One day I will learnt to say "no" to invitations, but life will be less interesting albeit more relaxing!!
18 October 2018 by David Bott
After my mea cupla on “start the week” meetings last week, it was vaguely amusing that Iain took a few of us to break our European duck – so we held a half quorate meeting on a Eurostar train.
We were on our way to meet a variety of European Commission dignitaries. I will admit to once being the proud owner of a “European prejudice”, despite some time working for a committed DG-phile and a company within ICI that had its headquarters just outside Brussels, my view of Europe was that it was a good market and nothing more. As part of his attempt to educate me in the ways of the political world, Pat MacDonald had once stitched me into being the UK representative on a committee developing the sustainable chemistry European technology platform and I found a lot of disconnected but committed individuals mixed in with those who were indeed committed mainly to individual and national self-advancement. On the Monday we had 3 meetings with various people within DG Research, and although the first 2 seemed to be completely surprised by our presence in their office, Fearless Leader gave them a brief version of the standard “introduction to the Technology Strategy Board” presentation. The third was much more interesting, although depressingly every time we mentioned what we did he managed to drag the conversation back to basic research and universities. Final stop on the day was with UKRep, where we learned a little more about the Brussels eco-system. The search for the right hotel and a meal of some opulence (DG and I had ostrich, and we all had lots of chocolate!) rounded out the day. The next morning we made the trek across Brussels to the UKRep office to meet someone else from DG Research, although from the implementation side rather than the policy side. This was an altogether more satisfying discussion, where I felt we were talking to people with similar interests. Our lack of knowledge of the geography of Brussels was bypassed by taking taxis to the offices for the UK Research Office for our next meeting with them. They were set up to represent UK universities within the Eurozone. Effectively paid for by their customers, they have evolved to be an interesting but small fighting unit. The final meeting was with DG Enterprise. At last, we had met people with identical goals and a wide-ranging conversation with the group of 5 ensued. The train ride back gave me another chance to go through the rather large number of people who have applied for the Head of Technology role. And a depressing task it is too!!
The next morning, I started with a meeting with HNIHR to start planning the implementation of our new Innovation Platform. This was followed by some gentle lobbying by the new Director of the Aerospace and Defence KTN for an Innovation Platform on sustainable aviation. Then on to BERR for a meeting with the CEO of NXP, courtesy of Nick and BERR. It turned out to be a really interesting conversation, as the meetings in Brussels and last week’s meeting with SenterNovem gave me more than usual relevant knowledge. He loved the whole challenge-led approach and remembered enough of what we said to regurgitate in front of Denham later in the day. Since I was in BERR it was a short walk to the next meeting - on the coordination of initiatives in the low carbon vehicles area. The interest of “a very senior cabinet minister” in the area has ensured that there is a scrabble for announcables and since we seem to be active in the area and actually have money, we are quite popular. I made my usual pitch for a joined-up approach and acquired the action to write the overall narrative – which is my next job this weekend. A short walk back to Kingsgate for the last normal meeting – with SRI Business Intelligence. Paul (M) and I remade contact with someone we worked with over 15 years ago and learned few things about the “knowledge” business.
The last commitment of the day was to listen to the great and the good discuss “food security” at an FST meeting. Opened by John Beddington with his usual coherent and logical story – although his slides have improved drastically since his earlier presentations – he was followed by Lord Haskins – a Yorkshire farmer who used to chair Northern Foods. Taking plain speaking to a new level, he laid into protectionism, regulation and his fellow farmers with equal levels of scorn. The last speaker was Derek Byerlee who had authored a recent World Bank report of Agriculture. As with all FST meetings, the questions were a mixture of the informed and bizarre and the pre-dinner session ended with a strange thread about “anti-science” which even managed to impugn the honour of Bob Watson!! At dinner, I was sat between David King and Doug Kell – so had a whale of time – while Paul (M) was between Miles Parker and someone who wasn’t Adrian Alsop. Afterwards we had a nice chat with John Beddington, who is either an amazingly accomplished liar or who “gets” what we are doing with Innovation Platforms and approves of our present position with respect to DEFRA and “food”. On the way out, I was approach by the Shadow Minister for DEFRA who asked for a meeting – I suspect Peter Ringrose was helping us make connections just in case!!!
Thursday morning saw a last-minute arrangement – a breakfast with Michael Braungart. I have reported on his talk a few weeks ago but was somewhat surprised that one of his acolytes called me to arrange this meeting. It turns out that it nothing to do with my current position but a talk I used to peddle when with Materials UK, which in turn was based on some work Richard Miller and I did back in the days of the Crystal Faraday Partnership. It was a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes while I woke up – Michael turns out to be the master of the “scary fact” and does a fine line in challenge, but wasn’t that good on solutions. I am not sure what happens next, but we parted as new friends. Next up was trek to Aylesbury to pay back ESRI who did an early lunch and learn. I had an audience of about 25 in the room, and 5 or 6 more on videoconference facilities around the UK. It was nice to talk to people beyond the usual suspects even in friendly companies and get a good response.
An interesting trick with railway lines in rural Buckinghamshire meant I got back to Warwickshire in time to meet with Tony Harper of Jaguar Land Rover. This was a follow-up to Iain’s mildly uncomfortable meeting with Kumar and David Smith (CEO of JLR) the week before. Over a couple of hours, I unearthed the (apparent) duplicity of BERR, the inadequacies of some of our staff and the need to repeat everything we say until we are blue in the face. Part of the problem of having tackled our areas of interest with patience and a plan makes us attractive partners for the wise and targets for the inadequate who have done nothing, and risk being exposed. But maybe I am just getting to be a grumpy old man!!
Friday saw a rare day in Swindon – completely filled with meetings!! A 5-hour Executive Management Team Meeting was followed by a hour encouraging our new home designer to take his ideas farther. Then I got to work!! ETI’s apparent shift in focus means that we need to reconsider our plan for Energy Generation and Supply and so Derek and Fil led Paul, Heidi and I through the logic of what we could do next. The final meeting of the week we spent going over the Medicines and Healthcare plan for interaction with the MRC. Although the presentation started from how to help universities, it ended up with a really neat adaptation of the Integrated Delivery Programme concept to help companies navigate the development phase (rebranded as translation by MRC). Paul and I requested a different logic train to get us to the same place and then he’s gone off on holiday whilst I have to be back in Swindon on Monday to prove I can participate in “start the week” meetings. What a thought for 6 o’clock on a Friday!!