Issue 268: 2021 02 25: Aria, Skunk Works?

25 February 2021

The thrill of discovery .. or the smell of a rat?

By Paul Branch

Following on from last week’s Shaw Sheet tiptoe through major capital undertakings, I came across an even more fanciful government idea aimed at generating cheap clean energy on a grand scale.  Building a barrage across the River Severn estuary and harnessing tidal power could generate something like 5% of our total national energy requirement.  There’s a possibility though that even our more avid anorak-wearing readers may not recall this proposal, as it was first mooted in 1920 and not finally killed off until nearly a century later for being too expensive, too complex and just plain too difficult.

This does serve however as a fine example of what our government today wants to avoid:  long-winded pie-in-the-sky flights of fancy which absorb huge amounts of civil servants’ time and that of ministers across various departments, before the penny finally drops along with the project.  The tunnel under the Irish Sea mentioned last week may well fall into this category, suffering as it does from another ticklish problem spotted by a keen-eyed observer:  the difference in rail gauge between Ireland (5ft 3in) and GB (4ft 8.5in).  One or the other would need to change in order to enable cost-effective seamless freight rail transportation through the tunnel for onward travel, and I suspect this would need to be the Irish system as there’s precious little freight railway left there today, and none in the North.  Rail connections with Russia suffer from a similar disparity, and there the problem is resolved by an overnight changing of bogies on the trains, but that doesn’t sound like the world-beating cutting edge technology we need over here.

In the search for innovation a new high-risk government agency has just been launched to seek out ground-breaking scientific discoveries, with initial funding of £800 million over four years.  Two points about this endeavour are immediately noteworthy:  firstly the absence of the term “world-beating” in the announcement, but more worryingly the remit for the new agency entitles it to have a “higher tolerance for failure than is normal.”  The sheer irony of this statement must have been lost on the government PR genius who penned it, giving the snappily-titled Advanced Research & Invention Agency with its acronym “Aria” all the requisite characteristics of a doomed heroine from a Verdi or Puccini opera.

With the laudable intent of driving forward the technologies of tomorrow by stripping back unnecessary red tape, the new agency will be led by the UK’s most exceptional scientists and will focus on identifying the most cutting-edge research and technology, at speed.  Aria will therefore compete head-on with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and similar bodies already funded to the tune of £10 billion annually.  Presumably the existing agencies must be weighed down with so much red tape that they cannot operate effectively, so it’s clear that another, less bureaucratic agency is needed rather than improving what we have.  In my day this would have been called a skunk works, set up to cut corners and deliver a quick solution to a known problem.  Perhaps the most successful commercial implementation of the idea was by Lockheed Martin in the development of new military aircraft, but I suspect their budget from US government funding was in the many $billions.

The particular skunk works with which I was quite familiar in my days of gainful employment went on for many years and consumed shedloads of money with armies of bright young engineers, before someone stopped to ask just what they had actually achieved.  This question coincided with preparations for the global disaster expected with the arrival of the year 2000, when around the world all computer-based systems with inbuilt clocks would go into meltdown at the stroke of midnight.  Our skunk works director volunteered to take on the onerous task of protecting the company’ global technology networks, provided he was given a couple of £millions extra budget and a further 100 or so additional engineers.  My counter proposal was to offload the task onto one of our brighter managers, give her a bit more travel budget and let her loose to engage with those who knew the details of our systems and their susceptibility to the Y2K virus.  I won and the planet kept on turning; the skunks lost and were subsequently disbanded — one of my very few but very smug career triumphs.

Every government needs someone to be thinking inventive Blue Sky thoughts outside the box, and that happens to be something the UK is quite good at.  We have a decent enough track record going back quite a way.  An interesting example is ice cream, or the later version of it we would recognise today, said to have been served at Windsor Castle in 1671 to the delight of King Charles II.  Another is from 1943 when the General Post Office research station at Dollis Hill in North London came up with the first programmable electronic computer, the Colossus Mk1, to help the war effort at Bletchley Park.  It may well be that the Italians and their gelato are now far more well known for their iced concoctions than we are, and that computers are the building blocks of today’s high tech industries across the seas in the US and Far East, but these still stem from British brains with bright ideas.

It does seem that our benefits from home grown inventions have been easily surpassed by those who adopted our ideas and ran with them, finding applications that a lot of people would be happy to pay good money for.  We appear to run out of steam at the point of transition from invention to application, leaving the spoils to others.  If the new Aria agency can address this little failing, so much the better, but the manner in which it’s been set up has a feeling of the bizarre.  Two of its most emphasised attributes – failure tolerance and less red tape – probably deserve closer examination.  The more cynical observer might take exception to them or worse still, heaven forfend, could come to the conclusion that the whole idea was something Dominic Cummings scraped off the sole of his shoe as a parting thought on his way out of Number Ten.

The higher failure tolerance implies that there’s a standard failure index for government departments to which this new agency can be compared, and its tolerance to failure lessened accordingly.  We live in hope that Education is not the benchmark being used, or even Health, where failures have been tolerated far too often and for far too long for some people’s liking.  As for the excessive red tape, could this be the sort of tape ignored by government ministers in the quest for life-saving PPE supplies?  In that particular instance it seems strange that everyone in the Health department was completely engrossed in the less than successful attempt to save us from being No 1 in the Covid death stakes.  Thus there was simply no one else available to ensure that contracts awarded to MPs’ friends and colleagues, maybe even to their bridge partners, were made public as the law requires, and that some reputable suppliers were not seemingly ignored.

Let’s hope that there will be no such smelly rats in the innovative Aria skunk works, and that instead it takes as its model our truly stellar and world-beating, cutting-edge vaccination programme:  rolled out effectively at pace, but with transparency and accountability.  Such an arrangement would certainly give us confidence for the future.  That and maybe an occasional inquiry from Carrie as to how the new discoveries are going.



Tile photo: gontran-isnard on unsplash

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