David Morris: How ARIA can help launch the British space industry into orbit

22 Apr

David Morris is Member of Parliament for Morecambe and Lunesdale.

In October 1957, Dwight Eisenhower sat stony-faced as he watched Soviet news reports announcing the triumphant launch into orbit of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1. Russia had astonished the world and gained a new strategic advantage.

Within weeks, Eisenhower had authorised the creation of a new agency – the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) – to execute research projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science. “From that time forward”, the Agency states, “the United States would be the initiator and not the victim of strategic technological surprises.”

A few weeks’ ago, in the midst of a different kind of war – this time against a global pandemic rather than a Cold War adversary – the Government announced the launch of the UK’s equivalent organisation: the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA). A new research body to fund high-risk, high-reward scientific research, ARIA will seek to emulate its US forerunner, which provided the breakthroughs that led to the Internet, GPS and automated voice recognition.

Free from Government meddling and bureaucracy, and with a war chest of £800 million, ARIA will be able to call its own shots and take big bets.

If the Government gets it right, ARIA’s impact could be profound. Not just because it has money to invest, but for three big and much broader reasons: the UK is home to tech-driven industries ideally positioned for ARIA’s involvement; ARIA can help disrupt economic sectors that need shaking up; and because ARIA’s approach can be a beacon for the sort of regulatory environment that will enable the economy to flourish now that we have left the EU.

Just like its US forbear in 1957, ARIA should lift its eyes upwards – to space.

Largely hidden from the headlines, the UK has seen the steady and extraordinary development of a world-leading space industry. Trebling in size since 2010, the economic output for space in the UK is now estimated to be £300 billion, employing 40,000 people across the nation in high-skilled jobs. More satellites are manufactured in Glasgow than anywhere else in the world outside California. Indeed, 40 per cent of the small satellites in orbit are made in the UK.

Our space industry has become the crucible for technological innovation in Britain. Companies in the sector are racing towards creating the technology to launch satellites from British soil, inventing eco-efficient fuels, and developing ways to remove space junk. The UK now has the ecosystem that can drive exponential growth in the sector. We have the universities, deep expertise in AI and data, the manufacturing base, and highly innovative businesses. Once we have our sovereign launch capability, connecting the UK to near-earth orbit, the final piece of infrastructure will be in place.

So it’s the ideal time for ARIA to come into the market and further power its growth and utility. Our space industry could lead the world in “environmental space” – involving the sustainability of space, sustainability in space and, most critically of all, the sustainability of Earth from space. Thirteen of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including 75 targets and 61 indicators, require the involvement of space. In the year of COP26, the UK should open up space as a new front in our mission to tackle climate change.

ARIA’s impact will only be truly transformative, however, if it succeeds in working with the smaller companies pushing the boundaries of innovation. Again, look across the water to ARIA’s longer-established cousin in the US, now called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In December 2018, DARPA challenged the US space industry to scrap the need for cumbersome and expensive launch infrastructure (think of the huge scaffolding at Cape Canaveral) and develop ways to launch small satellites quickly and cheaply. Within two years, a Californian launch vehicle company, ASTRA, had outsmarted bigger rivals and successfully launched into space from Alaska.

Britain has over 1,000 companies in what’s called “new space” – the term given to the innovators and entrepreneurs whose use of technology has expanded the market so dramatically from what was originally a collection of big aerospace firms. These are the companies, whose success will define the UK’s future economy, that can really benefit from ARIA’s encouragement and involvement. As we have learned from other sectors with big established players, markets need stimulation and disruption to be truly dynamic. It’s exactly what ARIA should be doing.

Finally, ARIA can help influence the regulatory environment in which it operates. Again, looking at the British space sector, regulating authorities are struggling to make decisions at anything like the speed that companies are pursuing their technological advancements. As a result, the pace of progress is being held back, just when it should be accelerating.

The Government is trying to address these issues through initiatives like the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGGR), but ARIA can play its part too, acting as an exemplar intelligent regulation, showcasing how business and government can be highly aligned. Our Space sector badly needs this right now.

As the legislation to establish ARIA works its way through Parliament, it’s the right time to consider how the new agency can pursue a new age of technological discovery. There is little doubt in my mind that space is where its potency will be greatest. ARIA needs the British space industry to show just what it can do – but don’t forget that our space sector badly needs ARIA too.

Chris Skidmore: ARIA has to be just the start of a sea-change in British attitudes towards research

23 Mar

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The 10 September 2008 was a watershed moment for science: the moment that protons were first recorded circulating the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

Dubbed ‘Big Bang Day’ by the BBC – who gave over an entire day’s coverage on BBC Radio 4 to the event, holding their live studio in the control room of the Swiss laboratory = it was to mark the moment that particle physics entered the public imagination.

