‘A good nose for utter nonsense’: ministers publish job advert for ARIA chief

In a job specification published today, ministers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have explained what they expect of the leader of the ‘blue-sky’ research agency

The government has begun its search for a chief executive of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), the £800 million “high-risk, high reward” research body that ministers promise will enjoy political independence and be led by scientists. 

The new “visionary” chief executive will lead an institution designed to “pursue high-risk, high-payoff research in breakthrough technologies that create a strategic advantage for the United Kingdom”, the job advert says

The chief executive should “ignore incremental research and modest goals” and “have a good nose for utter nonsense, even outside [their] field of expertise”. They should understand “the frontier-of-the-frontier” and have experience “ideating unusual, cross-disciplinary, technically sophisticated ideas that were undervalued when begun but later deemed visionary”.

The agency will have a “high degree of freedom and autonomy…minimal bureaucracy, and maximal financial flexibility”. 

The chief executive will be appointed for a four- or five-year term. The job specification says they must be a “respected leader in a scientific or technical field”, “have an uncompromising sense of urgency, mission, risk-taking, and trust”, and bring to ARIA experience of “the R&D process” and “starting something new”.

They will “spot and empower extraordinary technical and leadership talent” and “connect the scientific details of unproven technology to the strategic value it could provide”. The recruitment process for a chair of the agency will begin in a few months.

On assuming the role, the successful candidate will determine the purpose, strategy and even location of ARIA, the job advert adds – all things that MPs have accused ministers of neglecting to delineate in the agency’s strategic vision. ARIA was described in February as “a brand in search of a product” by Greg Clark, the chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

Earlier this month, Clark wrote to research minister Amanda Solloway, seeking more detail on the purpose of the agency in the wider research ecosystem. He asked her to explain the relationship between ARIA, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), how she would “circumvent normal Civil Service pay restrictions”, and whether she could yet commit to multi-year funding settlements for science and innovation. 

Solloway said she would provide the committee with details of the pay exemptions “in the months ahead”. A Framework Document governing relations between BEIS and ARIA is to be agreed “before Spring 2022” between the incoming chair and chief executive of ARIA, and department’s permanent secretary and secretary of state, she explained. Solloway said BEIS did not mean to legislate the relationship between UKRI and ARIA, which instead would be left to the respective chief executives to develop.

Once appointed, the chief executive will recruit senior managers and sign the first research partnerships. Applications are to be reviewed by “an expert panel”, comprising the chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance, BEIS director general for science, innovation and growth, Jo Shanmugalingam, former director of DARPA, Arati Prabhakar, and director of Stanford ChEM-H, Carolyn Bertozzi.

According to the government, ARIA will “proactively” share information about its activities with the secretary of state, who will have “robust” powers to intervene in its operations “in the interests of national security if required”. It will publish annual reports to be scrutinised by Parliament and the National Audit Office.

Applicants must upload a CV for consideration. 

Former or current vice-chancellors will be relieved to know that Dominic Cummings, who credits himself with championing the idea in government, will not be involved in the recruitment process after he told MPs that ARIA would fail if led by “a bog-standard vice-chancellor“. 

In an exchange with peers, Kwasi Kwarteng – secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy – said he would set out new research priorities in a soon-to-be-published innovation strategy. He said that he hoped ARIA would take note of its contents but stressed it would be free to choose a different direction. 

Read more: ARIA ‘independent’ but not ‘isolated’, says Kwarteng

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