Thomas Fink

How Boris’s research agency can thrive

The Royal Institution library c. 1809 (photo: Getty)

What is the recipe for outstanding innovation? According to Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we should learn it from America. When he announced last week the launch of Britain’s new Advanced Research and Inventions Agency (ARIA), he reiterated that the £800m organisation would be based upon DARPA, America’s high-risk, high-reward defence research agency.

This is no surprise. Since the 1950s, DARPA has racked up an extraordinary series of breakthroughs, including the internet, GPS, drones and stealth technology. Yet when it comes to recapturing what Kwarteng calls ‘the spirit of Britain’s long and proud history of inventing’, he should look at Britain’s history as much as America’s. A short walk away from the Palace of Westminster, there is an example of ‘advanced research and invention’, which this week marks its 222nd anniversary, and whose achievements arguably exceed even DARPA’s.

Researchers at the Royal Institution in Mayfair have identified ten chemical elements, discovered the fundamental principles of electricity and invented the electric motor. Scientists associated with the place have earned 15 Nobel prizes. One reason I know a bit about the RI is because the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where I work, has just moved into this neoclassical Georgian building on Albemarle Street, occupying rooms that once belonged to Michael Faraday himself. So here are three lessons from its history, which I believe should inform the spirit of ARIA.

Faraday lectures at the RI (photo: Getty)

First, the RI has always been small and free from bureaucracy. Since the day it was founded – 222 years ago today – its researchers were always based in a single building in London, rather than spread out over a campus.

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