Lakes, water, medicine cars and security - a quiet week
12 July 2018 by David Bott
The week started in the middle of Sunday afternoon, with a drive up to the Lake District. This was not a cunning plan to get as far away as possible from the “start the week” meeting, but as part of HEFCE’s Research Assessment Exercise. We have reached the part in the process where we needed to standardise our marking of the output, and agree how to rate esteem and environment. To achieve this, the panels (there are at least 18, because that is the number ascribed to chemistry) are cloistered in a luxury Lake District hotel (at the taxpayers expense) and not let out until they agree. The output exercise has been an interesting one. Every academic in every chemistry department has submitted the 4 papers which they think best highlight their contribution to global knowledge. These all have to be marked on an 8 point scale. So, every paper is read and scored by 2 of the panel. If there is a disagreement by more than 1 point, then either a telephone call or a third marker is used. This is the reason I have looked jaded for most of the last 3 months, as I have read over 450 scientific journal papers. All have been in, or close to, my field of knowledge, so it isn’t random. What I can say is that the bulk of these papers were not written with knowledge transfer in mind. They are written to impress a small group of their peers, to avoid holes in their argument and to cover up the work they haven’t done. Most of all they are written to be cited – although that is not a factor used in the RAE, but it is used to rank individual academics. The list of cardinal communications failures would take several pages to list, but use of jargon, assumption of prior knowledge and plain bad English all come up often. What has been particularly interesting for me is the consequence of the imperative to “have more impact” that the EPSRC (in particular) has been driving. There was a significant fraction of the papers that had an application slant to them. Except that it didn’t come across as anything I could see value in. A lot of them were handle turning exercises in analytical chemistry that resembled a catalogue of unnecessary data. I was a little apprehensive about discussing my views with the rest of the panel – them all being senior academic figures – but found they shared my misgivings. It appears that academics are not working with business to identify problems that have real business value, but are picking easy things to do that they can “knock off” and get on with continuing to work on their PhD subject well into their 50’s (or whatever). It was really depressing to see a well-intentioned drive by a research council get the wrong result. When we compared actual scores, it turned out that, of the 16 of us, there were 2 doves and 3 hawks. I was the most hawkish, but who didn't expect that? The 2 day meeting finished early, and we got away by lunchtime on the Tuesday.
That meant I got home by mid afternoon and got a chance to catch Philip Moriarty in Second Life. As part of scoping out good ideas in SL I had visited the NPL Nanotechnology Island and obviously left a mark, because my second life character got an invitation to a seminar on nanotechnology. I know Philip well and wondered what sort of talk he would give in this format, so I duly took a seat in the auditorium at 5 minutes to 4. Philip was in Teddington, giving the talk to small audience there, but there were about 40 of us in the SL room. As I suspected the talk was a re-run of his standard rant about the truly evil nature of post-academic research funding, as practised by the EPSRC. He last gave vent at a DEMOS event a few months back with Philip Esler in the audience and got into a slanging match that got reported in the THES. My problem is that I see some of his points, and my experience with the RAE papers does suggest that merely “working on industrial problems” can actually lead to mediocrity not excellence and the impact is minimal. This would normally lead me onto a thesis on venture research but I suspect I ought to leave it for later. The good news is that SL talks get audiences which are global (people from Sydney, Canada and the obligatory Californian) and can be done.
Wednesday was due to be wet anyway but started with an almost continual downpour where I was. Nevertheless, I duly attended the opening workshop of the Cave Review of Competition and Innovation in the Water Industry -. The morning was given over to competition, and was largely theoretical with different religions of economists pointing out the different models all had different advantages. The prize went to a bluff Australian who told us how they did it. The guy from Tesco was caught on the M1 and I ended up giving my introduction to our work out of sequence at the end of the morning. What struck me most about the afternoon talks on innovation was how nobody agreed with anyone else. There is obviously a fair amount of dispute between companies and regulatory bodies about whether the last 19 years have been successful or not. I talked to a few people from trade associations who supply into the industry afterwards and they seemed up for change, but the main players seem locked into entrenched positions with no intention to listen to anyone else, much less work together.
Thursday started with a meeting with Liam O’Toole of OSCHR that Zahid had arranged following the less than successful meeting with MRC the other week. Zahid has obviously already built a good relationship here, and I definitely came away with the impression that Liam knew what was going on, was trying to address it, but had to deal with organisational inertia and egos. He is definitely a man we can work with.
I then spent 15 minutes trying to get into the newly fortified Kingsgate House but eventually gave up and went on to my next meeting.
This was the 2nd birthday party for NHS Innovation London, one of the innovation hubs set up by the NHS. It was glitzy affair at the Altitude Broadcasting Company, on the 26th floor of Millbank Tower. I met interesting venture capitalists, some people from the DIIA workshop and the omnipresent Malcolm Skingle. The first hour of back-slapping was beginning to pall when we got onto specific projects. The first was a new percutaneous system for dealing with completely occluded blood vessels around the heart. These are difficult to deal with, but not immediately life-threatening, so fall into the poor risk/reward region – not warranting full surgery but difficult do deal with in an out-patient mode – until now. A cardiologist from Barts has developed a system using a wire to “poke” through the occlusion which can then be followed up with a balloon and then.... as normal. Next came a new liquid culture medium for extended spectrum beta-lactamase producers – the newest class of super-bugs which are so scary the media aren’t mentioning them (that is honestly what he said!). It was at this point that having Malcolm around proved interesting. Apparently, the shelf life of the culture medium is way too short to make it commercially viable. Next came a man who understood purine pathways in the human body. Even Malcolm failed to follow this one, so I can't tell you what it is about, but for those of you with curiosity look here -
The final stop on Thursday was another excuse to support Julia giving her King Review talk, this time at the Institute of Physics. It’s getting to the stage that I can join in on the chorus, but she was one of 3 speakers. The next one was from BMW and gave the strangest talks I have heard in a long while. The basic thesis, that a smooth transition from existing technologies to a climax culture could be achieved with planning, was sound, but an almost messianic dedication to making sure hydrogen was the end point ruined the story. In questioning, everyone who disagreed with him got a short, arrogant response. Watching him spar with Jools was at least entertaining. The final speaker was awful. Long, rambling and unfocussed, he made the BMW guy look good. Afterwards, there was lots of good interaction with Andrew and I schmoozing the new TFL Government Relations guy, and offering to help Boris specify his new buses. (Nice tip, Graham!!)
Friday I managed to get into Kingsgate House by waiting in the foyer until someone I knew came in and getting them to sign me in. Once in, I was reluctant to go out again, so missed the chance to queue for a new iPhone and instead had to watch the queues at O2 and the Carphone Warehouse across the road. I had meeting with Tony about the need to get the Governing Board onside before we made any moves on an Aerospace Innovation Platform and joined Allyson and Paul in a meeting with NPL, BSI and IPO. I am still not sure what they wanted out of it, but the final idea, of a joined up approach to emerging industries/technologies needs a bit of working up and experimentation, but still feels right in the cold light of the next day!!