Senior Research Fellow Anna Goldstein of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department is quoted liberally by writer Cathleen O’Grady in her Science article about efforts by the United Kingdom’s government to replicate the United States’ Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), now known as DARPA because of its specialization in defense-related research. The new U.K. organization is named the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA).
Unlike ARPA, ARIA so far lacks a focus, which concerns some experts. “The fabric of an ARPA organization is its mission,” says Goldstein, who provided evidence on ARPA to U.K. politicians. Without that, she says, “ARIA is a solution in search of a problem.”
Goldstein’s expertise on ARPA was recently demonstrated in a Nature Energy paper on research related to ARPA-E, the energy version of ARPA.
According to O’Grady’s article, “DARPA, created as ARPA in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite and the United States panicked about falling behind on military technology, is credited with innovations in the development of the internet, GPS, and robotics. Such is the power of the brand name that it spawned spinoffs for intelligence, homeland security, and energy technology (ARPA-E). Unlike traditional funding agencies, which hand out grants through peer review, DARPA and its ilk give program managers the freedom and budget to seek out promising work, fund it with no bureaucracy, and cut it off early at signs of failure.”
Because of limited public data, DARPA’s triumphs can only be tracked through a series of anecdotal success stories, Goldstein says.
By contrast, in 2020 Goldstein and her colleagues analyzed the more comprehensive data from ARPA-E and found that projects it funded led to more patents than those it rejected or comparable projects that found funding elsewhere—a hint that the agency has a knack for hitting on innovative research.
Two possible focuses of ARIA could be disease outbreaks and climate change. “Those would both be excellent choices,” Goldstein says. “Why not create two ARIAs and do both?”
According to Goldstein’s Nature Energy paper and associated policy brief, government funding and support for clean energy technology give startup companies in that field an “innovation advantage.”
The U.K. is hoping that ARIA can provide this same kind of innovation advantage in that country. (March 2021)