The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (“the Bill”) provides for the creation of a high risk scientific research funding body. This new agency is modelled on the American research and development agency that is credited with developing innovations such as the precursor to the internet, GPS technology, and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
The Advanced Research and Invention Agency ("ARIA") will fund novel science and technology projects with a view to enabling paradigm-shifting technological progress. It will have discretion to use public money on fledgling scientific ideas that may previously have been considered too risky for public funding.
How will the ARIA operate?
In theory, the ARIA will be operationally independent from government. Scientists – not Ministers – will populate the Board of the Agency, setting its decision-making processes, portfolios, and budgets. Funding will then be passed to dedicated ‘Programme Managers’ who in turn will commission projects aimed at particular inventions.
It is hoped that a high degree of scientific autonomy will fuel better long-term outcomes for the taxpayer.
The Agency will be more nimble than existing public funding bodies, including UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as public procurement regulations and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“FOIA”) will not apply. This should make it easier for the ARIA to ensure that resources are focused on research and administration costs are reduced.
When will the Bill become law?
The Bill has passed through the parliamentary process and is awaiting Royal Assent. It is expected that the ARIA will become operational this year.
The Agency’s introduction is part of the Government’s ambitious plans to invest in R&D.
The 2017 Industrial Strategy originally set an objective to increase the country’s overall R&D spend to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. While the 2.4% target will need to be made up of public and private investment, the Government had promised in the March 2020 Budget a significant increase in the investment of public funds of £22billion in R&D by 2024/25. This has been scaled back by the Autumn Spending Review 2021 to £20billion and the target of £22billion rescheduled for 2026/27. This is still an increase compared to the current public investment levels in R&D but it is likely that this delay in investment will impact the Government’s target of 2.4% by 2027. While the Government has had to delay its overall funding provision, the commitment and funding for the ARIA has been maintained.
There have been some concerns about ARIA’s lack of transparency. Exemptions from public procurement regulations and the FOIA come amid wider concerns about the award of Government contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Further the ARIA’s operational independence considered essential to its success could be compromised by the powers retained by the Secretary of State under the legislation, specifically in relation to national security measures.
Ultimately these criticisms of the Bill point to a difficult trade-off between empowering scientists and field experts on the one hand and ensuring transparency and accountability to the taxpayer on the other.
It has been commented upon that the budget for the Agency (£800million over the next few years) is not that big in the context of the wider R&D investment. Nevertheless, the R&D sector welcomes the introduction of the Agency and the ring fencing of funds to invest in blue skies thinking research which otherwise may not have been funded.