Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:50 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Stephen Metcalfe Stephen Metcalfe Conservative, South Basildon and East Thurrock 2:50 pm, 23rd March 2021

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency.

As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention, and that necessity has never been greater as we try to build back better following the huge consequences of the pandemic. It is fitting that we should hold this debate today, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the lockdown. As well as looking back over the past year, the Bill gives us an opportunity to look forward.

Before I look forward, I want to look back at the incredible contribution that UK scientists have made to scientific endeavour and their list of achievements. Over centuries, the UK has been responsible for many great discoveries and inventions—from the first refracting telescope in 1668 to the discovery and understanding of DNA, and from the humble tin can to the jet engine. Probably the most poignant today is, as we have already heard, the development of the first vaccine more than 225 years ago in 1796. That discovery is helping the UK and the world to tackle the ravages of covid today.

UK research and the work of UK scientists have truly led to inventions that are potentially saving the world. But we cannot rest on our laurels, which is why I welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to science and research and development. I welcome this debate and the meeting of our manifesto commitment to establish a high-risk, high-reward research agency, ARIA.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to talk a little about the wider R&D landscape. I warmly welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to making the UK a science superpower. Their commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 and the £22 billion commitment to science in 2024-25 are fantastic but, as we have heard, there is no point in our making progress in one area if we are taking funds from another to do that. I will not labour the argument about funding for our participation in Horizon Europe, but needless to say I would like to see that money coming from a different pot rather than the existing ones.

Let us talk about the positives and the investment of £800 million in a new advanced research and invention agency, based on the principle of high risk and high reward and free from Government interference. To make the most of that, we have to change our view of risk. Risk here is good. That requires us to acknowledge—indeed, to embrace—failure as part of the process.

For the agency, that is fundamentally about people. It is about having top-quality, confident and knowledgeable people in the right places—the right chair and the right chief executive. It is also about having a command structure that is fleet of foot, which is why I think some of the measures in the Bill to exempt ARIA from FOI are the right thing to do.

ARIA needs to encourage and embrace new and novel ideas in the areas of artificial intelligence, quantum and, potentially, superconductivity. I accept that some of its endeavours, if not many of them, will fail, but even where there are failures, I still want its culture to be one of encouraging future submissions—a culture where project managers are not judged on individual outcomes that encourage them to play safe.

ARIA should be judged as a whole, and only after a reasonable time. It should work with both the usual suspects—the established research bodies—and potential sectoral disrupters. If we are searching for inventions, ARIA also needs the ability to work with individuals who may have promising ideas but not necessarily the resources or experience to make them work. ARIA has a role there to help people find the right development path.

While there will be failures, I am sure there will be many successes, so I would like to hear more about how a successful ARIA-funded project will make the transition from lab bench to product or service. The UK has a great track record of innovation and invention, but we do not have the best track record of commercialisation—of turning an idea into an industry that keeps the rewards here in the UK and provides our citizens with well-paid, rewarding jobs.

ARIA needs to help research to cross the so-called valley of death, and it needs to be alive to that challenge. It needs to work with ideas to ensure that they do not fail due to a lack of funding, support or interest. If an idea is novel enough that it has potential, ARIA needs to support it until it can hand it off in the confidence that it will be in safe hands and that it will thrive. There is no point having taxpayer-funded research or invention only for it to fail through lack of practical support.

I welcome this Bill. The creation of ARIA gives us a fantastic opportunity to fill a gap in the current landscape, and I very much look forward to working with Ministers as we take the Bill forward and reap the benefits that it can provide us with.