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Onwurah says Aria could become ‘side door to sleaze in science’

Image: Mike Gifford [CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr

Shadow science minister’s comments come as Labour suggests amendments to the agency bill

The government’s £800 million Advanced Research and Invention Agency risks becoming a “side door to sleaze in science” without proper accountability, shadow science minister Chi Onwurah has warned.

Speaking exclusively to Research Professional News, the Labour MP said the party was “very disappointed” by the government’s vision for the “high-risk, high-reward” research funder Aria, which is inspired by the US Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Her comments come as the Aria bill, which would exempt the agency from the requirement to respond to freedom of information requests, makes its way through the UK parliament.

The Aria bill and policy paper do not specify remit or purpose for the agency, instead giving its yet-to-be-appointed leaders free rein to choose its focus.

“The government has chosen to create an agency without any definitive mission, exempt it from FOI and procurement requirements, and with almost untrammelled power for its CEO,” Onwurah said.

But Onwurah said the evidence sessions in the parliament on the bill have demonstrated “confusion over mission, remit and funding, and contradictions with the US government agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on which it is supposedly based”.

‘Side door to sleaze’

Referencing recent allegations of overly close links between former and current government officials and the private sector, Onwurah said Aria should not be allowed to become “a side door to sleaze in science” but that “with neither a mission nor proper oversight this is a real possibility”.

The shadow minister said Labour was introducing a number of amendments to the bill to ensure that Aria is held accountable to parliament through Science Select Committee oversight and consideration by the secretary of state.

Aria should also be held accountable to parliament by reporting on tolerance of failure as well as reporting to the Intelligence and Security Committee when a decision relating to national security is made, she said.

Furthermore, Onwurah said the funder should be accountable to the public and media through freedom of information requests and comply with existing procurement rules.

“It is essential that everyone benefit from the creation of Aria. It cannot be another cronies’ club,” she said.

Onwurah added: “It also must not serve as a distraction from the UK’s wider R&D priorities—at £800m over four years Aria’s funding represents about 1 per cent of government R&D spend by 2025, with the government having committed to doubling the science budget to £22 billion by 2024–25.”

A BEIS spokesperson said: “As the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill makes clear, the agency will focus on identifying and funding the most cutting-edge research, supporting ground-breaking discoveries that could transform people’s lives for the better.

“Commitments to transparency and accountability already exist within the bill, including audited accounts, annual reporting and powers to introduce conflict of interest procedures providing strong assurance of good governance.”

UPDATE 19/04 – Added a quote from BEIS.