My intervention in the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill debate

Rt Hon Sir John Redwood MP (Wokingham) (Con): In that connection, could the Minister give the House some brief guidance on what he, as the accountable Minister, would expect by way of discussion and influence over corporate plans and budgets and onward reporting to the House?

George Freeman (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question, and he will not be surprised to know that it is one I have also been asking since coming to this role. The point of ARIA is to be a new agency for doing new science in new ways, and it has been structured specifically to avoid meddling Ministers, even those with a good idea, and meddling officials, even those with good intent, and to create an agency that is free.

My right hon. Friend asks an important question. As we appoint the chief executive officer and the chair, the framework agreement will set out, a bit like a subscription agreement, the agency’s operating parameters, which will be published in due course. Each year ARIA will have to report on its stated plans. Crucially, as is so often not the case in scientific endeavour, ARIA will report where happy failure has occurred so that we do not continue to pour more money into scientific programmes that have not succeeded, which I know will reassure him. We want ARIA to be free to be honest about that, and not embarrassed. ARIA will be annually accountable through the framework agreement.

Finally, Lords amendment 1 deals with the conditions that ARIA may attach to its financial support. This arises from a series of important discussions in the other place relating to ARIA’s duty to commercialise intellectual property that may be generated, which I am keen to address properly. However, the amendment, as drafted, does not actually prevent ARIA from doing anything; it adds examples of conditions that ARIA may attach to financial support, but ARIA already has the general power to do just that. Legally, the amendment simply represents a drafting change. As such, we cannot accept it, but we understand and acknowledge the importance of the point that the noble Lord Browne had in mind.

It is our firm belief that, although it is not appropriate at this stage to specify ARIA’s contracting and granting arrangements in legislation, we recognise the substance of the concerns underlying the amendment: namely, that ARIA should have a duty to the taxpayer to ensure it is not haemorrhaging intellectual property of value to the UK. I will outline our position on that.

The amendment focuses principally on overseas acquisition of IP relating to the principles on which the Government intervene in foreign takeovers of UK businesses, particularly where those businesses have benefited from public investment in research and development activities. The National Security and Investment Act 2021, which fully commenced earlier this month, provides just such a framework, and it marks the biggest upgrade of investment screening in the UK for 20 years.

The NSI Act covers relevant sectors, such as quantum technologies and synthetic biology, that have benefited from significant public investment, and it permits the Government to scrutinise acquisitions on national security grounds. This new investment screening regime supports the UK’s world-leading reputation as an attractive place to invest, and it has been debated extensively in both Houses very recently. We do not believe that revisiting those debates today would be productive.

Although the NSI Act provides a statutory framework, a much broader strand of work is under way. As Science Minister, I take very seriously the security of our academic and research community. A number of measures have been taken in the past few months and years to strengthen our protections. We are working closely with the sector to help it identify and address risks from overseas collaborations, while supporting academic freedom of thought and institutional independence.

Members do not need me to tell them that intellectual property is incredibly valuable and we increasingly face both sovereign and industrial espionage. It is important that we are able to support our universities to be aware of those risks and to avoid them. The Bill already provides the Secretary of State with a broad power of direction over ARIA on issues of national security, which provides a strong mechanism to intervene in its activities in the unlikely event it is necessary to do so.

24 Comments

  1. Everhopeful
    February 1, 2022

    Maybe I’m wrong but I do not like the sound of that!
    SAGE on speed?
    ‚ÄúMeddling‚ÄĚ, ‚Äúfree‚ÄĚ?
    To do what ….without who knowing??

  2. formula57
    February 1, 2022

    To assist those for whom Mr Freeman’s answer is too long to read, I offer this brief translation: –

    “No idea pal but there are built-in safeguards to mean there will be no comebacks on me or the BEIS so there!”

    Another shameful Ministerial performance.

    ARIA is clearly set-up to be out of control. What about intellectual property that is sold at home and not a matter of national security?

  3. Everhopeful
    February 1, 2022

    Oh dear!
    The bonfire of EU regs is smokily fizzling out under great clods of very green, damp grass.
    Skin of teeth rescue from partygate not a bit of remorse or humility… and now straight onto further destruction of Brexit.

