‘A major triumph’: DARPA’s deputy director to head ARIA

Peter Highnam will be the first CEO of the new high-risk research agency, which is modelled on US research agency DARPA

The first chief executive of the government’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) has been named as Peter Highnam.

He joins the new £800 million agency from his role as deputy director for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the organisation upon which ARIA is modelled.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng described the appointment as “a major triumph for the UK. His expert direction will lead the agency’s formation, ensuring the funding of high-risk programmes that will continue to push the boundaries of science and technology.

“Under Dr Highnam’s leadership, ARIA will ensure the benefits of research and development will be felt in our society and economy over the course of generations, and that the technologies, discoveries, products, and ideas the agency invests in are supported to create the industries of tomorrow.”

Peter Highnam will take up his post as ARIA’s first CEO on 3 May 2022, for a fixed term of five years, and direct the setting-up of the agency as well as its initial funding of high-risk programmes.

The UK-born computer science specialist studied for his undergraduate degree at the University of Manchester, followed by a master’s at the University of Bristol and a PhD at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. He has previously served as director of research at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which is part of the US Department of Defense, and as director of the US national intelligence organisation Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which focuses on high-risk, high-payoff research for the intelligence community. He has also worked as senior advisor at the US Department for Health and Human Services.

Dr Peter Highnam’s appointment is a major triumph for the UK. His expert direction will lead the agency’s formation, ensuring the funding of high-risk programmes that will continue to push the boundaries of science and technology – Kwasi Kwarteng

The government announced the launch of ARIA in February 2021 to support high risk, high reward science. The £800 million agency is inspired by models such as the US’s ARPA, which created ground-breaking technologies such as the internet and GPS, and its successor, DARPA, a vital funder of critical Covid-19 therapies.

ARIA was a passion project of former special advisor Dominic Cummings, who told MPs in March 2021 it would fail if led by “some bog-standard vice-chancellor“, and required a “brilliant” person “who has good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers.”

In April 2021, Kwasi Kwarteng emphasised the agency’s independence, and said he would not “prescribe what this new organisation should do”, and the search for a chief executive – someone with “a good nose for utter nonsense, even outside [their] field of expertise” – began in June.

“Dr Peter Highnam’s appointment as ARIA’s first CEO will enable our ground-breaking new agency to push the boundaries of high-risk science in the 21st century,” said science minister George Freeman.

“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.”

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) chief executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, also welcomed Highnam’s appointment, saying she was “looking forward to working alongside him to unleash the full potential of researchers and innovators across the UK to change people’s lives for the better.”

The government has confirmed it has now recommenced its search for ARIA’s first chair – according to the job advert, the ideal candidate will be a “visionary leader” and “an experienced board member with a strong understanding of the UK R&D landscape, and global science”.

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