The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) will be free to pursue different research goals to the ones set out in the government’s forthcoming innovation strategy but will not be “isolated from wider strategic interests of government”, the business secretary has said.
In a meeting with the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords, Kwasi Kwarteng said he would not “prescribe what this new organisation should do” if it gets the go-ahead from parliament later this year.
The secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy told peers the agency “will absolutely independent, but independence doesn’t mean it will be doing its own thing it will be part of a wider research universe in Britain”.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will this June publish a report on innovation strategy, commissioned by Mr Kwarteng when he took office three months ago, that sets out “granularity and clarity” on how the government intends to improve increase innovation.
In an exchange with Kate Rock, the business secretary announced he was “very hopefully the innovation strategy will provide some ideas for the future director but the extent to which ARIA must follow the government’s innovation strategy is a question for the director”.
“[ARIA] needs to have flexibility,” he maintained. “It needs a degree of independence, but independence doesn’t mean it’s completely isolated from the wider strategic interests of the government.”
Pressed by Lady Rock on the exact nature of the relationship between ministers and the planned £800-million research agency, Mr Kwarteng replied: “It will be for ARIA and its leadership to decide to what level and to what degree they want to pursue our missions. This isn’t a state-led, state-directed research institute. This isn’t a replica of the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a dialogue between that institution and wider government.”
“Top talent” will be sourced to run and chair the new agency, Mr Kwarteng confirmed, adding that “a number of people” have expressed interest in running ARIA. The white bill instituting the new research agency is proceeding through parliament but has yet to receive royal assent. Earlier this year, the prime minister’s former special advisor told MPs ARIA would fail if headed by a “bog-standard vice-chancellor“. ARIA was described in February as “a brand in search of a product” by Greg Clark, the chair of the House of Commons science and technology committee.
The other assurance I am giving is that we are absolutely, rigorously committed to the 2.4% target by 2027… What I can’t do is tell every researcher in the country that their projects will be funded indefinitely
– Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary
The committee of peers had called the secretary of state and Holly Yates, BEIS deputy director for R&D strategy and finance, to discuss government R&D Funding in 2021. Members questioned the cost and future of Horizon Europe association, the innovation strategy and the likelihood government can achieve its target of boosting investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.
Mr Kwarteng said funds announced by the government would cover the estimated £1-billion cost of Horizon Europe. BEIS received £250m from the Treasury earlier this year, on top of the £400m given to it at the 2020 spending review “for strategic government priorities,” Ms Yates explained. The remaining £350m comes from a pot of money allocated to BEIS before the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement “in case we didn’t associate with Horizon Europe, to plug that gap,” the minister added.
Horizon funding “is fairly secure”, Mr Kwarteng said. “My job is to secure that funding, and I have to say there was some success because there was a contention that BEIS would have to absorb the entirety of the Horizon subscription in its budget, and we managed to avoid that. We had very collaborative conversations with Treasury, and we have to do the same thing ahead of this year.”
Peers urged Mr Kwarteng to assure the sector that the cost of Horizon would not create shortfalls in other areas. Although £400m of BEIS funding would go towards Horizon Europe, the minister stated that the expense “doesn’t have to have an impact” on other domestic research funding allocations, provided the Treasury allocates additional funds at the forthcoming 2021 spending review.
“The assurance I am giving is that the research budget is increasing,” Mr Kwarteng began. “The other assurance I am giving is that we are absolutely, rigorously committed to the 2.4% target by 2027… What I can’t do is tell every researcher in the country that their projects will be funded indefinitely.”
He stressed that the 2021 spending review would be “in a different context” to the one last year and that “the government remains committed to the 2.4% of GDP target for 2027, and in order to reach that target, we will need to increase our contribution”.
Ms Yates said there was “some volatility” in the “precise” cost of Horizon Europe association because of exchange rates between the pound and the Euro.
The government would set out more detail on its strategy for R&D in the forthcoming innovation strategy, expected in late June, the minister told peers. Mr Kwarteng said he wanted a “more streamlined approach” to government R&D policy than was afforded by the old “old industrial strategy”, which was “far too broad”. He hinted that the revamped innovation strategy would have fewer goals than the industrial strategy’s 24 priority challenges.