UK's ARIA innovation body 'hasn't even begun to happen' says former research lead

DARPA imitator not doing much after two years of Johnson government

Updated The UK's efforts to copy US government and military innovation outfit DARPA are stalling, according to a leading figure in research and development.

Appearing before the Science and Technology Committee, Sir John Kingman, former chair of UK Research and Innovation, told MPs this morning that ARIA – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency – was a good example of departmental research spending that could be cut, sidelined or delayed.

"A very high-profile example would be ARIA, which has been this big plan for the Boris Johnson government, and yet here we are a few years into the Johnson government and it still hasn't even begun to happen," he told MPs.

Earlier this month reports suggested attempts to find a leader for the innovation unit had stalled.

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, which leads the ARIA project, has been contacted for a comment and offered the opportunity to provide an update on progress.

ARIA was launched as a policy statement in March this year.

It was earmarked for £800m investment in the budget and was set to be modelled on the principles of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) now renamed DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). ARPA was behind ARPAnet, a precursor to the internet.

Earlier this year, ARIA attracted criticism for a lack of focus in its mission. Officially it 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."

But Dr Peter Highnam, DARPA's deputy director, had told the Science and Technology Committee: "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."

The lack of progress on the ARIA was among Kingman's concerns for the way government controls R&D spending.

He was addressing a select committee that gathered to examine the government's commitment to spend £2.4bn on R&D across the public sector by 2024/25.

As public spending came under pressure following the COVID business bailout, furlough scheme, and fall in tax receipts, the commitment to spend the money during the period appeared to have been dropped in the Innovation Strategy published this summer.

The committee has asked the Secretary of State if this was deliberate, but he has not answered the question, said chair Greg Clark.

Kingman made the point that when government departments might be allocated money as part of the £22bn, it might be spent in other ways.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor at the University of Manchester, told the committee that if the government were to renege on its commitment to spend the £22bn figure on R&D by 2024/25, it "would have limited value and I would question our ability to even begin to become a science superpower or deliver on levelling-up."

She said: "Recognising, of course, the financial constraints, there's a difference between costs and investment, and sometimes even in tough times you have to invest in something that's going to pay back a lot more than you invest." ®

Updated to add at 15:49 UTC:

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: "The Advanced Research and Invention Agency will fund transformational research so we can turn incredible ideas into new products and services, benefitting the entire United Kingdom. "The legislation to create ARIA is currently being considered in the House of Lords. Once operational, ARIA will be an invaluable addition to the UK’s thriving R&D ecosystem."

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