Lessons from the RI

THE SPECTATOR, 7 Mar 2021

As the government creates its Advanced Research & Invention Agency, it could learn from the exceptional history of the Royal Institution.

What is the recipe for outstanding innovation? According to Kwasi Kwarteng, the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we should learn it from America. When he announced last week the launch of Britain’s new Advanced Research and Inventions Agency (ARIA), he reiterated that the £800m organisation would be based upon DARPA, America’s high-risk, high-reward defence research agency.

This is no surprise. Since the 1950s, DARPA has racked up an extraordinary series of breakthroughs, including the internet, GPS, drones and stealth technology. Yet when it comes to recapturing what Kwarteng calls ‘the spirit of Britain’s long and proud history of inventing’, he should look at Britain’s history as much as America’s. A short walk away from the Palace of Westminster, there is an example of ‘advanced research and invention’, which this week marks its 222nd anniversary, and whose achievements arguably exceed even DARPA’s.

Researchers at the Royal Institution in Mayfair have identified ten chemical elements, discovered the fundamental principles of electricity and invented the electric motor. Scientists associated with the place have earned 15 Nobel prizes. One reason I know a bit about the RI is because the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where I work, has just moved into this neoclassical Georgian building on Albemarle Street, occupying rooms that once belonged to Michael Faraday himself. So here are three lessons from its history, which I believe should inform the spirit of ARIA.

First, the RI has always been small and free from bureaucracy. Since the day it was founded—222 years ago today—its researchers were always based in a single building in London, rather than spread out over a campus. When a small group works closely together in communication and cooperation, it is almost impossible for the blight of bureaucracy to creep in. More than this, a kind of magic takes hold, conjured by the emotional and physical proximity, which can empower a team to do world-beating work.

Second, the RI has displayed an impressive urgency in finding solutions to practical problems. A classic instance came in the 19th century, after a series of explosions in coal mines had caused hundreds of deaths. The RI's Sir Humphry Davy was tasked with inventing a safety lamp that wouldn’t ignite stray methane. Within a couple of months, he came up with his Davy Lamp, whose flame was enclosed within a mesh screen. DARPA achieves its sense of urgency through the imperative of national defence, and ARIA must strive to invest its researchers with a similar urgency. They do not always learn it in an academic career.

Third, the RI has always been supremely ambitious. Many scientists across Europe were wrestling with the mysteries of electricity. Yet it was Michael Faraday – a self-taught lab assistant and later professor at the RI – who established the principles of this force of nature and used them to invent the electric motor. Albert Einstein would later keep a framed picture of Faraday on his desk to remind him to aim high. What’s curious is that people need reminding. Tackling the toughest challenges isn’t just riskier, it also goes against our instinct. As Kwarteng has noted, tolerating failure is important. But the crucial point is that an audacious vision or moonshot mission lights up our imagination and helps us overcome our self-imposed limitations.

What, then, are the challenges of tomorrow, for which we must find solutions today? What will be the next equivalents of electricity and the electric motor? To start the conversation, here are some examples of the work that the London Institute will be doing at the RI: teaching computers to uncover new theorems; identifying the mathematical structure of innovation; making neural computing practicable; building a platform for collective creativity; harvesting energy from fluctuations in the environment; and unravelling ageing and mortality. A key feature of this list is that it doesn’t merely aim to solve the most pressing problems. It seeks radical new technologies, which will bypass them altogether.

Take energy harvesting. Billions have been spent on trying to build better batteries. But if we can use simple learning algorithms to detect patterns in changes in the environment, such as vibrations or temperature fluctuations, we can harvest that energy for our own use, bypassing the need for batteries in remote places. It goes without saying that any breakthroughs in this field would be inconceivable without Faraday’s advances.

Or consider mortality itself. The accepted view has been that ageing and programmed death are the result of an accumulation of errors – an inevitable consequence of the increase of disorder. But tantalising evidence emerging from, among other places, the British cell coding company Bit.Bio, with whom we’re engaged in a long-term collaboration, suggests that these degradations, far from being inevitable, may in fact be an evolutionary bolt-on. The implication is that cell deterioration could be slowed or even stopped, which would have transformative consequences for the treatment and prevention of disease. Once again, this work rests on the shoulders of two RI giants. The Nobel laureates Peter Medawar and John Gurdon respectively made deep contributions to our understanding of senescence and cell programming.

It’s a nice coincidence that the letters RI are contained at the heart of ARIA. And of course, Secretary of State Kwarteng is uniquely placed to appreciate the lessons of our past. He read history at Cambridge with distinction, and has written acclaimed books on the history of money and the legacy of Empire. As he knows well, one of Britain’s superpowers is its willingness to tackle, and ability to crack, seemingly impossible tasks. By putting small teams to work on the most ambitious problems, free from bureaucracy and fired with urgency, the government will create an ARIA that is worth singing about.