Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme 5:57 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Andy Carter, and a particular pleasure to do so in person. He and I have been hanging around the same Zoom waiting rooms for much of the winter, and it is nice to be back in the Chamber.

As my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith said at the beginning of his speech, today is the national day of reflection as we look back over the past year and remember our collective loss and, for many people, including my hon. Friend, our personal losses, but also look forward to a brighter future. That brighter future is because of science. In the past year, it has been a privilege to serve on the Select Committee on Science and Technology, together with the Chair, my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, who spoke earlier, and other Members who have spoken in the debate—my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) and for Arundel and South Downs, and Carol Monaghan. I praise the Clerks of the Committee for all the work they have done. We have had a number of sessions on covid at very short notice and have also considered ARIA—or ARPA as we knew it at the time, and I have in my hand our report which was published on 12 February.

Looking at the past year and the work that the Science and Technology Committee has done, there is a real read-across from what happened with covid to ARIA. As I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State, at its best ARIA will learn from what we have done on covid in the past year. If covid has a silver lining, it is what it has enabled us to do in the science sphere, allowing us to throw off some of the shackles related to funding, innovation and things such as mRNA vaccines.

The Government have not exactly followed the Committee’s recommendations, and that is fair enough, but the Secretary of State was very forthcoming when he gave evidence to us last week about the reasons for that. As my right hon. Friend the Chair said, it is easy to dissipate £800 million. I know that it sounds like a lot of money, but in the context of our overall science budget it is not quite all that much. The Committee recommended that there be a client, but if there is not to be one, it is important that there is focus. If we are going to have focus, the leadership of ARIA will be key. I hope that our Committee can be involved. There has not been an Order in Council because ARIA does not yet exist, so there is no pre-appointment hearing, but I hope that our Committee can speak with the prospective chair and chief exec of ARIA.

Let me turn to some of the detail. I am pleased to see the range of innovative funding envisaged for ARIA, particularly through prizes, which can leverage huge amounts of private sector investment. We have this target of 2.4% of GDP for R&D. It is all very well spending more Government money, but the key is getting more private sector investment to get us to that 2.4% target. Any ways that we can leverage private sector investment through ARIA would be hugely welcome. We are also looking into grant-prize hybrids, seed grants for very early stage developers and equity stakes. As many hon. Members have said, including my hon. Friend Richard Fuller, we need to be better at capturing the commercial benefit of the world-class science that takes place in this country, and perhaps equity stakes through ARIA can be a part of that.

Our Committee took evidence from a number of organisations in our inquiry into what has now become ARIA. We heard from organisations that had worked well, such as DARPA, and some that had not worked quite so well. I wonder whether the sense of crisis to which I referred earlier is necessary for these sorts of things to work. In world war two, the Manhattan project obviously led to the atomic bomb. The cold war led to DARPA and the need for the United States to secure its own defence. What we have seen in the last year with covid has led to so many innovations in vaccines, therapeutics and beyond that will last well beyond this period; as was said earlier, these innovations may ultimately save more lives than have been lost, because of the speed of their development.

If ARIA is to work well, it needs somehow to harness that sense of crisis, and the breakthrough, breakneck response to crisis and existential threat. It needs the space to do so, autonomy from the Government and the freedom to fail. Science often learns more from what does not work than what does.

Before I draw my remarks to a conclusion, it would be remiss of me not to make my own pitch. Keele University in the wonderful constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme is a fabulous university. It is a university enterprise zone and part of the Energy Research Accelerator, which links up multiple universities and private sector organisations across the west midlands. We also have a fabulous science and innovation park. We are a proud host of Cobra Biologics, one of the manufacturers of the amazing Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine that is doing so much good in this country. It is not doing so much good elsewhere because of some rather foolish remarks by regulators, but we are very proud of our vaccine; if other countries do not want it, we will have it.

ARIA is a great idea. Like many of its would-be projects, it has the potential to be bold and transformative itself. But it also has the potential to fail, or at least not to work for as long as we might hope. I welcome the 10 years that we have set out in the Bill to give it a chance to work. Many iconoclastic structures end up being captured and overrun by bureaucracy; we must be really careful in that regard. As the Bill progresses through this House and the other place, I hope that the Government will be very firm in resisting all those who would strangle it at birth.