Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 4:12 pm, 23rd March 2021

I welcome this Bill. As the former Science Minister who ushered in this concept of the UK ARPA—now ARIA—in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, I am delighted that the introduction of this Bill so early in the Parliament demonstrates the Prime Minister’s key determination that research and development will be a priority as we look to build global Britain on the back of recovery from the pandemic.

The Bill needs to be placed in the context of the uplift in research and development spend that has been spoken about, from the £9 billion per annum that we have spent in the past to £22 billion by 2024-25. To put that in context, ARIA will represent just 1% of total research spending in the period it is set up for, over five to 10 years. That is obviously due to our commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027, and we need to look at how we achieve that by creating multi-annual financial budgets. We know that ARIA will have £800 million over a five-year period, and that is incredibly welcome. We need that certainty and stability for the rest of the R&D sector to be able to plan ahead and devise research partnerships.

A number of Members have spoken about the current insecurities regarding the Horizon Europe subscription. There were plenty of insecurities when it came to seeing whether we would be an association member of Horizon Europe in the first place, yet we crossed that line. I am in no doubt that these issues will be resolved within the appropriate timescale to provide certainty for the science and research sector when it comes to plugging funding shortfalls, but in the future we should learn the lessons by creating multi-annual, sustainable, long-term budgets that stop us reaching this stage in the first place.

I believe that the Bill designs the right structure for ARIA, with that 10-year certainty that it will exist, free from ministerial whims and able to plan ahead. It is right that the Bill strikes the tone and balance between, necessarily, independence and autonomy, as well as providing the right flexibility to prioritise discovery-led research. There has been some discussion on Second Reading today around whether we should be taking a mission-oriented approach or whether we should be looking for moonshots for ARIA, but that is fundamentally to misunderstand the purpose of creating an organisation that will prioritise disruptive innovation. There are plenty of other opportunities for moonshots elsewhere within the R and D ecosystem. ARIA’s sole purpose will be to look at how we can create paradigm shifts in technologies or, indeed, in technologies that do not even exist at the moment. I reference back to the UK being a founder member of CERN in 1983. We put £144 million a year into CERN now, so our spend on ARIA is quite modest by comparison. No one expected CERN to help to develop the internet or touch-screen computing, and yet they have been spin-outs as a result of prioritising discovery-led technologies and putting our faith in research, not knowing where it might lead us.

Other countries are doing the same. When we look at this discussion around ARIA, it is important to understand that it is not just about ARPA—and it is nothing to do with DARPA. Obviously, DARPA is a mission-oriented defence-led project. We focused our intention on the 1950s and ’60s version of ARPA when looking at how to create ARIA. There is Vinnova in Sweden, which is £260 million a year; imPACT in Japan; and SPRIN-D in Germany, which was set up in 2019 on exactly the same framework as we are looking at for ARIA. In a way, therefore, we are behind the curve. Other countries are already powering ahead, looking at setting up these disruptive innovation centres that will prioritise discovery-led technology, and we need to step up to the plate now.

When it comes to the Bill, I will make two final points. First, there is the issue around commercialisation. As I have mentioned, £800 million is a modest amount. We can supercharge that, just as we need to supercharge our 2.4% target by leveraging private investment. How can we do that? We can look towards prizes that have been established, such as the $10 million Ansari X Prize, which has leveraged $100 million. ARPA in the States also relies heavily on SRI International at Stanford University to help drive the spin-outs. We need to be cautious about not leaving an open door when it comes to focusing on the “R” in research and then forgetting about the “D”. This has been mentioned before, but what we do not want to see is discoveries coming out of ARIA being taken advantage of by other companies abroad. We need to look at how we protect the intellectual property. We need to look at how we can create an organisation that will focus on the “D”. I do not believe that Innovate UK has the capacity at the moment to be able to achieve that, so we need to look at the Fraunhofer in Germany, which spends 10 time the amount of investment than the catapult centres, for focusing on how we can look at applied level research for the future.

Then there is the issue of high risk. Yes, we need high-risk research, and yes, we must have the freedom to fail, but we must also understand the risk when it comes to collaboration with foreign powers, hostile research and making sure that we have the right security measures in place for dealing with research integrity and that we have trusted research partnerships. That is why it is exactly right that we have the FOI exemption in place to be able to protect this research and make sure that other countries do not take advantage of it.

Finally, it would be remiss of me, as a local MP, not to mention the location of ARIA. It is right that it should be practically a virtual location spread across the country, and we need to ensure that universities and national laboratories have the right investment to be able to help conduct the research for ARIA. When it comes to the headquarters, the Bristol and Bath Science Park in my constituency has land that is free, and I am sure that it would give a very good rate if ARIA wished to set up there, right next to the National Composites Centre and the Institute for Advanced Automotive Propulsion Systems. It would be a huge opportunity if ARIA wished to locate in my constituency, which is only down the road from Chipping Sodbury—as the Secretary of State mentioned, the birthplace of the vaccine used by Edward Jenner.