Part of Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 20th April 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey. I look forward to a fascinating discussion about a very important set of issues. Let me start by apologising on behalf of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who is delayed this morning but will be joining us in an hour or so. I have the pleasure of opening this morning’s sitting. I thank those who set up last week’s evidence sessions. I have sat on a number of Bill Committees in my short time in Parliament, and I have to say that I think it was the most informative evidence session that I have come across. I hope we all learned something from it—I certainly did.
The evidence session led directly to the first set of amendments. David Cleevely suggested this idea, in fact, and I remind the Committee of what he said in his observations:
“All the examples given of contributions that make a difference have all been, it strikes me, about engineering, so I suggest that we rename this the ‘Advanced Research and Engineering Agency’. To be honest, ‘invention’ strikes me a bit like something in the 1950s, with somebody emerging from a shed with a gadget that has just blown their hair off”— a bit like my hair this morning. He continued:
“Peter Highnam pointed out ‘projects’, so we might actually consider it to be the ‘Advanced Research and Engineering Projects Agency’.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
That is a really important point. I suspect that much of the discussion today and in successive sittings will really be about the finer points of setting up an organisation, and will be relatively dry. Amendment 2 goes to the heart of what the agency is actually about and its whole purpose.
I very much hope that we will get wide engagement from all members of the Committee. I know that Government Whips are sometimes inclined to suggest that Government Members should hold their fire, but we have lots of expertise here today, and I think we are all trying to get the best outcome, so I hope people will feel that they can contribute.
One thing that struck me about the evidence session was just how many witnesses highlighted the need for greater clarity about the purpose of the agency. Professor Wilsdon put it very well when he said:
“I think that trying to bring more clarity, or at least a sense of how this issue will be addressed through the governance of this new thing, is really important.”
“Otherwise, you or your successors, and we or our successors, will be back here in a few years’ time, asking ourselves why it did not work.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Commentary and observations from the outside world say the same thing. The Government may have a view, and I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to clarify it. Our concern is that the Bill lacks clarity.
I found the evidence session very helpful, particularly because I started with a bit of prejudice: I thought I would struggle with anything that had been promoted by Dominic Cummings. I am not a grudgey sort of person—I do not bear a grudge. Actually, I do bear more than 65 million grudges on behalf of every man, woman and child in the country who was outraged by his behaviour this time last year, without going into what happened before that. It was disappointing that he did not choose to make himself available for our evidence session, because this is clearly a project associated with and driven by him. Perhaps that was for the best, though, because it makes it less about him and more about the future of research and development in our country.
The proposed name change came out of the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which I watched. As one often does late in the evening, I was scrolling through the TV channels and suddenly I found hon. Members interviewing Dominic Cummings on the TV. Usually, I would move on to the football, but there was something extraordinarily engaging about that hour-long session. It seemed meandering and self-indulgent, and it revealed his loathing and hatred for everything in the world, particularly bureaucracy: whether it be Brussels bureaucracy, the blob or the way in which research and development work in this country, everything is designed to stop the process of invention emerging.
We all want it to be easier to do things. None of us wants bureaucracy, but most of us understand why it is there—there is a reason for it. Of course, we have to fight against it, but particularly in the last week or two it has become strikingly obvious why we need it: to make sure we do not leave ourselves open to cronyism and the abuse of public money. Over the years, all politicians have felt just how frustrating democracy can sometimes be. Would it not be so much better if just a few of us—a few blokes, probably—could just get together with Dominic and run the country? Would that not be so much better? We have seen examples of that through history and in other places. Without going back to cliches, there is a reason why we stick with democracy: it is better than all the other difficult systems.
I was struck by Mr Cummings’s constant invocation of the way things have been discovered in the past. He has talked frequently of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, which is very dear to me. For those who come to Cambridge on the train from London, although there are many striking buildings outside Cambridge, it is particularly iconic building. It is not just a building, though; hugely important work goes on in it. Scientists from across the world, particularly Europe, are doing fantastic work. They have won a disproportionate number of Nobel prizes over the years.
Mr Cummings’s view was to hark back to the starting point, when there were some fantastic breakthroughs in a shed on the site of the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He almost seemed to think that they needed to be in the shed to get the breakthroughs. He was harking back to a very different world—perhaps the world that he wants us to be, back in the 1950s. That is not the world we are in now. That is the crunch with the name change.
What is in a name? In this case, a great deal. The word “invention” in the current title is useful to create a cheery acronym—I will come back to that—but actually it points to completely the wrong approach. As David said, it is bit like something from the 1950s, when someone emerges from a shed with a gadget that has blown their hair off. It is a sepia-tinged view of innovation: “The great breakthroughs were achieved against the odds, largely by blokes in sheds.” Well, perhaps they were, but that was then and this is now, and all the other witnesses painted a very different picture of how innovation happens.