  4. agricola
    February 1, 2022

    I would suggest that any commercial company that creates a product that may change the way things happen in the World, with great financial reward for said company, keeps it well out of the hands of any UK government body.
    Remember what the UK government did with Radar, Computers, Jet Engines, Hover Craft, Vertical Take Off and Landing Aircraft, the Internet, to mention just a few. They gave all to the World gratis. I fear what they might be planning to do with Fusion Energy. Ceos be aware should the government gift bearers come calling.

    1. dixie
      February 3, 2022

      There is no guarantee you can keep anything out of the hands of the state – there is compulsory purchase in the UK, NZ etc and eminent domain in the USA. And then of course there is the socialists favourite – nationalisation.

  5. ChrisS
    February 1, 2022

    If the reassertion by Chancellor and PM of there intention to go ahead with the NI surcharge was not enough, The Telegraph is now reporting :

    “Boris Johnson scraps Brexit bonfire of EU red tape in favour of net zero rules”

    I simply do not understand what Boris is thinking of. He seems determined to hack off a large number of his back benchers by retaining EU laws and he will surely lose even more Conservative party members and voters by his ruinously rapid drive to Net Zero.

    I’m not bothered about “Partygate” but the direction he is taking current policy, including those mentioned above, are more than enough to justify changing the Prime Minister.

    1. Mickey Taking
      February 2, 2022

      I said at the outset of this continuing madness, Johnson had his brain scrambled by Covid, aided and assisted by Carrie and the Remainers, plus the scientists seeking their publicity.

  6. X-Tory
    February 1, 2022

    Government ministers always talk about “the UK‚Äôs world-leading reputation as an attractive place to invest”. It makes me puke, as they do not understand the difference between investent and asset-stripping. let me set out the difference very clearly: investment is when a foreign company spends money in the UK opening a NEW factory or plant or office, thus INCREASING the UK’s industrial and economic output. That is investment that is very welcome and should be encouraged through all sorts of tax incentives so that the capital investment can be 100% set against tax.

    Unfortunately what we mostly see is NOT investment, but ASSET-STRIPPING. This occurs when a foreign company comes to the UK and buys an EXISTING company. This does NOT increase our national output, and therefore does NOT benefit the UK. All that happens is that the profits which previously stayed in Britain and circulated in our economy are sucked out of the country by overseas investors, our IP is stolen and our future growth prospects are destroyed. This is pillaging, NOT investing. Unfortunately the cretins and traitors in government don’t seem to understand that – or they just don’t care.

    1. dixie
      February 2, 2022

      Wholely agree – having been at the dirty end of several FDI asset striping “investments” and mergers.
      But it isn’t just individuals in all branches of government, the city is very much to blame with it’s short termist, anything for a quick buck attitudes.
      And to ensure there is something for everyone – I would lump in the activist unions and socialists who put their power and income above the success, stability and longevity of STEM endeavours.

    2. alan jutson
      February 2, 2022

      +1

  7. X-Tory
    February 1, 2022

    Off-topic, but related to government support (or lack of it!) for British R&D: The government has spent hundreds of millions of pounds funding a foreign company – General Dynamics – to build an armoured vehicle (known a Ajax), and this has resulted in an appalling failure. Meanwhile, the US government funded the British BAE to build an armoured vehicle for them (known as AMPV) – and this has been highly successful! See here: https://www.baesystems.com/en/article/bae-systems-rolls-out-first-armored-multi-purpose-vehicle

    Yes, of course these are slightly different vehicles, with Ajax being more combat-focused, while AMPV is more general purpose. But the point is that BAE is capable of building armoured vehicles that work, and they could certainly have built a fighting vehicle if they had been given the chance. Instead the British government preferred to give the contract to a FOREIGN company. Stupidity or treachery – or both?

  8. Oldtimer
    February 1, 2022

    I am raising a broader point about the apparent ease with which smaller, innovative UK companies are bought by overseas interests. This can be helped by short selling of shares in target companies. Among the consequences are the loss of IP and technologies to those interests and the also the removal from the stock market companies with growth potential (the reason they were bought up). My questions are whether Ministers are alert to this, think it is an issue and, if so, will they do anything about it?

  9. forthurst
    February 1, 2022

    On the relevant government website it refers to “So-called ‚Äėgeneral purpose technologies‚Äô, for instance, A.I., quantum computing, and robotics; are applicable in a range of industries, and in tackling a range of societal problems.” There is no quantum computer nor is it likely to exist for some time if ever. It would be a good idea not to give money for research which is based on a fallacy.

