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The Bills announced in each session’s Queen’s Speech are the fulcrum of the Parliamentary year.  But they are easily lost sight of, separately and wholly, as the political cycle moves – and a mass of other news and events crowd them out.

So during the coming months, ConservativeHome will run a brief guide, on most Sunday mornings, to each Bill from this year’s Speech: what it is, whether it’s new, its main strengths and weaknesses – and whether it’s expected sooner or later.

2) The Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

What it is

This is the Dominic Cummings Memorial Bill. It will bring into being one of his key ideas: the creation of a UK equivalent of and successor to America’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (later the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency: DARPA).

One of earliest items on his blog, posted in June 2017, lauds the project: “its job was to fund high risk/high payoff technology development. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of unusual people and unusually wise funding from ARPA created a community that in turn invented the internet…and the personal computer.”

Responsible department

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (ARIA) was introduced in the Commons in March, some four months after Cummings left Downing Street.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State, is thus the lead Minister, and Amanda Solloway, the Under-Secretary of State, has taken the Bill through committee.

Carried over or a new Bill?

Carried over – Report Stage in the Commons is due next; after Third Reading, the Bill will go to the Lords.

Expected back when?

Sooner rather than later.

Arguments for

The core case for ARIA is that it will “identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed” and “cement the UK’s position as a global science superpower, while shaping the country’s efforts to build back better through innovation”.

If inventions emerge from ARIA and are then produced in the UK, then we will take a significant step towards becoming what Boris Johnson has called a “science superpower”.  If they don’t, but have the worldwide impact of computers or the net, then we will gain in any event.  DARPA had an annual budget of £3 billion in 2019; ARIA will have an £800 million one (for its first few years).

Arguments against

That for ARIA is essentially simple; those against it are numerous.  The most basic is that the entire project is a waste of Government energy and money – and that science spending ought to go elsewhere: for example, to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Others are based on ARIA going ahead, but not as the Government plans to.  The criticisms of its particular scheme boil down to three: first, that the balance of funding between ARIA and UKRI is wrong; second, that it doesn’t have a clear mandate for what it will do; and, third, that accountability for it is weak.

Politics

Labour supports the Bill in principle (and accepts that a Bill is necessary).  However, it has deployed all three lines of criticism – as, up to a point, has Greg Clark’s Science and Technology’s Select Committee, which said that ARIA is to date “a brand in search of a product”.  This goes to the heart of the political argument about the Government’s plan.

For ARIA, as envisaged by the Government, will have the liberty to do more or less whatever it wants (America’s Defence Department gave DARPA more direction than BEIS will give ARIA).  Ed Miliband, Kwarteng’s shadow, wants “a clear mandate and framework” for ARIA – so there is a rather traditional dividing line between the two parties over the proposal: between state direction v institutional freedom.

Controversy rating: 2/10

Within the Conservative Party, Tory backbenchers seem willing to go with ARIA’s flow, accepting the project’s statist shell, not to mention the considerable financial outlay, as well as its permissive core – which gives scientists the liberty to do anything they like, pretty much… including to fail.  Elsewhere, the scientific-industrial-military complex hasn’t yet looked this gift horse in the mouth.