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.

Chris Skidmore: Britannia Unchained revisited. How to build on vaccine success – and make Britain a science superpower

2 Feb

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

Having finally left the EU, 2021 is the year when the UK gets to define its role among the international community as an independent sovereign nation.

Four weeks in, signs are already emerging of how that independence matters: already the UK’s ability to strike its own deals over Covid vaccines seems to have paid dividends, with more people vaccinated in the UK than the rest of Europe combined. Freed from any additional bureaucracy set on the continent, Britain has been able to approve and procure vaccines at a faster pace, allowing for its vaccination programme to become one of the world’s leaders.

This isn’t intended to gloat; in a global pandemic, we need to ensure that every country has fair and equitable access to vaccine supplies to treat their most vulnerable patients. Merely an observation that the freedom to diverge is already making a clear difference when it comes to innovation. And it is innovation, science, and research that the UK can now really fashion as its USP and make our mark in the global world.

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a chapter in Britannia Unchained on how we should look to Israel for developing an innovation rich economy – not only through investment in research, but in its ability to back the ‘buccaneer’ innovators, giving them the freedom to innovate, but equally, and crucially, the freedom to fail.

Ten years on, Israel’s success at being truly world leading by a country mile in rolling out its own vaccine demonstrates the power of having a technologically advanced economy that is able to be agile and adapt at scale.

We still have some way to go. Having committed to spending 2.4 per cent of our GDP on R&D by 2027, we are still hovering around the 1.8 per cent mark, compared to three per cent in the US or China, 4.5 per cent in South Korea, and to little surprise, 4.9 per cent in Israel. Yes, we have some of the most research-intensive universities in the world, and with one per cent of the global population we are still responsible for nearly 15 per cent of all research citations. Yet others globally are catching up fast.

This is the global race that matters. ‘Britannia Unchained’ can only happen if we give our innovators, researchers, new start up businesses, our scientists, and indeed our universities, the freedom and the investment to build back – not just better, but an entirely new economy that meets 21st-century needs by backing the new technologies of the future.

Boris Johnson well knows this. He has made Britain as a ‘global science superpower’ a centrepiece of his vision for the UK, right from the start of his leadership campaign. And so far he has delivered in spades investment for R&D: not only is government spending on it expected to rise from £12 billion per annum in 2019 to £24 billion by 2025, but we have seen major commitments from the Prime Minister to invest in huge new science and research infrastructure projects such as offshore wind, carbon capture and storage plants, and perhaps my favourite, a new fusion nuclear reactor, the Spherical Tokamak Energy Plant.

It gets too little commentary in the media, but Johnson has also demonstrated his ability to understand science and research is a truly global, international endeavour. New visa rules have been created to attract international scientists to the UK, along with waiving nationality rules around research grants. For all the concern amongst the research sector that Brexit would lead to Britain departing from European research projects, the deal that the Prime Minister struck went far beyond what many had expected or even hoped: association into Horizon Europe, the flagship research scheme from which the UK is the second largest beneficiary, to membership of the satellite earth observation programme, Copernicus.

And when it comes to space technology, Johnson chose not only to continue the UK’s membership of the European Space Agency, ESA (nothing to do with the EU incidentally) but also to increase our investment to a record £1.9 billion over four years.

What does this all have to do with 2021 in particular? With the UK’s presidency of the G7, together with our hosting of the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this November, science and research can be a central part of Britain’s international leadership. It’s not yet two years ago since, as energy minister at the time, I signed net zero carbon emissions by 2050 into law — making the UK the first G7 country to do so. Yet in this space of time, the UK’s leadership on this issue has seen many countries such as France, South Korea, and now this month the USA, follow our lead.

This year, we can do the same. Not merely in climate change, where we have a real opportunity to set new national reporting targets, but in new technologies and science itself.

With a new American President that believes in the power of science and research, the Prime Minister has found an ally and common ground upon which he can transform into a special science relationship. Focus on ‘shared values’ is intended to be a key part of the G7— what better value could there be to focus upon than investment in research and innovation?

A new international research fund, a new alliance of research universities, the chance to forge new international science programmes dedicated to transforming and de-carbonising energy supply… the potential is enormous. Yes, we can build back better, but we can do so much more effectively if we research back better too.

Chris Skidmore: Thinking, fast and slow. Why we need a long-term Education Recovery Plan.

