ARIA lives

The UK's newest research funder becomes a real organisation with the appointment of additional board members

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

Once merely a twinkle in Dominic Cummings’ eye and first funded in the March 2020 Budget ARIA has now completed its gestation period and has emerged into the world.

ARIA is the Government’s high-risk high-reward research funding body. It is kept separate from central control or influence from Research Councils, it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it has a broad remit to pursue the things which its teams find novel, interesting, or potentially transformative. The model is close to the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the US.

The debate around ARIA has been whether a body which exists independently of research infrastructure has a reasonable prospect of success. There have been concerns in the sector that this new body would overshadow proven routes to funding and that it could disrupt the still emerging work of UKRI. Time will tell whether an entirely new agency built on a new model can succeed. Its success will not only be the research and innovations it generates but the lessons that can be learned from this model even with a modest budget of £800m given its likely high burn rate.

Simultaneous to the announcement of its existence there have been five members appointed to ARIA’s board to work alongside Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance, and IIlan Gur and Matt Clifford, ARIA’s CEO and Chair. They are

  • Stephen Cohen. Stephen works in asset management and he is a Director at JPMorgan Japanese Investment Trust PLC. He is also a Civil Service commissioner and a commissioner for the Gambling Commission
  • David MacMillan. David grew up in Scotland and in 2021 shared the Noble Prize in Chemistry for his work in the development of asymmetric organocatalysis. He is currently the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University
  • Sarah Hunter. Sarah is Director of Global Public Policy at X, the moonshot factory. X works on new technologies to solve global problems. X is a spin out from Google and has developed projects ranging from delivery drones to contact lenses that measure glucose in the tears of people with diabetes.
  • And Kate Bingham. Kate is perhaps the most familiar name on this list as a successful venture capitalist and Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce. Kate rose to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic and has since been a commentator on a number of areas of innovation policy.

There is no doubt that the directors have incredibly impressive CVs and bring a huge range of experience in fields central to ARIA’s mission. It is notably small and fits in with a body that prizes speed and risk. In the coming months we will undoubtedly hear more of the work going on. The challenge for universities is to find the mechanisms to engage with a body that is, at least currently, central to the research landscape but is designed to circumvent the bureaucracy which universities are used to managing and working with.

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