    “the large community of ‚Äėcasual coders‚Äô who have talent and time” Casual coding is an activity that should be discouraged not encouraged. Writing computer systems is a professional activity which requires professional skills. Users do not want to use bug-ridden systems that produce incorrect results such as dire predictions on the progress of epidemics and crash all the time.

    1. dixie
      February 2, 2022

      I disagree. Much of the software and systems the commercial and public sectors rely on started out as casual projects, and many still are – eg Linux for servers, the majority of web servers and browsers. Many do become or get folded in to more professionally managed products and projects but that is not always a good thing looking at the quality of some.
      As well as casual coding there is the maker community which has spawned a wide range of products in particular desktop 3D printing. 3D Printing was used in the industry since the 60’s but in the last decade innovation in the cost, capability and application has exploded mainly due to the maker community, something the UKRI ignores and in my direct experience does not wish to support since it does not involve the academics and big businesses. This is very shortsighted considering the role the community plays in supporting, developing and nurturing new technologies and aspiring engineers and scientists in such areas as AI, IoT, robotics, 3D Printing, software and electronics.
      Perhaps the UK ARIA will be more supportive and inclusive of this diverse community eg in it’s inducement prizes.

      1. forthurst
        February 4, 2022

        It’s bizarre to suggest Linux was a ‘casual’ project. Linux is a an implementation of the UNIX operating system developed by Bell Laboratories to run on the PC architecture. The kernel was built by Linus Torvalds who at the time was an post-graduate computer science graduate. The developers working on Linux are themselves typically Computer Science graduates in universities not children playing in their bedrooms.

        1. dixie
          February 5, 2022

          You didn’t define what you meant by “casual”.
          Linux started as an individual’s casual project outside of a professional environment by a young student with no commercial connection.
          While being a professional developer I also designed stuff in software and hardware as a hobby or for self-education and development – ie casually. The vast majority of my technical learning was done in my own time with no support by my employers from building my first computer to learning new programming languages and techniques who then benefited from my CPD activities.
          How are children and those considering career change to be encouraged into STEM unless their “casual” interest and activity is facilitated and supported – this was one of the key benefits of the BBC Microcomputer project, getting many youngsters into computing. This role has since been taken up by the Raspberry Pi, Micro-Bit and Pico.
          If your concern is the lack of rigor in the development of products then I would agree with you, but I would never agree that exposing the young and interested to STEM activity should be banned, that would be bizarre.

          1. forthurst
            February 9, 2022

            ‘Casual’ was the government’s term not mine; why not read comments properly before responding. Are you are suggesting a university is a ‘casual’ environment? Linus Torvalds’ work was towards his MSc degree. He’s also exceptionally bright. I’m not trying to ban anybody; all I’m trying to point out is that developing robust computer systems which do anything useful is a professional activity which is very time consuming.

    2. hefner
      February 2, 2022

      Oh, we have a real visionary here. Ever heard of IBM System One with 65 qubit ¬īHummingbird‚Äô processor available now or with the 127 ‚ÄėEagle‚Äô processor available next year.

      1. forthurst
        February 4, 2022

        These are simulations of how quantum computers might work designed to promote IBM in the marketplace.

        1. hefner
          February 6, 2022

          And what do you say about the six US, three Canadian and one Australian companies in the top ten companies working on QC appearing on businessmagazine.org, 05/10/2021 or about Chad Rigetti (gov.uk 02/09/2020 ‚ÄėGovernment backs UK‚Äôs first quantum computer‚Äô)?
          Just ‚Äėsimulations‚Äô or ‚Äėnot likely to exist for some time if ever‚Äô?

          1. forthurst
            February 9, 2022

            Quantum computers are money pits kept afloat by hype.

  10. Bryan Harris
    February 2, 2022

    Do we really need another unaccountable quango that can do virtually as it pleases?

    Quangos are simply a way for ministers to avoid taking responsibility.

    1. hefner
      February 10, 2022

      fh, I desist before your immense wisdom. You must have been one of the people who wondered what a smartphone could be useful for in the 2000s.

  11. hefner
    February 4, 2022

    Just a bit O/T: ‚ÄėActivist investors descend on ‚Äėbargain basement‚Äô UK companies‚Äô, FT, 02/02/2022.

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