All 2 Stephen Metcalfe contributions to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Act 2022

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Tue 23rd Mar 2021
Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill
Commons Chamber

2nd reading & 2nd reading & 2nd reading
Mon 7th Jun 2021
Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill
Commons Chamber

Report stage & Report stage & 3rd reading

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
2nd reading
Tuesday 23rd March 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V]
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I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency.

As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention, and that necessity has never been greater as we try to build back better following the huge consequences of the pandemic. It is fitting that we should hold this debate today, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the lockdown. As well as looking back over the past year, the Bill gives us an opportunity to look forward.

Before I look forward, I want to look back at the incredible contribution that UK scientists have made to scientific endeavour and their list of achievements. Over centuries, the UK has been responsible for many great discoveries and inventions—from the first refracting telescope in 1668 to the discovery and understanding of DNA, and from the humble tin can to the jet engine. Probably the most poignant today is, as we have already heard, the development of the first vaccine more than 225 years ago in 1796. That discovery is helping the UK and the world to tackle the ravages of covid today.

UK research and the work of UK scientists have truly led to inventions that are potentially saving the world. But we cannot rest on our laurels, which is why I welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to science and research and development. I welcome this debate and the meeting of our manifesto commitment to establish a high-risk, high-reward research agency, ARIA.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to talk a little about the wider R&D landscape. I warmly welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to making the UK a science superpower. Their commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 and the £22 billion commitment to science in 2024-25 are fantastic but, as we have heard, there is no point in our making progress in one area if we are taking funds from another to do that. I will not labour the argument about funding for our participation in Horizon Europe, but needless to say I would like to see that money coming from a different pot rather than the existing ones.

Let us talk about the positives and the investment of £800 million in a new advanced research and invention agency, based on the principle of high risk and high reward and free from Government interference. To make the most of that, we have to change our view of risk. Risk here is good. That requires us to acknowledge—indeed, to embrace—failure as part of the process.

For the agency, that is fundamentally about people. It is about having top-quality, confident and knowledgeable people in the right places—the right chair and the right chief executive. It is also about having a command structure that is fleet of foot, which is why I think some of the measures in the Bill to exempt ARIA from FOI are the right thing to do.

ARIA needs to encourage and embrace new and novel ideas in the areas of artificial intelligence, quantum and, potentially, superconductivity. I accept that some of its endeavours, if not many of them, will fail, but even where there are failures, I still want its culture to be one of encouraging future submissions—a culture where project managers are not judged on individual outcomes that encourage them to play safe.

ARIA should be judged as a whole, and only after a reasonable time. It should work with both the usual suspects—the established research bodies—and potential sectoral disrupters. If we are searching for inventions, ARIA also needs the ability to work with individuals who may have promising ideas but not necessarily the resources or experience to make them work. ARIA has a role there to help people find the right development path.

While there will be failures, I am sure there will be many successes, so I would like to hear more about how a successful ARIA-funded project will make the transition from lab bench to product or service. The UK has a great track record of innovation and invention, but we do not have the best track record of commercialisation—of turning an idea into an industry that keeps the rewards here in the UK and provides our citizens with well-paid, rewarding jobs.

ARIA needs to help research to cross the so-called valley of death, and it needs to be alive to that challenge. It needs to work with ideas to ensure that they do not fail due to a lack of funding, support or interest. If an idea is novel enough that it has potential, ARIA needs to support it until it can hand it off in the confidence that it will be in safe hands and that it will thrive. There is no point having taxpayer-funded research or invention only for it to fail through lack of practical support.

I welcome this Bill. The creation of ARIA gives us a fantastic opportunity to fill a gap in the current landscape, and I very much look forward to working with Ministers as we take the Bill forward and reap the benefits that it can provide us with.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is an interesting point that. I believe it is regrettable that there is no set mission. The mission should be to combat climate change and to meet our net zero targets.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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As the hon. Gentleman knows, we had these exchanges in the Bill Committee. It is not so much that ARIA had not got a mission; its mission is to discover areas of research that could potentially be high risk but deliver high rewards, but we do not know what those will be. That is its mission, and tying it to specifics such as health research or climate change, although they are very important, would potentially hamper its ability to find that cutting-edge science and make the most of it.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I am loth to repeat what I said in Committee. I certainly will not mention any of the “Star Trek” references that he made in relation to that specific point. The reality is that we have seen, with the likes of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, how successful things can be when there is a specific mission. I accept that we disagree, and disagree on good terms, in relation to that point, but I re-emphasise that this is a missed opportunity for the Government.