20 Jan

Chris Skidmore is a former Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister between 2018-2020, and is MP for Kingswood.

As the first few weeks of 2021 pass in lockdown, looking depressingly like 2020, many parents will be struggling attempting to juggle working full-time remotely with home schooling their children. As I write this, for instance, I’m sitting on the floor of my son’s bedroom, attempting to be as far away as possible from the alternate shouting and screams of three children six and under. Thankfully, today is my turn to catch up on the work I’ve missed. Over the past few days, instead I’ve been immersed in the Night Pirates, Number Blocks, phonics, reading and handwriting tasks, maths, comprehension, in what seems a never-ending timetable of tasks.

My guilt at never seeming to be able to teach the work set each day is matched only by my admiration for my children’s teachers who seem to have assembled a vast array of lessons, videos and materials at short notice— and whose talent for engaging children is clearly a vocation. A talent which I’m increasingly coming to suspect that I am lacking in. Those that can, teach, those that can’t… well, become Tory MPs perhaps.

It’s clear that despite my best efforts, my own children aren’t getting the expert educational experience that I know they would had they been at school. I’m sure it’s a worry and concern of every parent — especially for those who in these trying circumstances simply don’t have access to laptops or digital equipment to even complete the tasks set of them.

While it is right that there has been a clear focus on ensuring disadvantaged students and those affected by digital poverty don’t miss out on an education, however, we must recognise that every pupil of every age will be scarred by the pandemic. Too much learning has been lost, and too many children will find their educational outcomes affected, to simply return to business as usual. It’s why we need to start thinking now about a long-term education recovery plan for our entire education system — one that encompasses early years to universities and beyond.

To start with, we must start think long-term about the scale of the challenge now. We cannot afford to simply react to events, waiting to see what happens with the spread of the virus and its containment, before we decide the next stages of an entire generation’s future. The impact of the pandemic will emerge like the widening ripples in a pond when a stone has been thrown: its impact, in particular its educational impact, will be with us for years, a fact which we must come to terms with and have a strategic plan to help counter.

Already the Chair of the Education Select Committee and educational leaders have called for a redesign of the examination system. What is needed foremost, however, is a definitive understanding of the outcomes that we wish to achieve, before moving onto the processes to deliver this.

Most importantly, is perhaps the recognition that with the Key Stage assessments abandoned for this year, we will urgently need a system by which we can monitor individual pupil progress, so that pupils at risk of educational failure due to the pandemic can be rescued as quickly as possible, and given the individual support and tuition that they need to get back on track. This should be viewed as the critical mission. Identifying those pupils at risk of educational disadvantage means new forms of assessment, and data collection, will need to be considered. Above all, there must be transparency and a common approach to what is being measured.

Another key part of a long-term education recovery plan should also be the curriculum in schools. Not to change the curriculum, but to provide all schools with the ability to teach a “Recovery Curriculum”. I’ve seen already some fantastic work taking place in my own local authority, South Gloucestershire, which is modelling a Recovery Curriculum based on the experiences of New Zealand schools after the earthquake there. Before lockdown, this had resulted in improved attendance and dramatic recoveries in reading and writing abilities of pupils whose learning had been affected during the first lockdown. Best practice is out there, lead by some truly inspiring teachers— the strategic question that must be answered is how can this best practice be spread and incentivised, and monitored to encourage all teachers to engage in these forms of learning.

Then there is the thorny question of educational outcomes. I’m cautious about re-inventing the wheel at a time when stability and certainty is needed. Pupils deserve exam results to show for all their hard work, and existing systems that have held their own as a standard over time should not be thrown out for the sake of change. But we do need to address the issue of admissions to university, and how results and assessment are used to deliver this.

Post Qualification Admissions have been proposed as a way forward, yet with the qualifications themselves under review, we need greater long-term certainty of how we can achieve an equitable admissions system that encourages disadvantaged pupils to reach their potential. The fact that just nine per cent of boys from the north east reach university remains one of the starkest failures of our education system: universities have a critical role too in helping to address some of these divides that are likely only to be compounded as a result of Covid.

Reforms to post-18 education to ensure lifelong learning and flexible qualification structures have taken on a fresh urgency in light of the pandemic, especially with the likely need for retraining and reskilling of a large number of people seeking new forms of employment. For them, and indeed the country, education will be a vital ladder, an escape route, out of their present circumstances.

