Greg Clark suggested that Aria may become “a brand in search of a product”. Here, ministers must resist the temptation to outline this mission prematurely. An independent Aria must be free to set its own mandate; it should be equipped with the skills and staff it needs to forge its own path – pioneering, yet accountable.

There is much to be thankful for in the news of Aria’s launch; those working on plans for its creation have clearly been listening to warnings over the risks of creating simply InnovateUK 2.0, and have taken steps to prevent this. 

Yet, the devil will be in the details. To get Aria right, government will need to provide it with the tools it needs to do the job without subjecting it to the traditional restrictions that – for its new leader – may feel like they are trying to drive forward and fund innovative projects with one arm tied behind their back.

Daniel Korski is chief executive of Public, a venture capital investor focused on govtech start-ups. He is also a former senior Downing Street adviser.

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