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Campaign calls for MPs to bring ARIA under FOI

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill will have its report stage in the House of Commons on Monday 7th June 2021. As it stands, ARIA will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The Campaign has written to MPs urging them to support amendments 8 and 14 to bring ARIA under FOI.

1) The ‘burden’ of responding to FOI requests

The government has said that ARIA is not being brought under FOIA to spare it the ‘burden’ of responding to FOI requests, an extraordinary argument for a body which will have a budget of £800 million over four years. Many of the bodies subject to FOIA have tiny budgets and staff numbers compared to those that ARIA will enjoy.

2) The US model for ARIA is subject to the US FOIA

The government has repeatedly stressed that ARIA is modelled on agencies such as the influential US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and its successor, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

However, ARPA was subject to the US Freedom of Information Act and DARPA is subject to it. This has not prevented them achieving the successes which the government wishes ARIA to emulate. Between 2009 and 2019 an average of only 47 requests a year referring to ARPA or DARPA were made to the US Department of Defense (DOD). It is difficult to see how that small number of requests could constitute a burden, let alone interfere with ARIA’s ability to achieve its objectives.

3) Comparisons with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

It has been suggested that ARIA may receive the same volume of requests as UKRI which deals with 30 FOI requests a month. In fact, UKRI incorporates the 7 UK research councils plus Innovate UK and Research England (formerly HEFCE). Before UKRI’s creation each of these nine bodies was a separate public public authority dealing with its own FOI requests. In 2017-18, the six research councils for which we have found data received a total of 287 FOI requests between them, an average of 48 requests each. This is similar to the number of US requests about ARPA or DARPA, suggesting that ARIA is likely to face a very modest level of requests.

4) FOI and scrutiny

ARIA will be expected to fund ‘high risk, high reward research’ and adopt ‘an approach to science that does not shy away from failure.’ FOIA will not prevent that but it may help deter or detect possible conflicts of interest. The possibility of ARIA continuing to support clearly failing projects through a reluctance to admit defeat cannot be excluded. Its board will include scientists who may be inclined to fund projects in their own specialties or at their own institutions. The government expects ARIA to take equity stakes in companies and co-fund projects with the private sector, activities with their own risks of conflict of interest.

5) Ethics violations at DARPA

In the US, DARPA’s director between July 2009 and March 2012 was Dr Regina Dugan who, with her father, had previously founded a military technology company called RedXDefense (‘RedX’). After Dr Dugan became DARPA’s director her father succeeded her as CEO of RedX. An investigation by the US DOD’s Inspector General found that while DARPA director Dr Dugan had briefed senior DOD officials using extracts from RedX promotional materials which had ‘created potential business opportunities for RedX, which was in a position to deliver an off- the-shelf solution to implement…[a] theory Dr Dugan promoted.’ This contravened the DOD ethics regulations prohibiting direct or implied endorsement of products or services. Dr Dugan resigned during the investigation, though this was said to be unrelated to it. Disclosures under the US FOIA contributed information on earlier contracts between DARPA and RedX. Disclosure of the Inspector General’s report was itself the result of an FOIA request.

For more information see our earlier detailed briefing on the the ARIA bill.

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