Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

(Report stage)
Debate between Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Flynn
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.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Fourth sitting)

Debate between Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Flynn
Tuesday 20th April 2021

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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I rise, obviously, to speak in favour of SNP amendment 30, which almost ties in with what is proposed by the shadow Minister. It is about providing greater transparency on the destination of ARIA’s funding disbursements within the UK.

I just want to pick up on a couple of things that have been said already. The shadow Minister reflected on the fact that the Bill makes no mention of the devolved nations. She almost seemed surprised, but that took me a bit aback because I am not surprised at that in any way, shape or form. I do not think anyone even on the Government Benches is over-surprised that they forgot to mention Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock mentioned his concerns about drawing conclusions. Yeah, I will be drawing conclusions about where that money goes and I am sure that every single person in Scotland will.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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If we were discussing how the Government aim to spend our £22 billion a year on science and research, there would be a much better argument for the amendment. But we are talking about high-risk, high-reward science, where a focus on a particular technology has the transformational effect that we are after. That might be the University of Strathclyde and its quantum technology research—I have no objection to that being the area of funding. But if the area happens to be Cornwall, Cambridge, London or somewhere else, I do not think we should hamper ourselves on this particular aspect of a new agency by trying to set targets. We know that if we set a target, someone tries to meet it.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, although I would caution that, when speaking to an MP from Aberdeen, people do not tend to mention a Glasgow university—it doesn’t go down too well, that’s for sure.

I understand the purpose of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he must understand our concerns about making sure that Scotland receives its fair share of funding and investment from the UK Government while we remain a part of the United Kingdom. That ties into the wider narrative from this UK Government since the 2019 election. The views and will of the people of Scotland have been completely disregarded.

What we are seeing from the UK Government are attempts to impose their will on Scotland. We saw that with clause 46 of the Internal Market Bill and with the levelling-up fund that bypasses devolution but does not deliver for the communities in Scotland that it is needed for. This fits into our wider concern about the direction of funding from the UK Government.

As I said earlier, £800 million is involved. While Scotland is still a part of the UK we will take an interest and argue Scotland’s case for getting that funding into Scotland. It should, of course, be at the Barnett level. I would welcome assurances from the Minister that we will see investment in Scotland—not necessarily in Glasgow or at the University of Strathclyde, but perhaps in Aberdeen: that would be much more beneficial. I hope that we will see that level of investment in Scotland and I hope that she will provide that commitment, in which case I will be able to withdraw my amendment.

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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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.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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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.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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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.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Second sitting)

Debate between Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Flynn
Wednesday 14th April 2021

(6 months, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is very helpful, thank you.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Q It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership this afternoon, Ms Cummins. Thank you to our excellent witnesses. I am interested in the practical approach. When you have made some breakthroughs on these various high-risk projects, how do you ensure that the breakthrough reaches its full potential? Is it done through the ARPA model, passing it on to someone else to take it to the next stage? Is it the project manager who has a role in ensuring that it goes into safe hands, or is it the churn of people—the revolving door—that helps transfer that knowledge out an ARPA and into business, so that it can create service and product?

Dr Highnam: If I may, I will take the first shot at this one. It is the first two: we do not rely on the churn, as you say, of people for transition, but when you show up—when you come here—you come to make a difference. So you are always focused on transitioning the knowledge that is discovered in a more systems-oriented research programme—the thing or the entity—across into service of the nation. It is part of what you do. I think, as someone said earlier, it is that intersection of managerial and technical expertise, and a passion: those are the people you want at DARPA at any given time to frame and to drive—and not just to drive to discover, but to drive to transition as well. We watch that very carefully and the responsibility belongs to all of us in the agency.

Dr Dugan: We used to say at DARPA—and this is, I think, generally true of most organisations—transition is a full-contact sport, always has been and always will be. It is very difficult. Transitions of breakthroughs that are showing what is now newly possible, or a solution that did not previously exist, require a tremendous amount of effort. I think that it is important to recognise that there are many transition paths that grow out of an organisation that is ARPA-like. Some of the programmes, in the case of DARPA, transition to our military counterparts. Some of them transition to the commercial sector and then are bought back by national security or military. There are many different pathways. In some cases, programme managers go to other Government organisations to help in those transitions. In some cases, they rotate out and go to new things entirely.

