Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 3:41 pm, 23rd March 2021

Most Members understand the importance of proper science funding, both in terms of supporting research excellence and as an economic multiplier, and I certainly welcome any announcement of additional funding. However, in a week when we have seen UK Research and Innovation funding for official development assistance being cut, and when we are facing ongoing uncertainty regarding our association fee for Horizon Europe, we have to be sceptical about whether this agency will really attract new funding, or whether this will simply involve the re-profiling of existing funds.

In his evidence on ARIA to the Science and Technology Committee last week, Dominic Cummings referenced the Manhattan project, Turing’s work on the Enigma code and the development of computers as projects that would have benefited from funding free from bureaucratic constraints. All those projects had one thing in common: a specific target. We need to have some idea of what ARIA’s mission should actually be. What are its priorities? Net zero technology? Autonomous vehicles? Quantum computing? I do not think any of us would deny that, if the UK were to face a specific urgent challenge, there would be a need to get money where it was needed, and fast. The difficulty here is that we are being asked to support a Bill to set up a body to fund high-risk research, but we do not know what we will be researching or why. In last week’s evidence session, Dominic Cummings talked extensively about the bureaucracy of current funding, and stated this as one of the reasons for the new body. We have heard from researchers about the difficulties in applying for funding, but we would surely be better off tackling that, rather than creating a new agency when we do not have a mission.

Earlier, the Chair of the Select Committee, Greg Clark, talked about the importance of failure. It is frustrating that we do not recognise how key failure is to scientific development. Failure is information. It tells us that something does not work, and science research often has many instances of failure before we experience success. This speaks to how we measure success in science through papers looking for positive outcomes. Maybe we should be looking more at papers that talk about negative outcomes or nor outcomes at all, because that is information too.

In everything, there must be accountability. Government spending during the pandemic on flawed procurement contracts should have taught us that there must be checks and balances in public money to ensure that cronyism is not the overriding decision maker. Removing ARIA from any freedom of information requests is problematic and will certainly leave it open to such cronyism. I would like some clarification on how extreme freedom in research does not mean extreme recklessness and cronyism in spending.

I would also like to raise the issue of national inequality of research spending. The recent National Audit Office report on the industrial strategy challenge fund noted:

“The Fund is unevenly spread across the UK with the majority being provided to the West Midlands, South East and London”.

This is not a new situation. For decades, we have seen capital spending on research concentrated on the south-east of England. I would therefore like to hear something about how the Government will ensure that ARIA is fully representative of the devolved nations.

The Government promised to double R&D spending to £22 billion by 2024 and repeatedly talk of being a science superpower. However, we are yet to see full details on this spending. The Business Secretary has admitted that UKRI’s 2021-22 budget has not yet been agreed, so a long-term funding plan for science should have some certainty for the funding cycles that we are already in.

The UK’s status as a science superpower is underpinned by international research collaboration and we need to make sure that that is protected. It is concerning that UKRI has announced a shortfall of £120 million between its official development assistance allocation and its commitment to grant holders. I have asked repeatedly about our commitment on Horizon Europe contributions, and, in the last few weeks, there has been no further information. We need to know whether the contributions will come from new money or whether UKRI will see its budget further squeezed to pay our association fee. Although many of us support an additional £800 million for science research, it really is difficult for us to work out whether it is actually new money. We need to see the sums and we need that clarity.

Finally, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Neil Gray. He is a well-respected and much liked colleague across the House. I know personally how hard he works and that he gives 100% both to his parliamentary duties and to his family. I hope that he has great success in his new endeavours and that he has the opportunity to spend more time with his family, because all of us with families who have to travel to this place know that it can be a huge strain. All the best, Neil, and take care.