Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:22 pm on 23rd March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 5:22 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a clichéd truism that research and development is the growth of tomorrow. It is an expression of confidence in the future prosperity of our country. Recent modelling by Cambridge Econometrics suggests that increasing R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 would boost annual growth by between 1.2% and 1.4%, and increase our productivity by 1%, with further increases thereafter. It is obviously the right course of action for the Government to continue to grow investment in R&D from the historic lows of the last Labour Government.

The lion’s share of Government investment is rightly channelled through UKRI, with its objective of growing a large and vibrant research and innovation culture throughout the UK. UKRI is deeply engaged with both the academic community and the business community, and it will continue to do the heavy lifting in this sector. ARIA will provide something additional to the mix.

Looking around the world for examples of effective applications of R&D investment, I am glad that the Government have learned from the experience of others. DARPA has been instrumental in assisting the crossover of research into commercial opportunities, despite having an overt focus on defence technologies. Given its global impact and consequent reputation, it is surprising to learn that it is a small organisation. I looked it up and found that it has around 220 employees, yet it supports some 250 research projects and has a track record to be proud of, as referred to by many speakers, including my hon. Friend Antony Higginbotham. DARPA has been operating since 1958, so it is fair to say that the Government have allowed the start-up wrinkles to be ironed out before emulating its success.

Much as the £800 million allocated in this Parliament will be welcomed by the research community, the greatest contribution of ARIA will be the expression of intent that it articulates. We are living in a new world in which the cosy certainties of previous years are no longer there. That democratic western societies have technological and economic superiority is no longer a given. Membership of the protectionist European trading bloc has been left behind. Our leaving the European Union has provoked a new spirit of national endeavour. Depending on one’s politics, this is either in response to opportunity or out of necessity—it does not really matter. What is important is that we recognise the change in attitudes and do all we can to promote it.

The creation of ARIA reflects this new dynamism: let us learn from the lessons of covid, breakdown bureaucratic barriers and be prepared to take risks and accept failures as part of the price of ambition. Global Britain must be not just a marketing slogan but a reflection of countless investment decisions in boardrooms right throughout the country. ARIA is part of a wider message to business and society as a whole that post-Brexit Britain is dynamic, taking control of its future rather than just hoping for something that is not too bad. It is saying no to the status quo and its cosy relative decline; it is saying yes to the new, to the unproven, to the possible, to the opportunities of low-carbon growth and to scientific endeavour. It is as much a response to the lessons taught to us by the Chinese Government as it is a lesson learned from the United States of America. I suspect it will just be the start.

DARPA has in the US military a guaranteed customer, helping with the development of commercial products from its technological advances. Close attention will need to be given to this process of commercial exploitation. Is there a role for Government to create markets and prime industries? The deindustrialisation of globalisation has delivered us cheaper products in the short term, but there is a difference between offshoring production, and with it the hubs of capacity and expertise, and growing a resilient domestic manufacturing base. To ignore that is to pretend that the geopolitics of the world have not changed in the past 10 years. We need to respond to that, and the response involves the shortening of supply chains. I therefore welcome the focus on UK exploitation as well as UK exploration.

As for the criticism of the Opposition parties, they have a choice: they can snipe from the sidelines, waiting to pounce on the mistakes of those brave enough to try new things, or they can support our dynamism, recognising that risk and opportunity are the two sides of the same coin. The Government have made the right choice in this Bill and they should be supported.