Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

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

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alan Mak Alan Mak Conservative, Havant 3:23 pm, 23rd March 2021

I am delighted to welcome the Bill and the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency that it creates. I want to echo the sentiments of the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, and the tributes that they paid to our scientific community, who have done outstanding work during the pandemic.

Today’s Bill is one of the most important to come before the House in this Parliament. First, it lays the foundations for Britain to become the science superpower envisaged by the Prime Minister in the integrated review and building on the Government’s existing commitment to deploy 2.4% of GDP to research and development. Secondly, a new agency will create new jobs, products and services, and innovative communities across the whole country, levelling up our science and technology base and backing our scientists and entrepreneurs. Finally, it will enable Britain to lead the new fourth industrial revolution, pioneering in fields from artificial intelligence and robotics to genomics and quantum technologies. Just as Hargreaves’ spinning jenny and Stephenson’s Rocket propelled Britain to a new era of prosperity and invention in the past, this new agency, ARIA, can help us to success in the decades ahead.

We have all seen during the covid-19 pandemic the importance of investing in research, science and development, and as we build back better, ARIA can unleash the potential of our most visionary scientists, helping Britain to shape the future and get to the future first. In terms of shaping the future, many in the House will know President Kennedy’s words from 1962:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.

Those stirring words are often remembered for their soaring rhetoric, but they were in fact designed to persuade the American people of the benefits of the Apollo space programme after the US had been caught off guard by the Soviet Union putting the first satellite and then the first man into space.

To beat the Soviet Union to the moon, the Americans relied on a radical new organisation that would be a catalyst for new ideas. America’s Advanced Research Projects AgencyARPA, as it was originally known, founded by President Eisenhower and backed by his successor, JFK—would help to deliver not only the moon landings but an early version of the internet, the global positioning system and driverless cars. By launching ARPA, the US was determined that in the future, it would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises.

By launching the UK equivalent today, as the fourth industrial revolution accelerates, we provide ourselves with an insurance policy against future challenges and an opportunity to shape the future through innovation. It is therefore welcome news that ARIA will incorporate the key features of the ARPA model that have been credited with its success, including a sole focus on high-risk, high-reward research; a high tolerance for scientific failure; freedom to explore new funding models, including prizes and taking equity stakes; minimal bureaucracy, with low Government intervention; and empowering talented programme managers to find and fund complex research programmes. That is the right framework, but what sort of technology should those programme managers focus on? That has been the subject of some debate this afternoon.

It would be tempting for ARIA to spread itself thinly and widely, diversifying across a range of technologies and disciplines, but that would be the wrong approach. If ARIA is to succeed, it must focus on the most impactful and transformative technologies that are most likely to create whole new industries, produce thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom and apply across a wide range of economic sectors where the UK can develop a strong and sustained competitive advantage. Those key technologies include robotics and artificial intelligence, which will become pervasive across all sectors of our economy; life sciences and synthetic biology, where the big theme of the coming decade will be personalisation; fusion, which has the potential to deliver a new carbon-free source of clean energy; space, where, as my right hon. Friend Greg Clark said, growth is driven by manufacturing, including in satellites, ground systems and components; and quantum technologies, including quantum computers, which are exponentially more powerful than today’s devices.

It was in Britain that the first industrial revolution took off in the 18th century. It was this country that gave the world penicillin, unravelled the structure of DNA and pioneered the world wide web. Cambridge alone has produced more Nobel laureates than any country in the world except America, and more than France, Japan and China combined. We have an outstanding record of scientific innovation and discovery to be proud of. The creation of this new agency will help Britain cement its status as a science superpower, and it is a project that I am proud to support.