Dominic Cummings has attacked the Treasury for placing too many demands for cutting-edge science and technology projects to provide business cases, and has warned that his Advanced Research and Invention Agency brainchild will fail if it does not get “extreme freedom”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser told members of parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee that the proposed high-risk projects agency, known as Aria, needed to be run in a way that was “decisively different” from other government bodies.
Cummings said Whitehall had "not been configured to think rationally about how to do science and technology policy”.
“You need to strip out all of the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy around procurement, state aid, human resources, civil service pay scales, all of these sorts of things,” he said.
“And things like the Treasury business case process – which is horrific and causes huge delays in science and technology. There’s logic for it elsewhere in the system but as applied to science and technology it’s very damaging."
Aria is inspired by the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was founded in the United States in 1958 and is now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It laid the ground for the internet, voice-recognition and the Global Positioning System, as well as a host of military applications. The government has so far committed £800m to fund its establishment.
Cummings told MPs this week that the creation of a UK equivalent to ARPA had been one of four demands he made of Boris Johnson when the future PM asked him to be his chief spad in the summer of 2019. Reforming the “disaster zone” of Whitehall and the civil service was another ask Johnson agreed to.
Cummings said the kind of "extreme freedom" Aria needed from ministers and civil service structures was “one of the lessons of the things that have been most successful historically". "That’s what produced the internet and the personal computing revolution."
Science and Technology Committee chair Greg Clark asked Cummings why progress had been so slow in setting up Aria, which was broached in the two most recent Queen’s Speeches but is yet to be backed by legislation. Last month the committee supported the creation of a UK version of ARPA, but warned it was currently "a brand in search of a product".
Cummings said Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic had “swamped” progress with Aria, and the principles that were behind the success of organisations like ARPA were “completely hostile” to normal bureaucracies.
“Doing something like this is so contrary to how the normal system works that it’s very hard in Whitehall to push through,” he said.
“After over a year of discussing it we suddenly had the Treasury come back in September/October time last year and say ‘hang on, we don’t want to have primary legislation at all... my god, if we do this and start enshrining in legislation that some entities don’t have to follow all of our bureaucracy, where will it end?’
“The whole episode shows just how hard it is for Whitehall to deal with the concept of creating something with low friction and removing things like the Treasury business case.”
Cummings said there the need to produce Treasury business cases had a negative impact on the science funding system.
“There’s a tendency to think of the science funding system like there’s people running the system. But that’s not the reality,” he said. “The reality is that the system runs the people. There’s huge veto points everywhere, so everyone can block things. Everyone can stop good things from happening but almost nobody can get anything done.
“This chain of bureaucracy runs all the way down from the people at the bottom of the hierarchy in things like EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) making decisions about pure maths through the hierarchy of the EPSRC through UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) through BEIS and then up to the Treasury.
“So you have these chains of business cases and e-mails running up and down and up and down this hierarchy for month after month after month driving everybody completely insane. But if you say ‘well, lets just get rid of that, it makes no sense’, some parts of the system say ‘brilliant’ and some parts of the system say ‘my god we can’t possibly do that’.”
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy wants Aria to be “fully operational” by the end of next year. Last month it said it would legislate for the move “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.
Cummings, who left government at the end of last year, said he did not plan to be involved with the operation of Aria, but called on Science and Technology Committee members to be vigilant in helping to protect Aria’s freedom from "powerful figures in the Treasury" who were "not at all fans".
He said he did not believe the organisation should have a defence or health focus and should be “able to look at challenges and problems across the domain of science and technology”. He added that the agency should be run by a small team and decisions about which projects to pursue should be taken by individuals rather than a committee, while the involvement of ministers would be a “disaster”.
‘Departments should have to take science and technology more seriously’
Cummings said cabinet secretary Simon Case was “a supporter of making science and technology core to the job of the prime minister for the future” and that Aria would provide wider lessons for departments.
“All government departments should both have to take science and technology far more seriously than they have done so far and have better funding for it in their normal provision,” he said.
“And they should also all have a small, little pot of maybe 5% of their budget that goes to funding people who are thinking very long term and are on the edge.
“There’s an argument for the Department of Health for example having an entity that could do that. Obviously we saw last year that the department of health had just an absolute total disaster in terms of buying … how it buys, how it procures, how it deals with science and technology.
“It’s why we had to take the vaccine process out of the Department of Health. But I don’t think that leads you to the conclusion that you make the Department of Health the client for Aria.”
Cummings told the session that chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had led thinking on setting up the Vaccines Taskforce, which was led by Kate Bingham in a way that bypassed DHSC.
“Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me and some others said 'obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister’,” he said.
Cummings described DHSC as being “just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE” in spring last year, during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
He has agreed to give evidence to a lessons-learned inquiry into the response to the coronavirus pandemic that is being jointly run by MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. A date has yet to be fixed for that hearing.