Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:44 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage 5:44 pm, 23rd March 2021

I am privileged to have lots of world-class science in my constituency, not least at Harwell campus, which used to be hidden from Ordnance Survey maps when it was doing what it was with atomic energy, but is now very much on the map of the world’s leading scientific research and development centres in the world. I warmly support what Government do in this area, not least the £800 million that it will put into ARIA, which fulfils another manifesto commitment and takes us further along the route to 2.4% of GDP going on research and development.

When I was reading through the various briefings on the Bill, most of what I wanted to say came under three As. The first A is ambition. I hugely welcome the Government’s ambition to invest more in R and D; their ambition to get better at commercialising the world-class research that we develop; and their ambition to have our version—not the same—of DARPA, which has been so vital to the US and the world with its contribution to things from GPS to the internet.

The second A is autonomy. It is hugely important that we are to give autonomy to programme managers, and not to have Ministers direct them as to what they should research and what they should fund. Let us hire great people and let them do what has made them great. Let them get on with the things that they are successful in, and not ask them to conform to a particular type of what we are used to dealing with.

The third A is acceptance: acceptance of the need to do things differently; acceptance of a greater risk; and acceptance of failure. There is not enough of that in Government. That naturally leads us on to the various exemptions that ARIA will have, which I fully support. It is right that it is exempt from the traditional bureaucracy that comes with Government funding. It is right that we exempt it from public procurement regulations. It is right that we exempt it from FOI. I know that FOI has probably had more attention than other things. We can make a case that FOI has all sorts of benefits, but one benefit that we cannot claim that it has is encouraging people to take risk, because, on the contrary, what it does is encourage people to be risk averse. They may worry that people will go through with a hindsight ruler and decide that they should not have done the things that they did.

I smile to myself when people, whom I hugely respect, start by saying that they support the Government in wanting to do things differently with ARIA, but then come up with a list that is about doing things in the same way that we have always done—how we fund, what rules it is subject to, and putting it under the umbrella of UKRI. The more that we do that, the further we will get away from the purpose of this. Ambition, autonomy and acceptance of greater risk are exactly what the Government should be doing more of. It will help us both retain our own talent and continue to attract more talent from around the world. While we do not yet know what ARIA will create, I am very confident that we will look back and feel very pleased that we created it.