Aria must not be ‘a castle in a desert’, warns Mazzucato

Leading economist says new innovation agency needs to be surrounded by a stable ecosystem to enjoy success

September 20, 2023

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) risks operating like “a castle in the desert” without a more stable innovation ecosystem in the UK, leading economist Mariana Mazzucato has warned.

The £800 million independent agency, which aims to fund risky early-stage blue-sky research, is slowly emerging from the shadows following years of anticipation – with its chief executive Ilan Gur speaking publicly for the first time, and the recent appointment of its programme directors.

Aria is envisaged as the UK’s own version of the highly successful US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which was the focus of much of Professor Mazzucato’s first book, The Entrepreneurial State, Debunking Public Vs Private Sector Myths.

On the 10th anniversary of that book, she told Times Higher Education that the difference between the two agencies so far is that Darpa does not act on its own, but is part of a dynamic US innovation ecosystem.

“Darpa is confident, Darpa works with government structures like procurement, Darpa works along an innovation chain that is full of other active public entities,” said the professor in the economics of innovation and public value at UCL.

“It’s just a decentralised network of entrepreneurial state organisations. It works very much hand in hand with government procurement.

“Here it doesn’t – the risk is that (Aria) operates as a castle in the desert.”

The turbulence of British politics in the past decade has hurt a lot, said Professor Mazzucato – with repeated name changes to government departments and Innovate UK, on top of frequent political upheaval.

“It always needs to be about the long-term,” she said.

“Instability is terrible, it’s the worst possible thing you can have. [The UK’s innovation ecosystem] is flooded with insecurity; there’s a real insecurity in the UK about innovation and it doesn’t help.”

Aria will have a lot of catching up to do as well. Founded in 1958 during the space race, Darpa’s successes since then have contributed to the development of the internet, drones and Apple’s digital assistant Siri.

These were examples of clear missions that Darpa was able to answer, Mazzucato said – but she was unsure what problems Aria will be responding to, because they have not yet been communicated properly.

However, the biggest change needed in the UK is a mind shift, she added.

“Then Aria would have a much more confident role and it would help push the frontier of knowledge within an ecosystem that is equally confident and working with business versus facilitating,” she said.

“It’s a good thing, Aria. It’s currently run by a good person who’s hopefully bringing in good people.

“It will work well if the UK starts having a much more stable, confident, innovation ecosystem.”

Aria recently appointed eight directors across its programme areas – with hints that these will focus on topics including designing an AI to safeguard humanity, using nanobots in medicine, and controlling the weather to mitigate heatwaves.

Professor Mazzucato said universities were a key part of an innovation ecosystem, and one of their key roles should be to promote critical thinking.

“They have a role to, definitely at the undergraduate level, stimulate critical thinkers,” she said.

“I would love it if everyone, whether you’re an engineer or physicist, took creative writing and some level of critical thinking, like modernised philosophy.”

Professor Mazzucato also said that blue-sky research was important in all areas, not just STEM.

“The humanities, the social sciences are incredibly important for opening our minds of where we want to go. The important role for universities is to get us out of our comfort zone.”

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