On 19th February the Government tabled new legislation to create the new £800m Advanced Research and Invention Agency ARIA, granting it significant autonomy to develop and pursue the UK’s most advanced research and innovative projects.

The news is one more welcome step in a series of important milestones following the first announcement for a UK style ARPA in the Queen’s 2019 speech to “provide long term funding to support visionary high-risk, high-pay off scientific, engineering and technology ideas”.

However, the proposed legislation is expected to be notably silent about whether ARIA will focus on mission-based or challenge-led research.

Looking ahead to next month’s budget announcement and the Government’s imminent plan to begin easing lockdown restrictions, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng will be looking for longer term solutions that will not simply address the short term recovery issues but establish a bigger vision that identifies new technologies and market openings that can drive growth at unprecedented scale. It’s good news for the R&D community to see a business secretary so clearly championing the role of research in driving economic recovery.

The latest legislation veers away from the advice contained within a report from the Common’s Science and Technology Committee last week which concluded that the proposed agency was a ‘brand in search of a product’ and should follow a mission-based agenda.

The case for defining the agency’s purpose has been made by many but the Committee’s advice to officials is that the UK ARPA can play an important role by pursuing “goal-oriented research, driven by societal need, with the potential to produce lasting, transformational changes. These should focus on “mission-based” or “challenge-led” research, aligned with the goals of the nation.

Mission Impossible? Defining the remit of the new agency

In November last year, NCUB convened a Taskforce made up of both industry and university leaders to aid the Government in setting out a plan to achieve the ambitions contained within the R&D Roadmap.

A key recommendation from the Taskforce was that the UK should identify commercial missions around which it can focus support and resource to encourage research translation and become world leading in targeted domains.

The proposed ARIA has the potential to play an important role in helping the UK achieve this ambition.

The UK and many other countries have adopted mission-orientated approaches to focus resource on tackling Global Challenges.   Defining commercial, strategic opportunities or ‘missions’ that are of broad societal benefit but where the UK already holds a dominant position has the potential to transform the UK’s economy.

Chosen missions must be able to bridge cutting edge research through to commercially viable products and services with both local and international market potential. As the Committee reported, it could be as simple as: ‘picking a problem or a class of problems’ within a discipline or industry where the UK performs well. Instead of trying to define the mission by thinking of the solution, the ‘mission’ will be defined by the problem that needs solving.

Based on the Government’s latest proposals that the agency will focus on higher risk projects with higher rewards, commercially-based missions could still help to focus ARIA’s remit. The conclusions from the Committee, specifying there should be two missions at most (given the relatively modest initial investment of £800m) suggested that questions about ARIA’s remit could be much more straightforward if the agency were to serve a suggested ‘client’.

Potential candidates for ARIA, they said, could include the Department of Health and Social Care (for a life sciences-focussed agency), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (for a Clean Energy/Net Zero mission) or the Ministry of Defence. Latest Government proposals suggest the proposed ARIA will report directly to the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) which could suggest a much broader remit.

Speaking last month to a meeting hosted by the Foundation for Science and Technology, Ruth McKernan, chair of the BioIndustry Association, suggested that the proposed agency should be designed in the spirit of a venture capital fund in order to reduce red tape and promote speed and flexibility. Commercially viable missions would help to focus ARIA’s remit to areas where the UK is already showing strength but where targeted public resource could lead to a dominant global market position.

Man on a mission: Putting research and innovation at the heart of the economy

If the Government’s track record is to continue, Chancellor’s Sunak’s new Growth Plan is likely to contain a strong focus on research and innovation with different challenges to those included in the current Industrial Strategy. Crucially, it should specify how coordination across different levels of government and parts of the UK, as well as across the remits of departments and budgets can ensure everyone is working towards a similar goal. ARIA provides a further opportunity to meet those challenges and should not be left in isolation.

The proposed new Growth Plan, intended to replace the current Industrial Strategy, will require more long term, visionary thinking and it is in this spirit that ARIA is being proposed. However, without a clear purpose or mission, the devil will be in the detail about the kinds of projects ARIA will target funding.