UK unveils plan for £800 million disruptive innovation funder

19 Feb 2021 | News

Government says newly christened Advanced Research & Invention Agency will have ‘a much higher tolerance for failure than is normal’


The UK government Friday offered the first detailed look at its £800 million disruptive innovation funder, now officially called the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. 

The agency, which draws inspiration from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the US body that has overseen the creation of experimental military technologies, will aim to stimulate new, emerging and high-risk science and technology, the government said in a statement.

“Prominent, world-leading scientists” will lead the funder, the government confirmed – seemingly putting to bed the rumour that the prime minister’s controversial ex-adviser Dominic Cummings, one of the architects of Brexit and the main driving force behind the new agency, could take the top job.

The new body will report to the Department for Business, Energy and Innovation, but officials promise it will be given autonomy to identify and fund creative early-stage research “at speed” through a mix of funding instruments including grants and prize incentives.

The research agency’s leaders will have the capability to start and stop projects according to their success, redirecting funding where necessary. The government promises the agency “will have a much higher tolerance for failure than is normal.”

“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,” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said in a statement.

Controversially, for some, the new body will sit separate to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the country’s main funding body. This recently established umbrella agency brought together nine separate research councils to oversee the distribution of £6 billion of funding annually.

Speaking to MPs last year, former science minister Jo Johnson warned a new DARPA-like agency could be “destructive”, while the retired head of URKI, Mark Walport, warned it would replicate existing funding instruments.

In a statement Friday, UKRI CEO Ottoline Leyser however said the new funder “had tremendous potential.”

“Working closely together, UK Research and Innovation and ARIA will catalyse an even more diverse, dynamic and creative funding system,” Leyser added.

A big part of the reason for setting up a new research agency is Brexit. The decision to weaken ties with Brussels has heightened awareness that the UK, which previously was a net beneficiary of EU research programmes, would be at risk without new sources of funding. Backers of the new body also argue that the state has to take on a bigger role in financing risky technology bets, with American and Chinese companies beating out the competition in many emerging science fields.

At the same time, members of the Conservative party do not universally like the centralised UKRI. Even though a Tory government introduced it, some MPs complain that its larger structure impedes quick funding decisions for developing technologies.

Legislation to create the new research agency will be introduced to Parliament “as soon as parliamentary time allows”, the government said. The aim is for it to be fully operational by 2022.

Meanwhile, a recruitment campaign will begin over the coming weeks to identify “a world class interim chief executive and chair” to shape the vision, direction and research priorities for the agency, the government said.

Early reactions to the funder were generally positive, though some science figures said they needed to see more detail before offering judgement.

The agency should be “well-connected to the existing research and innovation ecosystem”, and act like a public sector venture fund “where many ideas will fail and a minority will be transformative,” said Ruth McKernan, chair of the BioIndustry Association and venture partner at SV Health Investors. McKernan is also the former CEO of Innovate UK, the innovation funder that sits under UKRI.

“It's important to have a wide range of approaches to funding, and accept that not everything we try will succeed when it comes to game-changing breakthroughs,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, the global charitable foundation.

Researchers want to see “longevity and continuity of funding in order to succeed – establishing the agency through legislation should help to ensure this,” said Daniel Rathbone, assistant director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering, an advocacy group.

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