ARIA to Progress? The British Advanced Research and Invention Agency Should Learn More from Defense
A new star has appeared in the constellation of British quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations — the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). While the creation of a research and development body modeled on the American Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) has been mooted for some time, it is only now that the government has published some details of what it will look like.
My article last July for War on the Rocks explored some concerns about the new agency — particularly the fact that the defense aspects of ARPA appeared to have been overlooked in choosing it as a model for a British agency. While some of my questions have been answered, the apparent blind spot in the government on defense innovation remains. ARIA may come to work well with the civilian research and innovation structures within the British civil service. But it will be more effective if it retains links with the innovation structures already present in the Ministry of Defence.
The government’s approach was first outlined in the briefing notes accompanying the October 2019 Queen’s Speech, which committed to “backing a new approach to funding emerging fields of research and technology, broadly modeled on the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency” in order to “provide long term funding to support visionary scientific, engineering, and technology missions.” This was reiterated in the December 2019 Queen’s Speech following the general election, along with a promise to discuss the agency’s development with academics and experts. The subsequent 2020 budget allocated 800 million pounds ($1.04 billion) in funding for the new agency.
ARIA has now been unveiled as the product of these discussions. The agency will be under the umbrella of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, but will be independently led by a chief executive with a science background.
The overt link to ARPA remains, with the central aim of supporting high-risk, high-reward research with the reduction of bureaucracy. In the official announcement, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng talks of “stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators,” with a “focus on identifying and funding the most cutting-edge research and technology at speed.” In written evidence to the recent inquiry by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, the government identified the “essential features” of ARPA that it hopes to bring into the new agency: “a programme-based approach, led by a clear vision, carefully protected freedoms and flexibilities for the organisation to quickly set direction and disperse funding, and a commitment to hiring and empowering a small number of exceptional people.” While the government does not “seek to duplicate” ARPA, the similarities are clear and deliberate.
Form over Function?
The initial focus on ARPA as a model for a new British agency came from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings. He has written a great deal on his view of ARPA as a bright spot in the history of innovation, centered on its particularly fruitful period during the tenure of J. C. R. Licklider between 1962 and 1975. He saw the agency’s success as being predicated on the ability to hire talented people and let them work freely, unshackling them from the bureaucracy of the state in order to promote high-risk, high-reward research. Although Cummings no longer works for Number 10, having left at the end of last year following an apparent power struggle with other top advisers, his idea has remained.
The focus on ARPA is in some ways warranted, given the successes that the agency had in developing technologies related to key areas such as the internet and personal computers. However, it does appear that the ARPA model was chosen and then shoehorned into the British context, rather than being selected as a solution to an existing problem. As one expert stated in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee inquiry: “I found the discussion about ARPA rather curious because I have always been taught that form should follow function, yet we are having a discussion about a form — ARPA — without actually being clear on what its function is, which is critical.” The Conservative chair of the committee noted explicitly in his comments on the inquiry that a British ARPA is “a brand in search of a product.”
Choosing the Wrong Umbrella?
The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy is the home of most research efforts within the U.K. government. It does so predominantly through UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body formed in 2018 to bring together Innovate UK, Research England, and the seven UK Research Councils. It was intended to create a joined-up, cross-discipline funding source that would allow a more strategic overall approach to innovation. ARIA is intended to fill a gap in specifically high-risk research — the majority of the grants given by other research bodies must adhere to the Haldane principle (essentially a peer review process), and this can make them risk-averse.
In the United States, ARPA has always had a defense focus. It was set up within the Department of Defense and given an explicit mandate to contribute to the technological superiority of the U.S. armed forces. Peter Highnam, the agency’s deputy director, noted in his oral evidence to the Science and Technology Committee that its relationship with the Department of Defense is enormously important, both in terms of mission-framing and funding. In the same evidence session, academic William Bonvillian called the agency an “island bridge” — protected from overzealous bureaucracy but retaining strong links back to the department and its leadership. He noted that the Department of Defense created an “initial market” for products, which was not always the case for the various ARPA clones in other parts of the U.S. federal government. This is an important point — the ARPA replica within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has done well because it has a clear mission and a committed customer in the intelligence community. The Department of Energy’s version has struggled to achieve the same success given the lack of either.
The British government seems to have taken the lesson that an agency of this type needs a clear position within a department, but its choice of department is interesting. While the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy is an obvious candidate, given its role at the center of existing innovation efforts, this is not the only relevant factor. If ARIA is intended to focus on high-risk research that is not being funded by current innovation bodies, why should it sit next to them? If the agency will cut through unnecessary bureaucracy to fund its chosen projects, why place it within a department known for its layers of bureaucracy? If it does not have a specific departmental customer and should instead be facilitating cross-discipline research, why cut it off from other departments that could contribute to its work? Professor Mariana Mazzucato highlighted this in her oral evidence to the committee inquiry, suggesting that the agency should either sit in a more cross-departmental position (such as within the Cabinet Office) or that there should be area-specific ARPA-type bodies set up within each of the key departments — health, defense, energy — that could work together where needed.
Currently, there is a clear stretch of water in the United Kingdom between civilian research and defense research. The bodies under the Business Department deal solely with civilian technologies and research avenues, including energy, health, and information technology. The equivalent bodies within the Ministry of Defence do the same for military projects — the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the Defense and Security Accelerator run a range of competitions and similar activities in order to disburse funding to defense innovation projects. The department has also done a great deal of work on pushing technological advancement, including the 2019 publication of the Defense Innovation Priorities policy paper, coupled with the Defense Technology Framework.
Given the Ministry of Defence’s experience and skill in fostering innovation, it seems odd that the defense side of innovation is overlooked in the current ARIA plans. It is unclear why there is such a wide gulf between civilian and military research, and where it stems from. Does the Ministry of Defence prefer to keep its research under its own umbrella, leading it to rebuff efforts to work more closely with other innovation bodies? Does the civilian side of government view defense research as irrelevant to other areas, or worry that it may be viewed as more toxic than other types of science? Perhaps it is a little bit of both? Whatever the reason, this divergence is concerning — a lack of strong links between the two means fewer opportunities for cross-pollination between subject areas. Given the agency’s explicit mandate to be cross-disciplinary in its outlook, leaving defense out in the cold is a mistake.
Follow the White Paper
In order to be formally established, ARIA requires primary legislation, and there will doubtless be further debates to come as the policy document (or “white paper”) is discussed and the bill progresses through both Houses of Parliament. The agency will not be as well-funded as its American counterpart, even when adjusting for national size, and may thus become overstretched if it tries to do too much in too many areas. There is already controversy about the proposal that ARIA will be exempted from answering requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
However, discussions on the intricacies of ARIA’s operation risk overshadowing the more fundamental questions about its establishment. ARPA cannot simply be transplanted from an American Cold War context into today’s United Kingdom, particularly without the Department of Defense to fund and frame its mission, and a focus on form over function without a clear customer for its products will not lead to optimal outcomes.
ARIA should have a well-defined mission and the support to achieve it if it is to do any good at all. The government should further ensure that the excellent innovation structures already present within the Ministry of Defence are not overlooked, and that those working within the new ARIA framework (and within the broader civilian research ecosystem) do not forget to talk to their cousins on the defense side of Whitehall. While a new way of approaching cutting-edge innovation is welcome, a truly cross-disciplinary agency should not ignore the defense slice of the innovation pie.
Emma Salisbury is working on her Ph.D. at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her research focuses on defense research and development in the United States and the military-industrial complex. She is also a senior staffer at the U.K. Parliament. The views expressed here are solely her own. You can find her on Twitter @salisbot.