The UK’s efforts to establish a new $1 billion moonshots agency for cutting-edge research have been set back after the top candidate to lead it dropped out of the running.
Renowned Australian quantum physicist and programmer Michael Nielsen was the favored candidate, a source with knowledge of the matter told Business Insider. But he left the process during the summer because he was worried he would not be free to run the taxpayer-funded agency as he wished, the source said.
Nielsen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Dominic Cummings, the top adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is behind the idea to start a research funding agency. It forms part of his broader ambition to create science and technology giants out of the UK.
Cummings met British academics in 2019 about replicating the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a government-funded entity set up in the 1950s which fuelled the growth of Silicon Valley. Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed plans in March to spend £800 million ($1 billion) creating a “blue-skies funding agency.”
Cummings hoped to hire a favored visionary in Nielsen
Business Insider’s source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Michael Nielsen “would have been brilliant, a world-leading figure” for the new entity.
Professor James Wilsdon of the University of Sheffield has met Nielsen, and noted that Cummings was a fan of Nielsen’s book, “Reinventing Discovery.”
“No one’s going to be appointed to [lead UK ARPA] without Cummings thinking it’s a good idea,” Wilsdon said, adding that Nielsen was “very thoughtful.”
In a now-notorious post from January calling for “weirdos” to join the UK government, Cummings quotes Nielsen and describes the physicist as “one of the handful of most interesting people I’ve ever talked to.”
Business Insider’s source said Nielsen’s decision to walk away from the job had delayed the agency’s launch.
In March, Sunak did not name the agency or set a launch date. One possible name for the agency is the Advanced Research Innovation Agency (ARIA).
Wilsdon added that the government needed to give clarity on what the agency would actually do.
“Very much in keeping with his general view of established institutions of political and financial accountability, the view from Dom’s side has been [that] he wanted this thing to have the freedom to operate in a way that would be very unusual for a publicly funded agency,” he said.
He added: “We need to know more of the detail of how it’s going to work. Notionally they’re starting to spend the money this year, but no one’s appointed to run it … We need to understand its precise role within the system.”
A spokesman for the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy said: “We are investing at least £800 million in a new blue-skies funding agency to support high-risk, high-reward science here in the UK, modelled on ARPA in the US.
“This body will back breakthrough technologies and research by experimenting with new funding models. The Government continues to progress plans to establish the agency as soon as possible.”
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