Monday, 22 February 2021

Singing a New Aria

Last week we learnt a little more about the UK’s Arpa-style research organisation, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria).

Well, I say we learnt a little more, but what concrete facts do we now have that we didn’t have a week ago? Okay, let’s go through them. Let’s count them off. Let’s get you up to speed. Here goes: 

  • We know what its name is going to be.

As far as I can tell, that’s it. We also know it will have £800m during this parliament, but that’s old news. Beyond that it’s different levels of suggestion and speculation, aspiration and hope. So, inter alia, it is intended that:

The legislation to establish it will be introduced ‘as soon as parliamentary time allows’, and ‘the aim’ is for it to be fully operational by 2022.

  • It will be independent of government
  • It will have a ‘much higher tolerance for failure than is normal’
  • It will strip back ‘unnecessary red tape’ and will be fast (the statement mentions ‘speed’ six times)
  • It will be ‘led independently by our most exceptional scientists’ and ‘visionary researchers’
  • It will be strongly linked to industry and, like some supercharged 21st century Jobcentre, will ‘create highly skilled jobs across the country.’

There’s nothing not to like about all this, and the reception has been generally positive if, like me, a little puzzled. And the most puzzling thing is, if this is the gold standard for research, why isn’t UKRI doing it already? 

For me, it reads like an indictment of the current system. By saying what Aria will be, it is implicitly saying what UKRI is not. By saying that Aria is great, it’s implying that UKRI isn’t. And, if that’s so, why is the government willing to put up with UKRI in its current form rather than changing it to be what they want?  

If I was Ottoline Leyser, I’d be spitting. The announcement stated that the new body will ‘complement’ the work of UKRI, but I’d take that to mean that we’ll have all the sexy, fast, risky stuff, thank you, and you can lumber on with your, y’know, due diligence and transparency, your comprehensive remit and your support for researchers at all levels. In opera, an aria is a ‘self-contained piece for one voice.’ Yes, it complements the other performers, but we all know who’s the star.

Given the vague, Dan Dare aspirations set out in the announcements, I’d be particularly worried if I was head of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Innovate UK (although the latter role is currently vacant; should we read anything into that?). Aria is intended to fund ‘the most inspiring inventors to turn their transformational ideas into new technologies, discoveries, products and services’; doesn’t that make EPSRC and Innovate UK somewhat redundant?

It’s a little like the grammar school system. The slightly underfunded top five per cent of smart kids will be creamed off, leaving the 95 per cent to manage as best they can. It’s not a great look. If, as it implies, the current system isn’t fit for purpose isn’t it better to reform the whole rather than create another agency to ‘complement’ the nine that exist already?

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

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