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Physicists guardedly optimistic about UK’s new DARPA-like funding agency

23 April 2021

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency plans to support high-risk, high-reward research.

ESA/Anneke Le Floc’h, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

For two decades, Karen Aplin has been navigating the challenges of doing research in a field with limited funding. Her area of study, space weather, hasn’t quite fallen within the purview of the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which has primarily funded research conducted on or below the stratosphere, nor of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which has focused on space research. “Just as the tropopause, stratopause, and mesopause describe boundaries between different parts of the atmosphere, we used to call this bureaucratic boundary the ‘fundopause,’” says Aplin, a space scientist at the University of Bristol, UK.

Although NERC’s scope has now expanded, and NERC and STFC have teamed up to fund research on space weather, Aplin says her experience highlights one of the problems with discipline-specific funding agencies. That funding problem is also why Aplin is heartened by the prospect of a new funder, being launched in the UK in 2022, whose aim is to support high-risk, high-reward science not restricted to any particular field.

Called the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), akin to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the body will have a modest budget of £800 million ($1,100 million) over a four-year period. That amount is small compared with the £22 billion ($30 billion) public expenditure that the UK government has proposed to invest in research and development by 2025. Although the UK government has yet to clarify its exact priorities, physicists are generally optimistic about ARIA.

Peter Knight, an emeritus professor of physics at Imperial College London, says most physicists will welcome additional investment in research. But he warns that if ARIA attempts to cover too much, its resources may be spread too thin. “The challenge is going to be how to select those areas which are ripe for this kind of novel investment.”

Knight says ARIA should learn from funders that already invest in unconventional, out-of-the-box science, such as the research charity Leverhulme Trust. In 2009 that trust invested just under £5 million ($6.9 million) on metamaterials research at Imperial College; the field was popularized as an important step toward creating Harry Potter–style invisibility cloaks. “It was so unusual,” he recalls. “Now it’s mainstream physics.”

ARIA will similarly have to help unorthodox projects get off the ground until they are deemed suitable for conventional funding streams, Knight says.

“The important thing is that you generate ideas and that you have enough resources to be able to test them out,” adds Ian Walmsley, a physicist and provost of Imperial College. He notes, however, that in the short run it will be challenging to measure how successful ARIA has been or to judge whether it has put money in fruitful areas of research. Last year a study sought to evaluate the success of startups funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA–E), the 10-year-old US Department of Energy program designed to foster high-risk, clean-energy technologies. The results were mixed (see Physics Today, November 2020, page 25).

Anna Vignoles, director of the Leverhulme Trust, which provides around £100 million ($139 million) in grant funding annually, says it’s important that ARIA not limit itself to a specific discipline or topic. “Unless we fund interdisciplinary thinking, we’re not going to get the full benefits of academic research,” she says. “That will be the challenge for ARIA—to work out how you allow the funds to be used across a range of different disciplines, but in a way that really tackles the big issues.”

Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, sent evidence to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee about ARIA. He says off-the-wall research should include blue skies investigations as well as fundamental science “because they have completely unexpected outcomes along long time scales.”

Séamus Davis, a physicist affiliated with the University of Oxford and other institutions, says all funding agencies should allocate 10–15% of their resources to high-risk science. If government agencies allocate larger fractions of their portfolio to unprecedented research, he says, they may be vulnerable to political attacks or portrayed as having wasted the money.

In the US, influential researchers are often assigned to agencies like DARPA to shed light on emerging areas that deserve investment. ARIA may or may not follow that route, but Knight thinks getting visionaries together may be a good way to identify novel and emerging trends. In the 1990s, the UK also tried borrowing researchers. For several years during his tenure at Imperial, Knight spent half his time at the no-longer-extant Science and Engineering Research Council helping the funder decide on investments in nonlinear optics. “That experiment actually had some real merit,” he says, but “it’s not been tried since then.”

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