Ok, perhaps it wasn’t a Neil Armstrong moment, and maybe you can’t quite remember where you were at the time. I can, however. Squeezed into Michael Gove’s small Portcullis House office, I sat at my desk where I would be pouring over education statistics looking to devise stories out of Labour’s failed record on free school meals pupils, exclusions, standards or similar.

I wasn’t even aware of what was happening at CERN, if it were not for the figure three feet away from me pushing his chair back and swivelling around in triumph.

‘Chris, look at this— they’ve done it’ or similar words, ‘This is going to change everything’. Again, the memory is hazy, but what isn’t is the recollection I have of my colleague, Dominic Cummings, reacting to the news that these tiny particles having been beamed around a 27-kilometre track. ‘If there’s one thing that government should always be funding, it’s this. This kind of research is what government is there for’.

Eleven years on, then, I knew when Cummings entered Downing Street that science and research would take on a greater role, and far greater significance than ever before. Indeed I wasn’t wrong. Within six months, an election brought with it a manifesto commitment to massively increase taxpayer-funded research from £9 billion a year to £19 billion annually by 2024/25. If this wasn’t beyond my wildest expectations as Science Minister, this later figure was increased further to £22 billion by the time of Rishi Sunak’s first budget. That manifesto also brought with it an additional commitment:

“We will set up a British Advanced Research Projects Agency. We will invest £800 million over five years for a new research institution in the style of the US ARPA, which funds high-risk, high-reward research that might not otherwise be pursued, to support blue skies research and investment in UK leadership in artificial intelligence and data.”

The ill-fated ‘BARPA’ has now perhaps wisely morphed into ARIA – the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency – legislation for which receives its second reading today. It is, I believe, an important watsershed moment for British science and research, just as the UK’s decision to be one of the founder members of CERN was in 1983. No one can deny the enormous benefits that CERN has brought to computer science over the past four decades, not least contributing to the invention of the world wide web and touch screen computing.

CERN’s international importance is one which British science continues to benefit from, which is why we still contribute £144 million a year to the project. In contrast, the £800 million set aside for the UK’s new funding agency seems meagre in comparison – yet it has the potential to be as transformative as CERN has been.

Why do we need a new funding agency? What’s wrong with UKRI, the national funding agency established in 2017?

I was often asked such questions as the Science Minister who fielded questions on the advent of the ‘UK ARPA’ in both the Commons and Select Committees. I was clear then that the agency would need to be free of any constraints, sitting outside UKRI, though it seemed at the time that commentators were keener to project upon the proposed agency their own vision of what the British ARPA should or should not be.

For months, I had to keep repeating that we weren’t looking at a ‘DARPA’ model, the later defence and mission-orientated model that ARPA in the USA later became, but the earlier 1960s version, based upon programme managers with much greater freedom to commission research.

And so it seems freedom, rightly, has won the argument. Legislation is needed to give ARIA the freedoms it needs to operate outside normal constraints placed upon public agencies, together with giving it security in legislation to exist for at least ten years without fear of being abolished by ministerial whim, another considerable danger faced by any project established in BEIS.

If ARIA is going to be established, if it is to achieve anything, it needs security in survival, and certainty that it’s remit won’t be tied down in red tape or Whitehall bureaucracy.

We don’t know, or have any idea what ARIA will achieve: yet that is at the very essence of why it must focus on blue skies, discovery-led, research, rather than some set ‘mission’ or ‘moonshot’ binding its hands. As CERN has shown, technologies that do not even yet exist will in turn be discovered, either by design or accident— no government can predict this, apart from to believe that if the right investment is made, the ‘build it and they will come’ principle applies.

What we must have, call it a leap of faith or confidence in our scientists and researchers, is a new cultural understanding that failure not only happens, but that failure is a vitally important tool in the learning and research process. This is an anathema in Whitehall, where in the past the costs of perceived success have been great, yet we all need to learn the lessons of ARPA and believe in the upward trajectory that failure can take us.

Many of ARIA’s projects will fail. There will be accusations that money has been wasted. People will walk away. Funding will need to be turned off projects. All this will happen. But the knowledge and lessons learned will be vast. High risk is exactly that – yet even its failures need to be recognised as having value.

Equally, for all the media commentary on what ARIA will or will not be, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. When it comes to seeing the wood for the trees, ARIA is a single tree in a forest of research that needs careful management. The total budget for ARIA, at £800 million over five years, is less than one per cent of the total planned budget for research and development in the UK.

