Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 20th April 2021.
I beg to move amendment 15, in clause 2, page 1, line 7, at end insert—
“(1) In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to its core mission.
(2) In this section, ‘core mission’ means—
(a) for the period of ten years after the date on which this Act is passed, undertaking activities which support the achievement of the target established in section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008;
(b) thereafter, that mission or missions which the Secretary of State establishes by regulations every five years.
(c) regulations under this section—
(i) shall be made by statutory instrument, and
(ii) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.”
This amendment would require ARIA to consider its core mission in exercising its functions. For the ten years following the Act passing, that core mission would be undertaking activities to support the achievement of net zero. Thereafter, its mission will be established by statutory instrument subject to the draft affirmative procedure.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 35, in clause 2, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“(A1) ARIA’s primary mission will be to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.”.
This amendment sets the primary mission for ARIA to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.
It has been a long day and we have had lively debates covering many important themes set out in this admittedly short Bill. We now come to one of the critical themes: the mission of ARIA. What is ARIA for?
Amendment 15 would require ARIA to consider its core mission in exercising its functions. Under the amendment, for the 10 years following the passing of the Act, that core mission would be to undertake activities to support the achievement of net zero. Thereafter, its mission would be established by statutory instrument, subject to the draft affirmative procedure.
I am surprised that I find myself in the position of needing to argue that ARIA—the Advanced Research and Invention Agency—requires a mission and that that mission should be net zero, which is the greatest existential challenge facing our country and the world right now.
We welcome ARIA, as we have said. We recognise that there is a gap in the UK’s research capability, which ARIA can and should fill, but we believe strongly that ARIA will succeed only if it is given a well-defined mission, which the Government must play a significant role in setting. As we heard in the evidence sessions—and as is, I believe, the opinion of the Minister—ARIA should not try to replace either blue skies research institutions or translational institutions, but should bring the two together to focus on the transformative effects that science and technology can have on society. I am sure that we are all united in the view that ARIA can have a transformative impact.
This is an opportunity for the Government to establish a mission-led funding agency that can benefit us all. With no mission and the whole of the realm of science—the whole of the unknown and the less understood—to choose from, the risk is that ARIA will be directionless, providing no societal return for taxpayer investment, or that it will be prey to vanity projects, providing return only for a few.
In evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, Dominic Cummings—I am mentioning him once again as the original inspiration and architect of ARIA—held up some sort of a diagram and said that general UK research was one bit and that ARIA should look at all the rest. That gave the impression that it would be like the SS Enterprise going off in search of new areas, but even the SS Enterprise—I know that “Star Trek” fans are present—had a mission, which was to seek out new civilisations. It was not a mission to—
I am speaking about “Star Trek”, so let me finish my point and then I will give way. It was not a general mission to go around the universe and galaxies. It was not a mission to look at mining new minerals or whatever. It was a mission to seek out new civilisations, yet here we have ARIA being proposed as an agency without any mission whatever.
Just to clarify, I think it was the USS Enterprise. I believe that ARIA has a mission, which is to boldly go to areas of science that we have not gone into before. A focus on impact, high risk and high reward is not what we currently have, and we should not hamper it at this early stage. I would not for one moment deny that climate change is a huge threat that needs to be addressed, but that is not necessarily where the agency should focus. Why would we want to tie its hands before it has even started to look at the transformational science out there?
I also have great concerns, because the hon. Lady said she felt that the Government should have huge input into the mission of ARIA. That would potentially breach the Haldane principle, which Government after Government have applied and stuck to in order to make sure that politicians are not influencing scientists in what areas that they research.
I accept that it is indeed the USS Enterprise, and I thank the hon. Member for that correction. On the rest of his contribution, I will say once again that I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member, but to boldly go where no one has gone before is not a mission. It is not even a direction—it is explicitly not a direction. As I said, the USS Enterprise’s mission was to seek out new civilisations, so it was anthropological rather than another domain of science. ARIA has no mission.
We do think we have to talk about the Haldane principle, given that we have seen the acceptance of mission-oriented research, including the grand challenges that were discussed during the evidence sessions. That makes it clear that we can ascribe a mission to ARIA without breaching the Haldane principle. The Government should not outsource their responsibility to direct the transformative change that ARIA can bring to our greatest challenge, which is one that—the hon. Member is familiar with this—inspires so many young people and that can get public buy-in: climate change and the need to address the impact it will have on our planet.
