ARIA: Does UK Really Need its Own DARPA?

Innovation funding expert Richard Wigley asks whether ARIA, the government’s new science investment vehicle, is worth the money. Or the hype.

Last March, the government formally unveiled plans for a bleeding-edge innovation agency that could incubate blue-sky science projects deemed too risky for private investment and public grants. 

The brainchild of Dominic Cummings, and first trailed in one of the former Downing Street advisor’s notorious blog posts, the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) is heavily inspired by America’s ARPA, a Cold War creation famed for early advances in internet and GPS technologies. 

In the months following ARIA’s announcement, grandiose government promises and comparisons with ARPA have made followers of UK technology quite excitable.

Who could blame them?

What joyless soul would object to an organisation that could summon life-changing breakthroughs worth trillions in economic output? Particularly one with an aura of dynamism and win-at-all-costs cunning afforded by the shameless associations with its American ancestor.

But if dig a little deeper – beneath the rhetoric and Cummings’ thinly-veiled slights at Whitehall – the stratospheric promises of ARIA become far thinner than they first appear. 

No real mission 

ARIA’s sandbox setup will give scientists, engineers, and other innovators the license to experiment and, more importantly, to fail. Though failure is crucial to high-risk science, the UK’s funding landscape rarely provides innovators with the freedom and funding to do so.

Private investors seek returns in just a few years and have little interest in long-term, moonshot projects. 

And while UK Research and Innovation does an excellent job filling some of the funding blindspots left by angles and venture capitalists, its risk appetite is still too small to take on the cutting-edge projects ARIA is designed to support. 

There is, without question, a gap in the market. One that may be filled by an agency’s in ARIA’s mould. The issue is, ‘providing a failure-friendly environment’ is not the kind of clear mission an organisation like ARIA needs.

With an annual endowment of just £200 million – a pittance compared to the £7 billion available to UKRI – ARIA must be highly selective about the projects it backs. To make these deal-breaking decisions – whether to finance a more accurate missile guidance system or a new treatment for malaria, for example – ARIA’s leadership will need clear guidance on what kind of projects should take priority. 

The social, technological, and moral implications of these decisions are too vast to be decided flippantly. Or by the whims of political need. Unfortunately, judging by the vague language in the government’s bill, this is precisely where things stand. But with the added bonus of limited accountability and scrutiny. 

Hazy objectives 

Without a defined mission, and clarity over the agency’s relationships with other funding organisations, it will be essentially impossible to judge whether ARIA will ever become a ‘success’. 

Against the vague ambition of fuelling high-stakes research, almost any outcome can be held up as successful. Even a litter of failed investments – the inevitable sawdust of ARIA’s high-risk approach – could be claimed as evidence of a job well done. 

To be judged accurately, ARIA’s success must be measured over decades, not years. ARPA invested millions in internet technology in the 1960s. But it wasn’t until the late 80s that the agency had any idea its money had been well spent. ARIA must be assessed over similar timescales. 

But twenty years is far longer than the duration of any parliament or Prime Ministerial tenure. Politicians are under constant pressure to prove their worth. And that the public purse has been used wisely. This makes Westminster institutionally impatient, and hostile to the kinds of timescales relied upon by blue-sky science.

If ARIA is to succeed, patience must be baked in from the very beginning. A long view must be codified in the agency’s vision and then protected from political restlessness. Just as it has been within other elements of the public funding ecosphere, like UKRI. 

However, it will be difficult to do this without the clear, sacrosanct mission ARIA is lacking.  

Alternatives to ARIA

As he reiterated in his Select Committee appearance last Wednesday, Dominic Cummings believes bureaucracy to be the very antithesis of human progress. 

It is this suspicion of red tape and malignant oversight that inspired ARIA.

For the UK’s innovation ecosystem to nurture high-risk, high-reward science, Cummings determined that the government had to create a unique space immune from its own bureaucratic nay-saying. Something entirely new, with its own purified DNA. 

I applaud the ambitions behind ARIA. And I have seen first hands the poisonous effects overbearing bureaucracy can have on promising science. But we don’t need a new agency to inject a little more fearlessness into UK PLC. 

It might be rather unfashionable to say, but I think expanding Innovate UK would have been a better use of money. 

Innovate UK already funds much of Britain’s bleeding-edge research. It has the right mix of technologists and academics for identifying viable ideas. It has an established, well-run applications process. And it has a long history of bringing together academics, researchers and corporate innovators. 

Contrary to what Dominic Cummings would have us believe, Innovate UK is not fundamentally averse to risk-taking. It would have been deemed unfit for purpose and scrapped a long time ago if it was. 

The government simply needs to make a few minor tweaks to the organisation’s tolerance for failure, and to the apparatus by which high-risk projects are assessed. We are talking about incremental movements along the spectrum of risk, here. Not foundational changes. 

ARIA was founded to tackle the right question: How do we make British R&D more accepting of failure? But is an agency with neither codified goals nor accountability the right answer? 

In my view, almost certainly not.

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