ARIA watching closely?

The government has recently confirmed that its ‘high risk, high reward’ research agency, the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (ARIA), will go ahead. This was initially the pet project of Dominic Cummings (alarm bells!) but seems to have survived his departure from Whitehall. The buzz has all been about the potential to cut red-tape and bureaucracy in order to unleash scientific innovation. For a scientist and science fiction nerd like myself, it sounds quite exciting but, Liberals should be wary of anything that reduces oversight and accountability – especially from this government.

The full details of how the agency will work haven’t been made clear yet but as the idea is copied direct from DARPA, a US Defence research agency, we can get a sense of where it’s going.

DARPA works as follows: around 100 program managers with circa 5 year appointments funnel money to universities and private sector research firms to tackle big, exciting sounding topics like, “actualise the idea of man-computer symbiosis”. With DARPA, there is a director that sits on top of all that and ultimately reports to the US Secretary of Defence. It seems like the UK’s agency will plug into the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) but, with a government that is centralising more and more power, it will probably be controlled by Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office at the end of the day.

DARPA is famous for having a hand in several household technologies, including the internet and Siri, but mostly works on military and defence technology (such as how to use AI and machine learning to deploy swarms of autonomous drones in urban combat missions). It’s a winning formula, and – in a time when AI and robots and synthetic biology are all becoming science fact rather than science fiction – it might not be a bad approach to push the boundaries of British innovation. But when we dig into the background of this idea, and the details, we start to get a taste of what this government is actually up to.

First, the origins: the idea evolved from a Dominic Cummings blog into a Conservative Manifesto promise in 2019. In the manifesto it was simply described as “a new agency for high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government.” That’s quite a limited description for a new £1bn fund but the manifesto had other pledges about science and research generally that help shed some light on the government’s strategy:

“We will reform the science funding system to cut the time wasted by scientists filling in forms.”

The desire to cut red tape is everywhere in this project. Kwasi Kwarteng has taken over the project since Cummings’ departure. In recent statements he said “stripping back unnecessary red tape” is the route to innovation. Amanda Solloway MP is also on the project and has echoed the ‘need for speed’ in saying the agency will “explore game-changing new ideas at a speed like never before”.

As I’ve said, this can all sound quite exciting (especially if you’ve ever had to fill out a scientific grant application form) but remember, this is the government of “mutant algorithms” – reducing the checks and balances on their pet science projects is probably not going to advance fairness and justice in our society. As a scientist I appreciate streamlined, efficient processes but as Liberal, I have considerable concerns about the one-dimensional, libertarian strain of ‘freedom’ that is often promoted by this government.

Rumours abound that the plans go beyond simply reducing checks over how funds are distributed. Reports indicate that this new agency will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. As The Times has pointed out, this government (via Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office) is deliberately undermining our FOI legislation. No good comes from shutting down transparency – and certainly not when it’s attached to advanced scientific research.

The government claims the need for secrecy because it is looking at science as a private enterprise rather than a public good and is worried that transparency would give away some technological advantage to ‘competitors’. This is another area of concern. We were able to tackle COVID-19 so quickly because Chinese researchers published the first genomic sequence of the virus as early as January. Openness, not competition, saved lives. Moving to a silo’d, secretive, competitive approach to science is not how to get the most out of ‘high risk, high reward, high tolerance for failure‘ research.

This private sector view of publicly funded research poses another area of concern. The Conservative manifesto also said, “We will use our increased R&D funding from Government to attract and kick-start private investment”, and DARPA in the US uses a lot of private researchers in its projects. A mix of public and private research can work under some circumstances (see the Oxford/Astrazeneca Covid vaccine) but we should not trust this government when it suggests funnelling large sums of public money to the private sector with reduced oversight.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has just been found to have acted unlawfully when he failed to go through proper processes to procure PPE contracts. The data shows that this lack of oversight led to many contracts going to companies with links to government advisors and cronies. And in the end this really mattered because, for example, a company that had been recommended by a government trade advisor provided 50 million PPE masks that were not fit for purpose. Hancock of course, is completely unrepentant about all of this.

In that, he’s in good company – Dominic Cummings was allegedly dishing out Covid contracts to his ‘friends’ too. And Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick acted unlawfully to save a Tory donor £40m on a development project. The Prime Minister has stood by them all, as might be expected from someone who has also acted unlawfully domestically and been willing to do so internationally. There is a real risk that this is £1bn of public money being earmarked for friends and cronies of government ministers

And that is probably where I hit the bottom line on this new science agency. On basic principles, having a ‘high risk’ innovation agency based on a successful model that can produce exciting spin-offs from big vision research and not worry about failure is probably a good thing if you’ve got the money for one. Similarly, running that agency as a mix of public and private research isn’t a bad idea either – we do need to seed the jobs of tomorrow as well as produce knowledge as a public good. For the record, I’m not against a UK-ARPA or ARIA project per se.

But the real concern comes when it’s this government that is setting the foundations of such an agency. This government with its law-breaking, corrupt ministers who have a record of foregoing oversight and funnelling public money to their mates. This government that is unrepentant and unaccountable when things go wrong or when they get caught. This government that makes political decisions and then blames the science.

Of course they say it will be ‘arms length’ – but if you believe that, just look how this government’s approach to ‘arms length’ is working out over at the BBC. We can welcome more money for science and research but the more they try to hide what they’re doing, the more we must be vigilant.


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