Should we not be proud as a Committee to say that ARIA will achieve net zero in whatever project it pursues? That is essentially working on the edge of the edge—looking at forward technology, ensuring that we save the planet and ensuring that we do not add to the erosion of the ozone layer—so is it not progressive and transformative to set a parameter around net zero?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend; I think that it is progressive, transformative and very necessary. We heard today that the Prime Minister has decided to set another target for our emissions—I think that it is to slash UK emissions by 78% by 2035—undaunted by the fact that he has not met any of the targets that he has set previously.
This issue is not about setting targets; it is about changing the way in which our economy and our society work, to reduce our emissions. Just think of the role that ARIA could play in that process. My hon. Friend suggested that achieving net zero is not a narrow mission; it is a broad mission, because net zero impacts every aspect of our life. An ARIA CEO would have plenty of discretion in choosing which aspects of the climate and environmental emergency to address.
That is potentially a worthy mission, but the point is that the hon. Lady said there is no direction. Well, going boldly is going to the frontier—even “The Final Frontier”, if we go to “Star Trek V”. [Laughter.] The edge of the edge is not in one direction. The edge is a circle, or even a sphere—all the areas that we do not know about. Trying to focus on one narrow point, as she is doing with the amendment, misses the point of ARIA and the potential for its transformative effect across a wide range of disciplines and lots of areas of science, technology, engineering and, indeed, perhaps even mathematics.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. Envisaging the edge of the edge, whether it is a circle or an ellipse—whatever it is, it is obviously broad. It is too broad. I think it could be anything. I think this Committee believes that ARIA must have a transformative impact on society, otherwise why are we here? The area where we need a transformative change is in climate change, which is a hugely broad area.
The UK, under this Government, is off track to meet current targets. The Government have no ambitious green recovery plan, they have axed the vital housing retrofit scheme and they have cut subsidies for electric vehicles. They are desperately in need of focusing our activities on the impact of climate change.
We know that two of the great challenges in reducing our emissions are transport and the existing housing stock. Think what impact an inspired programme director in ARIA could have on that great challenge of effectively insulating and reducing the emissions from our 20 million or so homes, or ensuring that transport, which the Government have said will be included in their emissions targets, is green. That is not a narrow mission. Net zero is not a narrow mission; it is as broad and as big as our planet, and it is certainly where we desperately need to focus our attention.
In response to the point about the Government choosing the mission, I would say that only the Government have the democratic mandate—they won the election—to choose the mission, while allowing ARIA’s leadership the operational independence to implement that mission. It is critical that the mission reflects public concerns, to establish buy-in as well as the tolerance for failure. Without a clear mandate from the Secretary of State, ARIA’s leadership will be put in the unenviable position of having to decide which Government Departments and policies to prioritise, and who will have the ear of the ARIA CEO. I say again that the Government cannot outsource this responsibility as they have chosen to outsource so many other responsibilities.
We are at the beginning of the decisive decade, in which the world must avert the worst impacts of climate change, and ARIA could provide much-needed research to help advance the solutions that are necessary to decarbonise our economy rapidly and fairly. In addition, this year the UK will host the critical COP26 UN climate summit. Would it not be a fantastic message to say that our leading high-risk, high-reward agency is focused on climate change? Would it not provide a model for other countries to follow?
On the clearly defined mission, I ask the Minister to consider the specific risk that ARIA could finance research into new oil exploration, for example, or new methods of extraction. The Government must ensure that ARIA’s funding is not directed towards activities that are incompatible with or contradictory to the wider public objectives.
Many of the witnesses in our evidence sessions stressed the importance of a customer for ARIA’s work, but without a mission set by Government there is a risk that the private and public sectors will lack the confidence in ARIA’s credibility to become customers; a customer needs to know what they are buying. In addition, ARIA needs to have a direction, and only the Government can really set that, as many witnesses said. Professor James Wilsdon, the digital science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield said:
“The one thing that many of us have been calling for since this idea was floated as an option for the UK system is more clarity on its purpose—its mission…It is regrettable, in a way, that it has reached the stage of a Bill without that question having yet been properly answered.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Philip Bond, addressing the point made by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, said:
“It is rather obvious that there are many interesting and important problems societally. It is obvious that there are many, many ways in which somebody could look to do things, whether with education and helping kids to learn better, or with the NHS or anything else.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
He was making the point that it should be left to the director of ARIA. In return, I would make the point that, given there are so many things to be done and so many ways in which this money could be spent, should not the Government have some input into the direction?
