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High-risk research firm could become ‘side door to sleaze’

The Labor Party has expressed concern about a government decision to shield its planned high-risk, high-reward innovation agency from freedom of information (FOI) requests. An amendment proposing that the agency should be subject to FOI requests was voted down by MPs.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) has been planned since at least 2019. It is inspired by the Pentagon’s Darpa, which has been instrumental in the development of world-changing technologies such as the Internet and GPS.

The government hopes Aria will bolster the UK’s reputation as “a global scientific superpower”. Legislation to create the agency is currently being passed by parliament, with the government aiming for Aria to be fully operational by 2022.

It will be led by ‘global’ scientists with more flexibility and independence than other public bodies, and funded £800 million for the rest of this Parliament.

The aim is for a small number of well-placed experts to execute high-risk, high-reward projects with a higher than normal tolerance for failure.

Among other freedoms, Aria will receive a general exemption from FOI requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Darpa in the US is subject to scrutiny through FOI requests.

The PvdA wants to amend the legislation to remove the general exemption. It drew parallels with corruption allegations related to public Covid-19 contracts, after figures with close ties to the Conservative Party received contracts after being placed in a “high priority job” for emergency procurement contracts.In the Commons, Shadow Minister of Affairs Chi Onwurah said:

“We want more oversight of Aria and more accountability for the government to build public confidence, especially at a time when this government is in the midst of multiple favoritism scandals.

“We do not believe that Aria’s current general exemption can be justified. £800 million in public money will be spent by Aria.

We’ve heard that Aria must fail, but without transparency and accountability, the public will have no confidence in what it’s doing or the reasons for those failures, and we believe Aria would provide a side door for government to cheat the science.”

Kirsty Blackman, an SNP MP, added that exemption from FOI research would make it impossible to see if her projects “further entrench the inequalities we currently have in science and technology and in academia.

” “[It will not be possible to judge whether Aria] is doing a good job breaking down those barriers, to ensure that people living in the most disadvantaged communities in Scotland have the opportunity because they have the best ideas possible, rather than than because they have the best possible friends.

” Despite these criticisms, the Labor amendment to lift the general exemption was rejected by a large majority of 101. Amanda Solloway, the science secretary, replied that the procurement rules do not apply to the process Aria uses to award research contracts. 

She compared this flexible approach to that of her US counterpart, saying, “Darpa benefits from what has been described as ‘different transaction authority’, which offers flexibility beyond standard US government contracting standards.

” She added that it would be difficult to achieve the intended culture for Aria “within all the rules that normally apply to public bodies”. Former Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in support of the waiver, stating:

“It seems to me that limiting Aria’s mission is not where we should be heading. This is an organization that it is important to give it the freedom to take a broad view.

” This week, campaign group Unlock Democracy sent a “letter for action” notice to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, threatening to sue the government for forcing it to disclose how the £800m budget will be spent. 

According to The Mirror, the department stated that it is necessary to keep Aria’s work secret due to the likelihood of massive public interest in her operations.

“Despite its size, Aria will be much in the public eye. We expect the number of FOI requests to be disproportionate to size and therefore inhibiting,” said an official.