Ultimately, a long-term education recovery plan must start not from what is convenient for existing systems and vested interests of the organisations that operate in this space. To do this would mean that those with the loudest voices, and greatest lobbying efforts, win out. What is needed instead is an approach that defines the “points of contact” at every stage of a child’s educational journey — and defining how these have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and what can be done to resolve this.

Defining and delivering a long-term plan, with the investment needed to achieve this, will be hard work: easier, more tactical approaches, may seem more attractive. Yet to achieve an effective recovery, the longer term, strategic planning is now essential. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, how we have the opportunity to make choices, based either on fast, intuitive thinking, or slow, rational thinking, yet “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution”.

With all the immediate talk of laptop provision as the instant solution to current learning problems, we must not forget that now is also the time to prepare all pupils for their educational recovery, encompassed in a long-term strategic approach. It is a choice that we must take, and think rationally about how we deal with what will become one of the greatest fall-outs from the pandemic.

Profile. Kwarteng Unchained. The rise, wobble and rise of the big, bold, bright new Business Secretary

14 Jan

Last Friday, Kwasi Kwarteng slipped quietly into the Cabinet as Business Secretary. His promotion was announced, ConHome noted, with no fanfare, but could prove one of Boris Johnson’s most significant appointments.

For as soon as the emphasis shifts from surviving the pandemic to reviving the economy, Kwarteng will become a key figure.

He has many admirers. “I think it’s an inspired appointment,” a senior backbencher said.

“He’s not only very clever,” a minister commented. “He has beliefs.”

Kwarteng has never been shy about communicating those beliefs. Here he is in his maiden speech, delivered in June 2010, refusing to allow Labour members to disclaim responsibility for the crash of 2007-08:

“I have to say – even though this is a maiden speech, I will be controversial – that to hear Labour Members in many of these debates is to be in never-never land; they have not once accepted any blame for what happened and they seem to think that we can just sail on as before.

“In many of their eloquent speeches it appears that they have forgotten that wealth creation is the most important element in getting us out of this recession. I heard Mr Meacher, who I believe has been in the House for 40 years, say that he was going to tax those in The Sunday Times rich list. Of course, one of the results of their being rich is that they can leave the country in about half an hour, so if he were to go down that route, a lot of them would leave and he would not bring in any more money to the Exchequer.

“One of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks reminded me of the story of the man who, when leaving a gentlemen’s club – it might have been the Carlton Club – in 1970 gave the footman sixpence. The footman looked at him and said, ‘That is only sixpence,’ to which he replied, ‘Ah, it is sixpence to you, but it is a pound to me.’ That was because income tax was at 95 per cent or 97 per cent. We cannot go down the road that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, and the Conservatives have stressed again and again that the only way to get out of this difficulty is to try to let business grow.”

Kwarteng has a gusto and readiness to be amused which are not always found in senior politicians. He is always in play, keen to have the necessary argument, trenchant without being rancorous, a man of loud laughter as well as conviction, and also six foot five inches tall, which makes him yet more difficult to overlook.

In 2012, when he and four other members of the 2010 intake – Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Chris Skidmore – published Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, they attracted prudish expressions of disapproval for declaring:

“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

Four of the five authors are now in the Cabinet. As Business Secretary, Kwarteng is in a position to fulfil the positive vision set out in Britannia Unchained, which looked at what could be learned from India, Canada, Israel and Brazil, and pointed out that in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea,

“a combination of private enterprise and effective government policy has enabled economic growth rates which we can only dream about in the West.”

The quintet also expressed admiration for Chinese growth rates, “scarcely equalled in world history”, and advocated low taxes, spending cuts and a restored work ethic.

All this prompted widespread expressions of horror in the British press, as if the country was about to be wrecked by noxious foreign influences.

Left-wing critics felt, too, an instinctive aversion to the authors’ patriotism, their unembarrassed determination to reinvigorate Great Britain.

Such critics tended to miss the extent to which immigrants to this country, and their descendants, are inspired by what Shirley Robin Letwin identified, in The Anatomy of Thatcherism, as “the vigorous virtues”, which mean a preference for the individual who is

“upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, and robust against enemies.”

Kwarteng is a good example of this. His parents were born in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was known when it was a British colony, and emigrated to Britain.