Tris Dyson, managing director of Nesta Challenges, underlined that the mission was important for the culture, saying:
“The ARIA team will have to establish a culture where they trial things out, set targets and objectives and have constant reviews where they get together and decide whether to kill things off. That is clearer when you have defined missions or objectives that you are working towards. It is much harder when you are fostering lots and lots of different things.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Mariana Mazzucato, a professor in the economics of innovation and public value who has worked with Government, particularly in setting the grand challenges, pointed out that
“it has always been linked with a vision or mission of what is to be done. Again, in the wartime scenario, it is clear that the DARPA model was mainly about military goals, but the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, is about renewable energy and a green transition.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Adrian Smith, the president of the Royal Society, said:
“If we are aiming for £22 billion by 2024-25, £800 million is not a large sum of money, so if we have a plethora of missions, then I think we will go wrong. ARIA has to have focus of mission and a commitment to the model over the long-term.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Again, only the Government can provide that. David Cleevely agreed. He said:
“I think it is for the Government to set the priorities where they feel that there are specific challenges. We have talked about climate change, for example. That is one, and there may be others that one would want to address, either in health or in other topics.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme raised the example of the vaccine taskforce—an example that has been raised a number of times. The statement of policy intent says that
“our Vaccines Taskforce and Rapid Response Funds, have illustrated the importance of agility in funding and decision-making. This policy is one of many across the landscape of public science funding which will learn lessons from those successes.”
The vaccines taskforce had a mission—a very clear mission. If that is something we have to learn from, surely one of the learnings is that the new agency must also have a mission. The statement of policy intent talks about the new research funding body being based on the principles of DARPA, and we heard repeatedly in the evidence sessions that one of the key, critical principles of DARPA was to have a mission.
We agree that ARIA can play a significant and transformative role in our future scientific and research landscape. We agree also that ARIA must focus on a small number of specific missions or challenges if it is to make an impact. We heard so much confusion about what ARIA was for during the evidence sessions, because of a lack of clarity from the Government. If the Government do not set the mission so that the £800 million is spent in a focused way that makes a significant impact, and so that the Government are accountable and take responsibility for the success of the agency and can command the buy-in of all Departments across Government, as well as of the public more generally, ARIA will be subject to the whim or influence of an individual chief executive or chair or those who have their ear, and the agency will not be set for success, which is what we want to see.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend, who has made a strong case. This issue goes to the heart of the discussion we have been having all day and goes back to some of the comments I made in my opening remarks.
We were castigated earlier for talking too much about Mr Cummings. I say that we must cast off the curse of Cummings. I thought the Government had moved on—they got rid of him—but the Bill still has all his hallmarks. The chaos and confusion that he espouses—his raison d’être—will make this agency fail. That is the problem. I encourage the Government to move past it. The evidence from the witnesses all the way through was about the confusion. I understand Marina Mazzucato is advising the Government. She made it ever so clear that ARIA will only work if there is a clear mission. The Americans made it absolutely clear that if we want to do something like they have, that is the way to do it.
The Government seem to be completely confused about whether they want to learn from examples elsewhere, or do something very different—although they are offering no evidence as to why that should work; sadly, we have seen examples in the past of attempts to do this kind of thing that have not worked. If we are going to learn from the examples elsewhere, surely we have to listen to the people who know how they work. I am at a loss to understand why the Government are not listening to the advice.
The first point to make about the amendment is whether to have a mission or not. Do we do it in the way that might work? It is clear that we have to. The second point, which follows, is that if we are to choose something, what should we choose? Witnesses pointed out that there a number of choices. Unsurprisingly, climate change came up on a number of occasions, as it is obvious we should seek to address it. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central has made all the points on that.
We have an extraordinary situation in that we have COP26 coming up in a few months. Would it not be wonderful if we had this new agency established to address those huge challenges? I fear we are not going to have it, though. We might have the agency and someone sitting around scratching their head saying, “What shall we do today?” when it is entirely obvious what they should be doing.
As I said earlier, we could have some social science challenges. A big one is: how is an advanced country like ours not able to lag a few lofts? We have had 10 years of failure in these schemes, with one scheme under the coalition, and the latest scheme from the Government collapsing a few months ago. It is extraordinary when we know that one of the biggest problems is the state of our housing stock, yet we cannot seem to find a way to run a scheme to improve it. That challenge would fall very much within the scope of our amendment. We want this to succeed.
