Dominic Cummings' 'pet project' risks being a 'side door to sleaze in science'

Boris Johnson (R) and former special advisor Dominic Cummings leave from the rear of Downing Street

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) and former special advisor Dominic Cummings leave from the rear of Downing Street - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

A new £800 million research agency - which was originally described as Dominic Cummings' 'pet project' - risks being a “side door to sleaze in science”, the opposition has warned.

Ministers want the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) to focus on “high-risk, high-reward” research to explore new ideas while having “strategic and cultural” independence and the freedom to fail.

Cummings has written extensively on his blog about the potential benefits of a British version of DARPA - America's long-running Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency - before he departed Downing Street last year.

The chancellor has previously announced £800 million for the "new blue-skies funding agency" at the 2019 budget.

But unlike the American version, it will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Labour has sought to amend a Bill to remove the exemption and drew parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic, in which the government has been accused of cronyism after people with links to the Conservative Party received contracts.

Speaking in the House of Commons, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah said: “We want to deliver greater oversight of Aria and greater accountability for Government in order to increase public confidence, particularly at this time when this government is in the midst of multiple cronyism scandals.

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“We do not believe that Aria’s current blanket exemption from the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Contracts Regulations can be justified.

“£800 million of public money will be spent by Aria. We’ve heard Aria needs to fail, but without transparency and accountability, the public will not have confidence in what it is doing or the reasons for those failures.

“And we believe Aria would provide the government with a side door to sleaze in science.”

SNP MP Kirsty Blackman said a lack of FOI scrutiny for Aria meant it would not be possible to see if the project would be “further entrenching the inequality we currently have in science and technology and in academia”.

She added it would also not be possible to assess whether Aria is doing a “good positive job towards breaking down those barriers, towards ensuring people who live in the most deprived communities in Scotland are given the opportunity because they’ve got the best possible ideas rather than because they’ve got the best possible friends”.

Business minister Amanda Solloway said procurement rules “do not apply” for the process used by Aria to commission and contract others to conduct research.

She also said the approach is core how Darpa operates, adding: “Darpa benefits from what is described as ‘other transactions authority’ which offers flexibility outside standard US Government contracting standards.”

Solloway said Aria will benefit from “similar flexibilities” before adding they are trying to create a culture for the project that is “difficult to achieve within all the rules that would usually apply to public bodies”.

Labour’s amendment to remove the blanket exemption was defeated by 364 votes to 263, majority 101.

Aria takes inspiration from the US Advanced Research Projects Agency (Apra), which was instrumental in creating transformational technologies such as the internet and GPS.

Labour also proposed an amendment to give Aria a “core mission” to support efforts to tackle climate change.

But Conservative former prime minister Theresa May said: “It seems to me that restricting the mission of Aria is not where we should be going. This is an organisation which it is important to give its freedom to be able to look widely.”

The Bill later cleared the Commons and will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords at a later date.

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