UK Tech needs a Fat Lady

The UK Government has just announced its latest initiative to make us into a technology heavyweight – the ARIA project.  What we don’t know yet is whether the fat lady singing the aria is destined to be a consumptive Mimi or a brash Anna Nicole?  If the scheme is set up and run by the same people responsible for previous UK tech development initiatives, it’s more likely to be a cut-price Florence Foster Jenkins.  Which would be a great pity, as there’s a lot to be said for having a decent funding scheme.

According to the Government release, ARIA’s aim is “to help cement the UK’s position as a global science superpower, while shaping the country’s efforts to build back better through innovation.  It will be led by prominent, world-leading scientists who will be given the freedom to identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed, backed by a budget of £800 million”.

It goes on to tell us that ARIA is in part based on the US’ Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) model.  (I’m hoping very little of the £800m budget was spent on marketing consultants to change the third letter from “P” to “I”, as I could have done that for just a few quid).  A bit of history – ARPA was started in 1957, with a budget of $520m, as a reaction to regain the technical lead after Russia’s launch of Sputnik.   When NASA was created the following year, ARPA’s role was changed to “high-risk, high-gain, far-out research”, with an emphasis on defense.  Its name has reflected that focus, adding or losing a “D” to oscillate between ARPA and DARPA, largely dependent on the preferences of succeeding administrations.  It has been credited with the invention of the architecture of the internet and more recently with some high-profile competitions in autonomous driving and computer security.  It has certainly provided inspiration for generations of engineers, even if it has had some bad moments, such as Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

The question is whether the UK can pull off such a model?  Within the engineering and scientific community, I am sure there are those who can; the question is whether the Government can bear to give them their head?  Over the years, Government funding for innovation has become more and more bureaucratic.  There was a time when the Design Council awarded Support for Innovation grants which were fairly open ended – you just had to make and sell something.  Now we have competitions, forcing people who would probably never consider working together to form unholy alliances to try and get the money.  A consequence of that is that a whole industry has grown up around funding applications for Government technology schemes, not just for the UK, but also the wider European Horizon initiatives.  They help to put together consortia and proposals, but for a price – they’re probably responsible for creaming off around 20% of the funds.  Once you’ve been awarded funding, the management reporting is sufficiently onerous that it takes up a further 30% of the money.  In order to have a chance of getting funded, you need to focus on what you think the judges want, rather than the product you actually want to develop, so the outcome is that only about 10% of the grant is ever useful.  It keeps people employed, but it rarely does much for research and innovation.

I’ve been on both ends of these grants, running development projects and judging applications.  Both are increasingly depressing; the latter particularly so, as many applications feel like life-support for zombie companies that only manage to hang on because of these grants.  Some companies have become particularly adept at winning multiple grants and seem to exist solely for that purpose.  That is what not what ARIA or innovation should be.  Zombies need not apply.

What ARIA needs is people for whom the E and M in STEM stand for Exciting and Motivating.  People who love the sheer joy of invention.  I’m reminded of the Ariadne and Daedalus columns that David Jones used to write in New Scientist and Nature.  He invented DREADCO – the Daedalus Research Evaluation and Development Corporation, which came up with wonderfully outlandish ideas such as the nuclear-powered pogo stick and the use of a black hole for garbage disposal (possibly worth reconsidering today as an idea for carbon sequestration).  Whilst these were works of humour, David was not altogether surprised that some of the ideas later turned up as practical innovations – he estimated that around 20% of his “fancies” turned out to be valid, one way or another.

This is where ARIA is going to face its biggest challenge.  The people who put together the scoring schemes for our current development grants would run screaming from the room at the prospect of a mere 20% success rate, as would almost every civil servant.  This is despite the fact that the real success rate of current grants, at least in terms of game-changing innovation, barely registers.  The people administering them have invented some very novel scoring criteria which make them look as if they are successful, but that is probably the most innovative thing which has come out of them.

