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.

Neil O’Brien: Here are three urgent responses to China’s growing power – which we will soon have an opportunity to make

19 Oct

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Are we, in fact, losing the competition with China?

Consider current events. The IMF predicts China will be the only country with a positive growth rate this year. Since 2004 the UK’s share of world manufacturing halved from four per cent to two per cent, while China’s rose from nine per cent to 28 per cent.

Being a surveillance state has proved handy in the crisis: detecting a dozen Coronavirus cases, the Chinese city of Qingdao is testing its entire population of nine million people for Covid-19 over a period of five days.

Whether it’s the holographic windows on the Beijing subway, or the scary videos of the People’s Liberation Army showing off its new mobile drone swarms, the sense that we are being overtaken is palpable.

So is the increasingly authoritarian and militaristic nature of the Chinese regime. Every day the Chinese press is full of two things. First, ever more lavish praise for Xi Jinping, now officially elevated to “People’s Leader”, and increasingly exercising one-man rule. Second, increasingly dire threats to other countries that dare to cross China.

This week it was the turn of Canada, which was warned not to accept refugees from Hong Hong on pain of having more Canadian citizens arrested in China. There’s a steadily louder drumbeat of threats to crush Taiwan: the other day Xi called on troops to “focus all [your] minds and energy on preparing for war”, and Taiwan revealed it had been forced to scramble jets 2,972 times against Chinese aircraft incursions this year.

A new and not very friendly superpower is emerging.  How should we respond?

In the next month or two we should see the publication of the Integrated Review.  This is a big improvement on previous Strategic Defence Reviews in that it goes wider, to think about economic competition, not just military rivalry.

The Review is a big deal, and in a world with no virus it would be headline news.

Other countries are considering the same issues. The EU now officially describes China as a “systemic rival” and “strategic competitor”, while the US is taking a huge amount of actions (on a cross party basis) to protect its interests from China.

While we’ve had less debate in the UK, we face exactly the same challenge.

In a speech last week, the head of MI5 noted that while Beijing’s espionage efforts typically take the form of “hacking commercially sensitive information or commercially sensitive data, and intellectual property”, UK spies have also detected attempts by Chinese counterparts to influence UK politics. China is “changing the climate,” he said:

“Sometimes our role is to spot the hidden State hand in the pursuit of promising UK companies whose acquisition might dent our future prosperity and security. On China, we need expansive teamwork – a broad conversation across government and crucially beyond, to reach wise judgements around how the UK interacts with China on both opportunities and risks.”

This is sensible. So what should the Integrated Review do on China?  For me there are three big things.

First, we need an Australian style counter-influence unit to combat attempts to meddle in our politics

Like the Australian equivalent, it should be empowered to tackle a range of issues. Top London lobbying firms paid by hostile states for starters.  We wouldn’t have let the Soviet Union hire Saatchi & Saatchi in the cold war, so why don’t lobbyists have to declare payments from arms of the Chinese state now?

Universities could use more oversight and guidance too – witness the Chinese cash-for-influence scandal at Jesus College Cambridge. The same issues apply in think tanks, businesses and even the House of Lords. China is quick to snap up ex-permanent secretaries and even ex-spies. We need a coordinated approach.

Second, we need a new partnership with firms and universities to protect our economic and technology security. 

At the moment, we have a completely one-sided relationship, in which China can help itself to whatever university research it wants from the UK, buy up any interesting technology firm and even get our universities to work for branches of their military – an approach described in Beijing as ‘picking flowers in foreign lands to make honey in China’.

Through coercive joint ventures and corporate espionage, China can perform a sort of supermarket sweep on the intellectual property of the west.  Meanwhile China bans investment in swathes of its economy, locks up people suspected of leaking industrial secrets and has just passed tight new laws on the export of key technologies.

It’s a modern version of the same mercantilism that saw China guard the secrets of silk-making for hundreds of years, but the real question is why we allow a one way transfer of technology?

A new unit in Number Ten or the Treasury should coordinate relationships with industry to help identify who is sniffing around new technologies – perhaps we need a UK version of the US Business Entrepreneurs Networks which help US government build up market intelligence.

We also need greater transparency on who is working with our universities. At present we don’t even collect data on who is funding them from overseas.  Many firms would love help to counter hacking of their secrets or advice on tie-ups with Chinese firms.  There should be an obvious place to turn to in government to get it.

Third, we need an “Office for the Future”.

China’s growing dominance isn’t just built on exploiting naive western countries, but on a relentless focus on research and industrial strategy which we should learn from. However, in government I felt that the different bodies which are currently supposed to help us think about technology add up to less than the sum of their parts.

Collectively the Government Office for Science, the Council for Science and Technology, UKRI, BEIS the Research Councils and learned societies have many brilliant people, but the system lacks a controlling mind or plan.

Some of this is about the wider civil service, and we should learn from Singapore: the world’s best civil service. Some of it is about our growing our pitiful level of investment in R&D, which has sunk over the decades just as China’s grew.

But we also need a plan. We need some part of government to be aware of the significance of new technologies and emerging firms before they have been snaffled and carted of to China or anywhere else. Research funding in government isn’t industrially-focussed enough. We need a unit to think commercially about where we should concentrate research investment, and where we shouldn’t. To work out what we need to do to be ready to catch the wave of new opportunities, in the way that Beijing is so good at.

In a new book, “The Wake-Up Call”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge sketch out how the virus has exposed the challenges facing the UK and other western countries, and the scale of the challenge we’re facing.

It reminds me a bit of the late 1970s, when Helmut Schmidt, then West Germany’s Chancellor, declared: “England is no longer a developed country,” and Nick Henderson’s famous leaked telegram highlighted our rapid descent.  Eventually we get angry enough to do something about it, and elected Margaret Thatcher.

This time the problems are different and we are already in government. But the urgency is just the same. Let us hope that the Integrated Review can be part of the wake-up call we need.