Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:57 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:57 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a real pleasure to follow Stephen Metcalfe. Anyone who has attended the annual STEM for Britain event hosted by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which he chairs, will know that we are a country not short of brilliant ideas and young people—and many of them, I have to say, come from Cambridge.

However, that immediately begs the question, is ARIA a solution in search of a problem? As the excellent Science and Technology Committee report put it—I congratulate Greg Clark and his colleagues on that—is it

“a brand in search of a product”?

We have heard a lot about Dominic Cummings. I just caution Government Members that they may not want to associate themselves too closely with a man who, in the public’s mind, is very much associated with one set of rules for some and a very different set of rules for them. Many will wonder why a vanity project designed to assuage the ego of one key adviser is being pursued by the Government when they have finally had the sense to ditch that adviser—or was it that he ditched them? Who knows? We will be generous, and I will ask an open question: can we do better?

Of course, our answer as a country is always yes, but if this is really about setting people free—and who does not want to cut the bureaucracy and set people free?—is it not curious that just yesterday, the Government announced a review, to be led by Professor Adam Tickell, the not “bog-standard” vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, of the whole issue of bureaucracy in our research sector? I suggest that there is muddle, not least around the problem we are trying to solve.

Could we do better? The landscape of research funding is complex. UKRI is a relatively new organisation, but there are some long-established principles in this country—the Haldane principle, dual funding and QR, or quality-related research funding. Add Horizon, and there is a balance in there. Add the catapults launched a few years ago under the coalition and the result, if we are not careful, is lots of people competing for the same funding. It is not simple, and it is frequently a subject of discussion in Cambridge, as I am sure the House can imagine. To be frank, in Cambridge the general view is that the issue is not finding the breakthrough ideas, but how they are developed and taken forward, as the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock just said.

Sadly, we have very few home-grown unicorns like Arm, although we have done better over the past 30 years because we have a strong investor community in Cambridge and real efforts are made through organisations such as Cambridge Enterprise to develop our spin-outs. Thoughtful contributions have been made by entrepreneurs such as David Cleevely, who rightly pointed out throughout the Cameron-Osborne years, when they were promoting Tech City in London, that we already have a tech city; it is called Cambridge and it is just up the railway line, along a powerful innovation corridor that has huge potential.

There are other powerful voices who identify a very different problem from the one that it is suggested ARIA might address. Take David Sainsbury and David Connell. Lord Sainsbury is a highly regarded former Science Minister; look at the work he did a few years ago on economic growth, in which he cautioned—sensibly, in my view—against trying to import systems from elsewhere and expecting them somehow to work in a different culture. He also rightly queried the lack of co-ordination of research across Government Departments —an issue that I suspect is yet to be seriously addressed. David Connell has been a passionate advocate over many years of small business research initiatives—something we have adopted and adapted from the Americans—and of using contracts rather than grants and driving innovation through procurement. That idea has too limited an uptake, I would say, and needs a stronger champion in Government. Is DARPA really a model for the UK? Well, the US has an infamous military-industrial complex and we have nothing similar here. Who will be the client? The Secretary of State seemed to be touchy about this, but whether it is learned from, not modelled on, is a key question.

The obvious question about whether the current system can be reformed to address some of these concerns is also not answered, and some of the potential problems have been made worse by decisions the Government have already taken, or sort of taken. Reference has been made to the disappearing industrial strategy, which must be rather galling for the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, given the effort that he and others put in and the huge amount of work done across so many sectors. What is to replace it? Perhaps the Minister can tell us later. Perhaps it is nothing, but the mission-oriented approach that ARIA points to and is widely welcomed replaces, frankly, something remarkably similar. As we have heard, the great challenges are not that different, but for iconoclasts, of course, everything that went before has to be laid to waste. Not a very British approach, I would say. What is very British is the tradition of paying public servants badly. If ARIA can free up pay levels, good, but it really does not need an ARIA to do that, so stop making a song and dance about it; get on and do it.

All this is important because we have excellence. How ironic that the Government have turned a potential good-news story into a story about cuts. As we have heard, Universities UK estimates that if the cost of Horizon association is taken out of UKRI, it will cost 18,000 research jobs. That would certainly be a big hit to cities like mine. At the weekend, Stephen Toope, the University of Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, warned that Government claims about global Britain risked ringing hollow. As he says,

“World-leading research cannot just be turned off like a tap. Once our highly trained young researchers leave our universities they will not come back, and once they leave the country they will not return.”

He is so right. I visit many labs in and around Cambridge—the magnificent Laboratory of Molecular Biology being just one of them—but what strikes anyone who goes into any of them is that it is an international microcosm, with people from all across the globe. We are good because good people want to be here, but they can always go somewhere else. I tell the House, there are plenty of people who want them and plenty of inducements. Then there are the ODA cuts—so foolish, for so many reasons, not least the threat to our diplomatic soft power at a time when China is ramping up its influence everywhere. I am told that institutions have been sending letters to researchers who already have grant letters telling them that those grant letters will not be honoured. The system has worked for decades based on trust, and that is now being undermined. That is a clear message that with this Government, Britain cannot be trusted to keep its word. There is nothing that ARIA can do that will repair the damage—the huge damage to trust—that has already been caused and is continuing to be caused.

We need a fightback within Government. Last week, I encouraged the Minister to seek operatic inspiration, but far from “Vincero”—I will win—from “Nessun Dorma”, her reaction was more, “When I am laid in earth” from “Dido’s Lament”. That is Puccini’s Dido, not Track and Trace’s, I hasten to add. We need so much more. UK research is a success story. Please stop doing unnecessary harm. In my view, ARIA is worth supporting, but it is a distraction. It is worth discussing how we can do things better, but please, Secretary of State, stop doing harm now.