Access all ARIAs: the UK’s newest research funder

The UK's newest research funder has a name and the beginnings of a remit, but - as David Kernohan explains - so many questions remain.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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It appears to be fundamental to the British national character that we see ourselves as a nation of inventors.

I chose the phrase carefully – despite the strength and quality of our academic research the idea of a “nation of researchers” or (god forbid!) a “nation of academics” has never taken hold. The inventor of the popular imagination is either a gifted amateur, a keen aristocrat, or an academic constrained by the strictures of formal research and accountability. There’s a handy list in the press release:

  • Ada Lovelace – keen aristocrat (also the only woman in this list)
  • Alan Turing – constrained academic
  • Thomas Newcomen – gifted amateur
  • James Watt – constrained academic and Scottish person
  • William Grove – keen aristocrat and Welsh person
  • Frank Partridge – constrained academic and Northern Irish person.

Notable omissions would be Rosalind Franklin – who was the first person to visualise the structure of DNA – and Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who were the first people to isolate and characterise graphene. All three were scientists born outside the UK, working in UK higher education.

I could also speculate as to the omission of father of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee, and inventor of the first multi-platform web browser Nicola Pellow, who were British but working for a collaborative European project at the time of their inventions.

The inclusion of the word “invention” in the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) is very much a prompt towards this particular narrative – as is the decision for it to sit outside of conventional research funding at a departmental or funding council (UKRI) area. ARIA will fund research via programme grants, seed grants, and prize incentives – all of which are regularly used by existing national research funding agencies.

Failure is an option

ARIA has a high tolerance for failure – but in research funding that is nothing new.

The whole idea of QR in England is as research funding available to researchers outside of the scope of defined projects – nobody, after all, checks up to see how providers have spent their QR allocation or claws it back if your research hits a dead end.

Even project funding isn’t available dependant on the success of your research – sure, you’d need a project with a reasonable chance of discovering something useful in order to get the funding (and probably a track record of doing so), but you don’t have to hand the money back if you prove the null hypothesis.

So I’m painting a picture here of an intervention that is aimed more by the heart than the head. A policy that speaks more to the loss of an imagined freedom in a golden past than any widespread difficulties actual researchers (and inventors) are dealing with. Certainly I’ve no clue why you’d need primary legislation as anything other than a talking point. Can you imagine why Dominic Cummings would be so keen?

Innovation nation

The other point of reference for ARIA is the mythology that has built up around (D)ARPA – the (Defense) Advanced Projects Research Agency. DARPA currently has a remit “to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security” – you will note that a degree of value (“pivotal investments”) and practicality (“technologies”, not basic science) is targeted towards a particular area of need (“national security”, however broadly defined).

The remit of ARPA/DARPA has varied over the years – moving between specific development and wider exploratory “basic” research, and frequently overlapping the wider work of NASA. In terms of partnership it has frequently worked with the private sector (including on core functions) while drawing staff from the government and university sector. Since 1973 it has focused entirely on defence-related research, albeit across multiple academic disciplines (including computer science, psychology, and vaccinations). The idea of a free-for-all supporting exploratory research that led to major breakthroughs – if it was ever true at all – was briefly true in the late 60s and early 1970s.

That said, there has been a general keenness among the HE and research communities to welcome ARIA – not least because it unlocks £800m of research funding with every possibility of more to follow in future.

Revise and resubmit

But questions clearly remain unanswered.

Who will staff ARIA? The independence from the government is stressed several times in the announcement, but it will be led by “prominent, world-leading scientists” appointed by the government (look out for those job adverts for interim Chief Executive and Chair!). It is not clear where other staff – “our most inspirational scientists and inventors” – will be drawn from, or whether those funded by ARIA will work for the new body (as happens at DARPA).

How will it decide what to fund and what not to fund? Unlike other research funders, ARIA explicitly has the power to start and stop projects according to success. The vision, direction, and research priorities will be set by the interim chief executive and chair – there is a hint that it will experiment with funding methodologies but decisions on whether or not to spend large sums of public money generally require some kind of rationale (and indeed, audit trail).

How will the government know whether it has worked? Obviously, everybody wants to fund great research that discovers amazing things to make life better for everyone – but how will it become clear whether the ARIA way gets us more for our money than UKRI or indeed privately-funded industrial research supported via tax breaks? To be clear, it’s absolutely worth trying – but like any experiment it is worth planning properly so the results can be understood.

2 responses to “Access all ARIAs: the UK’s newest research funder

  1. Cumming’s own musings would indicate he wanted to build his own version of PARC mixed with JASON, a research agency left to its own devices that is as free from public scrutiny as it is from government meddling. A think-tank of the brightest minds left alone to research whatever they wanted without fears of ‘wasted taxpayers money’ appearing in the press is a freedom most scientists and engineers can only dream of!

    There is a wonderful few chapters on PARC and the freedoms its researchers had in ‘The One Device’ by Brian Merchant and well worth a read. Incidentally there it also tels the story of a secretive skunkworks team within Apple that developed many of the key technologies in modern smart devices right under the nose of Steve Jobs without any meddling from management.

    The knee-jerk press reactions comparing it to DARPA and its big D for Defence do not help as it immediately makes it sound like all their research will be aimed at the military rather than just research for researches’ sake.

    1. The idea of well funded ‘blue sky’ is good, many projects that attract UKRI/DARPA definitive funding currently are from self funded Academic/Post Grad blue-sky work.

      But we shouldn’t lose sight of the potential Defence/Security issues around such research, some of the projects I’ve been involved in have as they’ve developed become very sensitive due to the National Security implications as ‘other’ applications were realised not in the original aim or scope of the project work, and we should expect a level of enhanced security scrutiny as a result. This might also include specific exclusions for those from nations who are a threat to UK national security, creating a mine-field of potential traps for Academics unused to such security considerations.

      So the presses knee-jerk reaction might not be so far from the mark, ‘Defence’ is so much more than the military, with National Security including such things as basic infrastructure, water, food and fuel and with the current drive for a cashless society banking and e-commerce.

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