UK to launch new US$1.1bn DARPA-like research agency to support high risk, high reward science

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/structuresxx
© GettyImages/structuresxx

Related tags: DARPA, mRNA vaccine, COVID-19, Innovation

The UK government has announced the launch of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an initiative to fund “high-risk, high-reward” scientific research in the hope of achieving “groundbreaking” discoveries.

It is set to be fully operational next year.

The agency will be supported by £800m ($1.1bn) in government funding.

In November 2020, the UK government set out its plan to cement the UK’s status as a global leader in science and innovation by investing £14.6bn in R&D in 2021 to 2022, putting the UK on track to reach 2.4% of GDP being spent on R&D across the UK economy by 2027.

ARIA will be based on models that have proved successful in other countries, in particular the influential US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) model.

“This was instrumental in creating transformational technologies such as the internet and GPS, changing the way people live and work, while increasing productivity and growth. More recently, ARPA’s successor, DARPA, was a vital pre-pandemic funder of mRNA vaccines and antibody therapies, leading to critical COVID therapies,” ​read the release from the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

UK business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said the body will look to strip back unnecessary red tape and put power in the hands of innovators.

Central to the agency will be its ability to deliver funding to the UK’s most pioneering researchers flexibly and at speed, in a way that best supports their work and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy.

“It will experiment with funding models including program grants, seed grants, and prize incentives, and will have the capability to start and stop projects according to their success, redirecting funding where necessary," ​according to BEIS. 

ARIA will operate independently of government and be led by visionary researchers, and the new body will complement the work of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), said the officials.

'Funding mechanism for pioneering R&D'

UK government chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, was enthusiastic about the new agency: “The importance of scientific innovation has never been clearer than over the last year and this new body provides an exciting new funding mechanism for pioneering R&D.”

Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, echoed those comments: “COVID has shown us just how quickly UK researchers can react to rapid funding calls – removing unnecessary bureaucracy and giving ARIA the ability to act flexibly will help cutting-edge projects go forward at pace. We look forward to working with government to shape the new agency’s agenda.”

However, Ed Miliband MP, shadow business secretary, commenting on the launch of the new research agency,  said that the government “must urgently clarify”​ the mission and mandate of the new organization, following strong engagement with the UK’s science base – those closest to the work. “And it is important ARIA does not have a blanket exemption from FOI laws as has been reported, so taxpayers know how their money is being invested.”

A recruitment drive is set to get underway in the next weeks with the aim of securing an interim CEO and chair for the agency. 

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