BEIS seeks chief for research agency championed by Cummings

Head of Aria will ‘build and design an organisation that is truly unique and unprecedented in the UK’, application pack says
Dods Media Library / Louise Haywood-Schiefer

By Richard Johnstone

02 Jun 2021

The government has launched its hunt for the head of the UK’s new blue-skies research agency, with applicants being told they have a chance to shape the vision and direction of the “high-risk, high-reward” organisation.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency is being formed as an independent science funding body, with a remit to “identify and fund transformational areas of research to turn incredible ideas into new technologies”, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Setting up the agency was one of Dominic Cummings’s priorities when he was the prime minister's most senior adviser. The 2020 Budget committed “at least £800m” to the project over the course of this parliament, which ends in 2024.

The chief executive will be appointed for a term of four or five years, and will be involved in “determining Aria’s geographical footprint across the UK”.

The salary and remuneration “will reflect the seniority of the role and will depend on skills and experience”, according to the candidate information pack.

In a statement launching the recruitment process, science minister Amanda Solloway said: “Getting Aria up and running is one of my main priorities, so I am delighted to see it take another step towards launching with the start of this recruitment round.

“We want to recruit a chief executive who will provide the creative, inspiring leadership that the organisation will need – building an exceptional team and embedding the high-risk, high-reward culture to ensure that Aria thrives.”

The candidate pack says the government’s “commitment to Aria's autonomy makes this role one of significant responsibility”, which will have a “profound effect on the technological and strategic capabilities of the UK”.

The chief exec's responsibilities will include: establishing Aria’s philosophies, working styles and cultural norms; determining the specific strategic advantages that it will aim to enable; defining Aria’s strategy; recruiting the first cohort of programme managers; and signing the first research partnerships.

The government is planning to set out what it calls a streamlined operating structure for the agency in legislation, but the chief executive will also act as Aria’s accounting officer, and will report to parliament as required.

“You will position Aria as a distinctive part of the UK’s research funding landscape that complements and expands the UK’s funding capability,” the document says.

Essential application criteria include: experience of conducting, or investing in, high-risk-high-payoff research and technology development, ideally in multiple settings (academia, business, government, or non-profit); ability to provide inspiring leadership and effective recruitment of high-performance teams of technically brilliant people; and an understanding of “the frontier-of-the-frontier of technical fields”.

Applications, which are due by 5 July, will be reviewed by an expert panel comprising Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser; Jo Shanmugalingam, BEIS’s director general for science, innovation and growth; Arati Prabhakar, the former director of DARPA in the United States, on which Aria is modelled; and Carolyn Bertozzi, the director of Stanford University's ChEM-H innovation hub.

BEIS will start recruiting for the chair of the agency “in the coming months”. The government plans to fill both roles by the time the bill to establish the agency is approved by MPs, it said.

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