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UK plans to launch $1.1 billion ‘high-risk, high-reward’ science research agency

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LONDON — The U.K. government is planning to set up a new agency to support the development of new technologies.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced on Friday that the Advanced Research and Invention Agency will fund “high-risk, high-reward” scientific research in the hope of achieving “groundbreaking” discoveries. It is due to be fully operational next year.

It said the agency will be given £800 million ($1.1 billion) to help “the most inspiring inventors” over the next four years, which is a relatively small amount compared to other government research agencies, such as U.K. Research and Innovation.

The U.K. government’s R&D budget for 2020-2021 alone is £10.36 billion.

ARIA will operate independently of government and be led by visionary researchers, the government said, adding that it will be looking for an interim CEO and chair in the coming weeks.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said in a statement: “From the steam engine to the latest artificial intelligence technologies, the U.K. is steeped in scientific discovery. Today’s set of challenges – whether disease outbreaks or climate change – need bold, ambitious and innovative solutions.”

He added: “By stripping back unnecessary red tape and putting power in the hands of our innovators, the agency will be given the freedom to drive forward the technologies of tomorrow, as we continue to build back better through innovation.”

Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, said in a statement that the importance of scientific innovation has been made clear over the last year, adding that ARIA provides an “exciting new funding mechanism.”

Dominic Cummings, a former senior advisor to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, liked the idea of trying to create a U.K. version of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which used to be called ARPA.

According to the Financial Times, Cummings’s WhatsApp handle still reads: “Get Brexit Done, then Arpa.” However, the newspaper states that he’s not in the running to be the agency’s CEO, citing government officials familiar with the matter.

Calls to ‘clarify the mandate and mission’

The opposition Labour Party has said the government needs to provide more specifics on ARIA.

Shadow Business and Energy Secretary Ed Miliband said via Twitter that the government must “clarify the mandate and mission” of the new agency and address the “wider funding crisis” that researchers face.

“It is totally not clear what ARIA really will do, especially given its modest budget,” said Jon Crowcroft, a computer science professor at Cambridge University.

ARIA’s launch comes hot on the heels of the European Innovation Council’s new fund, which stands at $12 billion. The EIC was set up by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to try to help start-ups across Europe to scale up and compete with rivals in the U.S. and Asia, which have spawned several tech giants with market caps that run well into hundreds of billions of dollars.