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British govt emits fuzzy vision for UK version of American boffin special forces group Darpa

Aria. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Speaking to the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee last autumn, Dr Peter Highnam, US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) deputy director, said: “Having national security as the mission frames everything. It is not wide open; there is always context and use cases.”

Darpa is the agency the UK government so painfully wants to mimic with its Advanced Research & Invention Agency, or Aria, launched today.

In the resulting committee report, published last week, MPs set out the yard-stick against which they might measure Aria’s success.

Chairman Greg Clark, an MP for the ruling Conservatives, said: "The Government must make up its mind and say what Aria’s mission is to be. The Government's financial commitment to supporting such an agency is welcome, but the budget will not be put to good use if [its] Aria's purpose remains unfocused.”

With this week’s announcement, the government has attempted to offer that focus. Aria is tasked with “funding high-risk research that offers the chance of high rewards, supporting ground-breaking discoveries that could transform people’s lives for the better.”

That could mean everything and nothing. The focus is still a little fuzzy: note the difference between how the UK frames its mission and the model adopted by the US.

As Highnam told MPs: “Our mission is national security writ large... Can it be done? If so, how well can it be done? If somebody else is doing it, can we detect it, and how will we stop it? It is very clear.”

Aria has been loudly teased by the UK government for the last two years, and is famously the pet project of Dominic Cummings, the former advisor to the Prime Minister and whose WhatsApp handle reportedly still says: “Get Brexit Done, then Arpa (Darpa's predecessor).”

The money for the UK agency was announced in last year’s budget, and amounts to £800m over four years: Darpa gets $3.4bn annually.

While Darpa is focused on security, the UK agency already has competition in that regard. The Defence Innovation Initiative was launched in 2016 and funding amounts to £800m over 10 years.

UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said Aria would accelerate innovation by “stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators.”

Never mind the fact that the UK science and technology is currently grappling with red tape resulting from Brexit, a project that members of the government backed almost uniformly.

Another kind of red tape Aria will avoid is the Freedom of Information Act, according to a report in The Times.

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel was quick to point out this was not the Darpa model, which comes under US law.

“Allowing Aria to ignore FOI would reflect a deep-seated government aversion to FOI rather than any need to protect legitimate interests,” she said.

Aside from whether the UK is effectively mimicking the US model for innovation or not lies the question of whether the US model is the best to follow. Darpa and its cousins E-arpa and Iarpa (for intelligence) and Arpa-E (for energy), have achieved their successes, notably in the creation of the internet and GPS.

But UK science and technology has long punched above its weight. Nationalistic chest-thumping aside, jet engines, the worldwide web, micro-processor design, and genetics are among the UK developments to have transformed the modern world.

Also, arguably, fundamental (aka "basic") research - which doesn't have an immediate "high reward" payoff but underpins some of the larger understanding of science – would likewise be a good bet. If you ask the scientific community, it's an even better bet.

And, if anything, the UK has not struggled to discover or invent things; it is scaling, commercialising, and keeping that it struggles with.

Whether the new funding for high-risk research helps in this department is a moot point. Aria is dwarfed by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and in 2020-21 the government has allocated £10.36bn for its research programmes and bodies.

Maybe more clarity on the mission will emerge after the agency’s leader has been selected. US physicist and uber-tech influencer Michael Nielsen was reported to have been offered the job, which he turned down.

Until more detail emerges, there is the risk that the only transforming Aria might do is from Cumming’s pet project into the undeniable form of a white elephant. Maybe in science and technology, like in sport, things work differently on the eastern side of the Atlantic. ®

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