ARIA picks its top team

ARIA has appointed its programme directors and James Coe has taken a look at what they're working on

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

I’ve always thought ARIA deserved a chance and in the appointment of its programme directors it might have just given itself a decent chance of success.

Point and people

The whole point of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency is not only that it has the space to research the bold, unpopular, and difficult (it has a legal framework that ensures it must do that for the next decade) but that the whole research community learns about an approach to funding science which is open-ended and explicitly rejects short-term accountability.

The programmes under the ARIA banner might achieve something between nothing but the knowledge about how to run a quasi-independent funding agency or at the other extreme they might genuinely discover things that the standard R&D ecosystem would never fund or nurture.

The nature of the type of research that ARIA is interested in is that it is specialist and unpredictable so rather than assessing ARIA on its intellectual merits it is much more interesting to consider what the new team tells us about the kind of organisation ARIA is going to be.

Go team science!

ARIA’s work is led by a series of programme directors. These are researchers of all kinds that are given broad briefs, resources, and support, to explore work that is interesting to them. The first batch have just been appointed.

One of the things that is immediately noticeable about ARIA is that its online presence doesn’t look anything like most research agencies. The team communicates through a Substack. The website is stripped back to a few buttons with only a few pieces of headline information. The tone leans into upbeat tech-utopianism of the collective, entrepreneurialism supporting, difficult endeavour undertaking, silos and pathways bending, language of the tech-start up world.

It all just feels very different.

It is therefore reassuring, maybe even surprising, that the new programme directors are a set of thoroughly credentialed biologists, medical researchers, physicists, electrochemists, and computing experts, with records of success in both more conventional research fields and in applied research in business settings.

The programmes are categorised both by their leads and by their development. Where a programme is still in the “questioning” stage programme directors are working on research to challenge received scientific knowledge. Where a programme is in the “bounding” stage they are actively seeking collaborators. Unsurprisingly, at this stage, the majority of programmes are in the questioning stage.

The programme directors are:

  • Angie Burnett who is interested in the application of technology to the food security system. Angie is currently a research associate at the University of Cambridge. According to her university profile Angie has also worked as a research associate at Brookhaven National Laboratory in the USA and as a consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Italy
  • Jacques Carolan is researching the use of neurotechnologies as therapeutic tools. On his website James describes his research as applying “principles from physics, quantum optics and electrical engineering to develop new tools for neuroscience, quantum technologies and photonic computing.”
  • Sarah Bohndiek and Gemma Bale are co-programme directors looking at the use of optical technologies in issues including human health and climate change. Sarah is employed at the University of Cambridge where she is a professor of biomedical physics. Gemma Bale, also employed at the University of Cambridge, is an assistant professor in medical therapeutics.
  • Suraj Bramhavar is working to “create alternative hardware paradigms that can allow us to sustainably scale AI compute to benefit everyone in society.” Suraj has spun a company out of MIT and has experience in the business world with Intel.
  • David ‘davidad’ Dalrymple is mobilising resources around the mathematical approaches to guarantee safe and reliable AI. David has significant industry experience in AI, mathematics, and machine learning. David also co-invented the cryptocurrency Filecoin.
  • Jenny Read is ushering in new ways of thinking about robotics with a focus on interdisciplinarity to help “humans build a secure and prosperous future.” Jenny is professor of vision science at Newcastle University.
  • Mark Symes is exploring and evaluating technologies to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. As well as another spin-out founder Mark is also the professor of electrochemistry and electrochemical technology at the University of Glasgow.

There’s no I in team

The team as a whole tells us some important things about ARIA.

The first is that they are aligned to what the broader scientific community would consider to be some of the world’s greatest threats and challenges. AI, climate change, and food security, would appear at the top of most lists of the most pressing issues facing humanity.

Equally, the team straddles a hinterland between having programme directors that have more conventional academic careers with big interests, academics that have run or built companies, and programme directors that lean more into business and technology worlds but with significant academic credentials.

The pitch of ARIA has always been to recruit broadly based on individual suitability rather than to a type. It’s clear that there is a preference toward achievement both within and outside of academia but it is also clear that the directors have different expertise, experiences, and backgrounds. As Pippy James Director of Product at ARIA notes in the launch video “this is a group of people who probably ordinarily would never hang out together.”

The mix of expertise and backgrounds speaks to the fundamental challenge and promise of ARIA. Its whole purpose of existence is to fund the things that funders would not usually fund in ways they would not usually fund them. The challenge is to not only discover new things but to make a new disparate team function with some of the standard practices needed to make scientific breakthroughs. The hard grind of team building. The careful design of funding calls and assiduous recruitment of partners. The ability to replicate and retest results. And a tolerance for constructive failure that will see programmes potentially outlive ministers, funding, and maybe even ARIA itself.

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