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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If I heard that correctly, the Labour party is not agreeing with the amendments that it tabled in Committee and that the SNP has agreed to at this point in time, so it had to add more words. But I suppose that is the nature of this place.

That takes me to transparency and scrutiny, and a key token and standpoint of those on the Government Benches: to take back control. I do not suspect that they will agree to the SNP’s view on a mission for ARIA. That being the case, the mission—to all intents and purposes, what ARIA seeks to do—will be determined by the chair and chief executive officer. They will decide what happens. In that regard, the House will, of course, have no say and we suggest that the House should have a say. It is important that this place has a role to play in the process. I would be incredibly surprised if Members who fought so hard to take back control did not seek to have their say on such matters.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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Och, why not?

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Why not? I am grateful to him. If we had too much influence over the agency, we could breach the Haldane principle, which I am sure he holds close to his heart, as do I.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, but we will have to heartedly disagree on this point. The House, and we as democratically elected representatives, should seek to play as key and active a role as possible. Of course, all this could be avoided by the Government simply agreeing on what ARIA’s mission should be in the first place.

Our new clause 1, on human rights, would ensure that ARIA’s record in that regard is of the highest standing. I certainly hope Members across the Chamber would agree to that. If they did not, I would be somewhat concerned. We saw that in Committee, which took me a bit by surprise, but perhaps some of the Government’s Back Benchers were not galvanised enough to encourage the Government to take a different stand. The SNP tabled the new clause because ultimately we do not know where ARIA will seek to put its investments. We do not know what it will seek to invest in, where it may even take a share in an organisation. It will have the freedom to do that, but that freedom means it may delve into areas we find unsuitable in relation to human rights. That is particularly pertinent when we look at the situation in China with the Uyghurs. I encourage Members on the Government Benches to take cognisance of that fact this evening.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the role of Scotland in relation to the Bill, because I very much like talking about that. The reality is that, where the Government are seeking to spend money, that Government money should be spent fairly and evenly across the United Kingdom—that is, while we still remain a part of the United Kingdom. To that end, there should be a Barnett share of money spent on Scotland. Where that money is spent, it should not seek to bypass devolution, as the Government seek to do in a number of areas, from the shared prosperity fund to the levelling-up fund and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Scotland should have its fair share.

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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for seeking to aid Madam Deputy Speaker in determining what is in order. I am not sure whether that was necessary.

On the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, I fail to see why he thinks that pedantry can make up for a lack of argument. Climate change is a core mission. We are not seeking to hem in the agency with absolute linguistic barriers for what exactly should be done, but we want it to have a direction. We want to know where it is going and what it is seeking to do. The core mission, as I intend to set out in detail, will be climate change. I do not intend to limit its interpretation of climate change, but I will set out the reasons why climate change will be its core mission.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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As the hon. Lady will recall, we had similar debates in Committee. Does she completely dismiss the idea that the mission is to find cutting-edge science, to explore it, and to go where no other agency is willing to go at the moment, because they will have to follow too many metrics to prove their effectiveness? That is its mission. This agency does not have to have a mission beyond trying to find something exciting, new and potentially really beneficial to mankind.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I have a huge amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fundamentally disagree with him on this issue. To go where no one has gone before is not a mission or a direction; it is a deliberate absence of direction. I spoke earlier about the vast expanse of ignorance that can present us with huge, existential challenges. The history of science has been about trying to reduce that huge expanse of ignorance, and for us to leave ARIA without any mission or direction in addressing that vast expanse of ignorance that is before us will severely limit its likelihood of success. That, together with other aspects of the Bill with regard to accountability and transparency, leave it open to cronyism as well as other issues.

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Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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I served on the Bill Committee, and I tabled various amendments at that stage, a number of which we have carried forward to Report. I was interested in a number of things that were said. On the supposed mission and purpose of ARIA, the Bill says only:

“In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom, through…economic growth…scientific innovation...or improving the quality of life”,

and that it must

“have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom.”

It does not even have to do things for the benefit of the United Kingdom; that is not written in the Bill.

The former Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), spoke about high risk and high reward. I understand where he is coming from, but I do not know what that reward means or looks like. The reward is not identified in any way. I am happy for there to be a high reward, but I would like some idea of what that is supposed to be, so that we can measure whether it is successful.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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If I am honest, I do not know the answer to that question. The reward might be the next internet, GPS or, as we heard from the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), mRNA technology; we do not know. But what we do know is that if we give scientists the ability to explore an area, to fail and to report back, some of those things will stick, and some of them could become massive new industries of the future. The challenge—I accept this—is to keep those industries and that technology here in the UK, spread all over the country, to the benefit of us all.