David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The first Monday back after parliamentary recess brings a sense of urgency, mission, and risk-taking to the House of Commons.

Although inspiring leadership, high-performance teams of technically brilliant people, or indeed “a good nose for utter nonsense” may be in good supply, it is here that the mission of ARIA will be decided, possibly even independently from government.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill returns to the Commons for the report stage and third reading today in the same state as it entered committee. In fairness, there was never any serious chance that an amendment would be successful – it appears to have become the fashion in recent years for government to reject any and all amendments during Commons stages.

The concerns expressed in amendments tabled by committee members were very much in the spirit of improvements to the text of the bill – covering primarily the purpose of ARIA and the transparency, equity, and accountability in the way it will conduct itself – and it is disappointing that every division split entirely on party lines.

Integrity preservation

Though party whips may initially have patted themselves on the back for a job well done, they now find themselves facing a sizable backbench rebellion on a matter only loosely connected with the text of the bill: the government commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid.

Tory big beasts like Andrew Mitchell, Jeremy Hunt, Damian Green, David Davis and Theresa May (alongside MPs from across the house) support the insertion of a New Clause 4 that would require ARIA to top up Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding to the 0.7 per cent in manifestos – and would require government to provide the requisite public funds.

This is good politics but bad policy – the process proposed in the amendment is largely unworkable and may even sink the bill if passed, but those proposing it are clearly expecting a government commitment on ODA spending for 2022 onwards as a quid pro quo for withdrawing. Opposition parties, both out of a commitment to development assistance and the opportunity to inflict a parliamentary defeat both the government and (in spirit) Dominic Cummings would most likely come along.

Other amendments, which are unlikely to pass, also focus on the mission of ARIA. New Clause 2 would see the new agency focus on health research, two amendments to the existing Clause 2 would see a mission focusing on climate change – the variant sponsored by the opposition front bench setting an initial mission linked to the Climate Change Act 2008 carbon emissions target, and give ministers the ability to set futures missions via a statutory instrument.

Star trekkin’

The idea of a “mission” for ARIA came up several times during the hearings. The Second Sitting saw MPs get to quiz Peter Highnam and Regina Dugan – deputy director and former director respectively of actual DARPA in the US. This session noted the constraints under which DARPA works, and the “project” focus of funding which can often make for quite tightly limited funding – and were also clear that DARPA has a mission based in national defence, summarised by Dugan as:

to both create and prevent strategic surprise.

Likewise, the newer ARPA-E has a high level mission to

Overcome the long-term and high-risk technological barriers in the development of energy technologies.

Witness Pierre Azoulay, an MIT Sloan academic who studies academic innovation and entrepreneurship and has had a close involvement with ARPA-E was surprised that ARIA, nominally influenced by the two US agencies, did not have a similar mission. It’s worth quoting him in full:

I read the Bill carefully, and I too was looking for a mission, because DARPA and ARPA-E are mission-oriented agencies. Having a high-level mission is very important to define the programmes with the specific goals that Dr Dugan was talking about, which will fit in the overall mission. It is entirely possible that ARIA will be something new in the innovation funding landscape—a UK model that will blaze a new trail. But if we compare it explicitly to something such as DARPA or ARPA-E, in its current form it is lacking a high-level mission.

Committee members returned to this theme when they turned to the text of the Bill at the Fourth Sitting. Chi Onwurah cited the session above, and similar points made by James Wilsdon and Mariana Mazzucato in other sittings, before concluding:

If the Government do not set the mission so that the £800 million is spent in a focused way that makes a significant impact, […] ARIA will be subject to the whim or influence of an individual chief executive or chair or those who have their ear, and the agency will not be set for success, which is what we want to see.

She noted even the USS Enterprise had a mission. Not the “to boldly go” bit which was just an exhortation – but to “seek out new civilisations”, grounding the Starfleet project in exploratory anthropology rather than just ambling through space facing hour-long episodic challenges on badly built sets.

I get crazy

Amanda Solloway’s response was short, and made some attempt to lean into the Star Trek theme (although losing points for misquoting “Beam me up Scotty!”, unless she’s deeper into Nicky Minaj’s back catalogue than I expected). In essence, though ARIA is inspired by ARPA, it is also an attempt to innovate in the field of innovation.

Although we have learned some incredibly valuable things from those agencies, my primary consideration as we develop ARIA has been that it is the right approach for the UK’s R&D system.

Quite what understanding of the UK’s R&D system this is based on is not clear. If UKRI is to continue to address particular problems of government interest (including climate action and clean growth), and if Research England is to continue to support fundamental and “blue skies” research, and if Innovate UK specifically addresses industrial development – then ARIA appears to be an “everything else we hadn’t thought of” £800m afterthought.

ARPA did not exist to scratch scientific itches and development wishes – it had a clear and defined role in defence technology, even though some work saw wider use later on – famously the packet-switching element of the internet protocol suite has some claims to a “60s ARPA” heritage, although it would also be fair to attribute the concept to Donald Davies at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory. ARIA has no such steer, and instead we look to the skies, and to the appointment of a chief executive who may have:

A record of ideating unusual, cross-disciplinary, technically sophisticated ideas that were undervalued when begun but later deemed visionary.

It’s quite the ask. Have you ever had a sophisticated, cross-disciplinary, unusual idea that was undervalued initially but later deemed visionary? Does Brexit count (maybe one day it will be deemed visionary)? Or coming up with twitter memes? How about that one time at exam board when you suggested an amendment to the rounding up policy for candidates who scored 57 in more than three but less than five final year modules?

You have until 5 July to apply, unless Theresa May and colleagues manage to crash the bill.

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