For the past 63 years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been the primary research and development branch of the United States Department of Defense. Created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, DARPA collaborates with academia, industry, and government partners. Many of the research projects expand the frontiers of technology and science, and even go beyond the immediate U.S. military requirements.
Today, it continues to be the lead DoD agency that creates the high-tech gizmos and gadgets that help provide our warfighters with an edge on the battlefield.
Now it looks like America’s closest partner across the Atlantic will be launching a similar initiative, the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), a planned research funding agency of the UK Government. ARIA is set to be fully operational by 2022.
The agency’s initial budget will be £800 million ($1.1 billion USD) over four years.
The UK’s DARPA
ARIA is being developed based on models that have already proven successful in other countries, and most notably this includes DARPA. However, the UK has stressed that the new agency will be independent of the government, but still led by some of the world’s leading and “visionary” researchers. They will be empowered to use their knowledge and expertise to identify and back the most ambitious, cutting-edge areas of research and technology – helping to create highly skilled jobs across the country.
The British government has also noted that the island nation has a long and proud history of inventing, dating back centuries, highlighting such names as Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing whose contributions helped with the development of the computer to William Grove who created the first fuel cells.
“From the steam engine to the latest artificial intelligence technologies, the UK is steeped in scientific discovery,” said the UK’s Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in a statement.
“Today’s set of challenges – whether disease outbreaks or climate change – need bold, ambitious and innovative solutions,” added Kwarteng. “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.”
In the policy statement for ARIA, the UK government laid out the need to connect pure research with new inventions and commercial products effectively, but also noted that the nation’s response to the novel coronavirus illustrated the importance of agility in funding and decision-making.
“The Advanced Research and Invention Agency will build on the UK’s world-class scientific research and innovation system,” said Sir Patrick Vallance, government chief scientific adviser. “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 new research agency will be introduced to Parliament as soon as parliamentary time allows. The aim is for it to be fully operational by 2022.
The UK has also announced that ARIA will have maximum autonomy over its research and project choice; its procedures; and its institutional culture. Decisions on its program portfolio will be set by the agency, not ministers, while allocation of funding for research projects will be determined by those with the relevant technical expertise.
This could set ARIA apart from DARPA, but there is more to the story.
“The largest apparent difference between ARIA and DARPA is the former’s lack of connections to the U.K.s Ministry of Defense,” said technology industry analyst Charles King of Pund-IT.
“Rather than existing within a larger department and treating that organization as a ‘customer’ – in terms of choosing which projects to investigate/pursue/fund, as DARPA does with the DoD – ARIA will apparently act as an independent agency,” King told ClearanceJobs. “There are some controversies brewing in relation to this, including how ARIA will be measurably different than UK Research and Innovation, which handles most of the research efforts for the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.”
King also explained that the bill creating ARIA is also exempting the agency from Freedom of Information (FOI) queries and from existing Public Contract Regulations that other agencies are required to follow.
“As part of the DoD, DARPA is subject to FOIA requests, though the often secretive nature of the agency’s work can result in such requests hitting a brick wall,” he added.
“In a sense, the British government is attempting to create an agency whose form/functions mimic nimble entrepreneurial start-ups and the muscular R&D efforts of larger tech vendors,” King told ClearanceJobs. “There’s much to be said for a willingness to pursue and fund research projects that are highly risky in practical terms. However, it will be interesting to see how patient ARIA’s creators and managers are if the new agency’s efforts fail to generate many or any tangible rewards.”