In contrast, a Venture Capitalist would probably take the opposite view – as a one in five success rate for a new technology venture is quite a respectable hit rate.  Our current political leaders, most of whom are relatively innumerate, with just a Politics and PE degree to guide them, are more likely to side with the sceptical Sir Humphreys, as they don’t have the concept of risk assessment that a science background provides.  They like to claim they’re following the science, but they probably lack the nerve to lead it.  For ARIA to work, they need to embrace risk.

ARIA’s other challenge is that many in the media view it as a Cummings legacy.  He has always been a fan of ARPA, listing his priorities when he joined Boris in No 10 as “Get Brexit done, then ARPA”.  I’m sure his vision of the type of people needed to run ARIA would have aligned with his infamous blog calling for more misfits and weirdos in the Civil Service.  There will be many who dismiss ARIA purely on this basis, as an unwelcome legacy which should be abandoned simply because Cummings suggested it.  However, if you look at many of the great scientists and engineers that the UK has produced, they fit that “misfits and weirdos” description quite well, and are probably quietly proud of it.

ARIA should be about celebrating them.  There will be many who want to subvert it to something they can more easily understand – expect calls for the UK to be the leader in 6G, or a proposal to launch a UK alternative to GPS and Galileo, probably named Livingstone or Raleigh.  But that misses the point – that’s not what ARIA should be doing.  We remain good at the oddball and bleeding edge stuff; not always so good at commercialising it, but getting better.  ARIA should be an opportunity to let our spirit of innovation sing, not stifle it with limited imagination and political point scoring.  We could do far worse than modelling it on DREADCO. 

Let’s remember David Jones and make ARIA a fitting legacy.

A few people have asked about the Fat Lady in the title, which I should probably have explained.  It comes from the saying, now effectively ensconced as a proverb in the English language, that “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”, meaning that you don’t know how something will end until you get to that point.  It’s generally assumed to refer to opera, where the denouement is an aria by the leading soprano before she gets married, dies, or throws herself off the battlements (the latter two being more favoured endings in grand opera).  It is thought to refer to the popular image of large Wagnerian heroines in 19th and early 20th century opera productions. 

There were good reasons why top sopranos were big in those days.  Opera had become popular and theatre managers were keen to turn that into revenue by fitting as many people as possible into their opera houses.  The challenge they faced was how to ensure that anyone beyond the front stalls could hear anything.  The answer was to employ singers with a large pair of lungs, position them at the front centre of stage and instruct them to sing as loudly as they could at the audience – a directorial technique known as “park and bark”, which still bedevils a number of opera houses.  It didn’t matter whether it was a blood-thirsty Brunhilde, or a Mimi or Violetta wasting away with tuberculosis – the name of the game was volume.

It’s worth appreciating that fat didn’t have the same negative connotation that it does today.  To be well-fed and show it was generally seen as a physical sign of health and success.  Shakespeare points that out in his seven ages of man speech with the Justice portrayed as the pinnacle of life’s achievement “in fair round belly with fat capon lined”, elsewhere warning us against trusting “lean and hungry men”. 

Like many proverbs, it’s difficult to pin down where it originates.  Google ngrams shows the earliest use in print coming from Jimmy Carter in 1978, but it predates that.  It’s been ascribed to Bessie Smith, who used to sing “America the Beautiful” at the end of US baseball games in the ‘50s, to Al Capone, who was an unlikely opera fan, and to Dame Nellie Melba – a real Victorian diva for whom the peach melba was created, describing her roles in the 1920s.  We will probably never know.  Quieter theatres (early opera houses were designed more for social interaction than listening to the music, with audience members often more interested in their own conversation than what was happening on stage), electronic amplification, better training and less demanding schedules all mean that we no longer associate the operatic soprano with the Victorian image, but the saying remains.  Its continuing use shows us that opera still has plenty to tell us about the way we live, especially in that other rarefied performance art – politics.