By Fiona Fox
This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.
I had a tiny break from COVID news this week as the government formally announced the launch of a new research funding agency. First trailed in the press a couple of years ago as a UK version of DARPA, the US’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, it then became ARPA and now it’s ARIA (the Advanced Research and Invention Agency). Yes, keep up people.
The project was championed by Dominic Cummings, whose WhatsApp handle still apparently says ‘Get Brexit done, then ARPA’, and was assumed to reflect his frustration at what he perceived to be an overly bureaucratic and risk-averse funding structure in the UK.
While Cummings has now left government, the ambitions he espoused for the agency appear to have survived. According to the BEIS press release,
“The new agency will be independent of government and led by some of the world’s most visionary researchers who will be empowered to use their knowledge and expertise to identify and back the most ambitious, cutting-edge areas of research and technology.”
The few journalists who ran stories on the new agency all happily repeated the word ‘independent’, and none of the scientists I asked for comment questioned the claim. But will it really be independent from government?
When Professor Sir Paul Nurse published his review of research councils that paved the way for setting up a new umbrella body that became UKRI, he declared that it would give science ‘a voice at the heart of government’. After the SMC press briefing, I took him to one side and shared my worry, explaining that science at the heart of government sounds wonderful unless you are one of the poor science press officers like me who has had to deal with science at the mercy of government communications – often a miserable experience. He assured me that the new body would be arm’s length from government and do science communications independently.
Three years on, all I can say is it’s a very short arm. Maybe that kind of close proximity is the price we have to pay for having science at the heart of government and getting the funding science needs. But I think we should at least be open about it and have an honest discussion about what we risk losing from research communication when it’s so close to departmental communications.
Also, isn’t it a bit rich for the government to champion the wonders of independent funding agencies when they have shown so little appetite to let UKRI off the leash. The former CEO, Prof Sir Mark Walport, current CEO, Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, and Dr Ian Campbell, former head of Innovate UK, have all to varying degrees called for more freedom and loosening of restrictions from government.
Here’s a little quiz for you – can any of you name an organisation set up by and funded by government in the last decade or so that has been allowed to speak out freely and independently from government departments? We already know that ARIA is being set up by government and that government will choose its leader. I really want to be proved wrong here, but honestly, what are the chances?
But let me be less pessimistic and turn this around. The government’s desire to set up a new funding agency that is independent from government and freed from unnecessary controls and bureaucracy sends a clear message that they think these constraints are bad for science. Almost all the academics I know would agree. In Ottoline Leyser, UKRI have a wonderful new leader who is excited to change the funding ecosystem, and in Katrina Nevin-Ridley, they have a head of communications who has had a stellar career in fantastic independent research communications at the University of Edinburgh and Wellcome. Why not free all of the UK’s science funding agencies from these constraints?
Paul Nurse’s response to the ARIA announcement was to urge the government to reconsider the decision to establish ARIA separately from UKRI and to instead put it under the same roof. But maybe there is a third way. Maybe UKRI and ARIA could move in together but in their own place, away from the watchful eye of the controlling parents. I’ll certainly be watching how this pans out. Because if the press office at ARIA has to get sign off from BEIS and Number 10 before using their voice, then it’s not an independent agency.