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A new government agency in the UK is moving away from secrecy and aims to transform science by backing high-risk, high-reward research with the aim of achieving “world-changing impact”, the chief executive of a new government agency has said.

Ilan Gur outlines ambitious plans for the UK’s £800m Agency for Advanced Research and Inventions (Aria), which is looking to invest in breakthrough technologies in fields such as artificial intelligence and computing, neuroscience and materials science.

In his first interview since being appointed to the Aria, Gur told the FT that much of the agency’s success or failure will depend on the eight newly appointed program directors who will select and fund projects. They each have a budget of around £50m.

Arria is expected to announce the identities of the directors next month, Gur said: “They have the right to make bold, not safe bets. We have an opportunity to create something that can have a world-changing impact for generations to come.”

The founding of Aria was inspired by US organizations: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) and the Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency (Arpa-E).

Darpa’s inventions include the key technologies behind the Internet, satellite navigation, and speech recognition. Arpa-E’s achievements range from advanced batteries to fusion reactor materials.

Project managers at these US institutions are responsible for the selection and funding of projects, similar to the role Aria envisions – there is no existing UK public research organization with jobs of this degree of freedom and flexibility.

“I was struck by the quality of those who responded to our candidate’s call,” Gur said. He joined Aria a year ago after working in start-ups in the US and a stint at Arpa-E. “We have an unbelievable team, they come from different disciplines.”

Aria-funded projects span the fields of science, technology and engineering. They will involve scientists and engineers across UK research – universities and public labs, start-ups and big companies – and some are expected to include collaborative funding with other institutions.

Gur and his colleagues at Aria are discussing how to deal with artificial intelligence. One idea is to find an alternative computing technology to perform artificial intelligence other than the dedicated silicon semiconductors currently used, which are costly in terms of energy consumption and climate change impact.

“Silicon isn’t the only way to do computing,” Gur said. “It happens tens of thousands of times faster in nature, for example in the brain.”

Kate Bingham, Patrick Vallance (both Aria board members) and Aria CEO Ilan Gur on stage at Hay Festival on May 29, 2023

From left: Kate Bingham, Patrick Vallance (both Aria board members) and Aria CEO Ilan Gur on stage at the Hay Festival in May © Sam Hardwick/Hay Festival

The Aria team is considering whether it is possible to create a whole new kind of computing specifically for artificial intelligence rather than general computing. “We’re exploring this area, but we don’t know exactly what projects will result,” he added.

Although Dominic Cummings, who was former prime minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, is widely seen as the man who pushed the government to create Aria, little was known about Gur before he took office.

“Since I’ve been here (Cummings), he’s been there a lot,” he said. “The great thing for me is that almost everyone I talk to across different parts of the research community and across politics seems to not only be excited about Aria, but understand why it’s important and why it’s built the way it is.” Gur added that Cummings has not yet been in touch with him.

The government and the Aria founding team have face criticism For not making the agency work faster.

Plans to create the Aria were announced in 2019, an initial four-year budget of £800m was outlined in 2020, and legislation to establish the institution received royal assent in 2022, with Gul appointed last year. Aria was then formally established as an independent research organization in January.

But Gur said it was crucial to take time to bring Aria back to normal. The US model cannot be directly transplanted into the UK without modification, the right foundations must be established – not only the project director and other key personnel, but also the governance structure of Aria.

Alan Turing Institute Insider

Inside the Alan Turing Institute, Aria has a temporary base © The Alan Turing Institute

The nine-person board is chaired by Matt Clifford, CEO of Entrepreneur First, a company that helps people start new companies. Aria’s directors also include venture capitalist and former head of the UK Vaccines Task Force Kate Bingham and former UK chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance. Aria is based at the Alan Turing Institute, a national artificial intelligence research center at the British Library.

Aria’s initial £200m-a-year budget is small both as a proportion of government research spending (to reach £20bn a year by 2024) and compared with its US counterparts. Arpa-E received $470 million this year for advanced energy research, while Darpa spends $4 billion a year on breakthrough programs for national security.

But Gur believes that, “as a catalyst,” Alia will have enough money to work wonders.

“Our plan will amplify and expand the UK’s existing excellent science and engineering assets as a force multiplier,” he said. “Aria operates over a decade span, and our budget of four or five people is enough to get started and get some early evidence that Aria is working.”

Gur did not reiterate the government’s ambition to make the UK a “scientific superpower”, but acknowledged that part of Arria’s mission was to benefit the UK.

“I have an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old,” he said. “The success, for me, is that when they grow up, they should be able to look around the UK and see something really strong – perhaps a new industry that has taken root – that is powered by the technology that the Aria catalyzes. “

Who is Ilan Gul?

Ilan Gur, who has spent her entire life in the US, moved to London with her family last year to become director of the UK’s Agency for Advanced Research and Inventions.

The 43-year-old grew up in Pittsburgh and earned a doctorate in materials science and engineering from UC Berkeley.

Gur has founded two startups in Silicon Valley. The first is Solexant, which creates new materials for use in solar cells. The second is Seeo, which focuses on next-generation battery materials and was later acquired by Bosch.

From 2011 to 2014, he served as Director of the Energy Program at the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Gur later founded Activate, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that helps scientists and engineers turn their research into products and businesses.

Under Gur’s leadership, Activate has been instrumental in the creation of more than 100 science-based start-ups, particularly in climate technologies such as carbon capture and energy storage.


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