The UK government will launch a new grant funding agency in 2022 aimed specifically at funding high-risk science and breakthroughs.
The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) will have a budget of £800 million and is modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa). The idea was the brainchild of Dominic Cummings, former adviser to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Last week, the UK government announced its plans to begin drafting legislation that will create Aria. Over the coming weeks, the government intends to recruit a chief executive and chair to ‘shape the vision, direction and research priorities for the agency’. But details remain scarce.
For example, it remains unclear what type of research the agency will fund. ‘There’s still a lot of quite important questions to be answered about its purpose and function,’ says James Wilsdon, a research policy scholar at the University of Sheffield, UK. ‘With that scale of investment, you want to see something that’s pretty focused.’
Earlier this month, a report released by the House of Commons science and technology committee echoed these concerns. Specifically, the report noted that ‘more than a year after its inclusion in two successive Queen’s Speeches, the Government has not clearly articulated the need for, or intended remit of, the proposed agency’.
Wilsdon also notes that the UK research funding process went through major changes only a few years ago, which resulted in the creation of the umbrella funding body UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that now oversees the country’s research councils. ‘Having gone through the biggest shake up 30 years relatively recently, I think it’s not yet clear what the rationale is for further shaking things up other than political grandstanding,’ he says. He also notes that the UK already funds breakthrough science in the existing funding system.
Others, however, are more convinced that Aria will have an important role to play. The agency ‘has tremendous potential to enhance the UK and global research and innovation system,’ says Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UKRI. ‘The agency will have the freedom to experiment with pioneering new funding models, extending the reach of the current system to support people and ideas in new and different ways.’
Aria’s funding forms part of the UK government’s goal to increase its public research and development spending to £22 billion by 2024–2025, with a target of 2.4% of GDP being spent on R&D until 2027.