ARIA can help solve the UK’s “ambition gap”

By Dr Nick Hawker, Founder and CEO of Oxford-based fusion energy pioneer First Light Fusion
First Light fusion, Nicholas Hawker1

In February, the government announced it is to launch a new independent research body to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research.

The Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) will be led by scientists with the freedom to identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed.

Dr Nick Hawker, founder and CEO of Oxford-based fashion energy pioneer First Light Fusion, has thrown his support behind the agency.

You can read a longer feature on ARIA in 
our upcoming May 2021 published issue of 
Business & Innovation Magazine.

“It wasn’t a high profile event, but last month’s announcement of the launch of the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) to fund “high-risk, high-reward” scientific research, has the potential to be hugely significant.

“Dominic Cummings certainly polarised opinion during his time inside Number 10, and his claim the sale of DeepMind to Google in 2014 was “indicative of the UK’s lack of ambition” is debatable.

“But his broader argument around a lack of ambition I believe is right, even if Deep Mind wasn’t necessarily the best example.

“We do have a long track record of giving away our technological crown jewels too early, while our US friends build vast global champions.

“It doesn’t need to be this way. Our small island is a buzzing hub of incredible talent, ideas and innovation. We have a thriving tech sector, not just in apps, but clean tech, fintech, quantum computing. You name it, we are leading the charge.

“US universities top the charts when it comes to innovation, but Oxford University boasts just as many patents per research pound spent. First Light Fusion, the company I co-founded which was spun out of Oxford, has produced one invention (including both patens and trade secrets) every 3.5 days over the last five years.

“There is no reason we can’t build our own Googles, Apples and Facebooks here in the UK. What we lack is the ambition.

“Let’s take my field of fusion energy as an example. The UK leads the world in terms of research but I’ve had a ringside seat watching the US close the gap, and they now threaten to overtake.

“With the launch of ARIA, we have an opportunity to break this pattern.

“But if we’re going to do it, we need to do it properly. An initial budget of £800m sounds punchy, but it’s still only 2% of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) budget, the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK over the same period.

“Some, including me, would argue it should be 10%, but the new agency must prove itself first.

“ARIA looks set to be modelled on ARPA, the US agency credited with funding the development of the internet and GPS. This is a good thing – and we know this first-hand. ARPA-E’s founding Director was Arun Majumdar, the former Chair of our First Light’s Advisory Board.

“So what can ARIA learn from the ARPA experience?

“First, ARPA was successful as Programme Directors were properly empowered. Cummings was right when he talked of “extreme freedom” from Whitehall oversight, though I’m not so sure about his view it should be run by “very odd people!”

“ARIA needs to attract the brightest and best and in the UK, we are fortunate to have plenty. But it won’t do that if teams are weighed down by unnecessary bureaucracy and form filling.

“Appointments should be time limited – these are not lifetime academic sinecures, but dynamic, results driven, fast paced roles – there needs to be urgency. And with a strict time limit, comes greater reputational responsibility.

“ARPA is collaborative and open. It engages broad groups and coalesces communities. For from being risky, this approach creates balance. The status quo is represented in the discussion and informs which next generation ideas should be given primacy. ARIA must replicate this culture.

“Of course it must also be accountable to the taxpayer but giving the organisation freedom to operate is crucial.

“It will be impossible to create the right set of rules on day one. Instead take the agile approach. Put power in the hands of the innovators. Tell them that they must still be accountable, but don’t give them a restrictive rule book they need to follow.

“Ultimately, ARIA represents a vision that the UK has been lacking for too long. It’s about inspiring engineers and innovators to dream big. We can solve the biggest problems in the world. So much amazing research is happening in the UK.

“And by giving ARIA the brief to be big and bold, I believe it can be the catalyst for solving our “ambition gap”.