UK’s ARIA research agency taps US for founding head

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

The first head of the UK’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) is coming from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Dr Peter Highnam, currently deputy director at DARPA, has been appointed as Chief Executive of ARIA to lead the formation of the agency and direct its initial funding of high-risk programmes over the next five years. ARIA is deliberately modelled on the US DARPA agency with £800m of UK government backing.

Highnam was born in the UK with degrees from the universities of Manchester and Bristol and has been Deputy Director since February 2018. He will take up his post on 3 May 2022.

Highnam was previously Director of Research at National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and Director of the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. DARPA recently appointed a new director, Victoria Coleman, who is also a UK graduate.

“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,” said the UK’s Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

“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,” he said.

ARIA will be a key part of government spending on R&D, which is expected to rise to £20bn. It will be able to experiment with different funding models and is expected to move faster than InnovateUK, the current agency tasked with R&D funding that struggled to find a chief executive until recently.

“Dr Peter Highnam‘s breadth of experience in leading the development and translation of transformational ideas will be a huge asset to ARIA and to the UK’s research and innovation system,” said Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation.

“ARIA has a unique role to play in the ecosystem, enhancing the UK’s ability to experiment with novel approaches to finding and supporting people and ideas at the frontiers of discovery and innovation. On behalf of UKRI I’d like to welcome Dr Highnam to his new role. I am 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,” she said.

With the appointment Dr Highnam as chief executive, the search for ARIA’s first Chair has also re-started. The Chair will be a key counsel to the CEO and responsible for the agency’s effective governance.

“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. 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,” said UK Science Minister George Freeman.

All applications will be reviewed by an Advisory Assessment Panel comprised of the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance; BEIS’ Director General for Science, Innovation and Growth, Jo Shanmugalingam; CEO and co-founder of DeepMind, Demis Hassabis CBE, former Chairman of the Vaccine Taskforce, and Managing Partner at SV Health Investors, Kate Bingham DBE.

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