Aria’s first chief executive resigns before starting job

Blow to new UK research agency as Peter Highnam steps back for ‘personal reasons’

March 17, 2022
Peter Highnam

The UK’s new scientific research agency has faced a setback after its chief executive decided not to take up the post.

The recruitment of Peter Highnam, the deputy director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), to lead the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) was hailed as a “a major triumph for the UK” by business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last month.

"His expert direction will lead the agency’s formation, ensuring the funding of high-risk programmes that will continue to push the boundaries of science and technology," Mr Kwarteng said at the time.

But the British-born computer scientist has now said he will not take up the top role at Aria, citing “personal reasons", the government has confirmed.

In a statement, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it was "disappointed" that Dr Highnam will no longer lead Aria.

"Dr Highnam has expressed his continued support for Aria and we are pleased that he has offered to informally advise on its set-up," it said, adding that the "UK government remains committed to delivering Aria and unleashing scientific discoveries that benefit the UK's society and economy”.

"We will announce further details of Aria's leadership in due course," it concluded.

The new agency, which is due to open in May, was the brainchild of Dominic Cummings while he was the prime minister’s chief aide. He urged ministers to give it “extreme freedom” from the “horrific bureaucracy” that he said had held back other research funders. This week the government confirmed the funding body would receive a total of £800 million by 2025-26, stating that “Aria will carry out high-risk, high-reward research to enable scientists to identify and fund transformational science and technology across the UK at pace”.

However, the new organisation, based on America’s Darpa, whose research since the 1960s has led to the invention of the internet, drones, personal computers and GPS mapping, has faced teething troubles – with the search for a chair still ongoing.

The government is now expected to resume sifting through its previous shortlist of candidates to become Aria’s inaugural chief executive, said Sky News, which broke the story.

Dr Highnam's resignation is the latest setback in the task of filling senior research leadership roles in the UK, which critics claim has been made much harder by political interference from ministers. Last month it emerged that Mr Kwarteng had blocked the appointment of Jonathan Michie as chair of the Economic and Social Research Council after his candidacy was approved by the council, reportedly because ministers feared he was too left-wing.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles