Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Amanda Solloway Amanda Solloway Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:19 pm, 23rd March 2021

I, too, want to go, “Yay!”, because this has been an absolute pleasure. As Chi Onwurah said, we have seen the House at its best, and it is a great pleasure to take part in the debate. I listened to the fantastic contributions, and I thank all hon. Members for their thought-provoking input. Without exception, the debate indicates how essential and central science is to our economy and society. That has been recognised across the House, so I shall expand on how ARIA will build on the strengths of our R&D system.

The proposal to create the Advanced Research and Invention Agency—ARIA—has been welcomed by leading scientists, institutions, businesses and colleagues today. We have listened to agencies around the world, and consulted the research community at home. Sarah Olney asked about that. We have, of course, considered carefully the recommendations of the Science and Technology Committee, brilliantly chaired by my right hon. Friend Greg Clark. I am confident that this is a bold, brave and positive step towards our ambition to cement the UK’s position as a science superpower. One of the things that we must be clear about is the way in which ARIA fits into the wider landscape and what it will achieve. My right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central asked how we would define ARIA’s purpose, so let me set that out.

ARIA will fund high-risk, high-reward research in a different way from UKRI and the rest of the system. As my hon. Friend Richard Fuller highlighted in his excellent contribution, ARIA will give us something genuinely different, drawing on the UK’s existing R&D strengths. In that way, it will reach fantastic people with brilliant ideas who are not currently funded.

There have been several questions about funding, but I think that the Secretary of State made the position clear. Edward Miliband, my right hon. Friend Alan Mak, and Carol Monaghan raised ARIA’s mission and what it should focus on. That is an important issue, and I have listened to the different views with great interest. Climate change has been suggested. The Government continue to invest in net zero, including through the £1 billion net-zero innovation portfolio fund announced as part of the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan. I should make it clear that ARIA’s programme will be motivated by a single clear ambition set by the programme manager. However, those decisions will be made by ARIA, and ARIA’s leaders will be responsible for strategic oversight of their programme portfolio. They will be able to speak to researchers, other funders and Government Departments to help to inform their judgment. There are UK funding programmes for which Ministers set the strategic direction, and ARIA has been set up specifically without those constraints.

Daniel Zeichner and my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey asked about the need for ARIA to have a specific customer. ARIA’s groundbreaking work will absolutely draw partners for its projects and programmes, but we want to leave the door open for it to be able to forge those relationships across a range of sectors.

Stephen Flynn, the hon. Member for Richmond Park and my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby asked about recruitment and ARIA’s culture. I recognise how crucial that that will be for ARIA, which is why we will recruit a CEO to provide the creative, inspiring leadership that the organisation needs—someone uniquely able to build a team of high-performing people. That will not be on a whim. We will conduct a genuinely open and fair recruitment process for a CEO and chair.

The hon. Members for Aberdeen South and for Glasgow North West asked about the oversight that Government will have. Owen Thompson queried the way in which we will hold ARIA to account. They are absolutely right that ARIA will be at a greater distance from central Government than we are used to. That is a deliberate move based on international experience. The evidence suggests that freedom and autonomy is what makes this kind of agency work. I am mindful of the effective governance of ARIA, which is incredibly important, but it must be tailored to ARIA’s objectives if we are to get the balance right—and it is about balance. There are powers in the Bill for the Secretary of State to intervene on issues of national security and to introduce additional procedures to measure conflicts of interest. They sit alongside powers to make non-executive appointments to the board, which will of course include the Government chief scientific adviser in an ex officio role. The arrangements are robust.

Neil Gray—whose final speech was commendable; I wish him the very best—raised the Freedom of Information Act. ARIA will have a very small number of staff, and because of the load that FOI requests would place on the organisation we do not think they are the right way to provide scrutiny. I remind Members that the Departments and public authorities that work with ARIA will of course be subject to FOI requests. There will be other statutory commitments to transparency. The Bill makes it clear that ARIA will be required to produce an annual report on what it does, which will be laid before Parliament alongside its accounts.

The hon. Members for Aberdeen South and for Airdrie and Shotts also spoke about procurement. The Bill exempts ARIA from the obligations on a contracting authority in the public contract regulations, but procurement decisions will be taken by ARIA, not by Ministers. It is because it is one step removed from Government that the exemption will empower ARIA’s talented programme managers and directors. Again, the freedom to act quickly will be balanced by the requirement for ARIA to audit its procurement activities, as set out with the Department in the framework document.

The hon. Members for Cambridge and for Airdrie and Shotts, my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) and for Bolton West (Chris Green), and many other Members made representations on ARIA’s location. I recognise that they care passionately about the scientific excellence found in all parts of Bolton, Cambridge, Airdrie and, of course, right across the UK, but ARIA will be run by a small number of people and will have a small physical presence, and the potential candidates to be its CEO and chair will have a strong interest in the location of the headquarters. I cannot commit to a specific location at this stage, but if ARIA is to deliver UK-wide economic benefits, it should, like UKRI, function and deliver on a UK-wide basis. Stakeholders in the devolved nations—such as Universities Scotland—have been clear in their support for that approach.

Let me finish by thanking Members from all parties for their rich and considered contributions. My door is always open and I invite any Members who wish to discuss the Bill with me further to do so. We must remember that the United Kingdom is a hotbed of brilliant invention and innovation. The Secretary of State spoke about our proud history of scientific excellence, which I am confident the creation of ARIA will help to safeguard far into the future.

In the previous century, the US ARPA funded the ambitious research that underpins the internet and GPS—technologies that have transformed our lives, opened countless avenues of inquiry and created extraordinary value. Such successes do not happen overnight or by accident; they all start with a wild ambition that is nurtured into reality against all the odds. It is this ambition that will course through the veins of ARIA’s staff and the talented researchers they fund. As Science Minister I have listened to many inspiring scientists and inventors, and it is now my ambition to give their brilliant ideas the best possible chance to profoundly change lives and the lives of our grandchildren—and of my granddaughter—for the very better. I wait with excited anticipation for the remaining stages of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.