David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill, published on 2 March 2021, sets out the bare bones structure of the UK’s newest funding agency.

If, like many, you’ve been interested in where and how ARIA will invest a budget of at least £800m in blue-skies research, you will not be satisfied with what we learn from this Bill. Instead, we’re still at the broad-brush stage of setting out functions such as:

(1) ARIA may do, or commission or support others to do, any of the following—

(a) conduct scientific research;

(b) develop and exploit scientific knowledge;

(c) collect, share, publish and advance scientific knowledge

The commentary in the Explanatory Notes suggests that 1(a) allows for a literature review and to partner with academic or industry teams, 1(b) allows research commissioning at the “bringing products to market” level (very Innovate UK!), and 1(c) allows for an ARIA conference.

Small amount of detail that underpins this offers little novelty.

(2) In exercising its function of supporting others, ARIA may, in particular—

(a) encourage, facilitate and provide advice;

(b) provide financial support by way of grants, loans, investments in companies or other entities, or in any other form (including prizes);

(c) make available rights or other property (including by way of loan, licence or gift or other transfer).

Section 2 is largely identical to a similar list in HERA section 93. The measures in subclause (c) allow the new agency to make available what it discovered by commercial (licence) means or by other transfer. ARIA research could have a commercial value as well as a national one. And the new agency is explicitly permitted to work outside of the United Kingdom – though it must “have regard” for the desirability of bringing about economic benefits, promoting innovation, and improving the quality of life in the UK. This is broadly similar to the “have regard” list of the old funding councils under UKRI

Structures and staff

Schedule 1 of the ARIA bill maps quite neatly to Schedule 9 of HERA – so it’s pretty easy to spot what is missing from the new body that is present in UKRI. The first key one is the number of people – the UKRI board needs to be between 12 and 15 strong, whereas ARIA will be able get by with 9 (with the proviso that the majority must be non-executive). The government’s Chief Scientific Advisor is a non-executive member (welcome to ARIA, Patrick Vallance!) as will be the chair -appointed by the Secretary of State. The SoS also gets to appoint a CEO and Chief Financial Officer (CFO).

The chair of ARIA gets to appoint everyone else, but the SoS needs to consent to this, he has the ability to refuse if it is necessary or expedient in the interests of national security – which neatly gives the SoS the blame if we appoint a former prime ministerial advisor with connections in Russia to the ARIA board, just to pick a random example off the top of my head.

It’s actually quite good this is here, as there is no expertise requirement for ARIA board membership at all – neither is there a requirement to ensure experience of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland (ARIA is UK wide, and I’m sure the devolved parliaments are delighted about that). The SoS can remove people for “unfitness or inability” to carry out the functions of office – but nowhere do we find any indication as to what ability or fitness would look like. ARIA also gets a term limit for the CEO: not more than five years and no more than two terms.

Activities and records

Unlike UKRI, the Secretary of State has no direct right to attend (or have a representative attend) ARIA meetings though with the Chief Scientific Advisor on the board this probably won’t be an issue. These meetings are permitted to include decisions to form partnerships and joint ventures, and start companies, with the SoS getting no say in the matter – UKRI can only do stuff like that with permission.

Schedule 1 requires ARIA (like UKRI) to keep proper accounts and records – which need to be certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General before being laid before parliament by the secretary of state. There’s also a more general report on the exercises of its functions each year, again laid before parliament – this latter is similar to the requirements that were placed on the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the 2004 Higher Education Act. Similar reporting requirements for each council were rolled into section 15 of Schedule 9 in the 2017 Higher Education and Research act with one important difference – subsection (3) on cooperation with the Office for Students is omitted.

If I follow this correctly this suggests that ARIA will not be supporting doctorates or other postgraduate research leading to an award – OfS should have some oversight on the student experience and this should be required as it is for UKRI to be noted in the annual report.

ARIA is also not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, though we don’t get a justification for this decision – it is at least subject to the Equalities Act. Neither, it appears, does membership of ARIA preclude a person from sitting in the House of Commons.

What else can ARIA do that UKRI can’t?

In all honesty, surprisingly little. UKRI can research “science, technology, humanities, and new ideas” whereas the new body just gets the first one.

All support offered to ARIA is subject to conditions – this can mean, as widely trailed, the repayment of financial support or the restoration of property if such conditions are not met. The Bill doesn’t spell this out, but this is likely to be in the event of failure. ARIA is expected to “give particular weight” to research and knowledge exploitation that “carries a high risk of failure after all”. UKRI has the same (or broadly similar) conditions linked to “terms and conditions” that can apply, but omits the “high risk of failure language”.

ARIA doesn’t need a strategic delivery plan, but in all honesty will probably develop one. The explanatory notes suggest organising ambitious research goles around long term programmes of work. As an ex-programme manager myself (MSP-trained, no less!) the idea that these are lead by “so-called Programme Managers” who facilitate cohesion between projects remind me of many happy years working with “significant autonomy” at a pre-2012 Jisc. There’s more on failure here too:

A tolerance to failure in pursuit of transformational breakthroughs embedded in its culture. Only a small fraction of ambitious goals will be achieved, however ARIA will provide value from its failures, including spill-over benefits gained from intermediary outputs. For example, a particular goal may not prove technologically viable but in pursuing it, scientists may happen across another promising technology

This all seems hopeful, but there is a potential for vast sums to be spent with little benefit. The accountability ARIA has to Parliament and the Secretary of State suggests that continued failure may, eventually, prompt questions. Alas section 8 forbids the dissolution of ARIA for 10 years – there’s nothing to stop the SoS just declining to allocate funding but this feels like an utterly arbitrary time limit to write into primary legislation.

5 responses to “The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill

  1. There are questions to be answered, but on the whole this has much potential to bring on useful research and useful outputs/products. I’m glad to see the OfS excluded as much of the potential research will be done without undergrad involvement, post grads effectively being staff in most Universities, like wise the FoI exemption to keep ‘sensitive’ research secure makes a lot of sense. I take that the Guardian has taken such a vehement dislike already as a good sign.

    1. Hi John – OfS is also supposed to look after the interests of postgraduate research students.

      1. Supposed to, but rarely take any real interest and are seen by many of the overseas postgrads I work with as more of an interference.

  2. WonkHE it is good to see an article on research policy as so many of your articles focus on education and student-related matters. More please!

  3. Thanks for the article. Useful and interesting. My worry is that the same group of political ‘friends and relations’ will wield all the power in terms of selection of non-execs and project managers for ARIA down the line. It would be nice to see some new faces and fresh ideas from outside the SoS and Chair’s connected circles!

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