Finally, I cannot help but refer to the extraordinary document that Dominic Cummings waved at the Committee. I could not see it on the TV screens, so I went and printed it off. I will hold it up. I do not know if anyone has seen it, but this is primary school standard. I want to put in a word for taxi drivers, actually, because what was said earlier was slightly unfair. I am quite happy that taxi drivers are scrutinised—and members of the ARIA board. I also do not want to be in any way disrespectful to primary schools, but really? Do not place the future of the agency in the hands of the legacy of Dominic Cummings.
I just wanted to say that that document has been entered into evidence and is available on the Science and Technology Committee website.
And I am eternally grateful, because that is where I found it. I must say that I was still surprised, because it looks to me more like something that came out of “Star Trek” many years ago.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge. I am not quite sure whether lagging roofs is necessarily within the remit of what I would expect ARIA to be doing. I like to think that the Government could do that notwithstanding any new technologies, but I appreciate the point he was making. I assure members of the Committee that there will be no “Star Trek” references coming from my mouth whatsoever—[Interruption.] Or “Star Wars”. We have had quite enough of that. I rise to speak in support of amendment 35, tabled by the SNP, which again is directly related to climate change and the drive towards net zero.
If ARIA is to have a mission—I think it should, and the majority of witnesses last week seemed to be in favour of that—there can be only one focus. I understand the premise of the Government’s not wanting ARIA to be constrained. I think the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock said that he did not want to hamper ARIA, but I disagree, and I think it is an honest disagreement to have. I do not see how instructing an agency to try to combat climate change and allow us to meet our net zero aims is hampering it. I think that provides not only the focus that the agency needs but the focus that we should all want it to have, because it is the biggest existential crisis facing us.
I do not deny that climate change is the biggest issue that we need to address, but a huge amount of research is already going on in that area across UKRI and its £8.8 billion-plus budget. To focus all £200 million a year for ARIA on climate change could miss the point of what we are trying to set up. To me—it may just be me—it is blindingly clear what the mission is: to find areas of research for which funding currently cannot be accessed because it is too risky, and fund that. We talk about high risk, high reward, and that is the mission: to find science that is worthy of research but cannot get funding or support now. If we do that, we might find the next global positioning system, the next computed axial tomography scanner or the next hadron collider—something really inspirational and transformational.
I certainly understand the hon. Member’s point, and, to his credit, he is persuasive in his arguments. None the less, hon. Members will be unsurprised to hear that he has not quite persuaded me, and I do not think his argument would necessarily persuade the witnesses—the likes of Professor Mazzucato and Professor Wilsdon—from whom we heard last week. It is right that we have this discussion, and it is good that we are having it in a positive and constructive fashion, but ultimately I believe there still should be a mission for ARIA. Without it, we are not doing all that we possibly can. DARPA is the clearest example of why a mission is important in this regard. We spoke about it on Second Reading, and we heard from the horse’s mouth just last week about the importance of the mission to DARPA.
If we are not willing to learn the lessons of something that has been so unbelievably successful—not just for the United States, but for the entire planet—what are we doing? What is the purpose? I would like to hear from the Minister that there will be a change afoot in this regard. I suspect that there will not be one, despite the fact that the Prime Minister has changed his climate change commitments to 2035, as has been mentioned. It is a very noble aim, but we do not just need words. We need action, and the Minister could take the lead on that today.
I just want to add a couple of things. The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock gave us what he thinks the mission for ARIA is. Unfortunately, everybody I have heard speak has a different idea of what the mission for ARIA is.
I thought the statement of policy intent was really useful in telling us the mechanics of how ARIA will work. It is really useful in saying why it is set up in a particular way, but it does not actually tell us what the point of it is. Reading through the Bill, I realised not just that ARIA does not have a mission, but that it does not have a direction. Is ARIA about funding scientific things that are not otherwise funded? Is it about increasing productivity, which is mentioned too? Is it about economic growth? Is it about improving the lives of people who live in the UK or elsewhere? Is it about solving scientific problems? I do not know which of those things it is about.
Even if the Government are unwilling to accept the amendments that we have tabled—they should accept them, because, as I have explained, £200 million a year on solving climate change is not a bad thing, even though I think we should be spending significantly more than that—they should be clear about the point of ARIA. How are we are measuring performance? How do we know whether it has succeeded? Do we know that it has succeeded if it has spent lots of money? Do we know that it has succeeded if it has funded lots of projects? Do we know that it has succeeded if it has made a difference to the level of productivity within science, research and development in the UK, or to productivity in the UK in general? Is it succeeding if it is coming up with technologies that will improve lives?
