Can ARIA save UK innovation? asks RAE President Sir Jim McDonald

3 min read

Engineering leadership will be key to the success of the UK's planned ARIA research agency writes Royal Academy of Engineering President Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE.

Last month we had confirmation that the UK government plans to proceed with its manifesto commitment to launch a new research and innovation funding agency modelled on the US ARPA initiative, which has been credited with kickstarting several successful innovations, from the internet to self-driving cars. With an initial £800 million in funding, the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) aims to support high risk, high reward science, affording researchers the freedom to identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed.

Establishing such an agency is a positive move and I hope this ambitious new funding mechanism will help to unlock radical innovation and enable step changes in technology that have far reaching impacts, providing value for our economy and for society at large. I hope it will also engender a spirit of freedom and entrepreneurship across the whole research and innovation funding system. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has an annual budget of well over £7 billion to support pioneering ideas, research infrastructure and international collaborations, so[1] it is vital that the work done through ARIA is complementary to that of UKRI, providing positive disruption and encouraging healthy competition and collaboration.

ARIA offers a real opportunity to boost UK innovation, but it is essential that it is supported by engineering principles to generate tangible public and economic benefits for society

Invention is incorporated into the title of ARIA, signalling the government’s ambition for this new agency to drive the development of novel technologies with real world applications. The UK has a global reputation for the quality of its scientific research, but research and inventing new things are not enough in themselves to generate public benefit and the ‘economic bang for the Treasury’s buck’ that the government is hoping ARIA will deliver. Engineering provides the missing link and engineering leadership will be crucial to the success of an agency of this kind, forming the bridge between research and innovation to enable technological and commercial breakthroughs.

The original Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in 1958 by the US President in response to the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Its purpose was to form and execute research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science and to increase reach far beyond immediate military requirements. The ARPA operating model has remained and been applied to different sectors, including the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for defence and ARPA-E for energy. DARPA has grown to maintain an annual budget of $3.5 billion, with nearly 100 programme managers overseeing about 250 research and development programmes.

Unlike DARPA, ARIA will not be constrained to deliver for a specific government department, meaning the CEO and Chair will have exceptional freedom to set the vision of the agency. There are many engineers who would be excellent candidates and could support the creation of a collaborative culture that would help this new agency to blossom and thrive with the UK’s innovation ecosystem.

The Academy put forward its recommendations for a new agency to deliver radical innovation in March 2020 during early discussions about the proposal. Here in the UK, a funding mechanism based on engineering principles has real potential to deliver innovative answers to solve challenges of significance and scale. To bring together and develop breakthrough research and technology, it will need to provide ample funding, flexibility, skills, a high-risk appetite, close collaboration with end-users and deliver through strategic alliances between industry, academics and public sector agencies.

We identified four key factors for success:

Firstly, the skills, experience and approach to leadership of the CEO and programme managers will be defining in the creation of this new agency and its distinctive role and character. A significant culture change will be needed in a UK system previously based on value for money, together with an acceptance that the beneficial outcomes of projects for wider society and consumers may not be measurable for a long time – perhaps up to 50 years. Commercialisation takes different forms and successful exploitation of a technology does not always result directly in private sector profits – the internet and GPS demonstrate the power of this approach. However, opportunities for commercial exploitation should not be missed as they arise.

Secondly, it is acknowledged that projects commissioned by ARIA will need to be allowed to fail and people will need to be encouraged to learn from failures and share experiences – funding will need to be responsive and must cover the entire project costs. Support must be available to drive progress but also be willingly and quickly withdrawn if projects are not advancing as expected. This is particularly important if ARIA’s funding is coming from the public purse – being willing to take calculated risks on a promising technology should never mean wantonly wasting taxpayers’ money.

Thirdly, independence and autonomy from ministers and HM Treasury will be needed to facilitate fast decision-making, flexibility and freedom to allocate and release funds. The government’s Vaccine Taskforce shows the benefits of being afforded freedoms – their informed decisions and spectrum of supported options on vaccine candidates developed by different groups has put the UK in a world-leading position with options on multiple approved COVID19 vaccines.

Finally – and crucially – the success of ARIA is dependent on it finding its own space and interconnecting within the UK innovation ecosystem – this will require work from its new leaders and across government to ensure that the potential from its projects can be maximised and delivered – through public procurement and through strategic alliances with industry.

In conclusion, ARIA offers a real opportunity to boost UK innovation, but it is essential that it is supported by engineering principles to generate tangible public and economic benefits for society.


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