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Aria’s moonshot projects should be allowed to fail, business secretary says

Image credit: Angellodeco | Dreamstime

The business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has expressed the importance of high-risk, high-reward research as the government’s plans for a moonshot research agency move to the next stage in Parliament.

In February, the government announced that the new research agency would be fully operational by 2022. The Advanced Research & Invention Agency (Aria) will receive £800m in funding for the remainder of this parliament and will have “strategic and cultural” independence, the government said.

The agency will be given much greater flexibility than other research agencies. It will be able to: stop and start projects according to their success; redirect funding; and experiment with different funding models. The government have also said that they intend for it to be exempt from FOI requests and to have a high tolerance for failure.

Kwarteng emphasised the importance of the latter point as legislation to create the agency moved to its second reading.

“We have to give Aria significant powers, freedoms, and indeed a mandate to be bold,” he said. “In order to deliver to this end, we have introduced the ARIA Bill. The Bill recognises that funding transformational long-term science requires patience and a high-risk appetite. The Bill explicitly states that Aria may give weight to the potential of significant benefits when funding research which does indeed carry a high risk of failure.

“The freedom to fail is fundamental to Aria’s model and this provision will empower its leaders to make ambitious research and funding decisions.”

Kwarteng added that Aria should have leaders with the authority to decide on areas with the greatest potential to generate transformative technologies, explaining: “The Bill limits the ability for ministers, as it should do, to intervene in Aria’s day-to-day operations or to direct funding decisions.”

Aria is inspired by US military research agency Darpa (formerly Arpa), which was instrumental in the development of technologies including GPS and the internet. It is considered the pet project of former Number 10 insider Dominic Cummings, who conceives it as a body led by “very odd people” which is ready to “wage war on process”; Cummings reportedly agreed to work in Downing Street on the condition that the government would create the agency.

Labour offered tentative support for the Bill while raising concerns about lack of strategy for the agency. Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said that Darpa has an obvious client in the Pentagon and a clear mandate for its work, which Aria currently lacks.

“Government should set a clear mandate and framework for Aria and then get out of the way and not interfere with its day-to-day decision making. I also believe there is a democratic case because the priority spending of £800m over this Parliament should be driven by democratic choices, not about the specific items that it funds but about the goals and missions of this,” he said. Miliband also rejected the proposed exemption to FOI requests as unjustifiable; Darpa does not have a similar exemption.

Science and technology committee chair Greg Clark said: “I think the question as to what will be the focus of the agency is a legitimate one, if only for the fact that it is easy to dissipate £800m in so many projects that actually you don’t get the transformation that is in prospect. With that budget and based on the evidence we took, our committee recommended that there should be no more than two focal points for the organisation.”

Meanwhile, the committee has demanded an explanation from the government about whether it is about to make a “paradoxical” effective cut to the science budget. The UK’s contribution to the EU research funding program Horizon Europe – which was previously included in the UK’s EU contributions – was not mentioned during Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s budget. Continued silence in the face of calls for an explanation have led to concerns that the £2bn funding will instead be covered by cuts from the existing budget for UK Research & Innovation.

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