Following the announcement of the proposed launch of the new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), Naomi Ikeda notes that details have been kept light to enable the first director of the agency to implement their own vision with autonomy. With that in mind, she opens discussions around what the most important elements they must include are...
Like all within the UK’s R&D space, we welcomed the Government’s announcement in February that they are launching the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), with the aim to fund high-risk, high-reward innovation. The Government provided additional information about the purpose of the agency a couple of weeks ago. However, the details are deliberately light at this stage so that the first director of the agency can implement their own vision with autonomy. What we do know for sure is that this is a prime opportunity to shape the future of British innovation.
What we do know about ARIA and what that means
...ARIA must not operate in isolation but operate within the UK’s innovation ecosystem, working closely with public bodies, academic institutes, and private enterprise.
Despite having limited detail on ARIA, most of what we know so far, we like. The initial funding of £800m, which will likely be boosted with private investment, means that there is considerable financial support available for innovators. And while much of ARIA’s structure will be determined by the first director, we know that it is going to be run by scientists, as opposed to civil servants or politicians, and will run like a business, led by a CEO and prioritising speed of delivery. This is in stark contrast to the majority of current funding bodies who tend to slow down progress due to bureaucratic tendencies.
We also know that it’s going to be modelled on the American Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), an organisation with an impressive track record specifically designed to foster innovation. For example, it limits a programme director’s tenure to 4-6 years to avoid the creation of fiefdoms and bring in fresh ideas. With the first director being given leeway by the Government to set up ARIA in their own vision, what are the most important elements they must include?
Whilst it’s positive that ARIA will operate outside of UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) and the controls that come with it, ARIA must not operate in isolation but operate within the UK’s innovation ecosystem, working closely with public bodies, academic institutes, and private enterprise. Successful R&D does not and cannot happen in a vacuum. The reaction to the announcement already shows the willingness to collaborate. Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group, stated how ARIA has the potential to turn ideas developed at universities “into technologies that will support jobs and change the UK for the better”. While Matthew Fell, CBI Chief Policy Director, stated that “this is a prime chance for business, government and the research and innovation community to work together”. ARIA should harness this willingness and have an efficient collaboration process in order to provide leadership to this ecosystem.
Developing the ARIA ecosystem
They must be careful however that, as this ecosystem develops, speed remains a priority and that it doesn’t become bogged down as it becomes more complex.
There is no greater example of the benefits of a collaborative approach than the current Oxford-AstraZeneca, Covid-19 vaccine. Through the combination of Oxford’s world-class research facilities, and personnel, coupled with AstraZeneca’s experience and infrastructure in drug manufacturing, they were able to produce an effective vaccine in under a year.
They must be careful however that, as this ecosystem develops, speed remains a priority and that it doesn’t become bogged down as it becomes more complex. One of the key reasons that ARIA has been created is to counter the slow and bureaucratic nature that has come to characterise many funding bodies in the UK. Taking inspiration from ARPA will be vital to avoid this trap. Collaborations must be selective and ARIA projects should enlist strategic support but maintain control and that all important agility. This will avoid overcomplicating processes with too many stakeholders.
By limiting the director’s tenure, as ARPA does, ARIA will ensure that it doesn’t develop ‘institutional thinking’ which often stifles innovation, as it leads people to follow set guidelines and plans rather than think outside the box. The limitation will mean ARIA continually refreshes it’s thinking and doesn’t get impeded by rigid processes. But this shouldn’t just be at the highest level as at ARPA. The Government has stated that programme managers are expected to apply to work for a 3-5 year fixed tenure. While there shouldn’t be a scenario of constant staff turnover, it must be ensured that internal fiefdoms aren’t created as that could foster internal rivalries and reduce innovation. The Government has stated that the primary concern is ‘how research is funded rather than the precise, area, industry, or technology’, detailing new funding methods, such as inducement prizes and seed grants, but they must be cautious about applications. In most cases, grant funding is bureaucratic and slow. They need to make this process as smooth as possible, adopting practices from professional investment firms where possible.
What initiatives should ARIA channel funding to?
ARIA has the potential to push forward innovation in cleantech that will drive down costs of a potential green industrial revolution.
In terms of what initiatives funding is channelled into, program managers will determine the direction. While we by no means suggest that the Government should limit the scope of the new agency, we believe that there are a number of obvious areas that warrant focus.
The first is the pharmaceutical and life sciences sector, of which the UK is a global leader. The past year has been revolutionary in the way we develop vaccines and innovate in the pharmaceutical space. But this success should not mean that we take our foot off the gas. The chances of pandemics occurring is on the rise, and instead of seeing them as generational events that are destined to happen, we need to take steps to stop them. Now is the chance to build on the developments made over the past year.
Another obvious area of focus is green technology. This Government has repeated its commitment to reducing carbon emissions, but a clear roadmap to achieving this has been lacking. ARIA has the potential to push forward innovation in cleantech that will drive down costs of a potential green industrial revolution. All in all, ARIA has the potential to play a massive part in accelerating innovation and technological development across the UK. With the Government remaining purposefully vague up until this point, the direction of ARIA will largely be shaped by it’s first director. The Government’s main priority is to ensure they get the right person for the job.
Author: Naomi Ikeda is Manager, R&D Incentives, Ayming UK & Ireland, ayming.co.uk
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