To obsess over ARIA, important though it’s mission will become, would be a mistake, especially when the Prime Minister has gone to Harold Wilson-like strides to set out his White Heat equivalent vision for science and technology – the Blue Flame of research and innovation, perhaps.

ARIA is totemic of a wider, much more vast shift in R&D investment and activity that needs to define the 2020s. In the Integrated Review, Boris Johnson  recently recommitted the government to spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on research and development by 2027. Other countries, as I’ve written before, are significantly outpacing us, and if we are to keep up even with the OECD average, there is no alternative to increasing our research spending if we wish to be a modern knowledge and technology based economy.

ARIA can help to drive a culture change in how we perceive research and development, with the need to accept failure as a part of delayed success, but this is a cultural change which needs to take place across the whole of society, particularly in business and our SMEs, if we are to succeed at raising private R&D spend (which makes up two thirds of the 2.4 per cent target).

We are currently lagging behind at 1.8 per cent, with little more than 300 weeks until 2027: with the US and Germany already nearing three per cent, South Korea 4.5 per cent and Israel 4.9 per cent, it is a target which, unlike an ARIA research project, we cannot afford to fail.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Cummings explains why it is safer to be a gambler than a bureaucrat

17 Mar

Anyone wondering why first Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson hired Dominic Cummings will find the answer in the latter’s performance this morning before the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

On such occasions it is usual for the witness to emit, as a defensive measure, thick clouds of politico-bureaucratic smoke, so dull and stifling that only those who have mastered the official language of Westminster and Whitehall can discern what, if anything, has been said.

Cummings is not like that. He loves freedom and hates bureaucracy. He may be wrong, but he is seldom unclear. As ConHome reported in 2014, in what appears to be the first profile of him ever published, “he prefers…not to beat about the bush”.

If one were a minister trying to hack one’s way through the Whitehall jungle, while not forgetting where one is actually trying to go, one would want Cummings at one’s side.

Near the end of the session, Graham Stringer (Lab, Blackley and Broughton) remarked that about 90 per cent of scientists had voted to remain in the EU, and wondered whether this was because co-operation had become more important to them than science.

About 90 per cent of witnesses would have given us some platitudes about the necessity in science for cooperation.

Cummings instead remarked:

“scientists can cooperate globally without having to be part of the nightmarish Brussels system which has blown up so disastrously over vaccines. Just this week we’ve seen what happens when you have an anti-science, anti-entrepreneurial, anti-technology culture in Brussels, married with its appalling bureaucracy, in its insane decisions over the warnings on the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

He had begun by remarking on “the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy”, from which the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), an organisation championed by Cummings, is supposed to liberate some of our scientists.

“Extreme freedom” is more important, Cummings contended, than money. He wants ARIA to be run by “a director and four trustees”, who have “good taste in scientific ideas and in scientific researchers”.

It must not become part of the great network of committees, each with the power of veto or at least of intolerable delay, which circulate emails for months or years between each other before blocking original but unpredictable proposals and deciding to give the money to established, middle-aged scientists who already have well-funded laboratories.

A brilliant 21-year-old who might turn out to be a new Newton, Darwin or Turing is told, by the representatives of the present system: “You’re mad, of course we’re not funding you.”

Nobody could have predicted that within a short time Turing’s work would lead to computers and cracking the Enigma machine.

Cummings agreed with Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) that only an “existential crisis” tends to bring the “extreme freedom” which ARIA needs to enjoy.

In the early stages of the Covid crisis, Cummings remarked, the Vaccine Taskforce had to be given that freedom, because the Department of Health had been a “total disaster” in such fields as procurement.

Carol Monaghan (SNP, Glasgow North West) wondered, “How do we avoid extreme freedom leading to extreme cronyism?”

Cummings replied that cronyism is rife in bureaucratic systems. He remarked that General Groves had run the Manhattan Project, handing out vast sums with no more than a handshake, and later investigation had shown the work was remarkably free of cronyism and corruption.

Katherine Fletcher (Con, South Ribble) suggested ARIA needs to have a high failure rate. Cummings replied: “Sure. You’re completely right. If it isn’t failing then it’s failing…it isn’t taking enough risks.”

He added that venture capital firms generally make their money “from a tiny number of successes”.

“Individuals have to be able to place bets,” he remarked. “Not committees.”

The Prime Minister is denounced, by his critics, as a gambler. Cummings today explained why being a gambler is safer than being a bureaucrat.