Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:47 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Simon Fell Simon Fell Conservative, Barrow and Furness 3:47 pm, 23rd March 2021

I am delighted to have been called to speak in this debate and I will attempt to be brief to avoid the virtual grimace that Madam Deputy Speaker threatened.

There is so much to like and be excited about in this Bill and the creation of ARIA. The Secretary of State was spot on when he raised the covid pandemic and the breakthrough vaccine that has been developed in the UK. This is one of those moments that shows what UK innovation can achieve: saving lives, catalysing interest and effort, and instilling pride. However, ARIA could put those amazing developments in the shade, or, at the very least, normalise them. This year has shown the absolute importance of scientific innovation and ARIA could allow the UK to play to its strengths, tackling some of the biggest challenges facing our country, such as net zero. This is a statement of intent about the future direction of the UK and of our economy.

Going back to covid, interest in UK science and innovation has never been higher, but by focusing ARIA on ambitious and cutting-edge work, we will strengthen the sector that is driving that interest. Indeed, I am delighted that the Bill gives particular focus to projects that carry a high risk of failure. Those projects will be at the very cutting edge of science and technology and need support to determine whether we can gain a high reward or learn from their failure. We have seen too few of the genuinely exciting technologies of the last few decades being taken to market overseas. Providing a route to finance for the most cutting-edge science in the UK will be a huge benefit to us as a nation, driving the creation of new industries, jobs, skills and growth.

I am fortunate to represent Barrow and Furness, where roughly 10,000 people are employed in the national endeavour of producing the nuclear deterrent. On my last visit to the shipyard, I was struck when it was mentioned, almost in passing, that only one thing is made by man that is more complex than a nuclear submarine, and that is the international space station. The research, innovation and technology that underpin these incredible ships have been created over generations to produce vessels that travel in near silence, under tremendous pressures, and which keep their crew alive and our nation and NATO secure. That immense achievement is the end point of generations of research and development, some from the UK and some from further afield. That is what is exciting about ARIA and what it could deliver. With £800 million of funding behind it and genuine strategic and cultural autonomy, let us think what could be achieved in strides to keep us safe and secure, and to enable innovations in technology that genuinely shift the paradigm and which can brought to market.

The ability to be nimble and agile is key to ARIA’s success, and I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken the right approach in exempting it from public-contract regulations relating to its research goals. That will allow it to procure at speed and act more like the private sector organisation that it needs to be. Balancing oversight for this new beast will be difficult, and hon. Members have expressed genuine concern about that, but I believe that my right hon. Friend has got it right. In directing ARIA to consider the benefits of its activities for the UK as a whole the agency will, by its nature, foster a positive environment for developing the technologies of tomorrow, helping to make the UK a global scientific superpower. Indeed, alongside UK Research and Innovation, ARIA gives the UK a full-spectrum approach to funding scientific research. As the Jack Sprat and his wife of UK research and innovation, ARIA and UKRI will generate greater pull for UK science and research as a whole.

Finally, we must continue the tradition of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge with cutting-edge research and science. Without taking risks we will miss groundbreaking discoveries that will have far-reaching benefits for our nation, including the development of the jobs and industries of the future, based here in the UK. By launching the UK equivalent of DARPA, we have the opportunity to seize the future right here and today. Surely there can be no more exciting prospect than that.