UK: New research agency must not be exempt from freedom of information law, say campaigners

The government is proposing a new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), an independent body with a budget of £800 million over the term of the current parliament (until 2024), "to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research." However, The Times has reported that the agency will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act - a move that the Campaign for Freedom of Information says "would be wholly unjustified," as the law already protects commercial secrets and research interests.


Below is the text of a statement published by the Campaign for Freedom of Information on 19 February 2021. See also the government's press release, which does not mention the alleged FOI exemption: UK to launch new research agency to support high risk, high reward science (gov.uk)


The new publicly funded science research agency, announced today (19.2.21), must not be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the Campaign for Freedom of Information said today.

The government has announced the setting up of the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) with a budget of £800 million, to promote “high-risk research” that could “transform people’s lives for the better”.[1]

But a government briefing reported in The Times this week suggested that the agency would not be subject to the FOI Act. This is supposedly to ensure that rivals of those applying or funding did not obtain unfair competitive advantage.[2] The Campaign says this would be wholly unjustified as the Act already protects commercial secrets.[3] A separate exemption also specifically protects research interests.[4]

The Campaign’s director Maurice Frankel said:

“The new agency will spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high risk projects but the government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils – which are subject to FOI. It’s expressly modelled on a US agency, called DARPA, which is subject to the US FOI Act. The FOI Act already exempts information which would harm both commercial and research interests. Allowing ARIA to ignore FOI would reflect a deep-seated government aversion to FOI rather than any need to protect legitimate interests.”

[1] The government’s announcement can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-to-launch-new-research-agency-to-support-high-risk-high-reward-science

[2] ‘Secrecy for high-risk tech research agency Aria’, The Times 17 February 2021

[3] Section 43(1) of the Freedom of Information Act exempts trade secrets from disclosure. Section 43(2) exempts information whose disclosure would be ‘likely to prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).” Such information could be disclosed only if the public interest justified it.

[4] Section 22A of the FOI Act states “Information obtained in the course of, or derived from, a programme of research is exempt information if (a) the programme is continuing with a view to the publication, by a public authority or any other person, of a report of the research (whether or not including a statement of that information), and (b) disclosure of the information under this Act before the date of publication would, or would be likely to, prejudice (i) the programme, (ii) the interests of any individual participating in the programme, (iii) the interests of the authority which holds the information, or (iv) the interests of the authority mentioned in paragraph (a) (if it is a different authority from that which holds the information).”

Image: RestrictedData, CC BY 2.0

 

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