Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:16 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2:16 pm, 23rd March 2021

We shall look forward to the Secretary of State getting a satisfactory result. I am not sure that I always got a satisfactory result with the Treasury, although I was in the Treasury at one point, at least as an adviser. This is very important and, as I say, people’s jobs and livelihoods and the scientific base of this country, of which we are all so proud, depend on it.

Let me come to the Bill, which we support. The Bill is important—the Secretary of State said this—because there is incredible work going on in the scientific community, but there is consensus that there is a lack of a mechanism to identify, build and fund truly ambitious, high-risk, high-reward programmes. We recognise the case for an independent agency that operates outside the established research funding mechanisms, but we feel that the Bill requires improvement.

I guess our concerns cohere into a different view about the role of Government and the lessons of DARPA, which my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner talked about, on which in some broad sense—maybe not in the Secretary of State’s mind, but in others’ minds—ARIA is modelled. It is impossible to ignore what we might call the spectre of Dom in this debate. He was at the Science and Technology Committee—chaired by the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells—and he does rather hang over this Bill. He is its sort of governmental godfather. In his telling, DARPA’s success—I think this is important—is simply because the Government got out of the way and let a bunch of buccaneering individuals do what they liked. It is definitely true, as I understand it, that DARPA has important lessons about the need for the culture that I talked about, including higher reward and, of necessity, a higher chance of failure, but it is simply not true that DARPA was somehow totally detached from Government. DARPA had an obvious client—the Department of Defense—a clear mandate around defence-related research, a clear synergy in its work with the procurement power of the US DOD and, incidentally, abided by laws on freedom of information.

I want to suggest that there are two different views about ARIA: one is that we should let the organisation simply do what it wants, relying on the wisdom of a genius chair and chief executive; and the other subtler and, in our view, more sensible approach—one more consistent with the lessons of DARPA—is that Government should set a clear mandate and framework for ARIA and then get out of the way and not interfere with its day-to-day decision-making. I also believe there is a democratic case, because the priority goals for the spending of £800 million over this Parliament should be driven by democratic choices; not about the specific items that it funds, but about the goals and mission.

That takes me to the three points that I want to make: first, about the mandate for ARIA; secondly, about its position in the wider R&D system; and thirdly, about accountability. I will try to emulate the Secretary of State’s brevity—perhaps not exactly his brevity, but as much as I can.

The deputy director of DARPA says about its success that

“having national security as the mission frames everything.”

The Secretary of State said to the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells at the Science and Technology Committee:

“If I were in your position, I would be asking what the core missions of ARIA are.”

I think the point that Dominic Cummings made, or I am sure would have made, is that this will be a job for the people we hire who are running the organisation. The Secretary of State went on:

“It will be up to the head of ARIA to decide whether he or she thinks the organisation should adopt what the innovation strategy suggests…or reject it.”

I really understand the wish to give freedom to ARIA, but surely it is for Government to shape and not shirk the setting of priorities, and it is not just DARPA where we can learn that lesson. Moonshot R&D—the Japanese agency established in 2019 to fund challenging R&D—has seven specific moonshot goals set by the Japanese Government, and my understanding from the evidence taken by the Science and Technology Committee is that the UK scientific community agrees with that idea.

I notice Richard Fuller putting his head in his hands. He has done that before when I speak, but let me just make this point in seriousness: £800 million is not in the scheme of things a huge amount of money, certainly when compared with UKRI’s budget. The concern is that unless, as the Select Committee said, ARIA focuses on a single or a small number of missions, it will dilute its impact.

Take the net zero challenge. I believe it is a challenge of political will and imagination, but it is also a technological challenge. If it is the No. 1 international challenge, as the PM said last week, and if it is the No. 1 domestic challenge, as I think it is, why would it not be the right mandate for ARIA for at least its first five years? Indeed, Professor Richard Jones and Professor Mariana Mazzucato, who perhaps have even greater claims than Dom to being godfather and godmother of this idea, said that climate change would be an ideal challenge on which an agency such as ARIA would focus. To be clear, providing a mandate does not mean micro-managing decisions, and it would be grossly simplistic to suggest otherwise.