Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 3:04 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is genuinely a great pleasure to follow Daniel Zeichner, who speaks with great knowledge on this issue and who of course represents an area where many people will be interested in the Bill.

In common with other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill, but I just want to make sure I am welcoming the same Bill as they are. In many of the contributions today, Members appear to have aimed their guns at destroying those elements of the Bill that are unique, special and different. The shadow Secretary of State, Edward Miliband, who is no longer in his place, started that off by talking about R&D as an example of an industrial strategy. Well, industrial strategies are playthings of Ministers and, as we know, Ministers can change from time to time. The whole design of the Bill is intended to prevent those issues.

The spokesperson for the Scottish nationalists, Stephen Flynn, chided me a little about the importance of the environment and asked whether that should be a focus. I am not denying that the environment and climate change is an important issue, but the point here is that we do not prescribe that that is the only thing that this organisation can research—I am not saying that it should not look into it.

I do not wish to smother at birth the unique characteristics of this organisation. Essentially, the purpose of the Bill is to create an institution that, in Donald Rumsfeld’s terms, would look at the unknown unknowns, and politicians are not in the right place to define what those would be. If I may, I would gently disagree with the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, when he said that we should choose a couple of focal points for ARIA. That really gets to the point, because the question would then be, did we choose the right focal points? I am not sure that that is something the Bill is seeking to do with this agency.

I want to ask some questions, and perhaps the Minister can cover them in her summing up or perhaps we can cover them in Committee. Many hon. Members have spoken about the importance of the programme manager in DARPA. I looked at the worked case example cited in the policy statement released for ARIA. In it, somebody was recruited on the basis of a £50,000 grant and a three-month project. Subsequently, on review, they would, in this example, be granted £20 million for further research. I would say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that there are three key tensions there that we need to tease out.

The first is that that approach places tremendous responsibility on the evaluation of those initial projects, so how do we see that going? What are we thinking about in terms of the framework in which that evaluation will take place? That seems a very thin basis for the initial judgment—it is not wrong, but it is a thin basis.

Secondly, the appointments of the chief executive officer and the chair, which my right hon. and hon. Friends are already considering, also seem to be extremely important, because they will, in such an important way, define the culture of this organisation—certainly for the initial five-year term of the chief executive and at least for the first 10 years of this organisation.

Thirdly, DARPA has been commented on a number of times. It estimates that 25% of its programme managers turn over annually, so there will be quite a large turnover of these key members of staff in the UK. What is our expectation? As the hon. Member for Cambridge said, America can draw on an enormous pool of talent. Is the goal that we will be able to draw on a larger, perhaps global pool of talent to play a role in this agency? That would be a very good aspect of global Britain.

In 2019, 65% of DARPA projects were undertaken by companies, and only 17% by universities. Is that the intention here? If so, I would very much welcome that. Also, there is the opportunity in the Bill for ARIA to create companies and joint ventures, and a document will come out to explain how that will work. However, it would be helpful to know whether it will also include what happens to any returns from those joint ventures and companies, and whether the money will go back into ARIA itself or be returned to the Treasury—I think we all know what the answer to that might be, but it would be interesting to at least pose the question.

The Secretary of State will know that ARPA was set up in the same year—1958, if I can read my writing—as the Small Business Investment Act was enacted in the United States. I would like to close on this point. There is very positive reinforcement between the initiatives being taken in the Bill and encouraging support for venture capital and small businesses. I refer Members to my declaration of interests on the issue of venture capital. There is a tremendous opportunity.

DARPA likes to say that it created the internet, but venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins can point to the fact that it made billions out of Amazon, billions out of Netscape and billions out of Google. That is the essence of the problem we often hear about in this country. We are very good at doing the research, but we are very poor at commercialising it. Can we see further efforts by the Department to ensure that we have the same parallel tracks as the United States had when it successfully launched its equivalent of our initiative, ARPA, in 1958?