It is important to recognise that the breakthrough itself is not sticky through the organisation that it was created in. The breakthrough then gets transitioned to impact and scale in the most suitable organisation in order to create that ultimate impact. I would add, in addition to the passion that many programme managers and directors feel, they are also impact junkies. They really come to make a difference. So the ultimate transition—the ultimate scaling and impact—is the goal. Make the breakthrough, and then transition it to scale.

Professor Azoulay: I want to note that there is a distinction between DARPA and other ARPA-like agencies in different contexts. I am sure Dr Highnam and Dr Dugan will think that it is an oversimplification, but to some extent there is one customer for the projects that come out of DARPA, whereas for something like ARPA-E it is a much more diverse and scattered ecosystem. The breakthrough needs to latch on to the energy system, and there are lots of different actors with lots of different interests. At ARPA-E that has meant that they have created explicitly a tech-to-market group, to try to get ahead of the translation problem of the project that has come out of the agency. I want to say that this is not independent of the mission. To create a good tech-to-market group, you need a certain scale within a certain scope, and to the extent that your projects are too scattered, it is going to be a lot harder to create that scale, and so harder to create the transitions.

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is really helpful. Thank you, both.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Q Good afternoon and thank you for joining us and for your excellent contribution. Anne, you made a very interesting point about the independence of ARIA, to avoid it being used potentially as pointing at political failure. If you are investing in high-risk, high-reward research, there will be failure—that is undoubtedly true. May we ask for your advice on how we should measure the metrics of an ARIA over the early years, before potentially there is any output that has demonstrated a transformational benefit to society? On top of that, could you give us some advice on advising project managers on how they should go about selecting projects to explore? Should it be just on the basis of interesting science, or should there be a vision of the commercialisation of that science at the end, to motivate them? We are only going to be able to fund a certain number of projects, and presumably applications will outstrip the funding fairly quickly.

Professor Glover: How we measure success in the early years is a very important question. I am not going to give you an exact answer, but what I might say is that maybe we should not try. That would be unusual, wouldn’t it? That is what I meant earlier about not just following the formula of, “You need to tick these boxes to demonstrate success.” Of course, you would hope that whoever is leading ARIA would have an idea of how you are developing the innovation ecosystem that will be supported by ARIA. They might have some ideas about numbers of applications, where they are coming from, and having a good look at and analysing that, and looking at the amount of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research that comes forward. That is always quite hard to fund. Historically, when I have been involved in such things, interdisciplinary research tends to get kicked around different agencies: “This is more for you.” “No, this is more for you.” Everybody is worried about their budget and thinks, “If you fund it, we won’t have to fund this from our budget.” Thinking about the number of applications that could come from a broad range of different disciplines—that would be good. I am not answering your question directly. I am just saying that it is very easy to say, “Let’s have a way of measuring success,” but sometimes that can be stifling.

It is a bit like—perhaps not in the years timescale of ARIA—how it is around the time of year when we plant seeds in our garden or wherever. If you want to measure how well a seed is germinating, if you keep pulling it up and having a look at it you are really going to set it back, so sometimes you just need to think, “I’m hoping that in four or five months’ time this is going to be a broad bean plant with broad beans on it. I just need to wait and see.” I know that that is difficult to do.

The second thing you asked is about commercialisation. I cannot for the life of me remember who said this, but someone once said that there are two types of research: applied research and research not yet applied. That is quite true. There might be some areas where you think that there is a very easy market for this, but if we look back and learn from experience we find that an awful lot of research has been developed. The whole area of medical diagnostics, for example, was pure research. There was no commercialisation; it was just a fundamental biological problem that was being investigated. Some of the outcomes of that research led to molecules called monoclonal antibodies. It is quite a beautiful specific diagnostic—supremely sensitive—that can pick out particular molecules of interest that might tell you if you have a particular disease or have been exposed to a particular compound or whatever.

In renewable energy or an area around that, you might understand that there will be a lot of potential commercial partners and opportunities. In some other areas, perhaps not. This might be an opportunity to think about what the relationships would be like between ARIA and existing research funding, because it might be part of an ecosystem. I would hope that there were distinct roles for UKRI and ARIA but very good communication between the two, as well as very many other stakeholders, in order to identify areas that might not be suitable for UKRI funding but that might have a strong commercial or development potential that ARIA would be much more adept at supporting.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

(2nd reading)
Debate between Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Flynn
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.