Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:34 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Imran Ahmad Khan Imran Ahmad Khan Conservative, Wakefield 5:34 pm, 23rd March 2021

I enthusiastically welcome the Bill, which not only fulfils a manifesto pledge made in 2019 but is the first step in demonstrating that the United Kingdom is an innovative superpower in the post-covid world. A high-risk, high-payoff research organisation has the potential to provide groundbreaking innovations with military and civilian applications.

Examining and utilising the United States Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency model in creating ARIA will be critical. I am encouraged that the explanatory notes to the Bill emphasise a desire to do exactly that, but in examining DARPA and why it has been such a success, one must look beyond its organisational structure. The flat management structure, sense of mission, minimal bureaucracy and streamlined process of project approval are all vital to DARPA’s success, but a number of other vital factors must be considered. DARPA’s success has also stemmed from the culture it has fostered and the connections it maintains with industries and academia. Project managers are recruited on a temporary basis from a permanent position in the academic or industrial research community and given tremendous autonomy in their duties.

DARPA has spent more than 50 years nurturing links with academia and industry, and attempting to replicate them hastily in the UK may threaten ARIA’s success. I appreciate that Her Majesty’s Government wish to have ARIA fully operational by 2022. Erica Fuchs’s article “Cloning DARPA Successfully” notes the risk of haste, and I strongly recommend that any of my colleagues who are interested in ARIA read all the arguments that Fuchs makes.

Those sceptical of the importance of DARPA’s model should just examine its successes. The internet, GPS, video-conferencing and the F-117 fighter-bomber—the first aircraft to be designed around stealth technology—are all projects based on funding by DARPA. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy both have a similar model, focusing on high-risk, high-reward in their relevant areas.

Her Majesty’s Government look to provide ARIA with initial funding of £800 million until the end of this Parliament. But if we truly wish to make ARIA a resounding success, increasing funding, so that more innovative projects can be pursued, will be critical. DARPA had an annual budget of $3.427 billion, allowing for groundbreaking innovations to be achieved. I notice that a number of Opposition Members accuse ARIA of being a waste of money. Projects may well fail, and funding may be turned off, but that should be expected. We cannot expect to make significant gains without there being high risks. I also note that some have raised concerns regarding ARIA’s exemption from freedom of information requests. By doing so, we will reduce the administrative requirements on ARIA, ensuring that it is as flexible and agile as possible. Without normalising the idea of failure, ARIA will not be able to drive forward change in how we conduct research and innovation.

In tandem with establishing ARIA, Her Majesty’s Government have championed research and development, committing to spend 2.4% of our GDP on R&D by 2027 to ensure that we remain a leader in science and innovation. The Bill is vital in establishing the United Kingdom as a nucleus of innovation, but if ARIA is to triumph, we must learn from why DARPA is such a success and how we can adopt its practices.