I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way!
03 December 2021 by David Bott
Although it was Monday, I had a date with the Sheffield University Audit Committee, so I caught a train to Sheffield instead of Swindon – although it’s actually a lot further, it’s almost as quick! What I am learning from this activity is that universities are complex organisations with tensions between the front and back offices, that auditors are among the least imaginative people I run into and that a properly designed process (i.e. one that addresses the challenges in a simple and that can be complied with using common sense!) can avoid large amounts of agony later on when you have to explain to auditors why you’re not doing what you said you would do. A case in point was their “audit” of the “research data” problem. They had interviewed a number of people and given “limited assurance” that the university had a policy, but no-one could explain what the problem was! It could have been the problems of capturing and securely storing the huge amounts of data that a large research organisation produces. It could have been the confidentiality issues that arise from using data about people? It could have been the confidentiality issues around contract research carried out for companies. No-one had thought to ask what the problem was before they audited the lack of process for dealing with the problem. I am guessing that PWC will not send me a Christmas card this year. Highlight of the meeting was the 30 minutes we shared with the Finance Committee in a room that obviously doubled as a walk-in freezer!
On the train back I had a long conversation with Declan from the MRC about the process we were trying to capture and articulate for the shared programme we would have to run to bring together the £90m (over 3 years) of new money we were about to be awarded with the £90m of their existing money they have been persuaded to put into a shared pot with us to support faster transit of companies through the medical innovation journey! Declan is battling some Morlochs in his own organisation who insist on going back to established (and allegedly non functional) ways of working rather than addressing the need for a more integrated, and definitely shared, approach!
Tuesday started off as an “other job” day – the company is having schizophrenic principal shareholder problems, and suffering from a weak chairman and a salesman who cannot sell but offers amazing projections instead. It was nice to get away.
I arrived in London to discover my hotel booking had gone wrong, and battled with that and the lack of Internet in the first room I did manage to scrounge, whilst conducting a series of phone calls. The first was with a US professor in the regenerative medicine area who told me that there were no competent businessmen (or women) in the area of cell therapies and we ought to let an academic lead the TIC. Then it was a British academic wanting to help, but warning that a brace of Vice Chancellors were going into see Willetts the following day intent on complaining that we hadn’t told them anything since the original announcement that their team hadn’t won! I warned FL!
After a few minutes to compose myself, I went off to the Design Council for the Prince Philip Design Awards (see – http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/ppdp). It always astounds me that the work of the people who are shortlisted is familiar to me as a prole, but their names are often unknown. In this case, I recognised Paul Smith (because I cannot afford his suits) and Tim Brown (because he spoke at Innovate) but not the winner (Quentin Blake) although I recognised his illustrations from Roald Dahl’s books instantly. Because HRH had decided to stand down as the chair of the judges after 52 years, the Design Council had arranged a book with contributions from past winners and runners-up on the subject of “what design means to me”. It’s a shame that someone who has consistently recognised the need for integrated design is the only one who will see it. Afterwards I had dinner with Sebastian Conran and Gordon Murray – at the table next to grieving Dinah Casson, who was on the short list but didn’t make it to the ball!
Wednesday proved to be a fortunate diary snafu, in that instead of going back to Oxford, I was able to have a bunch of London meetings on pressing issues. First up was a face-to-face meeting with Declan at the MRC bunker just off the Aldwych to finish off the explanation of the TSB/MRC Integrated Translation Programme. Declan had completely re-written what I had sent him the day before and lost all of the business imperative, so we went through again why the extra money was there and why the MRC had been “persuaded” to co-fund. We debated furiously and agreed – with me claiming the editing rights!
Then it was down to Tracy Island for a meeting with the Auto Unit (and friends). For the back story, this was originally a £25m proposal to the Regional Growth Fund to support supply chain development in the automotive and aerospace sectors. It was a brainstorm by Jane Whewell of the Auto Unit. Loosely modelled on IDP4. We agreed in principle to "manage" the selection process for specific projects if and when the money was allocated. That was a long time ago. Somewhere in the government decision making process around RGF, this proposal got mixed up with other growth issues and what came out was a wider programme, covering all sectors and regions, with a price tag of £125m. The nice people in BIS failed to make this part of the story clear to us until last week. Now they have decided that they need to announce it next Thursday and that the money has to be "committed" by the end of March. I expressed some sadness that we hadn't been more fully involved, but then tried to work out how we could do it! It is not often that I write up meetings immediately afterwards, but the size of the potential impact of this programme on our resources and the political fallout if it went wrong caused me to pen a quick note to FL and Cyrus.
