Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 23rd March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip 4:05 pm, 23rd March 2021

I welcome the general concepts behind the Bill. Support for ambitious blue-sky research where application in the real world is not always clear could bring massive economic benefits if successfully applied. Electricity is the backbone of modern industrial society, but if the early pioneers had had to specify what it was used for, we might not have got beyond experimenting with shocks from electric catfish. On a day-to-day basis, where we all deal with so many emails coming in and out, without innovation and invention we might still be reliant on a flock of pigeons to deliver those messages.

A healthy research environment needs a healthy range of options and healthy funding levels. Additional funding from ARIA is therefore a welcome new tool in the box, as long as it is additional funding and not a subtraction from other important funds. Applied that way, ARIA could complement the high-impact, hypothesis-driven, goal-driven research and support currently delivered via UK Research and Innovation, but it cannot simply be there to replace that. Nor should the agency become just another political tool to bypass and crowd out devolved decisions on funding and support for innovation.

I have a clear constituency interest in any research funding, as some of the UK’s best work comes from my neck of the woods. Midlothian Science Zone is at the cutting edge of global research across many disciplines, but particularly in the fields of animal health, human health, agritech and related technologies. The world-renowned Roslin Institute, for example, looks forward to pitching some of its high-risk ideas to ARIA, in particular to investigate how the integrated transformation of the food system could contribute to solving global hunger and climate change, to improving human, animal, plant and environmental health, and to developing preparedness for future pandemics.

That type of exciting research certainly seems to fit the mission of another state-backed investment organisation that is already open for business. The Scottish National Investment Bank, as my hon. Friend Stephen Flynn mentioned earlier, is the single biggest economic development in the history of the Scottish Parliament, with a purpose to power innovation, reduce inequalities and accelerate the move towards net zero emissions.

I hope that in developing this new body, the UK Government will take decisions that support and do not undermine the progress of the Scottish National Investment Bank. There is room for both, but the powers given to ARIA for borrowing, debt finance and multi-year transfers should also be given to the Scottish National Investment Bank.

Given that it is public money, it would be wise, without any need to be too prescriptive, to have clarity over ARIA’s purpose and focus. We do not need every step mapped out, but we need at least to have the rudder in place and a general course of travel made clear. We know that DARPA, the US defence research organisation that inspired the model, has a mission focus. Horizon Europe has a mission focus. The Scottish National Investment Bank has a mission focus on reducing inequalities and tackling climate change. If we do not know what we want to achieve, how do we have any idea whether ARIA is being successful in achieving its goals?

There are serious questions not just about the focus but about the planned oversight and governance of the new agency. Alarm bells go off when I read that it will be exempt from freedom of information requests and public contract regulations, especially given the current Government’s woeful record on accountability and transparency. The Government seek to excuse that on the grounds of avoiding bureaucracy, but as the Campaign for Freedom of Information has pointed out, the US equivalent of ARIA is covered by the US Freedom of Information Act and was subject to just 48 requests in 2019. Such a volume of FOI requests could not conceivably be seen as a block to ARIA’s success.

Bureaucracy looks increasingly to be a convenient byword for bypassing scrutiny of this Government, who, ironically, have dramatically increased damaging bureaucracy for international businesses and academia since our leaving the EU. Covid has also been used as a cover for all sorts of contracts being handed out without competition, clarity or comeback. The need for speed is not an excuse for keeping the paperwork, for not printing the details within legally required timeframes, or for misleading Parliament over what has been made public.

Questions continue to be raised, and dodged, about why so many Tory donors, friends and associates have been the recipients of directly awarded contracts, even when their CVs show little experience in the field. I draw the Minister’s attention to my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, which would ensure that Ministers were answerable to Parliament where such situations arose—not to hold up the awarding of contracts but to allow Parliament the opportunity to question their appropriateness. I have written to the Cabinet Office seeking the Government’s support to take that Bill forward. Certainly, if there is nothing to hide, the Government should have nothing to fear from it.

In setting up a new funding body, especially for high-risk funding such as this, it is imperative that safeguards are built in to protect against the risk of corruption. There is an urgent need for more, not less, oversight in public spending decisions, and I am dismayed that the Government continue to dismiss those concerns.

In conclusion, while I support the concept and the dedicated high-risk research funding, more clarity is certainly needed about the plans, the funding implications for devolved Governments, and the relationship with existing R&D structures. I know that the Government do not always like detail, but a bit more understanding of who ARIA’s customers might be, how the body will be held to account and what it seeks to achieve would certainly be welcome. Big ambition is a good thing, but Government goals are more likely to succeed when we actually know what they are.