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UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency appoints first CEO

The government has named the first CEO of the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency

The organisation set up to fund and develop science and technology projects in the UK has appointed its first CEO.

Announced a year ago, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) is backed by an £800m public investment, supporting high-risk research that has the potential to make a high impact on society.

Peter Highnam joins Aria from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), where he has been deputy director since February 2018. He will serve a five-year fixed term.

Aria is based on models that have proved successful in other countries, in particular the influential US Advanced Research Projects Agency, which played a part in the creation of the internet and GPS.

UK business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Under Highnam’s leadership, Aria will ensure the benefits of research and development will be felt in our society and economy over the course of generations, and that the technologies, discoveries, products and ideas the agency invests in are supported to create the industries of tomorrow.”

The government has committed to increasing public investment in R&D to £20bn in 2024-2025.

Science minister George Freeman said: “The UK’s scientific community has a proud history of discovery, and the imagination and creativity of our discovery scientists and innovators – from Isaac Newton to Ada Lovelace, Frank Whittle, Alan Turing and Dame Sarah Gilbert’s team developing the Covid-19 vaccine – continue to transform our world. [Highnam’s] impressive wealth of experience puts him in a unique position to lead the direction of funding for the most groundbreaking projects in the UK and maintain our status as a leading innovation nation.”

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UK Research and Innovation CEO Ottoline Leyser said his experience in leading the development and translation of transformational ideas will be a huge asset to Aria.

“Aria has a unique role to play in the ecosystem, enhancing the UK’s ability to experiment with novel approaches to finding and supporting people and ideas at the frontiers of discovery and innovation,” she said.

Aria will look at how to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, and experiment with different funding models, such as programme and seed grants, as well as prize incentives, to achieve its goals of backing pioneering research. It will also have greater tolerance to failure than is normally accepted, as well as the ability to start and stop projects according to their success.

In March 2021, a bill was introduced to Parliament to give the agency the powers and freedoms it needs to develop scientific research at pace.

The Aria Bill, introduced on 2 March last year, outlines the legislative framework and governance for the new agency. According to the government, it is acknowledged that “ambitious, high-risk research requires patience”, so the agency will be provided with the long-term security needed for it to achieve its goals.

The Bill sets a 10-year grace period before any potential dissolution of the agency can be triggered.

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