Their only child, Kwasi Alfred Addo Kwarteng, was born in 1975 in Waltham Forest, on the Essex side of London, so was four when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

He has related, in an interview given to mark the publication of one of his books, how his mother, Charlotte, who became a barrister, identified with Thatcher:

“It was a self-reliance thing. Look, this is what we all forget about Margaret Thatcher. Her story was so extraordinary, given where she had come from, that some immigrants — and I’m not saying a majority, but some people who were new to this country — did identify with her. This woman who had become the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. It was a log cabin to White House sort of thing. It was a powerful story.”

His father, Alfred, who worked as an economist for the Commonwealth Secretariat, was a man of the Left, with an education in Ghana which had been in the English tradition,

“in a leafy Anglican school emulating the English public school, down to its Winchester-educated English headmaster.”

Kwasi’s education was likewise thoroughly English. His father was posted by the Commonwealth Secretariat to Switzerland, but the boy was sent at the age of eight to board at Colet Court, an academic preparatory school in London: “Probably too young, but I loved it”

Most boys from Colet Court go on to St Paul’s, but Kwasi won a scholarship to Eton, where he gained the school’s chief academic prize, the Newcastle Scholarship, a distinction shared, among Conservative politicians, with Quintin Hogg, Douglas Hurd, William Waldegrave and Boris Johnson.

Like Johnson, he competed with enthusiasm in the Wall Game, whose educational value was elucidated by Oliver Van Oss, who taught at Eton:

“The Wall Game is the supreme non-spectacle, the last sport totally to disregard the spectator… As a preparation for life, the Wall Game has two special merits. It teaches one to push oneself to the limits of endurance and discomfort without losing one’s temper. It provides the perfect training for later work on boards, committees, royal commissions and governing bodies. The unmovable and the irresistible are poised in perfect balance. Nothing is happening and it seems unlikely that anything ever will. Then, for two seconds or so, the situation becomes fluid. If one can take one’s chance – and there may not be another – the day is won. If one miskicks or mistimes or is timid or was not attending, all may be irretrievably lost.”

Kwarteng was not timid, and was paying attention:

“Kwarteng’s interview at Trinity College, Cambridge, became the stuff of an oft-retold Eton school legend. A relatively young tutor ended a slightly nervy interview by mentioning that this was his first time interviewing entrance candidates. ‘Oh, don’t worry, sir, you did fine,’ smiled the 18-year-old Kwarteng reassuringly.”

At Trinity he took Firsts in History and Classics, and was in the winning University Challenge team.

Through the Oakeshott Society, run by Dr John Casey in the next door college, Caius, Kwarteng at a tender age met various Daily Telegraph journalists, who saw in him a delightful conversationalist, precociously well-read and exceptionally able, and conferred on him a column in that newspaper.

He became a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, after which he did a doctorate in economic history at Cambridge and earned some money as an analyst in the City, working for and becoming friends with Crispin Odey.

In 2005 he stood for Parliament as a Conservative in Brent East, and came third, in 2008 he ran unsuccessfully for the London Assembly, and in 2010 he was adopted in an open primary held at Kempton Park racecourse as the candidate for the safe Tory seat of Spelthorne, which used to be in Middlesex but is now in Surrey, and is situated south of Heathrow Airport.

Kwarteng was by now encumbered with predictions that he would soon achieve greatness. He was described as “the black Boris” and a future Prime Minister, and wrote several well-received works of history, including Ghosts of Empire and War and Gold.

But he was by no means slavishly loyal to David Cameron and George Osborne, preserved indeed the sovereign manner of a free man, received from them no preferment and backed Leave in the EU Referendum, and Johnson’s failed leadership bid immediately afterwards.

After Theresa May’s not entirely successful election campaign of 2017, Kwarteng was made PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and in August 2018, when Suella Braverman resigned as Under-Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, Kwarteng was put in to replace her.

The following year, he again backed Johnson for the leadership, and was rewarded with the post of Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

So Kwarteng has had a year and a half to get to know his department, and work out what can be done with it.

A senior Remainer said of his appointment: “He will be really good. Whatever you think about Brexit, he’s got a clear view of the world. It’s helpful for a big Brexiteer to have to own a lot of the issues that will come up.”

We are about to witness Kwarteng Unchained. Stuffed to the gills with the finest education England can provide, he has the chance to rejoice the hearts of Conservatives by showing that Eton, and other ancient foundations wrongly supposed to be resistant to change, are actually a marvellous preparation for the modern world.