ARIA arrives

A website, a twitter account, and two blokes from the "entrepreneurial fellowships" world

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It’s finally here.

A modest, monochrome, website doesn’t look much like a revolution in support for research – and two white men don’t honestly look much like the future. But today the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) takes its first steps, six months after the passage of primary legislation.

ARIA has an £800m budget to spend on “high-risk” programmes focused on transformational research. Primary legislation requires that the agency exists for a decade before any attempt can be made to close it. But the first step will be to invest in itself – appointing a team of programme managers and setting the parameters of initial investment.

Who are the new boys?

New Chief Executive Ilan Gur arrives from Activate, a big player in the US science-based start-up scene. The Activate model of support is a two-year fellowship offer – working with US institutions (including DARPA) to offer a stipend, seedcorn funding, instruction, and networking opportunities to promising young researchers from around the world. Gur was a part of the team that established ARPA-E, the US Department of Energy’s attempt to bring DARPA-like approaches to innovation in the energy sector.

In contrast, new Chair (from 15 August) Matt Clifford is steeped in the UK entrepreneurship scene. He’s the co-founder of Entrepreneur First – a programme introducing young founders to peers and investors in six locations around the world. And he also co-founded Code First Girls, which offers free courses at a number of levels and claims to have taught “three times as many women to code as the entire UK university undergraduate system. He has his own website that promotes a series of murder mysteries he has written and a list of his favourite books of the 2010s (the first one is War and Peace).

What can we learn so far?

It’s notable that both chief executive and chair come from the world of entrepreneurship and start-ups rather than academic research (though to be clear Gur has quite the track record in battery technology) and both run what can usefully be described as fellowship networks rather than research centres in the traditional sense.

It’s not difficult to imagine a world in which ARIA does a lot of good offering stipends, initial capital, and networks to promising young researchers in the UK. The danger would be that we end up developing more tech start ups, and lose a strategic sense of investment in key technologies of public benefit. With any kind of funding council the challenge is not allocating the money but ensuring it adds up to something.

The role of “programme manager” will be a key one. Having been a programme manager (proud to be MSP-trained – none of your “agile” nonsense!) I suspect the unusual mix of advocacy, imagination, and administration required will make these positions difficult to fill.

If all this sounds like your bag, ARIA is recruiting staff and running roundtables – assuming the mailing list sign up form can be made to work. Or you can apply to be a non-executive director or a Chief Financial Officer.

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