Once more the big truck of fate looms down...
15 February 2018 by David Bott
Monday included 2 separate meetings in London. The first was with the Department for Transport – the Chief Scientists Unit in particular. For the last 6 months they have been funding the National Transport Information Incubator. This was the sole outcome of a competition last year for a way to demonstrate the “power of information”. The consortium, consisting of Thales, Lockheed Martin, Deloitte, Cambridge and Southampton Universities, has been working on combining data from many sources to present and integrated and user centred information set – in this case to give the customer means to travel more cost and carbon efficiently. I haven’t seen the detailed output, but every one that has seems fairly excited. The output is due soon and the question seems to be “how can we keep this going?” I explained that we were constrained by state aids rules for just funding things like this without competition and independent assessment. (what’s a boy to do when constantly asked for money?) I suggested that we might jointly support a short extension to the project to define a future competition. The sneaky bit would be that the basic capabilities of such a data mash-up could be applied to several application areas. We would definitely be interested as a feed to ITSS types projects and have seen a couple of other projects in this space. It could also provide useful input to “health” issues and we have talked to DCMS. It did strike me that this felt a lot like “analysing data from complex situations” - which, as I understand it, might be the next competition in SAAS. Perhaps a joint cross IP/KTA competition is on the cards for later in the year? Is our current structure constricting for the best way to surprise and delight our “customers”?
The second was another meeting with DEFRA to try to work out which potential Innovation Platform was higher up their priority list. This time we had a slightly different set of attendees from their side – including the 2 people who have been championing their potential Innovation Platforms. The meeting started with DEFRA questioning how our strategy was developing and how they could input to it. This led on to discussion of the Key Technology Areas. They had a copy of the draft Biosciences and wanted to comment on it. They asked whether they could see all the KTA strategies. We explained that we had split them into Key Technology Areas and Key Application Areas, but they seem remarkably stuck in our history. That led us into a fairly fruitless discussion about the difference between KTAs and Innovation Platforms. It is fairly easy to explain the difference between the KTAs, but the KAAs seem less well differentiated and now that we are talking a lot about “challenge led”. We still have a job to do explaining the subtleties of this level of details if we are get the majority of people onside. The new guy – Stuart Wainwright, the Head of Science Strategy – seemed the only one willing to address my question – what DEFRAs top priority is. The supporter of the Agri-Food IP got quite defensive and told us they had shown the case to everyone in the Farming bit of DEFRA, but others quickly noted the flaw in that justification. The supporter of the Detection and Identification of Infectious Diseases sat there secure in the knowledge that DoH is in the lead and getting more bullish. We also explained the provenance of the “long list” and they asked when it would be renewed. I answered that we are attempting to engage the Chief Scientists community and would be meeting with them soon. Are we? They also asked whether Iain could meet with their “senior” people – both civil service and chief scientist. Lots of progress, but it did emphasise just how far we have to go to get people to believe we are different from what has gone before.
On Friday, Brain and I spent time with the Department of Health trying to tease out their priorities for potential Innovation Platforms. This followed a meeting last November where they expressed an interest in having such a discussion. However, to start the meeting they asked for a reprise and more explanation of our role. They were confused about why there were so many funding bodies in the area of innovation and got confused between funding research (like the MRC and their support for medical schools) and funding commercialisation. When I asked if they were making enough progress in achieving their goals and didn’t need our help, they changed tack though. However, after about 45 minutes we got back onto the subject. They seem to be very pleased with the progress of Assisted Living and are obviously kept up to date by Graham Worsley. They have also had representation at nearly every event. One of them had been at the Detection and Identification of Infectious Diseases workshop last week, so I asked whether that truly was their second priority. This prompted an interesting discussion about the “difference” between the “detection and identification” and “prevention and treatment” aspects of infectious diseases. We discussed the advantages of focus on a specific goal and keeping the remit wide to encourage truly innovative, system based approaches. Since an action from last week had been that the proponents of a development of the original Foresight process goals were to produce a specification within 4 weeks, we agreed to meet again in 5 weeks to discuss what we (DoH and Technology Strategy Board) wanted to specify as the output. We also discussed the current task force on obesity and agreed that we would wait for the analysis – although we did recognise the lack of connection between the Technology Strategy Board and the Chief Scientist Grouping that is taking this analysis forward.
Lunch and early afternoon were spent at the Future Vehicles Workshop. Despite the generic billing, this seemed to be focused on safety. Among the many goals the DfT has, a 75% reduction of fatalities needs to be added. They apparently know how to achieve 40% reduction but are stymied on the next steps. Another observation was that the meeting contained a large number of DfT people I haven’t seen before. I do wonder whether they run congestion, emissions and safety as separate and unconnected policy and delivery units!! Good talks for Ricardo and MIRA but more in problem-framing than output oriented mode.
One thing that has perturbed me this week is our cultural response to challenge. I should stress that the examples I will use are not meant to finger specific people for blame, but to demonstrate my point. I circulated a note from Hewlett-Packard earlier in the week and DW sensibly set out to organise a meeting to explore the scale of the problem and what solutions might look like. The response we got back from a fairly senior person was defensive and redirected all the fault back to the writer. When Heidi and I had a chance to discuss it with them, they understood more of the problem and heavily modified their opinion, but the original e-mail, if ever uncovered by FOI, would blow our business led credentials out of the water. Also, I have heard several subsequent water cooler conversations about the unreasonableness of what we are calling our customers. I used to be amazed by some of the briefing meetings where we told punters that we were wise to their desire to lie, cheat and steal to get money, but thought we had moved on. Then today, Brain expressed some frustration that DoH hadn’t remembered the briefing we gave them over 2 months ago. Both these small incidents make we wonder whether we really understand the people who make up the areas we move in. Do we make assumptions about whether people understand what we are telling them and then interpret request for clarification as challenge to our ways of thinking and operation? Is this a symptom of the cultural questions DW has been trying to raise for a few months now?