Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:03 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2:03 pm, 23rd March 2021

Forgive me, I did not say that it was modelled on that example. I said that it was inspired, and I referred allusively, in my usual way, to historical precedent. I never said that it was modelled exactly on the American example. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make a fuller contribution to the debate.

Let me make some progress. Different funding methods obviously suit different projects. ARIA may seek to use seed grants. It will have inducement prizes. It may make its own investments in companies. All of these different approaches will drive innovation, and that will allow ARIA to target, for example, a Scottish university or a semiconductor start-up in Wales and to ensure that researchers across the UK can contribute to developing the key technologies for tomorrow.

ARIA will also have strategic independence. It will, as I have said, have the freedom to fail; it will have the freedom to take a long-term view and to experiment with new ways of funding the most ambitious research, which experience tells us is a necessary ingredient for some of the best results. A key part of this freedom will be trusting the leadership of ARIA to identify and decide on areas of research with perhaps the greatest potential. The Bill limits the ability for Ministers, as it should do, to intervene in ARIA’s day-to-day operations or to direct funding decisions. Instead, ARIA will have a highly skilled team of leadership programme managers who, supported by the board, will ensure strong strategic oversight over the portfolio of programmes. As the Bill makes clear, ARIA must have regard to the benefits of that research to the UK—to the people of this country—in terms of not only economic growth but trying to ensure that innovation can improve the quality of life of all our fellow subjects.

Our response to coronavirus as a nation has shown that agility is crucial in funding research in this fast-moving world. All of this work builds on action already taken by the Government and by UK Research and Innovation to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy in the wider ecosystem. We have learned from agencies such as DARPA in the USDaniel Zeichner will be pleased to learn that—which has shown that we need to go several steps further in creating a culture that is primarily focused on pursuing high-risk research. There is a cultural need in such an organisation for autonomy and a measure of dynamism, which can be achieved through exceptional leadership and, perhaps most importantly, through a flat, streamlined structure.

ARIA will benefit from being a small and nimble agency. It will create a unique environment for its programme managers to be completely focused on their particular research proposal. The Bill therefore provides ARIA with some additional but proportionate freedoms, which are not generally found in the rest of our system. For example, it exempts ARIA from public contracting rules. That will allow ARIA to procure R&D services and equipment relating to its research goals in a similar way to a private sector organisation. To ensure that that process is transparent, it sits alongside a commitment in the Bill to audit ARIA’s procurement activities.

In order to further this research-intensive culture, ARIA has been given extensive freedoms. However, we will ensure, as the Bill does, that the organisation submits a statement of accounts and an annual report on its activities, which will be laid directly before Parliament. Those commitments to transparency will sit alongside the customary and necessary scrutiny by the National Audit Office.

It is clear that ARIA will be a unique and extremely valuable addition in our research landscape. It will create a more diverse, more dynamic and creative funding system, which will ensure that transformative ideas, wherever they may come from, can change people’s lives for the better.

I am very conscious that there is a huge amount of interest in this debate on the Back Benches on both sides of the House. I have committed myself not to go on for two hours or whatever the customary length of time might be. Having been a Back Bencher myself, I know that it is often frustrating to hear Front Benchers trench on parliamentary time. As a consequence, I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will agree that, as we build back better, we can have a full debate today about the merits of ARIA and its necessary existence. I hope that the Bill will show the Government’s strong commitment to building on a wonderful research base. On that basis, I commend the Bill to the House.