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High risk, high reward funding: will ARIA have researchers singing for joy?

On 26 January 2023, Science Minister George Freeman announced the formal establishment of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) as an independent body to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research. This has been a long time coming since it was as far back as in March 2020 when the government announced a budget of £800 million for ARIA’s formation. The widely touted success of the UK’s Vaccines Taskforce and Rapid Response Funds prompted calls for the establishment of an agile UK body composed of experts with minimal bureaucracy to fund public science. Although ARIA’s launch was been delayed by a number of factors, the appointment of five new expert directors to sit alongside government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, has now been confirmed.

What is ARIA?

ARIA is the UK government’s initiative to create a governmental body modelled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which is the US research and development agency. DARPA was founded in 1958, focussing on funding transformative science: DARPA’s investments in DNA and RNA vaccines, including a $25 million award to Moderna, were credited with helping enable the swift development of mRNA vaccines to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast to DARPA which was originally created to invest in emerging technology for the military, ARIA will focus on technologies to solve societal problems and boost UK industry in a range of sectors.

What are ARIA’s aims?

ARIA aims to be a rapid response funding agency to support paradigm-shifting areas of science which are high-risk, high-reward and have the potential to have positive societal impacts. This will include projects that may often not gain as much attention from traditional commercial investors given the high risks attached. In focussing on funding research at a point before it has been de-risked, the hope is that ARIA may help reduce the so called “valley of death” research funding gap between basic research and commercialisation of products.

ARIA also aims to be more dynamic than typical funding methods by minimising bureaucracy. The Government has sought to facilitate this by exempting ARIA from both public procurement regulations and the Freedom of Information Act.

Funding Terms: IP Ownership

It is important to note that the terms and conditions which will attach to funding from ARIA haven’t yet been published. When the bill for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Act 2022 passed through parliament, amendments were suggested by the House of Lords which would enable ARIA to take ownership of intellectual property resulting from research it had funded. Whilst these amendments were ultimately omitted from the enacted bill, it will be interesting to see whether ARIA attaches conditions to funding and collaborations relating to ownership and rights to commercialise intellectual property. 

While another funding source for UK R&D is encouraging (particularly in the current environment) in order for ARIA to be a success and live up to its aims, it will need to demonstrate why researchers should come to it rather go elsewhere for funding. As Lord Callanan identified in the House of Lords' debate on the bill, business and universities carrying out research funded by ARIA are likely to be better placed than a public funding body to exploit intellectual property generated by their research. Imposing restrictive terms relating to intellectual property could act as a barrier to innovation and may deter researchers from engaging with ARIA programmes. 

We therefore look forward to reading the ARIA funding terms once released and comparing them to funding terms of other R&D funding bodies.

The creation of ARIA as an independent body will help to cement the UK’s position as a global science superpower, building on record funding for R&D announced by the Chancellor in his most recent Autumn Statement.


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