Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:28 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 3:28 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on the setting up of ARIA. Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly welcome any announcement of new public funding for science and technology.

I was struck by the closing remarks of Alan Mak about Britain’s history of scientific technology and innovation. When I was a child growing up in the 1980s, we were still coming towards the end of the cold war, and science and technology felt almost threatening in a time of conflict revolving around nuclear weapons. A transformation has taken place over the last 35 years in public attitudes towards science. We have had a digital revolution. Here we are today, on the anniversary of the first lockdown of the pandemic, and in the last few months, scientific research and scientists have dominated the headlines with the extraordinary work they have done in developing the vaccine. It makes me think that today’s children have a very different attitude towards science, and I very much hope that the experience of the last few years will encourage more and more children and young people to consider science as a career. I hope they will be inspired by our great national history of science and innovation, and that this new agency will in some way pick up that great inspiration and some of that great talent, which is surely being fostered in our schools and universities as we speak, and bring new innovations and great scientific thinking to the world.

There is no doubt that in funding for science and innovation we have lagged behind somewhat in both the private and public sector. We have fantastic science, education and research capacity in this country, as we have done for many years, but our biggest failing has been our inability to match up the great work and innovation that we are generating in our universities, research centres and private sector companies and bring it into economic activity so that it can deliver wider benefits to our economy and workforce. It is a problem that Governments of all stripes have wrestled with for many years.

However, while I welcome the fact that ARIA has been set up with that express purpose in mind, is this particular agency the result of Government analysis of where we have been going wrong or is this Mr Cummings’s brainchild? Conservative Members seem to have almost limitless faith in Mr Cummings’s abilities and analysis, but I have to be honest that it is not that clear to those of us on the Opposition Benches that just because Mr Cummings thinks something is a good idea, the rest of us should automatically follow.

So I am very interested to know what analysis the Government have done as to how ARIA can fix some of these questions that have dogged our science and innovation space for so many years. How is the agency going to direct its activities to make sure that it can really address the issues we are facing? My first question is about who is going to be addressing these particular issues. The legislation is broadly drawn, which is probably right given that we want an unencumbered agency, but who is going to be appointed to lead it? I notice from the legislation that the board will be appointed by the Secretary of State; it will obviously include the chief scientific officer as that is clearly right, but beyond that what will be the qualifications of the people who are leading it? Will they be scientists, will they be from industry, will they be academics, will they be economists? The legislation is silent on what will qualify somebody to sit on that board and how they will direct the agency and to what particular ends. That is an interesting point, and I look forward to hearing more about how the Secretary of State will make those appointments.

I welcome the plans to provide the substantial funding for this new body, and particularly the direction that the projects it undertakes can have a high risk of failure. However, the Secretary of State must be aware that he is committing to taking big risks with taxpayers’ money. How can he or the hard-working taxpayer be sure that this use of public money delivers greater value to the British public than any other use? I acknowledge that that will be a difficult question to answer and that we need to accept that there will be downsides, but the Secretary of State should be clear about whether this high-risk investment is new money or whether it is being taken away from other established and lower risk programmes elsewhere. For example, is funding for ARIA coming from money for research and innovation for other programmes—perhaps money that UKRI received for official development assistance research into global challenges, which we know has been cut by two thirds? Is that money now going into ARIA? Are we cutting existing programmes in order to fund this high-risk research?

We know that ODA budgets and also the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Academy are seeing cuts, and again I ask is ARIA the new destination for that funding? It is essential that the Government confirm that this is new money and that it is going to be introduced to sit alongside existing funding streams. Otherwise, far from being a boost to scientific research, ARIA will put successful current research at risk. As has been pointed out, the wide-ranging remit of ARIA also represents a risk that research projects will be undertaken that duplicate work already being done elsewhere, which again risks taxpayer value for money.

In conclusion, the Liberal Democrats are very pleased to support the Bill. We are 100% behind efforts to increase science and innovation, particularly where they can have wider applications for the economy and quality of life in this country, but we will be watching very closely for answers on appointments to the board and funding.