From social exclusion to calicivirus?

The week started with another depleted “start the week” meeting.  Is it something I said? 

The KTN Review Tender meeting was interesting.  We are working through yet another Research Council Shared Service but I got the distinct feeling they didn’t add much to the process aside from making us kosher.  I had raised the issue of how we ended up with a competitive process and one proposal but the response was that we were legal – which was not the point.  As far as I could see we only told a few people we already knew that we were doing this.  I suspect the “winning” bid is good, but feel we ought to spread our net wider in future.   

The next morning I went to see Obi-wan speak at NESTA on the Innovation Nation document.  He gave extensive credit to NESTA through the talk but we got really full billing in his answers to questions.  The most difficult questions to answer appeared to be about the “innovation centre” where no-one could understand what they would be doing, or what the output might be.     

I then went on to the ETI Buildings Working Group.  This contrasts with the Transport one I attended last week, which continues to generate internal controversy as many members objected to the Chairman's minutes and decisions.  The Buildings Working Group, which is now rather sparse, is trying to work out areas where there is genuine additionality, and skirt around the obvious conflicts of interest which surface as a result to the business model.  There are still real questions about what they could do in this space and I cannot fathom out from the view I get how the overall priorities within the ETI are judged and communicated. 

The day ended with a train up to Birmingham to see Julia King give her “inaugural” lecture – on the subject of the King Review.  It was a good lecture with a full and attentive audience.  It gave Tim, Iain and I a chance to interact with people from AWM and the Transport community.  I also thoroughly recommend O’Brien Cars as a chauffeur service!! 

The next day (in Swindon) was the ICARG meeting.  I used to be a member of ICARG in my Courtaulds day and could never work out what the point was, so when Lindsey told me that they were still around, I was little surprised.  The day started with Allyson outlining the world we live in and the strategy we have developed to deal with it.  As usual, it seemed like the majority of the audience didn’t understand what we were saying and brought up the points they had been nursing for several years about a grant that got refused, or something similar.  There is obviously a lot of support for our goals and a reasonable measure of understanding and sympathy for the fact that we have become the dumping ground for all the difficult jobs in our area.  The wiser heads opined that we should pick our fights and manage expectation, but then mostly ruined it by reverting to pork barrel!!  This was followed by Philip Esler giving his “Excellence with Impact” talk.  It gets better the more you hear it (probably true of ours as well) but the problem is not in the business community but in the Provisional Academic Liberation Army (typified and actually mentioned by Philip as “those philosophers from Sussex” -, so he got a lot of support.  We then had someone from the CBI talk about “skills” but I didn’t hear any real revelations or actions, so I zoned out.  Looking around the room, this seemed a common approach!  After lunch I gave a slightly expanded talk about Innovation Platforms, which includes the “under construction” list.  The first question (interestingly from a consultant in the energy field) was why we didn't have an Innovation Platform in “energy”.  He went on to slag off ETI and hooked a response from the EON guy.  I was just settling in to let them slug it out, when Allyson tried to reason with them.  We ended up with a discussion on where we ended and ETI started – which I don't think we actually have an answer to despite Rob and David agreeing to some of it the other month.  They also noted that DEFRA featured a lot in the “potential list” and wondered whether they had the capacity to engage.  ICARG is a funny group, with many large companies who have real experience in engaging with universities for mutual benefit but a growing number of RTOs (who often run KTNs) that muddy the waters.  I could see no correlation between experience and communication.  I would be interested to hear the value CBI places on it.  In passing, and since David mentioned it, the Grant Offer Letter refresh was in dispatches.  Having signed a few now, I think they are awful and need a total overhaul rather than a mild edit and Allyson and I wondered whether we could win a “plain English award” for the next version. 

Thursday was a London day and started with the rather surprising discovery of a bleary pair of colleagues in the office at 8.30am.  This was followed by a meeting with The Lord Haskel – a.k.a. Simon.  Simon spent most of his career in the textiles industry - joining the Opposition in 1993 - and I know him through Materials UK, but his invitation to meet was actually in Technology Strategy Board territory.  The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee are in the process of deciding what to “look at” and we (the Technology Strategy Board) came up.  Colleagues had apparently dismissed us as followers of Onan (but less politely) and Simon wanted to learn more about us and try to set the record straight – he told me that the opinions were probably born of ignorance and the need to have an opinion rather than any informed or reasoned process!!  I have agreed to write a short personal note to Simon setting out why I, as someone from business, has thrown in my lot with the Technology Strategy Board before a meeting that they are having on April 30th, Simon would like to meet Iain and/or all of us and suggested inviting the HoL S&T Committee to our Strategy launch -  

The afternoon was spent with the RDAs and DAs - which are now to be specified as the *DAs.  It was really good meeting, I gave virtually the same talk as the afternoon before but got considered and supportive comments back and felt the ball had moved down the pitch.  There is still a tendency for all the of the *DAs to want to do everything, and this reaches its zenith in Innovation Platform space – who doesn’t want well cared-for old people, freely flowing roads filled with low carbon vehicles and people going home to houses with low environmental impact?  On this last subject there was a good debate about how we are currently limiting our activities to new-build – which is where the regulations impact – and when we should move into retro-fit on existing building stock.  The discussion on KTPs fared less well and, to my eye, they threw back Pete’s plan and told him to rethink it.  Finally they got into discussing their prospectuses – with Hilary Chilton doing a good impersonation of a head-teacher.  Very interesting discussions and they do feel like they can operate as a group. 

The final act of the day was the Royal Society of Chemistry Annual Innovation Awards.  They offer 3 each year, the Chemistry Entrepreneur of the Year, Creativity in Industry (for those who remain in science but evolve to make many contributions to business success) and Teamwork in Industry.  This was preceded by the award of an honorary Fellowship to Jim Ratcliffe – who set up Ineos.  Jim was in business development at Courtaulds Advanced Materials when was first there and I remember various conversations with him.  He then bought ICI Acrylics (except for me and the lawyer).  He is a fascinating person and I always learn something from him, but his business model is to buy existing assets which produce commodities and make money.  I am not sure that any stretch of the definition of innovation would include his activities, although he provides a good bedrock for the sector.  After the support act, the main speaker of the evening was a Scottish aeros[ace engineer who talked a lot about innovation and gave out the awards.  His observations on communities – comparing chemicals with aerospace – and the need to celebrate success seemed to strike a chord with many in the audience and we all wished him well with his new venture. 

On Friday, I had been looking forward to the launch of the EPSRC International Review of Materials, but woke up to a rapid, strenuous and ultimately complete emptying of my alimentary canal, so contented myself with a trip home navigated by way of public conveniences.  I would love to blame it on the food at the RSC but its longevity suggests it is bacterial or viral in nature.

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