Tabitha Goldstaub was particularly clear. She told us:
“I worry also about the lone genius model. We are well beyond individual success being seen like that. This is all about community. One of the things I have heard time and again is that people do not want to be funded as individuals but as groups of people. It is a community that would come together around a programme manager that is really important.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
That was the real force of the evidence from those who know best—those who have been doing this in America. The session with the people from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was particularly powerful. DARPA does not have invention in its title and there is a good reason for that: it is not what it does.
Dr Highnam was particularly clear:
“DARPA: defence and national security. Clear mission; clear scope in which to work. Of the ARPA-like entities around that I am aware of, the only one that very closely follows the DARPA model would be the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity in the US intelligence community. When you change what I would regard as the key elements—ephemeral or temporary people, project based, and no fixed assets—that have made DARPA nimble and forward leaning for 63 years now, you get something else.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Note that he said “project based”—it is about projects, which is why that is in our amendment. It is a much more accurate description of what the agency should be about.
Dr Highnam said more, and this is probably more significant:
“The p in DARPA stands for ‘projects’, which is critical for a place like DARPA. We are not doing technology area x or y just because, and we do not do it for the long term. We have projects that are well defined at the beginning. A case has to be made. They are monitored, they have metrics and all manner of independent evaluation associated with them before we go out to find the best teams we can to participate and to be funded to work on that research. Then that project ends.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
He could not have been clearer—that is what makes it work.
If we contrast that clarity with the Bill, we see that the evidence sessions clearly revealed the muddle in Government thinking, as a succession of witnesses tried to get their heads around what this agency is for. It is certainly not clear in the Bill. As it stands, without amendment 2 the muddle over what the agency does remains unresolved, which inevitably means a muddle over money and resources, because while managing projects does not necessarily require a big spend, invention is quite another matter. The name change links to that vexed question of whether it is new money.
When Dame Ottoline Leyser of UK Research and Innovation—she is a constituent of mine—was asked what she would do with an extra £800 million if she had it to spend, her reply was skilful in the extreme. It was tactful, but it was a laugh-out-loud moment, because it was quite clear that this is not what she would choose to spend it on. Professor McDonald made a similar point, as did a succession of other witnesses. All of them were absolutely clear that it has to be new.
We in the Opposition certainly want new. Our aspiration is to go beyond 2.4%—we want 3%. We are happy to support new money, but I suspect that if it were a Labour proposal, the first question would be, “Where is the money coming from?” Perhaps the Minister can tell us that, because I do not think we have any clues. We welcome it, none the less.
In reality, despite the creative attempts at amendments from us and from the Scottish National party, we know that future money cannot be guaranteed. That is why the purpose of the agency is so important and why the “Projects” element matters so much.
The amendment also seeks to add “Engineering”, partly as that was suggested by David Cleevely in his witness statement. As he rightly pointed out, many of the examples are engineering examples. I have to say “partly” because the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, is a chartered engineer. Perhaps that is not actually so significant. If we took out “Engineering”, our amendment would result in the name being ARPA—the Advanced Research and Projects Agency—which is a straight copy. We are seeking to emulate largely what ARPA has achieved, which I am not sure is such a bad thing.
I have to say that on Second Reading I had a slightly tetchy exchange with the Secretary of State about whether the proposed agency was modelled or based on whatever. It is clearly learning from experiences. We have some other not dissimilar examples: we have the small business research initiative, which is the SBRI. I have spent many years trying to promote and support it, and it is based on the American model, the SBIR—small business innovation research—so we have some examples of borrowing from the Americans and switching the letters round. Given the number of different American ARPAs, we could end up with ARPA UK, or it could be ARPA GB or ARPA England—it depends how the world goes in the years ahead—but, frankly, we are not precious about it. However, the shift from “Projects” to “Invention” really does matter, so if the Government chose to make that change, or whether it was an accident, I would like the Minister to explain why and what the Government think is significant about the word “Invention” in the title of the agency.
Dr Highnam of DARPA said that if one does not do it in the way that he described, one gets something else. It is therefore only reasonable to ask the Minister what it is that she wants to do differently. What is it that she wants the agency to be? If the agency is going to cost an initial £800 million, what makes her confident that it will work? We heard from a number of witnesses, including Felicity Burch, who talked about previous efforts to move our research system closer to the “edge of the edge”, as it has been described. I am thinking of the Technology Strategy Board and the industrial strategy challenge fund. Felicity Burch said in her evidence that setting the agency up on a statutory basis makes a difference, and I think it does, but only if it is done in the right way.
Let me conclude by returning just briefly to the operatic theme that I have encouraged throughout the debate so far. I have been through Puccini and Purcell, but to finish where I began with Dominic Cummings, could we annoy him a little bit more by suggesting that the song might be the “Ode to Joy”? It is not quite an aria, more a collective chorale, but I think one of the projects we could turn to is to create more joy. In general, let us have clarity by making the purpose of the agency clear in its title. Let us recognise that it really is about projects, and do so by adopting the series of amendments under consideration. That would give the new agency a genuinely clear purpose, with the challenge framed by the Government. In our view, that has a much better chance of success, and as such is worth supporting with enthusiasm.