We do not know what we are measuring ARIA against, so the Government will presumably—as they do with most things, and as most Governments do—say that ARIA is a success, whatever happens. However, I want to know what criteria it is being measured against, so that we can actually judge it. If it is what the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock suggested—if ARIA is to fund scientific projects on the edge, regardless of whether that is of an ellipse or a circle—that is fine, because then we can judge it against that. However, I am not clear that that is the Government’s intention.
We heard from some incredibly experienced witnesses last week, with much discussion focused on the question of prescribing ARIA a research focus. Inevitably, cases were made both for and against such an approach. The case made for the approach often referred to DARPA and DARPA-like agencies, but I remind the Committee that ARIA is not DARPA, ARPA-E or ARPA-H. Although we have learned some incredibly valuable things from those agencies, my primary consideration as we develop ARIA has been that it is the right approach for the UK’s R&D system.
Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said to us last week:
“The needs of the country—the priorities that the Government and Ministers set to solve particular challenges for the nation—fall very much within the UKRI remit”.––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee,
Achieving net zero remains one of this Government’s top priorities—demonstrated by the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan—as it is for parties across the House. However, we should continue to successfully mobilise the structures we have in place to respond to the Government’s priorities, including through the industrial strategy challenge fund’s eight clean growth challenges.
We should use ARIA to do something different. Otherwise, I believe we are at risk of causing confusion and duplication of responsibilities. A key difference will be creating a space in the R&D funding system to give autonomy to visionary people. ARIA’s leaders will invite and scrutinise a range of proposals, each of which is defined by a single cohesive and coherent programme objective. That could be a measure towards achieving net zero, or it could be in any other field. ARIA will select the most talented programme managers with the most exceptional idea, and give them the opportunity to discover the next transformational breakthrough.
As we heard in evidence from Nesta and UKRI last week, ARIA is about conducting research in a different way, through new funding mechanisms and giving autonomy to experts. It is not about research in any one field. I agree that is the right approach. It is for that reason that I cannot accept the amendments. I hope the hon. Members will withdraw their amendments. Finally, if ARIA is successful, who knows: we could be saying, “Beam me up, Scotty!”
Amendment proposed: 35, in clause 2, page 1, line 8, at end insert—
“(A1) ARIA’s primary mission will be to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.”—
This amendment sets the primary mission for ARIA to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.
Clause 2 sets out ARIA’s functions. As described in the policy statement published on
An important feature of clause 2 is ARIA’s power to commission or support others to conduct research, to develop and exploit scientific knowledge, or to collect, share, publish and advance scientific knowledge. While ARIA is expected to perform some research in-house, a significant proportion of its activities are likely to take place externally. For example, programme managers are expected to commission individual research projects from experts across the public and private sectors.
It is vital that ARIA is able to support others contributing to its ambitious programme goals in a flexible way. Subsections (2) and (4) set out the ways in which in exercising its functions ARIA may support others. They should be read in conjunction with supplementary powers, which are set out in paragraph 17 of schedule 1. For example, ARIA may provide financial support through a range of innovative funding mechanisms. That may include making grants, loans and investments in companies or other entities, or any other payment, such as prizes.
A diversity of funding approaches has been integral to the ARPA model’s success in the US—we heard from Dr Peter Highnam—and it will encourage ARIA to experiment even more. However, we will balance experimentation with the need to safeguard public funding. The provision of financial support by ARIA is subject to any conditions that are attached to grant funding given by the Secretary of State to ARIA in clause 4, to which I am sure we will return shortly.
Finally, science is an international endeavour. Accordingly, ARIA will be able to fund, conduct, commission and support research internationally. Sir Adrian Smith and Sir Jim McDonald were clear about the importance of ARIA participating in international research in last week’s evidence session. Clause 2(5) and (6) state that ARIA’s activities are not restricted to the United Kingdom, but in exercising its functions ARIA must have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom, through economic growth or a benefit promoting scientific innovation and invention, or improving quality of life.
Clause 2 and the functions really get to the heart of the value that ARIA will add to our UK research and development system, and equip it for the exciting role that it will play. I recommend that it stand part of the Bill.