Meet Aria: ‘high-risk’ research funder to be independent of UKRI

Ministers promise innovative funding models for Advanced Research and Invention Agency following debate on relationship with umbrella body

February 19, 2021
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The UK’s new “high-risk, high-reward” research agency will sit outside the country’s umbrella funding body, Times Higher Education understands.

The Westminster government said on 19 February that it would start a recruitment campaign within weeks to recruit an interim chief executive and chair for the newly named Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), inspired by the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Legislation to create the new funder will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows, with the aim of making Aria fully operational by next year, according to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It will have a budget of £800 million to spend between now and 2024-25.

One key question within the sector has been whether Aria will be placed under UK Research and Innovation or whether it would sit outside the country’s umbrella funding body. The BEIS announcement did not explicitly answer this but THE understands that it will be independent of UKRI. The BEIS announcement emphasised that Aria would be “led independently” outside government, and UKRI said that it would be “working closely together” with the new agency.

The government also put to bed any suggestions that Aria could be led by Dominic Cummings, the former senior adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson who championed the new funder during his time in Downing Street. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said that it would be led “by our most exceptional scientists”.

The aim is that Aria will back innovative ideas with a higher possibility of failure than traditional research councils, in the hope of making groundbreaking scientific discoveries that create new technologies and jobs.

BEIS said that Aria would be able to act “with flexibility and speed by looking at how to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy and experimenting with different funding models”. These could “programme grants, seed grants, and prize incentives”, while the agency “will have the capability to start and stop projects according to their success, redirecting funding where necessary”, the government said.

Mr Kwarteng said that today’s global challenges needed “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,” he said. 

“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.”

Creating Aria has been seen as a key plank of the government’s plan to increase public research spending to £22 billion a year by 2024-25, and has been accompanied by wider efforts to cut bureaucracy out of funding applications. There had been suggestions that interest in the idea might fade following Mr Cummings’ departure, and criticism of slow progress on the project, but ministers have decided to push ahead.

In a report published last week, MPs on the Science and Technology Committee said that being located outside UKRI would allow the new agency to be more innovative. But there have been concerns that this could that this could erode UKRI’s ability to oversee and be accountable for the whole research system, and that it could lead to duplication of effort.

Dame Ottoline Leyser, UKRI’s chief executive, said that the creation of Aria “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,” Dame Ottoline said. 

“Working closely together, UKRI 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.”

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