Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee, Chair, Science and Technology Committee 2:33 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is an honour to speak in this debate and to follow Edward Miliband, and to warmly welcome the introduction of this important Bill. This is an extraordinary time for science, as the Secretary of State and his shadow have made clear. The interest in and standing of science in this country and around the world have never been higher during my lifetime. In a year, we have gone from discovering a lethal new virus to having not just one but multiple effective vaccines against it. That has never been done in the history of science, even going back to Jenner. This is a fantastic time for the House to be backing, as it evidently is, further investment in and progress of science in the UK. For all the horrors of the last year, some of the lessons that can be learned already—for example, the testing of new scientific procedures in parallel rather than in sequence—may, in not too many years’ time, save more lives than have been lost during the last year. We need to reinforce this.

British science is not just exceptional in the life sciences. Whether it is in space and satellites, with 40% of the small satellites in orbit above the Earth today being made in Britain, or the fact that the next generation of batteries are being researched by the Faraday Institution in Oxford, we have in this country so many of the pieces of science and technology that are transforming the world. This is at a time when the Government have made a historic commitment to invest in science. When I occupied the Secretary of State’s position, I was pretty pleased to negotiate out of the Treasury an increase in science funding from £9 billion to £12 billion a year—the biggest increase that had ever been achieved—but this Government have committed to an extraordinary increase to £22 billion a year by the end of this Parliament. That is the important context of the Bill.

For our inquiry, the Science and Technology Committee took evidence from people all around the world, including current and former staff of DARPA, and in our report of 12 February, we welcomed strongly the £800 million being committed to this new institution. Like the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, we recognise the important contribution that a new body outside the main research and development system could make, benefiting from a different culture. We saw the benefits to be had from transformational research that may be riskier than is commonly funded. The House should expect that quite a lot of the projects undertaken by this agency will fail, and we should not be quick to criticise that, because transformational breakthroughs are usually accompanied by failure on the way, and we need to be used to that.

Our report asked questions that I hope will be clarified as the Bill moves through this House and the other place. The question of what the agency’s focus will be is a legitimate one, if only for the fact that it is easy to dissipate £800 million in so many projects that we do not get the transformation that is in prospect. With that budget, and based on the evidence we took, our Committee recommended that the organisation should have no more than two focal points. The question of whether it should be about blue-sky research and brand-new thinking, without particular regard to the application, or whether it is looking to turn already nascent good ideas into practical applications, should also be clarified.

The role of Ministers and the chief executive, and the choice of the chief executive, will be important. Our Committee found that it is very important that, in pursuing our ambitions for ARIA, which is ultimately 1% of our annual research funding, we do not forget the other 99%, given some of the criticisms of bureaucracy and micromanagement that have been advanced by friends and to which ARIA is the answer. In fact, the founding chief executive of UKRI, Sir Mark Walport, thought that this was a good moment to refresh some of the procedures that it operates under.

Finally, it is important to state that we welcome ARIA because it is in the context of rising science funding. But it is paradoxical that, just at the point that we have the biggest increase by far in science funding and the whole scientific community is rejoicing at this country embarking on a golden age of scientific research, we should unexpectedly have the prospect of cuts to the science budget for the next year or two. To put it into context, the £2 billion subscription to Horizon, which has never been part of the science budget before, would amount to about a 25% cut in UKRI’s budget, and the official development assistance reduction would mean £125 million of cancelled projects.

This Bill reinforces the commitment that the Government and, I hope, the House make to building on the successes of UK and international science. The Secretary of State is a serious and committed advocated of this agenda. He was clear and candid when he appeared before the Select Committee. The decisions are not all in his hands, but I hope that he will continue to battle and, indeed, persuade his colleagues in the Treasury and the Prime Minister so that he can, I hope, have a long and flourishing tenure in his post, presiding over a period for UK science that we will look back on as a decisive acceleration of its potential.