We’ve talked about ARIA - the UK’s new DARPA-like research agency - several times (see, e.g., TiB 153
). As I noted last week, the announcement of Peter Highnam
as its founding CEO seems like very good news. Highnam is current Deputy Director of DARPA, a former DARPA programme manager and a former director of IARPA (DARPA’s intelligence-focused counterpart), so it’s hard to imagine a more credible figure or one more steeped in understanding how and why DARPA has been successful. Nevertheless, there are a number of structural differences between DARPA and the proposed ARIA that will require some important choices to be made to set ARIA up for success.
First, ARIA is small compared to DARPA, roughly the size of one DARPA technical office (DARPA has six, plus two for special projects). So the first big question is, should ARIA specialise? I think the answer is probably yes - in which case picking a territory where the UK has a clear competitive advantage is key. Second, the “D” in ARPA has been foundational to its success, but ARIA doesn’t have a defence focus. This has two important implications. Most importantly, the DOD has been crucial to ensuring that technologies developed by DARPA are “pulled through” into useable products and services (William Bonvillian talks about
an “island/bridge” model, with DARPA as the island, DOD as the bridge to real-world impact). What will be ARIA’s bridge? Getting this right is critical.
Equally, DARPA’s national security mission has been crucial to insulating it from political intereference. This is essential when the timelines for breakthrough research success are longer than a parliamentary term. Finding other ways to give ARIA deep bipartisan support may not be easy, but will be important if it is to have a real chance to succeed (Evidence from DARPA’s history suggests that the other key ingredient of “effective political design” is ensuring that its budget is not perceived to threaten the budgets of other agencies). If ARIA finds good answers to these foundational questions, there’s lots to be optimistic about.