Earlier this week, Richard spoke in the second reading debate of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill.
The ARIA Bill sets out the legislative framework and governance for the new agency, which was announced by the Business Secretary last month. The agency will empower some of the world’s most exceptional scientists and researchers to identify and fund transformational areas of research to turn incredible ideas into new technologies, discoveries, products and services – helping to maintain the UK’s position as a global science superpower. The design of the agency allows this work to take place at greater speed, with flexibility and minimised bureaucracy.
The Bill equips ARIA with unique powers and freedoms that it needs to succeed, explicitly allowing the agency a much higher tolerance for failure than other UK funding agencies. This flexibility is necessary to enable the agency to develop technologies at speed that could create profound positive change for the UK and the rest of the world, recognising that failure is an essential part of scientific discovery.
As part of this, the Bill provides the agency with the powers to have an innovative and flexible approach to programme funding, including seed grants and prize incentives, as well as being able to start and stop projects according to their success. This innovative approach to funding will give its leadership the tools and autonomy to push boundaries in search of new discoveries.
Speaking after the debate, Richard Fuller, Member of Parliament for North East Bedfordshire and member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee said;
Many people across North East Bedfordshire are involved in research projects, either at local science parks such as Colworth Park, or at local university centres including nearby Cranfield and Cambridge.
I very much hope this new Agency is given a broad remit, as to constrain it to prescribed areas of research would inhibit its scope and to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, the unknowns would remain unknown.
During the debate, I also drew attention to the positive role for venture capital and called on the Minister to echo the parallel move to support small businesses that President Eisenhower made as he was setting up the US agency ARPA which proved so successful in ensuring that the commercial success of research breakthroughs were made, and stayed, in the country.
ARIA will be based on models that have proved successful in other countries, in particular the influential US Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) model. This was instrumental in creating transformational technologies such as the internet and GPS, changing the way people live and work, while increasing productivity and growth. More recently, ARPA’s successor, DARPA, was a vital pre-pandemic funder of mRNA vaccines and antibody therapies, leading to critical COVID therapies.
In the US, DARPA benefits from autonomy and flexibility outside the standard government contracting and granting standards. The ARIA Bill will provide the agency with exemption from the existing Public Contract Regulations, enabling ARIA to procure vital services and equipment with maximum flexibility so that it can carry out ground-breaking research at speeds rivalling a private investment firm. The Bill will also purposefully streamline the agency’s operating structure and minimise bureaucratic processes so it can focus all its efforts and resources on transformational research. The government’s intention, therefore, is for ARIA not to be subject to the Freedom of Information Act to reduce the administrative time required to process FOI requests and protect Britain’s competitive advantage, while allowing the agency to run an extremely lean and agile operating mode - which is essential to its design and ultimate success.
While the Bill will prioritise the formation of an agile research agency by stripping back red tape, it will also ensure this is balanced with necessary accountability and oversight. Administrative exemptions will sit alongside legal obligations for ARIA to proactively share information about its activities. The agency will be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office, as is usual for a public body, and will be required to submit an annual report of its functions and statement of accounts, which will be laid before Parliament for scrutiny. The Business Secretary will also have robust powers to intervene in the interests of national security if required, for example, directing the agency to cease collaboration with certain hostile actors or closing specific programmes.
Recognising that pursuing ambitious, high risk research requires patience, the government’s intention is to provide ARIA with the necessary long-term security: the Bill sets a 10-year grace period before any potential dissolution of the agency can be triggered.