Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:17 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley 5:17 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Angela Richardson and to speak in this debate, because this Bill demonstrates our national ambition. The creation of an Advanced Research and Invention Agency is a clear statement of intent on science and technology, research and development, and innovation and entrepreneurialism. It means that when we say we want to be a superpower in all those things, we mean it and the world knows it. It also means that we have a tangible impact in those areas. All this matters because research, development, science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurialism are directly linked to our prosperity and to the job creation that all our constituents rely on. This is what will determine the kind of economy we have for decades to come, not just here in the UK, but around the world. Will it be an economy based on UK designs and UK ideas, fed by our universities and research centres, businesses and entrepreneurs, or will be a global economy based on the ideas of others? We all know in this House what we would rather it be, and ARIA is the way we can deliver that.

However, there is a question about what we model ARIA on. Is it an accelerator? Is it a funder? Is it a venture capitalist? Or is it a moonshot organisation, one that tackles the tough questions that we might not even have asked yet and that tolerates failure? On that, I recommend that we look really closely at DARPA. We heard from my right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore, who referenced a number of organisations around the world—not just DARPA in the US, but others in Japan, Germany and other such places—but DARPA has been truly transformational. In 1960, it launched the Transit satellite, the first space-based navigation satellite. Twenty-three years later, in 1983, the US Marine Corps went to DARPA and said that it was fantastic that it had that navigation, but it needed it to be smaller—smaller than we had ever contemplated before—and DARPA did it. That invention led to GPS receivers in our smartphones, smartwatches and cars. It is what allows farmers to irrigate their fields remotely and logistics companies to get products from China to the UK, monitoring from one centre.

In 1969, when DARPA was known as ARPA, it launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, ARPANET, a pioneering network for data to be shared between computers in two different locations. Ten years later, in 1979, it launched the internet protocol—IP—which packaged data up and sent it. DARPA then introduced the computer mouse as a way of allowing us to interface with computers, something now so commonplace that we do not give it a second thought. Much more recently, in 2002, DARPA launched its Personal Assistant that Learns programme to create a cognitive computer system. Today we know that as Siri, and it is on iPhones across the world.

I mention all that because it shows that these things have the potential to shape the modern world, and our ambition and optimism for ARIA should be equal to that. We should aim to shape the world—not just the world we know now, but the world decades into the future—to create the things that we have not even thought about but that will be the backbone of our economy and economies around the world.

However, I want to make a recommendation to the Government. The thing that set DARPA apart and led to its success was having a client—a customer who could ask the questions and show the problems that DARPA then went on to fix, and who could flag the programmes that it needed. We have lots of Departments and organisations that could be that client. It could be the NHS and healthcare. Do we want to be a leader in healthcare, asking the difficult questions and looking for solutions for treating an ageing population and dealing with remote healthcare? Could it be the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, looking at how we get battery technology into homes, how we do carbon capture, and all those things? Is it Defence, as it is in the US, with its unique ability to look across the whole of society, from logistics and communications to civil contingency and health? Or is it all of the above? If it is all of the above, then we should match our optimism and ambition with funding.

ARIA demonstrates our ambition to the world. It could, if successful, genuinely shape our economy and the economy of the whole world, but it needs to be given a direction so that it can ask questions, channel research and deliver prosperity for the nation, and it needs to be free from the shackles that normally govern Whitehall, tolerating failure, and allowed to innovate free from political interference.