ARIA: what is it and what is it good for?

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency is the brainchild of former advisor to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings, and, as Natalie Bennett sees it, would provide the UK's existing research and innovation structures with more hindrance than help.

UoL Physics building

Physics and Astronomy department, University of Leicester

Natalie Bennett

This week, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill had its Third Reading in the House of Lords, essentially a formality that saw it sent back to the Commons with some modest amendments from our chamber.

But I’m not hearing the research community cheering from the rafters.

At best, the response is a grumble of discontent, a weary shuffling of feet of the often underpaid, insecurely employed people who’ve spent many years of study only to be left in a sector suffering a continual state of uncertainty. Many feel that ARIA – with its expected reach of £200/300 million a year – does nothing to tackle the issues they face.

In his summing up of the Bill, Lib Dem Lord Fox highlighted two of those issues – the near-collapse of UK involvement in the EU’s Horizon research programme and concerns about the effectiveness of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). There’s also the swingeing cuts to many crucial areas of research in universities: Sheffield and Leicester come to mind, but there are many other examples.

At worst, there’s a grinding fear that ARIA threatens to undermine the UK’s existing research and innovation structures. The new kid on the block, advertised as freewheeling, nimble, innovative, threatens to draw away resources, attention and people from serious, long-term, crucial work.

This agency (the brainchild of former Boris Johnson advisor Dominic Cummings) is explicitly modelled on the military research agency DARPA in the United States – something I expressed concern about during the debate on the Bill – and a child will usually show some of the characteristics of its parent.

The Bill allows research priorities to be set absent input from the devolved administrations; reduces transparency and accountability in British research; and “lacks a clear focus or purpose” even at this late stage in the process. I tried (with other peers) to see a focus given through pointing to the climate emergency, nature crisis and the great threats of poverty and inequality, but we were not successful.

Along with other Opposition Peers, I voted for both amendments put forward in the House of Lords in December 2021 – hoping to ensure that ARIA would be accountable through the Freedom of Information Act, and that the technology it develops will not be sold to foreign entities. Only the latter passed, with Conservatives in the House of Lords voting against what could have been an important guarantee of transparency. In this week’s Third Reading, the minister, Lord Callanan, promised to keep us informed on the progress of the institution and its work, but we’ll see how that works out. 
 
Conservative MPs have already attempted (thus far unsuccessfully) to fund ARIA by reallocating the monies saved from the much-criticised cuts to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget. These ODA cuts were brutal: about £5 billion in funding disappeared overnight. The Government chose to reduce this budget for ideological reasons: to appeal to their anti-immigration base by limiting money spent abroad.

But the ODA cuts hit hard in the UK. The media focus has understandably been on the immediate human impacts on some of the poorest people in the world: starving children in Yemen, and girls robbed of access to contraceptive services in Africa. But here in the UK, the British research community saw projects that had already been costed, authorised, and for which funds had been allocated be retroactively defunded.

For instance, all Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) hubs lost 70 per cent of their funding. One notable victim was the One Health Poultry Hub, a GCRF programme investigating food-borne diseases including in the Global South. This swingeing cut came, as the director of the Poultry Hub pointed out, in the midst of a pandemic which “emerge[d] from interactions between people and animals in food production systems”. If future attempts to divert existing funding to ARIA succeed, there may be a perverse incentive for more such cuts which are similarly not in the public interest.

But beyond ARIA’s financial impact on existing research and innovation structures, we should consider the damage that ARIA will unleash on the British research landscape. This government has shown time and again that it prefers catchy slogans over fundamental but less flashy solutions.

This is clear in its latest response to Covid-19, with the UK opting for a last-minute campaign to mass administer booster vaccines in the face of rising cases of the Omicron variant. A more prudent Government might have looked ahead and implemented preventative, non-pharmaceutical interventions like investing in ventilation and filtration and sensible continuing use of masks.

Such examples are rife in pandemic Britain. How can the public trust that the UK Executive will maintain a healthy and diverse research ecosystem despite the introduction of ARIA? What assurance is there that the Government will not simply divert existing funding to its new research agency, investing in whatever the latest major Tory party donor’s interests may be, without the accountability of even Freedom of Information requests? As then-shadow science minister Chi Onwurah MP warned in April 2021, ARIA risks becoming “a side door to sleaze in science”.

With the Commons Science and Technology Committee calling ARIA “a brand in search of a product” and an agency for which “the Government has not articulated a clear need”, why should we endanger our research infrastructure? Given the track record of those trying to introduce it, perhaps the wisest choice would be to scrap the project altogether and focus on increasing funding for reproducible science through UKRI and our existing research councils.

This article was prepared with assistance from Paul-Enguerrand Fady.