Agency for high-risk, high-reward research up and running by 2022

The UK government has announced the launch of a new research agency, which will pursue areas of science and technology with the potential to generate ground-breaking discoveries and transformative technology in the long term.

Plans for a research agency dedicated to this type of research were first announced in 2019. The agency is inspired by the Pentagon’s Darpa, which has been instrumental in the development of technologies such as GPS and the internet. The government said the agency will “help to cement the UK’s position as a global science superpower”.

Legislation to create the agency will be introduced to Parliament as soon as timetables allow, with a target for the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) to be fully operational by 2022.

ARIA will be independent from government and supported with £800m in funding for the remainder of this parliament. It will be led by “prominent, world-leading” scientists with the freedom to identify and fund high-risk, high-reward projects at speed. The government will begin recruitment for a CEO and chair in the coming weeks.

The agency will be able to work flexibly: it will be able to stop and start projects according to their success; redirect funding where necessary; and experiment with different funding models, such as program grants, seed grants, and prize incentives. Most importantly, it will have “much higher tolerance for failure than is normal”.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that the government would also look into ensuring that the agency will not be caught up in unnecessary bureaucracy.

“From the steam engine to the latest artificial intelligence technologies, the UK is steeped in scientific discovery,” Kwarteng said. “Today’s set of challenges, whether disease outbreaks or climate change, need bold, ambitious, and innovative solutions.

“Led independently by our most exceptional scientists, this new agency will focus on identifying and funding the most cutting-edge research and technology at speed. By stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators, the agency will be given the freedom to drive forward the technologies of tomorrow, as we continue to build back better through innovation.”

The science minister Amanda Solloway commented: “To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to equip our R&D community with a new scientific engine – one that embraces the idea that truly great successes come from taking great leaps into the unknown.

“ARIA will unleash our most inspirational scientists and inventors, empowering them with the freedom to drive forward their scientific vision and explore game-changing new ideas at a speed like never before. This will help to create new inventions, technologies, and industries that will truly cement the UK’s status as a global science superpower.”

Chief scientific advisor to the government Sir Patrick Vallance welcomed the announcement, saying that it will complement the work of UK Research and Innovation while supporting the government’s plan to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D by 2027. Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO of the Russell Group, added: “Get ARIA right and we can unlock technological innovations that will drive post-pandemic recovery and help tackle global challenges like reaching net zero.”

Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, CEO of UK Research and Innovation, said: “The creation of a new science and invention agency has tremendous potential to enhance the UK and global research and innovation system. The agency will have the freedom to experiment with pioneering new funding models, extending the reach of the current system to support people and ideas in new and different ways. Working closely together, UK Research and Innovation and ARIA will catalyse an even more diverse, dynamic, and creative funding system that will ensure transformative ideas, whoever has them, can change people’s lives for the better.”

Professor Tim Dafforn, chair of the IET’s Innovation and Emerging Technologies Panel, welcomed the news. He said: “This will create opportunities for research that would usually be foregone due to their high-risk, high-cost element. As seen in the US, this type of agency can create cutting-edge projects, such as the mRNA vaccines, which has led to critical Covid treatments. This news will show how important innovation is to the UK, particularly in the important time ahead of rebuilding the economy after the Covid pandemic. High-risk, high-reward innovations may be able to help lay the foundations of a new economy or stop the next pandemic from having too much effect.

“However, the government should publish data on the percentage of successful projects that are created with ARIA backing. If this percentage becomes too high, they should start investing in more risky and more complicated projects.”

Last week, the Commons Science and Technology Committee affirmed that there is a strong case for the creation of ARIA to address gaps in the UK’s risk-adverse research landscape, but warned that the agency lacks a clear purpose. MPs said that the agency should be driven by no more than two strategically important “missions” or “challenges” aligned with the long-term needs of the UK, rather than the pursuit of specified technologies.