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What now for ARIA as it makes its passage through Parliament?

Legislation creating a new research agency will soon gain Royal Assent. David Kernohan wishes he knew what it was for.
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Though in purely volumetric terms this has been a vintage parliamentary session for higher education legislation, it’s fair to say that the quality really hasn’t been there this time.

I had some hope for the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, representing as it did the centrepiece of a flagship government policy. Alas, it seems destined to become a mildly disappointing selection box – the coffee cream of employer-led local skills planning nestling alongside the orange liqueur of targeted careers support and the jammy dodger of academic malpractice. The real point of the bill – the detail of lifelong loan entitlement – will now be found in the slightly anticipated sequel after DfE failed to get a consultation out in time.

There’s been so much written about the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that to add more feels almost cruel to the percentage of Conservative backbenchers who feel like they can’t even say their favourite insensitive and outmoded stereotype without students complaining, and – perversely – that this is something we can and should legislate about.

And the award goes to…

But if you’d asked me to predict which of the three 2021 higher education bills would make it to royal assent without a single meaningful change, the one where – at the instigation of a disgraced former aide to the Prime Minister – the government spends nearly a billion pounds over four years merrily unpicking the 1918 machinery of government settlement and opaquely channelling funding to projects coherent only in the sense they all are judged very likely to fail would not have been my pick.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency is still notably missing a Chair and Chief Executive. According to the BEIS R&D budget allocations, it has £50m to spend by the end of March so we should hope that can be rolled over. Thanks to a lack of any real opposition to spending more money on research, and the usual trenchant government refusal to consider any improvement to proposed legislation from other parties, the new appointees will start without any real guidance from ministers and without the usual protections of public oversight of their work and spending.

Dominic Cummings leaned heavily into the (D)ARPA mythology rather than the reality – with the confusing outcome that ARIA has none of the government oversight, strategic focus, or spending constraints that (D)ARPA had. Even despite this, DARPA managed (arguably) to start the war in Vietnam – who knows what havoc ARIA will wreak?

A key sector role

To me the key role at ARIA will not be either of the leadership roles or a board member (no more than five!), but the head of communications. Science communications is a difficult job at the best of times, but selling high-stakes blue-skies research paid for by public funds to a government and electorate who hasn’t really moved on from the “what’s the use of experts?” stuff and where a worryingly large minority of both groups are now virulently anti-science is a different proposition entirely.

It’s comparatively easy to sell science as a series of solutions, or to use research as a proxy for social progress or economic competitiveness. With such a framing, the other-worldly and abstract concerns of researchers can survive the friendly, joshing, tabloid use of “boffins” or “nerds”. But the value of ARIA is in an almost complete divorce from the useful and the here and now. Every time ARIA speaks it will need to re-justify the use of vast amounts of money it allocates for risky, doubtful, or possibly even foolhardy research. Even with the odd “hit”, it doesn’t take the data desk to come up with a cost-benefit analysis that shows the agency ledger covered in red.

Transparency and accountability would really have helped in this battle of impressions. A strong process, and visibly robust peer review, may have a chance of removing the air of the cloister from the operation. A skilled and admired leadership team would help greatly, but ARIA needs to get the advice and the message right to have a chance at success – and that’s the role of the small but essential executive. Who may even be in post by the time the first chunk of serious money arrives.

Victim of circumstance?

Even before the advent of Covid-19, we were expecting a rise in public spending unusual for a government of this colour. Blame the red wall, or Johnson’s naturally people-pleasing bent (or even, if you buy into the hype, blame Cummings), but record rises in spending on research and development had been pencilled in from the start in a Wilson-style dash for growth on the back of ingenuity.

With the Prime Minister very much serving only at the pleasure of his party at this point, either he or a cabinet competitor could very easily tip the spending balance back towards the tax cuts and austerity that would delight the core Conservative faithful. We’ve seen from the debacle around international aid that the whims of ministers can override the funding even of existing approved projects (a very un-Haldane turn of events).

How much easier would it be to claim to be tightening your belt and cut research funding that is only tangentially connected to long term benefit anyway? In the face of inflation and dwindling export power you’d want to keep support live on the commercial and applied side in case something turns up, and the pain that a cut to the QR end of things would bring would cause serious trouble with a still-powerful higher education lobby.

It’s for this reason we have retained the curious stipulation that 10 years must pass before ARIA can be dissolved. It keeps the blue-skies agency in the game, and forces at least some parts of government to think long term. But nothing in the bill requires any of these 10 years to be funded – a loophole that Rishi Sunak has no doubt already spotted.

2 responses to “What now for ARIA as it makes its passage through Parliament?

  1. I’ve read a lot into ARIA and Cumming’s ideology behind it. I don’t think he was imagining a UK DARPA but rather a PARC-style outfit that sits far from whitehall and has, to quote Bruce Willis from 1998 movie Armageddon “people sat around just thinking sh*t up.” An agency free of the fear of failure so that they can pursue dead ends (at the taxpayers expense) without ministers (and the media) questioning where the money has gone.

    Cummings didn’t want engineers and scientists working on government contracts but thinkers and tinkerers who, whilst obviously highly qualified could also operate outside the governmental sphere of influence. ARIA really needs an unknown person to sit as the head and it needs to be forgotten about by the UK at large so that it can just quietly beaver away on things. I’d be tempted to suggest the government actually re-hire Cummings as its head.

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