Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

(Report stage)
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.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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And what we are doing is just what the hon. Gentleman suggests: pointing scientists in a direction, saying, “Please could you do something about climate change? Please could you do something about our commitment and our journey to net zero?” and then letting them go. It is not about restricting them.

One of the things that has bothered me throughout is that most people seem to think that all this agency will do is invent widgets. Science is not all about making things. One of the biggest things that we need to do to tackle climate change is to convince every single person to change the way they live so that we can reach our targets. We will not be able to do that without scientific research into how people work and what changes they will make. That is not about creating widgets; it is about ensuring that we are on the right track and making the right changes for people to be able to do things in their lives in order that we can move towards net zero. I think that restricting ARIA to dealing with the most important challenge in our lifetimes is not too much of a restriction. It is a huge, wide thing.

One thing that really concerns me about progress to net zero is that an awful lot of folk are going to be left behind. An awful lot of these things that are made will be sold. Yes, great; that is going to make a lot of difference to the lives of people who already have money, but people who currently have nothing will find it even more difficult if we approach climate change with the stick method and require them to make changes or pay more for their energy when they already have very little money. Those are the challenges that I would like to see ARIA tackle, so that none of our constituents are left behind when we are moving to net zero.

I wrote to the Chancellor last week after a meeting with Aberdeen Climate Action about net zero organisations. Lib Dem new clause 3 suggests that ARIA should be net zero in every year. ARIA absolutely should be net zero in every year—that was one of the amendments we moved in Committee—because we should be saying that anything new should not add to our carbon emissions but reduce them or, at the very least, leave them neutral. The Government were not willing to accept that amendment in Committee. I am glad that the Lib Dems have put it forward again, because it is so important. If we are saying that we are going to be leaders and we are going to make a difference, new organisations such as ARIA should be net zero from the very beginning, and we should commit to that. If we are going to be net zero by 2050, everyone will have to make a contribution to that, and that includes ARIA.

On scrutiny, I am afraid that I disagreed with quite a lot of what the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) was making about the Barnett formula was not that it is the best thing since sliced bread, but that we have the rules that we have. The rules mean that the Barnett formula does exist. We have been screwed over with regard to the Barnett formula a number of times in recent years, and we do not want that to happen in this case.

We would rather not have the Barnett formula—we would rather be an independent country—but if we are going to have those rules and the Government do not stick to them, there is a major element of unfairness. We are asking the Government to stick to their own rules in this regard. We have seen with legislative consent motions in recent times that they have completely ignored what the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament have said. They are not sticking to the rules, so we are just trying to get them to live up to the trust that they expect us to have in them.

On scrutiny, public procurement and FOI, I was really pleased that in Committee, the Minister confirmed that in the estimates process, ARIA will have a discrete line in the supply estimates, so we will at least be able to see how much money ARIA has in any given year. I do not disagree that ARIA should have the ability to fail —it is incredibly important that it does—but we need to be able to have scrutiny of the money that is being spent and that we as a House are agreeing to spend on it. I am very glad that the Minister confirmed that.

Finally, I am hugely concerned about the Einsteins—about the people who work in patent offices who have not been able to gain grants. I do not think that ARIA will fix that. There is still going to be the issue where if someone is networked—if they are a white man in research —they are much more likely to be able to get research grants than if they are a woman or a person of colour. Unfortunately, with the lack of ability that we have to FOI and to scrutinise some of ARIA, we cannot see what is going on with that. We cannot see whether ARIA is further entrenching the current inequality in science and technology and academia or doing a positive job towards breaking down those barriers and ensuring that people who live in the most deprived communities in Scotland are given the opportunity because they have the best possible ideas, rather than because they have the best possible friends. It is hugely important that we have more scrutiny. That is why we tabled the cronyism amendment and the amendments relating to us as Houses approving both the chair and the CEO, because those roles will be so important and because we are so excluded from the scrutiny process in relation to ARIA.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

(2nd reading)
Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is an interesting point, but it appears that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what was said earlier in relation to DARPA. I think it was 40 FOI requests for DARPA, which is, obviously, a much larger organisation than ARIA will ever be. It is one that will perhaps attract a lot more focus, and yet there were just 40 FOI requests. If that is the strength of the argument that Government Back Benchers will put up in relation to this, then, frankly, it will fall short in the eyes of the public. The reality is that we are talking about £800 million of public money. There will of course be a tolerance of failure. Everyone accepts that there must be a tolerance of failure, but there needs to be openness and transparency around the process, and, quite frankly, at this moment in time, there is not. I do not have confidence that the Government will be able to deliver on that front.

Finally, I just want to touch on what is perhaps the most important aspect of this Bill, which is, unsurprisingly, in the Scottish context. A total of £800 million will be flowing towards this project. How much of that is coming to Scotland? Will it be Barnettised? Will there be consequentials from it? Is this going to be a UK-wide project? If so, why? Why are we not investing in Scotland? Are we trying to undermine the Scottish Parliament once again? We have seen it with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund; are we now seeing it with ARIA, too?

Why do the Government not seek to invest in the Scottish Parliament? Why do they not seek to allow the Scottish Government to put the money into the Scottish National Investment Bank, which I have already mentioned, so that Scotland can create the scientific achievements that it wants to use to shape our own agenda, particularly—I repeat—in relation to climate change? Why have none of those things come forward? It appears as though Scotland does not exist in the context of this Bill. The Government seek to talk up the Union; the way to solidify the Union is not to trample continuously over the Scottish Parliament, because the people of Scotland are well aware of what is going on in that regard.

Let me conclude by making one more important point. We all have concerns about the Bill. It has broad support, but we have concerns that ultimately it will become another London-centric project, and not only that but one that gets hijacked by the right wing of the Tory party for its own ends. That is not something we are willing to support.

