Policy Officer James Tooze reflects on Dominic Cummings' appearance before the S&T Committee

This week, Dominic Cummings appeared in front of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to discuss the new research funding agency, ARIA, along with wider issues facing the funding of science and engineering in the UK. Free from his former role as Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister, Cummings was able to speak about his work during his time at Number 10.

He told the Committee that one of the conditions he attached to taking a role in Number 10 was a promise that the Prime Minister would double the UK science budget, and indeed in the Spring of 2020 the Government announced it was committed to increasing the public science budget to £22bn by 2024/25. He also spoke of discussions between himself, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and others to try to ensure that science becomes a key part of not only the current role of Prime Minister but also a be focus of every future Prime Minister.

ARIA

The creation of a new ‘high-risk high-reward’ funding agency in the UK is often said to have been the brainchild of Cummings. During the evidence session, he was keen to articulate that the idea for this type of agency was not his, saying that the UK could learn from successes of similar agencies in the US and reap the benefits of a more agile funding agency. Cummings said he believes that ARIA can operate across a much wider portfolio and ‘sample’ research and innovation ideas at the boundaries of what is possible that other public research investment bodies may deem too risky. He believes that this could find and fuel radically new and disruptive ideas to drive the next generation of technological advancement. These are, of course, lofty goals for an organization yet to be established. Expanding the number of funding opportunities, particularly increasing the diversity of these opportunities is an important factor in supporting research and innovation across the country.

As one of the most outspoken proponents of reducing administrative bureaucracy across Government, cutting ‘red-tape’ in the creation of ARIA is central to Cummings’ belief of why the agency can be successful. Unlike other funders of research, he believes that ARIA should have a small number of individuals that are responsible for the agency and that it should sit outside of the jurisdiction of any Government departments or Ministerial oversight. He said that if ARIA did not operate in a ‘decisively different’ way to UKRI, then there was little point of establishing the new agency. In CaSE’s written response to the Science & Technology Committee’s inquiry into the new agency, we wrote about the importance of autonomy and a flat management structure to the successes of DARPA in the US and that a similar approach should be taken in the UK.

Clearly, a significant issue for ARIA is that is hasn’t actually been established yet. Primary legislation has been introduced in Parliament but it is a relatively threadbare bill that brings no clarity over the mission behind the whole agency, with the S&T Committee previously describing the agency as ‘a brand in search of a product’. The next steps are said to be the appointment of a Chief Executive and a Chair, who will be charged with setting the direction for the agency, but it feels like a lot more progress will need to be made to get anywhere near Cummings’ and others vision of success.

Science and engineering across Government

The Committee also took the opportunity to quiz Cummings on all things science policy, including the recent discrepancies between UK Government rhetoric and actions with regards to investment in research and innovation. He revealed that during the Brexit negotiation process, the Prime Minister had promised to Cummings that “Brexit would not take a penny of any existing [science] budget”. Following the UK’s decision to associate with Horizon Europe, the topic of where the funds would come from has been somewhat fraught and CaSE and other organisations have been fighting hard to try to ensure these financial commitments should not come from existing science and research budgets. Cummings also said that funding for Horizon Europe, along with cuts to research budgets within Overseas Development Assistance should not be subject to “Whitehall accounting gimmicks”.

Amongst other issues, Cummings discussed the need for cross-Governmental capacity for science and technology. He said that the last year has shown just how important science is for every Government department and that thinking about science as something that happens in isolation means that is has not always been taken seriously or funded properly. He believes that Government departments should take their scientific endeavours far more seriously and be given greater resource to support these activities. He also described that where the Government thinks too narrowly about science, the whole pipeline of a thriving research base is not considered, not only the types of research and innovation that is funded but also in creating opportunities for skills development and creating an immigration system that supports science.  

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