I then tried to catch up on other issues – a quick briefing from the Energy Boys on the progress of the Marine Energy Technology Innovation Needs Assessment (TINA) showed that it was not ready to share with the Energy Select Committee, either in content or format, so Rob and I agreed that he would join the teleconference the next day in case I was caught up and explain this to the nice co-members of the Low Carbon Innovation Coordination Group!
Then it was an odd one. I had been mildly blackmailed into joining a Willetts led round table on the future of the Charnwood site that Astra Zeneca had announced they were closing early last year (see – http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/mar/02/astrazeneca-close-uk-research-centre). Willetts PS is the local MP (see – http://www.nickymorgan.org/), there were a few Leicestershire County Council types, some more local government types and people from MRC Technology as well as a few makeweights like me. The issue as presented is that MRCT is leading something called Project Dynasty which would see China backing the implementation of work done at a future Charnwood Medical Park in China if someone paid for the £15m running cost for the first year. It was the first time I had heard the plan and my instant response was that it stunk to high heaven! The MRCT guy came across as a used car salesman and the local government types were all on the “the government will save us” tack. Willetts cleverly separated the site issues and the China ones and then skewered them in turn. I think it’s called politics.
I wandered downstairs to pack up and made my way over the 123 Buckingham Palace Road for the Google “Luvvies and Boffins” Party. This had its roots a few months ago when Eric Schmidt gave the MacTaggart Lecture and railed against the demise of the polymath (see – http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/news/2105477/uk-champion-engineering-sciences-starting-schools and http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/nov/28/computer-lessons-out-of-date). This led Google to hold a party to bring the 2 groups together. I arrived as David Willetts was leaving and was in time to hear Nicky Clayton talk about crows (see – http://www.research-horizons.cam.ac.uk/insideout/professor-nicola-clayton1.aspx) and dance (see – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_MnwNyX0Ds and note Stephen Fry voiceover!!) and Ian Livingstone (who we know well) talk about the need to train more computer scientists (see – http://www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/NextGenv32.pdf). As well as the official Google report (see – http://googlepolicyeurope.blogspot.com/2011/12/luvvies-and-boffins-embrace-in-london.html), it seems to have been blogged about a bit (see – http://twbrit.com/tag/luvvies-boffins/ and http://radar.oreilly.com/2011/09/science-art-engineering-humanities.html). For me the highlight was finally meeting @Dr_Black (see – https://plus.google.com/u/0/117094644618867588201/posts) who I have been cheeking on twitter for almost 3 years and who was behind the “save Bletchley Park” campaign of last year. She now has a new project – the
Thursday was another London day – although I was by now receiving complaints from Strategy Man and Cyrus about the number of EMT meetings I had been given a pass-out by FL for! Instead it was back to the Design Council (I am guessing I am by now cruising a “luvvy” badge) for a Forum on whether the UK government needs a design strategy. The first section was a series of short presentations chaired by Michael Bichard (who made it very clear what he expected the answer to be!) on how other countries have benefited from having a national design strategy. Wales showed that most of Europe (with the interesting and much debated exception of Germany) had one, a guy from Denmark told us what they are doing, and a very amateurish video of a man with a loud polka dot shirt showed how far Australia has come – in designing cities, and our own Fergus told them that all our new money was available for design! After a break for coffee, the debate proper started. Tim Bradshaw started for the pro side, but was bested, in credentials at least, by Laura Haynes, president of the Design Business Association. The supports turned out to be much more impressive. Ruth Reed (she who argues with Michael Gove, see – http://m.bdonline.co.uk/ruth-reed-ends-riba-presidency-with-final-shot-at-gove/5023927.article for a little bit of the fun) was more persuasive about the need for alignment, but she was up against a seasoned performance debater in Ben Page (see – http://www.ipsos-mori.com/aboutus/seniorstaff/benpage.aspx). Once the audience were allowed in, the nuances of the debate came through – there was a growing swell of opinion that the government was design blind and so would only see “having a strategy” as a box-ticking exercise and what was needed was a design community led strategy. At various points, DK tried to introduce a motion that the government should “fund” a strategy but he was howled down. In the end the need for a strategy was narrowly supported but the need for a vision got 90% support. It only remains now for someone to step up to the plate and do the hard stuff!
