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UK’s high-risk research funder poaches DARPA deputy chief

Peter Highnam, Chief of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) in the UK.

Peter Highnam, a computer scientist, has held several posts at US federal research funders.Credit: BEIS

The UK government has announced the first chief executive of its new high-risk, high-reward research-funding agency: Peter Highnam, the deputy director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), on which the British organization is modelled.

The UK agency, known as the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, or ARIA, will have a budget of £800 million (US$1 billion) over 4 years. It will give Highnam, and whoever is recruited to chair the organization, the power to choose which areas of science to fund. Although the full details of ARIA’s funding mechanism are yet to be laid out, this approach stands in contrast to UK Research and Innovation, the country’s mainstream research-funding organization, which disburses its £7.8-billion yearly budget mostly through competitive grant schemes. Highnam, a UK national, will start his five-year post in May.

In 2020, the UK government announced plans to launch an equivalent to DARPA, which helped to develop pioneering technologies such as the Internet and GPS. But it offered limited information about how the agency would run or what science it would fund. Last year, the government announced that ARIA will free scientists from the checks and balances of the conventional grant system so that research can be funded quickly and flexibly.

Highnam’s appointment follows a flurry of activity in setting up the agency. Last month, the bill that lays the legislative groundwork to set up ARIA passed through UK Parliament.

Close scrutiny

The creation of ARIA has not been without controversy. In an attempt to reduce the administrative burden on the agency’s staff, the government is making it exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, legislation that enables public access to information held by authorities. This worries science-policy researchers, who say it takes away the ability to scrutinize how public money is spent.

James Wilsdon, a science-policy researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK, welcomed the announcement of ARIA’s head after years of uncertainty about the agency. “The governance arrangements of ARIA vest huge amounts of power in Highnman and whoever is appointed chair,” says Wilsdon. So the research community will be keen to hear their plans for it, he adds.

Highnam has worked at DARPA, which has a US$3-billion annual budget, since 2018, and he has stepped up run the agency temporarily. He has previously worked at the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a DARPA spin-off that funds research to help the intelligence community.

“There is no doubt that the set-up of the new organization will benefit from someone coming with that high-level experience at the heart of DARPA,” says Wilsdon.

“Highnam looks like he knows his way around the US government, but will also be aware that the UK is different,” says David Bott, head of innovation at the Society of Chemical Industry in London, who previously led a UK government funder called the Technology Strategy Board.

UK science minister George Freeman says: “His impressive wealth of experience puts him in a unique position to lead the direction of funding for the most ground-breaking projects in the UK and maintain our status as a leading innovation nation.”

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00308-y

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