Geoffrey Owen

Is this Dominic Cummings’ biggest legacy?

Is this Dominic Cummings' biggest legacy?
ARIA was strongly supported by Dominic Cummings, pictured (Photo: Getty)
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The government’s decision to set up a new research funding agency, to be known as the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), marks an important break in UK science and innovation policy – potentially more important than any recent government initiative in this field.

The aim, as the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng explained last week, is to fund high-risk, high-reward research, ‘supporting ground-breaking discoveries that could transform people’s lives for the better.’ As part of this mission, the chief executive of ARIA will be free to choose which areas to research and which projects to fund without direction from ministers. It is this independence from political and bureaucratic control which will distinguish the new agency from established funding bodies, along with its ability to place big bets on ambitious projects with an acceptance that some will fail (which Policy Exchange argued for in a paper published early last year).

The need for this kind of agency was strongly supported by Dominic Cummings, formerly chief adviser to Boris Johnson. His model was the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (later renamed the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency), which was set up in 1957 in response to the launch of Sputnik, the Soviet space satellite. ARPA’s part in major technological breakthroughs (notably its early work on interactive computing, which paved the way for the Internet), is generally attributed to its visionary scientists, its operational independence and its management approach, which gave programme directors the freedom to run projects in whatever way they saw fit.

DARPA was mentioned in last week’s ARIA announcement, but the UK agency will differ in important respects from its US counterpart. The most obvious difference is that DARPA is part of the Department of Defence and its mission is to undertake projects that will contribute to national security. In the UK some have argued that the new British agency should similarly focus on a particular research area, such as energy or health, with the relevant government department acting as its principal customer. The government has rejected this approach in favour of giving ARIA an open-ended remit.

The potential value of the new agency is that it could inject a new risk-taking element into what is seen as an over-bureaucratic, over-centralised and risk-averse science funding system. Partly for that reason, the government decided against putting ARIA inside UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which was set up in 2018 to bring together the research councils (which fund scientific research in universities) and Innovate UK (which supports near-market research in industry) into a single organisation. ARIA would be too different in terms of purpose and accountability to be easily accommodated within UKRI.

There are two large questions that remain after last week’s announcement. Will ARIA be big enough to have the impact the government wants, and who will run it? As things stand, the government has only allocated £800m for the new agency. Compared to UKRI, which has an annual budget of over £8bn, this is hardly enough to make a major difference to the research funding landscape. Wellcome Trust, the biggest charitable foundation focused on health, spends over £1bn a year on medical science.

The choice of ARIA’s chief executive, which the government hopes to make in the next few months, is also crucial. Should he or she be a scientist, an entrepreneur, or both – or have an entirely different professional background? The German government, which has recently set up a Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation (known as SPRIND) with a mission somewhat similar to that of ARIA, appointed an entrepreneur to run it. Rafael Laguna de la Vera, who took up the post last year, was the founder and chief executive of Open-Xchange, a successful software company.

Several witnesses to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (whose report on the new agency was published a few days before the ARIA announcement) suggested that ARIA’s CEO should ideally have had direct experience of DARPA. And given that most ARIA-backed projects will be designed to have practical applications, whether in the private or public sector, candidates with this experience are likely to be favoured.

Looking ahead, the creation of ARIA is unlikely to be the only change which the Johnson government will make in science and innovation policy. In particular, the government needs to look again at the way UK research and innovation is organised and monitored. As noted by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, UKRI suffers from too much bureaucracy and micromanagement, not least in relation to appointments. It is also required to submit anything deemed ‘novel’ or ‘contentious’ to ministers for approval on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps the imminent arrival of ARIA will precipitate not a break-up of UKRI, but a fresh look at how it can be made more effective so it can make a bigger contribution to one of Boris Johnson’s great ambitions, to strengthen the UK’s position as a science superpower.