Skip to main content

Advanced Research and Innovation Agency

Volume 831: debated on Thursday 29 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the work of the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency since its establishment in January.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper—especially as it is the first time there has ever been a Question about ARIA in this Chamber.

ARIA’s initial focus has been on attracting world-class talent to create transformative programmes and on developing the organisation’s investment strategy. The Government have made a long-term commitment to ARIA, and I am confident that its creation will help cement the UK as a science and technology superpower, attracting top talent to our shores to grow the economy, boost prosperity and develop ground-breaking discoveries that could transform people’s lives for the better.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. As I hope the House knows, this is a really new and exciting part of our scientific landscape, and I hope that the whole House wishes it well. Nevertheless, we still have some obligation to keep an eye on it. Could the Minister outline a little more about its early stages. How often does the board meet? How much money has been spent so far on premises and staff? How many programme managers have been appointed? Have areas where they will operate been identified, or is ARIA still in the business of encouraging outside suggestions that they will continue?

In short—

In short, I think that the House would like to keep an eye on how things are going, and we wish it well.

Let me start by thanking the noble Viscount for raising the Question about this exciting organisation and for helpfully expressing his enthusiasm for it. He asked a range of questions, which I shall answer with one overarching point—that ARIA has been set up with complete strategic and operational autonomy away from government, so the more that government tries to interfere or find out about its day-to-day ongoings, the less autonomously it can behave, and that would introduce a system that would end up being antithetical to its existence.

My Lords, I was a strong supporter of ARIA when the legislation went through to establish it and I remain a strong supporter of it. It is too early to know how it is performing because it is a long-term strategy of a high-risk, high-reward enterprise. However, I have absolute faith in Ilan Gur, its chief executive, and the board of directors, who are the guardians of the funds it is given. I have some information, but I too am not in a position to reveal it—but I am confident that ARIA will succeed.

I thank the noble Lord for his vote of confidence. It is a new kind of organisation that will invest with a high-risk appetite to shoot for outcomes that are bold, substantive and deeply impactful.

My Lords, I draw attention to my philanthropic interests in this area. Specifically, what I would like to ask the Minister is again to echo the points on timing and the amount of effect we will have through this effort.

Indeed. As far as the timing goes, ARIA was legally established on 25 January. The focus has been on recruiting the right people. It is a small organisation, designed to be lean and agile. That means it is absolutely dependent on the quality of the small team it has working for it. That is the focus for now. We look forward to the first announcements of programme directors. I hope that will be in the autumn.

My Lords, will this organisation, with its £800 million potential budget, much of it public money, be subject to fully accountable FoI applications? If not, why not? The public interest is best served in conditions of transparency.

Uniquely for a partnering organisation with the Government, ARIA is not subject to FoI because it is designed to be a small organisation. Laying on it the burden of FoI administration would, I fear, be antithetical to its purpose. However, that is not to suggest that there is an absence of transparency. It has statutory requirements to publish audited accounts and an annual report, both of which will be laid before Parliament.

My Lords, there is some concern that there are no mechanisms in place to plug in the appropriate humanities and social science areas right from the beginning of projects. What reassurance can the Minister give that social sciences and humanities will be plugged in right at the beginning of projects?

Decisions about what areas to investigate, what projects to finance and what activities to conduct sit wholly within the management and directorship of ARIA. That is the way the organisation is designed, so it would not be appropriate for government to dictate any emphasis in any particular area.

My Lords, as the Minister can gather, the establishment of ARIA received widespread support from all sides of the House. However, ARIA benefits from £800 million a year of public money and the wider research community, as well as the public, should be entitled to know something about how that money is spent. I note what the Minister said about accounts and annual reports, but it is my understanding that ARIA has also promised to provide a three-year strategy and corporate plan, which will be presented. Can he confirm that that will also be publicly available? While we have the Minister’s attention, could he please update the House on progress on negotiating UK participation in the Horizon programme?

Quickly on Horizon, which we debated quite fully yesterday, I am unable, since yesterday, to provide any further information, I am afraid. Where appropriate, reports from ARIA will be laid before Parliament and available for public scrutiny. I stress that we really want to avoid a situation in which we create an administrative burden on top of ARIA because, for it to succeed in the way we envisage it succeeding, it must remain a lean, agile and, ideally, small organisation.

My Lords, this country has never been short of inventors with good ideas, but it has been much less good at putting those ideas through into marketable products, the economic benefits of which have all too often gone elsewhere. What emphasis is being placed in this programme on pulling sufficient private sector capital into these initiatives at a sufficiently early stage—initiatives which of course in some cases are bound to fail.

I very much accept the thrust of the noble Lord’s point, which is that nationally we perhaps have more of a tendency to invent than to commercialise. As much as anything else, ARIA is in place to help address that.

My Lords, what is the potential relationship between ARIA and the Pioneer programme, which as we heard yesterday might replace Horizon if there is no agreement with the EU?

Whether we reassociate to Horizon or go down the Pioneer alternative, ARIA is designed to be complementary to those programmes. It has a higher tolerance of risk and seeks more long-shot opportunities, one advantage of that being that rapid lessons learned can quickly be transmitted to organisations with a necessarily lower tolerance of risk, thereby allowing everybody to benefit from its learnings.

My Lords, there is clear logic in protecting big and bold thinking from the constraints of bureaucracy, but it would be a mistake to think that there are two types of invention: the big ideas and the day-to-day research that goes on in our institutes and universities. Big ideas often start small. How can the Government ensure that the ring-fence is permeable so that the investment in ARIA benefits the entire research ecosystem?

Indeed—again, the point is well taken. We cannot have these types of organisations existing in separate universes and not talking to each other. It is crucial that they exploit their complementarity in this way.

My Lords, we are all very supportive of ARIA, but the important issue is the innovation principle and embedding that principle across government in all departments. Defra published five environmental principles—integration, prevention, rectification, polluter pays and precautionary—but there was no innovation principle. It is essential that we see the innovation principle right across government.

Indeed. As set out in the ARIA Act, ARIA is required to observe three principles that come under the broad heading of innovation: contributing to the economic growth of the UK; promoting scientific innovation in the UK; and improving quality of life of everyone in the UK.