Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:02 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham 6:02 pm, 23rd March 2021

Some places save the best until last, but I am afraid that the House of Commons just saves the Member for North West Durham.

It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend Aaron Bell and many hon. Members from across the country who have been so positive about the Bill. I speak in support of the Bill, because through it we will create the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Britain can finally back the sparks of creativity that flicker in the dark space—too often infrequently sampled by our existing scientific research institutions

ARIA will enable us to press forward on the global stage at the cutting edge of innovative scientific research, and to maximise the opportunities that science can bring to the benefit of my constituents in North West Durham, to our United Kingdom and to humanity. A few months ago, those words may have perhaps sounded hyperbolic, but, as many hon. and right hon. Members have mentioned, the United Kingdom’s world-leading vaccine programme has changed all that. Moreover, Madam Deputy Speaker, the ability I am afforded today to speak to you virtually in our historic House of Commons Chamber from my constituency office in Consett through the use of the internet is a product of innovation in digital telecommunications—innovation backed in its inception by the United States in a nimble, non-bureaucratic institution called the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. As many hon. Members have noted, by backing a few brilliant minds with a modest sum, that institution helped to develop and pioneer technologies such as the internet and GPS—innovations that have since generated trillions in pounds wealth, and, on the human level, kept the lonely connected throughout the pandemic. On a personal note, it allowed me to see my own grandmother in the weeks before she died—something that just a few years ago in similar circumstances would have been impossible.

The scientific research institutions we have today include UKRI, which incorporates our seven research councils. It backs bidders from business and academia to identify important societal and industrial challenges faced by the UK that might merit financial support from the industrial strategy challenge fund. It sets its assessment against aims set out by the Government to raise long term productivity and improve living standards. This has, for example, aided the development of batteries for electric vehicles, which has no doubt helped companies such as Nissan, one of the largest employers of my constituents. It has helped to transform food production, backed clean growth, advanced artificial intelligence and big data, and assisted in projects aimed at tackling our ageing society.

Combined with the largest ever increase in funding—over £22 billion—for UK research and development announced by any Government, one might ask, “What’s wrong, then?” Well, like many similar institutions in comparable nations to ours, UKRI is rigged to the academic calendar. It naturally focuses on papers with “sound” cases, it is tethered to burdensome bureaucracy, it is slow off the mark, and unfortunately it is, far too often, too risk adverse. If the men and women who kicked off the industrial revolution in constituencies like mine had been as risk averse, I wonder if it would ever have happened—whether the sparks that ignited the first industrial revolution and literally forged a new world in constituencies like mine would ever have come to pass.

As we look to the fourth industrial revolution, that risk-averse situation is what we are facing today. A constituent of mine, Professor Pal Badyal of Durham University’s chemistry department, who is a member of the Royal Society, has founded three successful start-up businesses and is one of the leading scientists in his field, has struggled to gain funding for his research into antiviral surfaces, despite successful preliminary proof of concepts funded by Durham University. This professor previously invented the waterproof coating for smartphones. That idea was turned down by UKRI for being “out of scope”, only to be subsequently adopted by industry an entire 10 years later. This waterproofing technology can now be found on over 1 billion smartphones worldwide. There exist in the world many such sparks of creativity in science and other fields that fizzle out, out there in the dark space. Far too infrequently are they nurtured by our existing scientific research institutions. In the case of Professor Badyal, his first spark came to light 10 years later through industry, but his latest, on antiviral surfaces, could save lives today and tomorrow. We cannot afford to miss out on such innovation.

This Bill creates ARIA, which can operate at pace, undertake groundbreaking research and back our scientists with its high tolerance for risk of failure. Decisively different, with less bureaucracy, ARIA has the power to launch dynamism supported but unfettered by the usual constraints of government. Clearly, as many Members have said, the role our scientists have played in jabbing our way to freedom throughout this pandemic, the spirit they have showcased in innovating the Oxford vaccine at pace, the generosity shown through their decision to do so at cost price, and the early backing with generous funds from our Government has afforded Britain a leading role in freeing the world from the coronavirus pandemic. Spirit, pace, backing and benefit: that makes the case for ARIA and this Bill better than any words any Member could hope to say. I urge hon. Members across this House to support the Bill and to back those sparks of innovation that can benefit my constituents in North West Durham, help us to level up the north of England, turbocharge our United Kingdom, and benefit the world.