A series of proposed amendments to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) bill, including an audacious backbench bid to reverse the government cut to overseas aid, call for greater parliamentary oversight and clarity of mission.
The bill that would establish a new blue-sky funding agency in the UK research ecosystem returns to the House of Commons today for its third reading after the government rejected amendments tabled at the committee stage of its legislative passage.
The speaker of the House of Commons has yet to announce which amendments will be debated in the chamber.
MPs submitted amendments on 4 June, with most seeking greater parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the agency’s work. Among them is an amendment backed by a cross-party alliance of backbenchers, including Tory party grandees, that would force the government to top-up the £800 million ARIA budget to cover cuts to international aid spending.
“ARIA must, in accordance with its functions, provide sufficient financial support which qualifies as ODA for the United Kingdom to spend at least 0.7% of gross national income on ODA in that year,” the amendment reads, adding: “The Secretary of State must make grants to ARIA sufficient for ARIA to meet [this] duty”.
The purpose of ARIA – so far as delineated by ministers from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – is to pursue “high-risk, high reward” research, which could give Britain future strategic advantage. Ministers promise, however, that the chief executive and chair of ARIA will have near-carte-blanche approval to make their own decisions. ARIA is, therefore, not ostensibly designed to research the sorts of missions funded by ODA-backed UKRI projects, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which supported research in areas such as water security, health and justice.
A host of other amendments seek to create more parliamentary oversight, including one that would force ministers to put their nominees for chair and chief executive to a vote in both houses of parliament. ARIA would also become subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and required to share information with relevant parliamentary select committees and “parliamentary scrutiny of any contracts awarded by ARIA”.
Further amendments seek to enshrine in law the purpose and mission of the agency, including a spending commitment to research solutions to the climate crisis or health policy priorities set down by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). The Labour leadership has submitted an amendment that would require the agency to take directions directly from the relevant government minister after its initial 10-year establishment period ends in 2031.