An £800m agency to back “high-risk, high-reward” scientific research championed by former Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings will be formally launched by the UK government on Friday.
The independent research agency, set to be operational next year, will be charged with funding “the most ambitious, cutting-edge areas of research”, cutting through bureaucracy to give Britain a lead in the industries of the future.
The body was a favourite project of Cummings who was passionate about creating a British version of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, formerly called Arpa. His WhatsApp handle still says: “Get Brexit Done, then Arpa.”
But government officials said that Cummings, who left Downing Street in November after a power struggle in Number 10, was not being talked about as a future leader of the body.
The business department said the new agency would be led by “prominent, world-leading scientists”. A recruitment exercise will begin shortly to find a chief executive and chair.
Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, will set out plans on Friday to legislate to create the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
Some have criticised the slow pace with which the agency, a flagship promise in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is being set up. Allies of Kwarteng said the pandemic has held things up.
However the aim is to have the agency operating fully in 2022, providing speedy financial backing to help inventors turn their ideas into products and services.
Kwarteng said Aria would help maintain Britain’s position as “a global science superpower”.
“By stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators, the agency will be given the freedom to drive forward the technologies of tomorrow,” he said.
Earlier this month, parliament’s science committee said the agency seemed to be “a brand in search of a product”. MPs added they were still waiting to see an explanation of why it was needed and what it would do.
Greg Clark, chair of the science committee, said: “There is a place for a new vehicle to engage in bold research that can shape the future. But a vehicle needs a direction. I hope the government will provide that clarity during the passage of the law establishing this agency.”
Ed Miliband, shadow business secretary, said Labour had long supported investment in high-risk science but also called for clarity on the agency’s “mission and mandate”.
He said full transparency was also vital to show how Aria was spending £800m of taxpayers’ money.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said the pandemic had confirmed the importance of scientific innovation and called Aria “an exciting new funding mechanism for pioneering R&D”.