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.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). Anyone who has attended the annual STEM for Britain event hosted by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which he chairs, will know that we are a country not short of brilliant ideas and young people—and many of them, I have to say, come from Cambridge.

However, that immediately begs the question, is ARIA a solution in search of a problem? As the excellent Science and Technology Committee report put it—I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and his colleagues on that—is it

“a brand in search of a product”?

We have heard a lot about Dominic Cummings. I just caution Government Members that they may not want to associate themselves too closely with a man who, in the public’s mind, is very much associated with one set of rules for some and a very different set of rules for them. Many will wonder why a vanity project designed to assuage the ego of one key adviser is being pursued by the Government when they have finally had the sense to ditch that adviser—or was it that he ditched them? Who knows? We will be generous, and I will ask an open question: can we do better?

Of course, our answer as a country is always yes, but if this is really about setting people free—and who does not want to cut the bureaucracy and set people free?—is it not curious that just yesterday, the Government announced a review, to be led by Professor Adam Tickell, the not “bog-standard” vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, of the whole issue of bureaucracy in our research sector? I suggest that there is muddle, not least around the problem we are trying to solve.

Could we do better? The landscape of research funding is complex. UKRI is a relatively new organisation, but there are some long-established principles in this country—the Haldane principle, dual funding and QR, or quality-related research funding. Add Horizon, and there is a balance in there. Add the catapults launched a few years ago under the coalition and the result, if we are not careful, is lots of people competing for the same funding. It is not simple, and it is frequently a subject of discussion in Cambridge, as I am sure the House can imagine. To be frank, in Cambridge the general view is that the issue is not finding the breakthrough ideas, but how they are developed and taken forward, as the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock just said.

Sadly, we have very few home-grown unicorns like Arm, although we have done better over the past 30 years because we have a strong investor community in Cambridge and real efforts are made through organisations such as Cambridge Enterprise to develop our spin-outs. Thoughtful contributions have been made by entrepreneurs such as David Cleevely, who rightly pointed out throughout the Cameron-Osborne years, when they were promoting Tech City in London, that we already have a tech city; it is called Cambridge and it is just up the railway line, along a powerful innovation corridor that has huge potential.

There are other powerful voices who identify a very different problem from the one that it is suggested ARIA might address. Take David Sainsbury and David Connell. Lord Sainsbury is a highly regarded former Science Minister; look at the work he did a few years ago on economic growth, in which he cautioned—sensibly, in my view—against trying to import systems from elsewhere and expecting them somehow to work in a different culture. He also rightly queried the lack of co-ordination of research across Government Departments —an issue that I suspect is yet to be seriously addressed. David Connell has been a passionate advocate over many years of small business research initiatives—something we have adopted and adapted from the Americans—and of using contracts rather than grants and driving innovation through procurement. That idea has too limited an uptake, I would say, and needs a stronger champion in Government. Is DARPA really a model for the UK? Well, the US has an infamous military-industrial complex and we have nothing similar here. Who will be the client? The Secretary of State seemed to be touchy about this, but whether it is learned from, not modelled on, is a key question.

The obvious question about whether the current system can be reformed to address some of these concerns is also not answered, and some of the potential problems have been made worse by decisions the Government have already taken, or sort of taken. Reference has been made to the disappearing industrial strategy, which must be rather galling for the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, given the effort that he and others put in and the huge amount of work done across so many sectors. What is to replace it? Perhaps the Minister can tell us later. Perhaps it is nothing, but the mission-oriented approach that ARIA points to and is widely welcomed replaces, frankly, something remarkably similar. As we have heard, the great challenges are not that different, but for iconoclasts, of course, everything that went before has to be laid to waste. Not a very British approach, I would say. What is very British is the tradition of paying public servants badly. If ARIA can free up pay levels, good, but it really does not need an ARIA to do that, so stop making a song and dance about it; get on and do it.

All this is important because we have excellence. How ironic that the Government have turned a potential good-news story into a story about cuts. As we have heard, Universities UK estimates that if the cost of Horizon association is taken out of UKRI, it will cost 18,000 research jobs. That would certainly be a big hit to cities like mine. At the weekend, Stephen Toope, the University of Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, warned that Government claims about global Britain risked ringing hollow. As he says,

“World-leading research cannot just be turned off like a tap. Once our highly trained young researchers leave our universities they will not come back, and once they leave the country they will not return.”

He is so right. I visit many labs in and around Cambridge—the magnificent Laboratory of Molecular Biology being just one of them—but what strikes anyone who goes into any of them is that it is an international microcosm, with people from all across the globe. We are good because good people want to be here, but they can always go somewhere else. I tell the House, there are plenty of people who want them and plenty of inducements. Then there are the ODA cuts—so foolish, for so many reasons, not least the threat to our diplomatic soft power at a time when China is ramping up its influence everywhere. I am told that institutions have been sending letters to researchers who already have grant letters telling them that those grant letters will not be honoured. The system has worked for decades based on trust, and that is now being undermined. That is a clear message that with this Government, Britain cannot be trusted to keep its word. There is nothing that ARIA can do that will repair the damage—the huge damage to trust—that has already been caused and is continuing to be caused.

We need a fightback within Government. Last week, I encouraged the Minister to seek operatic inspiration, but far from “Vincero”—I will win—from “Nessun Dorma”, her reaction was more, “When I am laid in earth” from “Dido’s Lament”. That is Puccini’s Dido, not Track and Trace’s, I hasten to add. We need so much more. UK research is a success story. Please stop doing unnecessary harm. In my view, ARIA is worth supporting, but it is a distraction. It is worth discussing how we can do things better, but please, Secretary of State, stop doing harm now.