I avoided the insubstantial nibbly lunch and met up with Healthcare Man to discuss what is going on with the Cell Therapy TIC, the TSB/MRC Integrated Translation Programme, resources to support all of this – and enjoy a large bowl of pasta!!
Then it was down to the RSA where Jeremy Watson had conned me into speaking to the Arup Global Research Forum. I arrived and worked out what was going on before joining a Willetts convened discussion on graphene by telephone. The whole graphene story is getting weird. After that nice Chancellors announcement that Manchester would get £50m to build a graphene hub, we were fingered to support the EPSRC in developing a national graphene strategy and then support it. What subsequently transpired was that the bulk of the money (which was capital) was going to go to Manchester anyway and that we were supposed to come up with the rest of the money from our already allocated money to fund the programmes. EPSRC have been fighting the good fight and trying to make it all work within their resources, but the political backdrop is making it awkward. I supported the need to work on “graphene engineering” (by which I think we mean evaluating the basic properties so that we can evaluate which applications might actually work rather than “imagining the potential” as seems to be the current funding posture!) and supporting the idea of looking at the idea of a modified IKC centre to work with industry to move science faster into commerce. I did feel the need to wash my hands after the conversation.
Back at the Arup meeting, the senior Arup guys had been in syndicates and were trying to think like start-ups. Having started life in large corporates, I can attest to the fact that this transition is difficult and takes longer than a 30-minute period standing around a flip chart. Bless. I talked about where money comes from to support innovation using a modified version of the not-corporate presentation with an introduction liberally taken from an old blog post (see – http://www.innovateuk.org/content/blog/money-makes-the-world-go-around.ashx). I have no idea whether it worked because we had run over, I had missed the Marine TINA teleconference and I was in danger of being late for my next meeting!
That next meeting was with Finger Man and the Open Data Queen to see what we could extract of value from the announcement about the Open Data Institute – which was announced on Tuesday but seriously leaked on Monday (see – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/weather/8919512/Outlook-fair-for-amateurs-as-Met-Office-releases-data.html and http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/nov/28/secret-whitehall-statistics-published-data - probably below John Bercow’s radar though!). We’re still not sure what deals are being done without consulting us – official documents suggest that we have to pay for this out of our SME package money, which was not what the demon from the Cabinet Orifice told us would happen!
The final meeting of the day was to join David Way and Guy in telling Stewart Davies and Sara Murray about the process we had adopted to get to our recommendations for the next 3 TICs. Not surprisingly, Sara questioned everything, adopting the tactic that she favoured photonics and everything else needed to be justified in detail. She does have a way of making her point. After a while she might have begun believing that we have spent the bulk of our time over the last 6 months consulting both suppliers and users of technologies (and not “having chats with our friends”!) to identify the problems facing the various sectors and that the decisions not to have a TIC in an area did not mean we weren’t going to support it in future. She had only just been given the Board papers so she hadn’t had a chance to read either the overview or the detailed papers, but we certainly need to be clearer on how we got to our recommendations, how they reflect the collated views of the various communities and that they are considered and well–analysed. Stewart was a breeze by comparison! It also made for a late night, with me dragging my sorry arse home just after 10 o’clock having forgotten to eat!
Friday started in Swindon – a chat with Cyrus and Jools II about the £125m Regional Growth Fund programme followed by a Funders Panel on High Value Chemicals, but then it was down to London again. I had a meeting with James Lawn of Polecat about both the Missions and MeaningMine and then it was another Board member “this is the process we used” meeting – this time with David Grant and Chris Snowden. What a contrast!! They asked questions of clarification, made constructive and helpful suggestions about how we could improve our logic and arguments and then agreed with what we told them. The trip home, although circuitous (my car was in Swindon, so I had to catch a train to get to my car to drive home). It was then that I got to properly read some of the bizarre explanations that have been going around of what we are adding to our portfolio.