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The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill, 2019-21 and 2021-22 [Bill 264], was introduced in the Commons on 2 March 2021 and had its Second Reading on 23 March 2021. The Committee Stage ran from 14 to 22 April 2021 and the Report Stage and Third Reading both took place on the 7 June 2021, in the new Parliamentary session. This briefing from the Commons Library analyses the Bill’s provisions.

Context for the Bill

The Bill seeks to establish a new research funding agency specifically aimed at providing long-term support for “high-risk, high-pay off” “blue-skies research”. The term ‘blue-skies research’ has been used to refer to research endeavours that do not always have an obvious and immediate ‘real world’ application but that have the potential to be ground-breaking. The proposed new agency is “broadly modelled on the US Advanced Research Projects Agency”, a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense (now known as DARPA). The Bill is sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

In the March 2020 Budget, the Chancellor announced that the UK Government would invest “at least £800 million” in this new agency as part of the Government’s wider commitment to increase public research and development (R&D) funding to £22bn by 2024-25 and increase overall UK spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

What does the Bill do?

As introduced, the Bill does several things: first, it establishes the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) as a statutory corporation. Second, it sets out ARIA’s functions. These are focused on both conducting “ambitious” scientific research with a tolerance to failure, and on developing, exploiting and sharing scientific knowledge, such as translating basic scientific research into more commercial technologies. Third, the Bill enables the Secretary of State to make grants to ARIA and provide it with funding.

The Bill is divided into 15 Clauses and has 3 Schedules. The main clauses are as follows:

  • Clause 1 establishes ARIA as a “body corporate”.
  • Clause 2 describes ARIA’s functions as conducting and commissioning scientific research, sharing findings, and exploiting scientific knowledge (and/or supporting others to undertake these functions).
  • Clause 3 allows ARIA to undertake “ambitious” research projects whilst also having a high tolerance to project failure.
  • Clause 4 covers ARIA’s funding and enables the Secretary of State to make grants to ARIA, with Clause 7 permitting the transfer of staff and property, rights and liabilities to ARIA.
  • Clause 5 sets out that ARIA must comply with any national security directions given by the Secretary of State, while Clause 6 stipulates when ARIA must provide information requested by the Secretary of State.
  • Clause 8 allows for the dissolution of ARIA after ten years have elapsed since the passing of the Bill.
  • Clause 10 allows the Secretary of State to modify other legislation in line with any provision in the ARIA Act.

How does the Bill apply to the UK nations?

The Bill applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. Supporting scientific research and development sit within the legislative competence of the devolved nations, although specific reservations do exist. Clauses 1-4, 6-8, 10-12 and Schedules 1 and 2 all require legislative consent motions with respect to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Reaction to the Bill

The Bill, and the establishment of ARIA, have been broadly welcomed by stakeholders. Questions and concerns have been raised, however, about the form, function and governance of the new Agency, as set out in the Bill. The Opposition has called particular attention to ARIA’s exemption from “existing Public Contract Regulations” and that it will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Greg Clark, the Chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee (which held an inquiry into A new UK research funding agency),  expressed concerns that ARIA lacked “a clear focus or purpose”, and that there was much that remained unclear about what ARIA is meant to be. Academics have also pointed to the lack of a clear customer or client for ARIA and have argued that there is need for further clarity about its relationship with the UK’s existing R&D funding infrastructure, such as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Second reading and Committee Stage

There was broad, cross-party support for the Bill at both the Second Reading and Committee Stages, though areas were identified where improvements were argued to be needed. At the Committee Stage, 25 amendments were moved though none were successful; 16 were negatived on division, 1 was negatived without division and 8 were withdrawn after debate. No Government amendments were tabled. The amendments moved focused on 5 broad areas:

  • the relationship of the Agency to UKRI;
  • the appointment, composition and governance of ARIA’s board and leadership team;
  • the details to be included in ARIA’s annual report;
  • ARIA’s function and mission;
  • ARIA’s exemption from the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and public contract regulations

Report Stage and Third Reading

The Report Stage and Third Reading of the Bill took place on 7 June 2021. Many of the Report Stage amendments were similar to those tabled at Committee stage. They focused on:

  • defining ARIA’s mission in relation to a specific goal, such as the transition to net zero carbon emissions
  • heightening Parliamentary scrutiny of ARIA, including the appointment of its executive and non-executive members
  • providing extra detail on what should be included in ARIA’s annual report
  • making ARIA subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Public Contract Regulations 2015

Three amendments were moved to a Division. Each was defeated and the Bill was reported without amendment. The Bill was read for a third time on the same day and passed without Division.

The Bill had its First Reading in the Lords on 8 June 2021. At the time of writing, a date had yet to be set for its Second Reading.

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