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Peers vote to prevent Aria-funded tech being flogged to overseas companies

The House of Lords has defeated the government by passing an amendment that aims to give the UK’s new Darpa-style agency a stake in the businesses and projects it funds. The motion gives the agency a 10-year veto on foreign acquisitions or selling IP abroad.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) Bill is making its way through Parliament. Plans for Aria, which is considered the brainchild of former Downing Street staffer Dominic Cummings, were announced in February. Aria is inspired by the Pentagon’s Darpa, which has been instrumental in the development of GPS and the internet.

It aims to pursue R&D in areas of science and technology with the potential to generate ground-breaking discoveries and technologies without the pressures that limit innovation, such as fear of short-term setbacks or rigid funding models. It will be independent from government intervention and supported with £800m in funding for the remainder of this parliament.

The House of Lords has been combing over the Aria Bill, voting on two amendments this week. Most significantly, it has defeated the government on an amendment that would enable Aria to secure an equity interest in any business or project it funds. Supporters of the amendment argue it is an important measure to secure the UK benefits from its public investment and prevent a foreign brain drain. The tendency of UK science to become, essentially, lucrative American technology has long caused grievance among policymakers.

Lord Morse, former head of the National Audit Office, told the house that Aria would be working against its aim of driving forward national research frontiers through publicly funded risk-taking if foreign firms were given free rein to acquire Aria’s IP and take it abroad. Lord Morse added: “We need to make it clear in this amendment that we are not prepared to see IP that has been paid for by British taxpayers go offshore. It makes mugs of British taxpayers.”

Under this measure, companies receiving backing from Aria would be required for 10 years to have the organisation’s agreement to transfer IP rights abroad or agree an acquisition by a foreign firm.

Former Labour Cabinet Minister Lord Browne said: “We recognise that Aria needs these powers to prevent what has happened to far too many British businesses happening to the businesses it supports during their developmental stage or when they begin to produce significant profits. Substantial potential income for the UK based on government R&D has gone abroad, and this should not happen to Aria.”

Labour hereditary peer Lord Stansgate, son of Tony Benn, added: “We must ensure that, whatever it comes up with, its IP property cannot be sold off or acquired by others without its agreement.”

The amendment received crossbench support. Former health minister and Tory peer Lord Bethell expressed concern that despite efforts to turn the UK into a “science and research superpower”, the country could instead become “a laboratory for others to borrow from and that we will simply supply the unicorns of the future from overseas.”

“Somehow, we have to capture that value here in the UK.”

Ministers argued that imposing the measure could deter collaboration with Aria. Representing the government, business minister Lord Callanan said that giving Aria a bigger role could “disincentivise the very people that we most want to draw in to participate”. He argued that the legislation already enables the agency to “negotiate and tailor” its arrangements for its projects sufficiently.

“Restricting their IP access and ownership would likely deter them from engaging in any collaborative Aria programmes,” he said.

The House of Lords voted by 166 to 153, majority 13, in favour of adopting the amendment.

In a second vote, the House of Lords rejected an amendment that would subject Aria to freedom of information (FOI) requests. The government intends for Aria to be exempt from FOI requests, such that it would not be burdened with processing questions from the public. During debate on the issue, Lord Callanan referred to the FOI as “truly malign” and expressed enthusiasm for charging fees for FOI requests which he said “[do not] achieve anything at all”.

126 peers voted in favour of the amendment and 134 against, throwing out the amendment

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