Dominic Cummings: give Aria ‘extreme freedom’ from red tape

Former Downing Street guru says UK’s new research agency must be freed from ‘expensive disaster zone’ of science bureaucracy

March 17, 2021
Source: House of Commons

Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has urged ministers to give the UK’s new £800 million science funding agency “extreme freedom” to help it avoid the “horrific bureaucracy” that has held back other research funders.

Appearing before the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, Mr Cummings laid out his vision for the “high-risk, high-reward” research agency, to be known as the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria), which he championed while working in Downing Street.

Mr Cummings told the committee on 17 March that the creation of a UK equivalent of the US’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), had been sealed in a conversation with the prime minister in his living room prior to Mr Johnson’s entry into Downing Street in July 2019 and was one of four demands for his return to the Conservative leader’s side that Mr Johnson agreed to.

Another was the doubling of the science budget, which is set to reach £22 billion by 2024, and 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, Mr Cummings told MPs.

Mr Cummings was insistent, however, that Aria must be “decisively different from other funding agencies” and have “extreme freedom” from the “horrific bureaucracy” of Whitehall and other research bodies.

The new body must be the “opposite to how all normal funders works and how Whitehall works”, having just a director and four trustees who would be left to fund potentially game-changing research in areas of their choosing, he said.

“There is a tendency to think that people are running the system – it actually the system that is running the people,” explained Mr Cummings on how he believed existing bureaucracy stifled innovative research, adding that current systems meant there is a “huge ability to block things but it means nothing gets done”.

Asked what areas he would like to see Aria address, Mr Cummings said that he would “leave those decisions to the institution”.

“I would leave it very broad because one of the crucial decisions that Darpa made in the 1970s was giving people space for problem-solving – people who are running it need space and time to talk to people on the ground about what are the problems.”

“It will take time to find these ideas and the often very odd people who pursue them,” said Mr Cummings, who explained that the agency would rely on “very extreme talent” who also had an “extreme antipathy to bureaucracy”.

According to Mr Cummings, current research structures meant “too many people have vetoes” on research.

One committee member, Katherine Fletcher MP, said that this proposed lack of oversight made Aria vulnerable to capture by the “tinfoil hat brigade” offering unusual and potentially transformative research, which was never likely to succeed.

That risk could be mitigated by appointing the right director, said Mr Cummings, who suggested three candidates: the San Francisco-based quantum physicist Michael Nielsen, genomics professor Steve Hsu – who resigned last year as Michigan State University’s vice-president for research after student protests against his comments endorsing research into genetic modifications to increase intelligence – and Tim Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge.

“If you get some bog-standard vice-chancellor and squeeze them in, it will not work,” Mr Cummings said of Aria’s future director.

It was vital for Aria to remain independent from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), added Mr Cummings, who said that organisation’s chief executive, Dame Ottoline Leyser, agreed with him on this point.

“If you are going to put it in UKRI, do not do it at all,” he said, explaining that “all you are doing is adding to bureaucracy and you might as well just give [universities] the money”.

More broadly, Mr Cummings said he wanted to see a “de-bureaucratising” of the “expensive disaster zone” of UK research bureaucracy, urging Dame Ottoline to “wage war on procedure” and report to parliament annually on her organisation’s efforts to cut red tape.

“Scientists know how horrendous the system is at the moment and how terrible it is for young people,” he claimed, adding: “If you had a Darwin or Turing turning up now aged 21, everyone would say this is mad and they wouldn’t get funding.”

The existing system currently rewards “high-status, well-rewarded people” who advocate “conservative, cautious and incremental ideas” that were assessed against the “same metrics used by the same peer review committees”, claimed Mr Cummings, who said that this meant funders “gave a lot of money to high-status men who control organisations [and does] not give it to young people with ideas”.

While Mr Cummings believed that research funded by Aria could take place in universities, he believed they too were a “massive source of bureaucracy” and that the government should be “very aggressive” with higher education institutions, telling them that extra research funds would be contingent on slashing red tape. “Universities add another level to all this process horror,” he said.

The committee later heard from business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who confirmed that UKRI’s budget for 2021-22 had not yet been finalised despite the financial year beginning in just two weeks.

Accepting that recent cuts to overseas aid-funded research were difficult to square with commitments to increase spending, Mr Kwarteng said that the government had “very ambitious ideas as a science superpower but today we are in very straitened circumstances”.

In his evidence, Mr Cummings said that it would be “completely insane” not to increase science funding in line with the Conservatives’ manifesto commitments, adding that Boris Johnson had repeatedly assured him that money would not be taken from domestic research budgets to fund Horizon Europe membership.

“The prime minister definitely said, a few times, whatever happens with EU negotiations, British science will not lose a single penny,” he said.

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