19 February 2021

Scientists handed ‘licence to fail’ with creation of bold UK research agency

19 February 2021

Scientists will be given £800 million of public money to explore ideas that could fail as the UK strives to put itself at the centre of global innovation, ministers have announced.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced on Friday that an independent scientific research agency will be established to support cutting-edge research, in a move emulating the US.

He said that, in forming the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (Aria), the UK Government was “stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators” to come up with the inventions of the future.

By stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators, the agency will be given the freedom to drive forward the technologies of tomorrow

Aria will be tasked with funding “high-risk, high-reward” research, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis) said.

It will have a much higher tolerance for failure than is normal, in what officials said was a recognition that “in research the freedom to fail is often also the freedom to succeed”.

The formation of the agency was mentioned in the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto and is thought to have been pushed by Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser who left Downing Street last year.

Labour has expressed concern about reports that have suggested the work of the agency will be cloaked in secrecy after ministers allegedly exempted it from being subject to Freedom of Information (FoI) requests.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said it was “important” that Aria did not have a blanket FoI exemption “so taxpayers know how their money is being invested”.

The PM's former adviser Dominic Cummings is said to have been a supporter of establishing Aria (PA Wire)

BEIS said Aria would be based on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (Apra), which Mr Cummings wrote about regularly and was instrumental in creating transformational technologies such as the internet and GPS.

Apra’s stateside successor Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Dapra) was a vital pre-pandemic funder of mRNA vaccines – technology the UK-approved Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines are based on – and other antibody therapies, the department said.

Cabinet minister Mr Kwarteng said: “From the steam engine to the latest artificial intelligence technologies, the UK is steeped in scientific discovery.

“Today’s set of challenges – whether disease outbreaks or climate change – need bold, ambitious and innovative solutions.

“Led independently by our most exceptional scientists, this new agency will focus on identifying and funding the most cutting-edge research and technology at speed.

“By stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators, the agency will be given the freedom to drive forward the technologies of tomorrow, as we continue to build back better through innovation.”

The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine being rolled out in the UK utilises technology invested in by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (PA Wire)

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, said: “The Advanced Research and Invention Agency will build on the UK’s world-class scientific research and innovation system.

“The importance of scientific innovation has never been clearer than over the last year and this new body provides an exciting new funding mechanism for pioneering R&D.”

Legislation to create the research agency will be introduced to Parliament as soon as parliamentary time allows, the Government said, with the aim for Aria to be fully operational by 2022.

A recruitment will start in the coming weeks to appoint a chief executive and chair for the body, which Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced at last years’ Budget would be given £800 million of funding to take it through to 2024.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox