Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:58 pm on 23rd March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mark Pawsey Mark Pawsey Conservative, Rugby 3:58 pm, 23rd March 2021

As with the mood around the Chamber, I rise to welcome the Bill. In the 1920s, a young pilot officer in RAF wrote a thesis about how planes would be able to achieve longer ranges and higher speeds by flying at higher altitudes, but that they would need a new and different form of propulsion. At that time, they were powered by piston engines and propellers, and he realised that the lower air pressures at height would prevent the engines of the day from working, so he started to think about the alternatives. In 1935, he secured financial backing, formed a company and developed a new type of engine, which was first ready for flight in May 1941. The RAF officer was Frank Whittle; the new engine was the jet; and the development work was carried out at the British Thomson-Houston works in my constituency of Rugby. The site is still available—it is part of an industrial complex—and I recently visited to see where the work was done and was able to see the hole in the wall where the prototype was placed.

Whittle’s invention led to international air travel as we know it today—or as we have known it until recent months—and, significantly, to commercial success, with Rolls-Royce going on to be one of the world’s two major jet engine manufacturers. It seems to me that one purpose of the Bill is to answer the question: how do we encourage a present-day or future Frank Whittle? The creation of a new agency will improve the prospect of our creating truly life-changing inventions and, significantly, lead to commercial opportunities for their manufacture in the UK.

The current primary funder of invention is of course, as we have heard, UK Research and Innovation, through the seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. It has a budget of £6 billion and provides grants for research and development. Some of the work is developed through the Catapult centres, which were set up from 2001 to promote research and development through business-led collaboration among scientists and engineers. Significantly, a third of the Catapults’ funding comes through the private sector.

I have a close association with two Catapults, one of which is in my constituency and one of which is close by. The Manufacturing Technology Centre is in my constituency and I visited it in 2011. I have since seen its massive expansion, with the list of companies involved taking up more space on the wall each time I have been there. The centre has done particularly effective work on additive manufacturing.

Close to my constituency is the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick campus, which of course has a close relationship with the automotive sector—highly appropriate as Coventry is the heart of motor manufacturing. The WMG has had a big hand in the research for the industry and is currently working on battery technology. As an aside, Coventry would be an excellent location for a gigafactory.

I sought the views of the two Catapults. The question for me was whether ARIA would be a threat to their funding or complementary to their work. In each case, there was strong support for the proposals in the Bill. The WMG

“welcome and support the establishment of ARIA” as

“a funding agency with freedom to operate. The proposed structure is an improvement on the current UKRI set up and should allow for more informal and flexible working.”

The MTC said:

“Because ARIA will be able to fund different kinds of scientific and technological research within a single programme, organisations like the West Midlands based Manufacturing Technology Centre will benefit from joined-up funding streams, allowing projects to access funding in a more effective and efficient way”.

That shows strong support.

The MTC also draws attention to the additional funding and support for risky programmes. We have heard a lot about the risky nature of the programmes that ARIA will fund. We know that only a small fraction of the goals will be achieved and that failure will have to be accepted as part of the scientific process. The MTC believes that beneficiaries of funding will be able to take bold but calculated risks that they would not previously have been able to take. We have already heard that in these areas of development we often do not know exactly what we are looking for until we find it, but the benefits of success will be greater.

The WMG drew attention to an issue that we have heard about in this debate: the key role of the chair and how important it will be that this individual is strong and independent. In many ways, it will be perhaps one of the most important of ministerial appointments. It must be a multi-year programme with a long-term perspective, and the 10-year commitment in the Bill is incredibly important. The chairman must be free to set his own agenda and priorities.

We have heard discussion about how ARIA’s mission will fit with other Government priorities and the need for the organisation to be free to follow its own course. I am particularly concerned about the closeness of the links with industry and how important they will be. I was reminded of that this morning at an excellent Industry and Parliament Trust event on the UK role in the development of the UK battery industry. We heard Professor David Greenwood of the University of Warwick speak about the need to link research and development to the existence of a market for what is being introduced. He told us an account about the development of the lithium ion battery, I think at Oxford. It was developed in the UK at a time when there was no commercial application for it. The mobile phone and the move towards electric vehicle that we know about today did not exist, and it took a Japanese camcorder manufacturer to recognise the opportunity that small powerful batteries created. That gave an application for the battery, and once used in that application, other uses became apparent. This new body must be close to industrial applications.

We live in a fast-changing world, and UK businesses need to be able to respond to those changes. It is vital that we retain our manufacturing base to provide a mix to our economy, and the best manufacturing opportunities arise when they are close, both physically and with personal links, to those areas where the ideas are developed. Making full use of the energy and dynamism of inventors, researchers and entrepreneurs will enable that to happen, and this Bill, which creates the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, is key to that. I believe it makes the kind of invention developed by Sir Frank Whittle more likely.