01 November 2018 by David Bott
Although I was committed to take part in the “start the week” meeting, I had calculated that if I drove to Swindon, my car would end up in the wrong place later in the week, so I attended telephonically. I had forgotten how difficult it was, the volume was low and I struggled to hear what everyone was saying. Ah well, I did try!! :-)
Then down to London, firstly for a quick catch-up with Fergus on the paper he is putting together with Chris Stark on Procurement. It sounds like Denham and Vadera are trying to “have an initiative” in the area and Fergus and Chris have been tasked with assembling the arguments. I made my usual points about joining things up instead of starting new (uncorrelated) things and Fergus is sympathetic but aware of the drive for announceables. Interesting to see where it ends up.
Then off to the first of my impersonations of an Iain. It was the dinner of the DEFRA Science Advisory Council, and Iain had a better offer but we wanted to be friends with DEFRA, so I got to go. The first person I met was Andrew Watkinson, the new person in charge of LWEC. We are going to meet up with him soon to work out what we can do for LWEC – other than give them £25k – so I got my “traction with business” point in early. As the Perm Sec was wheeled up to meet Andrew, I ended up standing next to a guy with a white beard who introduced himself as Bill Stow. I knew that Bill was Director General in charge of Strategy and Evidence, so I launched straight into our needs with respect to the agri-food area. He was very sympathetic to our position and averred that DEFRA would have to put something place by early summer to fit in with the Climate Change Bill. As we sat down to dinner I found myself next to Chris Gaskell, the chair of the SAC, but before we could talked we got a speech and a presentation. The speech was by Helen Ghosh, the Permanent Secretary, and seemed a bit odd. Unless I thoroughly misinterpreted it, her message was that the formation of DECC wouldn’t substantially affect what DEFRA did!! She was mainly talking for the external audience of the SAC, but it did seem off inferring that changes in the machinery of government didn’t actually do anything!! The presentation was by Andrew about LWEC. Considering we have formally been members for a few weeks, I really think our logo ought to be on the slides, so I gently complained – the next day a new slide set was issued – but otherwise it was the same presentation used at the launch of LWEC. They are still confusing causes and effects in their list – much as we once confused technologies and applications in ours – so I am guessing they haven’t had much real challenging discussion about their goals and tactics. After the main course Bob Watson raised the question of the size of the SAC (it is currently about 15). A lively response from the members gave Bob the unambiguous message that they wanted to stay the same size but have more facility to engage sub-groups to do the work. Only Miles Parker managed to raise the temperature when he asked what the SAC had actually accomplished in the last year. This (eventually) got an admission that they had lost their way but were up for a reinvigorated response – if they got more resource to help them.
The next morning saw another early start at St Pancras, and a train to Flitwick, and a taxi to Millbrook for the UK National Low Carbon Vehicles Event. This has grown like topsy over the last few months. It started out combining a Cenex ride and drive event with the formal launch of the LCV-IDP, but BERR bussed their International Experts Panel up from London after their seminar the day before and all of a sudden we had over 800 people registered. There is still a lot of confusion amongst the punters about which government initiative does what and which has money – confusion that was not helped by the reporting of Geoff Hoon’s early release of the details of our competition conflated with the DfT’s procurement initiative in the same area. The meeting was opened by Brendan Connor, the chair of Cenex who managed to fit over 25 minutes into his 15 minute introductory slot before Fearless Leader took the stage. After a break, Tim explained the meat of the various competitions we are launching over the next 9 months in typical blunt but charming Yorkshire style. Around lunchtime Drayson arrived and started driving everything he could, starting with the fast things!! Andrew was co-opted to explain the heavy-duty automotive stuff whilst Tim and the rest of us slipped off for lunch and our own rides/drives. I managed a ride in the methanol Exige around the hill section – actually taking off over one crest – before pulling rank and driving the Tesla. Both are stunning but represent the high end of low carbon cars – and are slightly distracting as a result. Discovering that Fearless Leader was getting a lift home with EJ and that they were driving within a few miles of my car, I scrounged a lift and sat in the back watching the snow on the M1 – and got home over 2 hours earlier than planned.
Next day was down to London again, firstly for a meeting with Dolores and Cindy of Qinetiq on their Quantum Technologies proposal. This has been hanging around for some time now and, although basically a good idea, is so badly promoted that I had to spend the 60 minutes going through their presentation pointing out why no-one would back them and making a few suggestions as to what they might do to improve it – using facts and figures first told to me by Simon Bennett 6 months ago when they started. As short walk back to Fortress Kingsgate allowed me to join David in his meeting with Reg Sell. David had met Reg at Innovate. Reg is something in the Ergonomics Society and sells his area very well. I thoroughly enjoyed the hour and learned lots of things that are useful to what we do.
The final event of Wednesday was my impersonation of Ian Pearson at the Awards Ceremony of the London Technology Fund. I am still not sure what sequence of events got me there, but I was asked to give a 10 minute keynote speech and give out the Grand Prix prize (isn’t that tautologous?). Since I have never managed to fit everything into less than 30 minutes before I spent some time honing the message and wrote it down – a first for me! There were around 200 people at the event and most knew nothing about the Technology Strategy Board (they might still not, I didn’t run a questionnaire afterwards) so it was an interesting experience. I had lots of people come up to me afterwards and pitch everything from an 8ft tall stress reducing egg to a novel way of storing vaccines without refrigeration. At one point I was having a strange conversation with the guy who looks after the LTF about “working together” before we were joined by another colleague to whom he explained that he was in negotiations with a senior member of the Technology Strategy Board about us investing £40m in their fund. As the saying goes, “I made my excuses and left”. I am still getting bizarre e-mails as a result of that short talk!! The press release is here -
Thursday was spent in Kingsgate again – I did originally have an 8.30 with Beddington but has been bounced by some guy called Gordon, so wasn’t on until 2. I managed to fit in a couple of conversations with Mani on Drayson’s reflections on Tuesday – the main one being that he wished he had met more business people. Aside from smart comments about less time in cars, it did strike me that (particularly, but not exclusively, in the Innovation Platforms) we could easily bring together those who are successful in our competitions to discuss how to stay connected as a community and that the presence of the Minister for Science and Innovation might be seen as an encouragement and a reward for their success. I promised Mani I would look at when such events might be held. I also fitted in a phone call from David Leon – there seems to be some conflicting views about the new offices and what is important – for the record I repeated what I keep saying, that I think it would be good if the office was impressive as well as workable and that we only get one chance at this and it would be a shame to live with something born of a committee approach. I also think the showcase area ought to have real things in it that we can play with – not just nice pictures – although I do think having an actual garden shed might be going too far.
The meeting with Beddington was interesting and reasonably productive. As always, I had to start with the theory and practice of Innovation Platforms. There is an insidious rumour that it’s just a great title to brigade the usual stuff under but with better marketing and I spent some time dissuading the GO Science team on this. Explicit government action makes the predicting of market changes easier to sell to those businesses that can rise to the challenge. Businesses mainly want to know where their markets are going so that they can plan and implement new products and services and any degree of certainly is welcome. Just saying there will be a market doesn’t cut it. As Douglas Adams once put it “what we want is rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainly”. Even if Beddington didn’t get it (I wasn’t sure), one of his guys definitely did and we had a really good sidebar conversation about the difference between an Application Area and an Innovation Platform and the need for quantitative performance goals in any competition. I think we agreed that this area would benefit from the holistic approach of an Innovation Platform, but we certainly did agree that there were 3 areas where there was a need for new technology – crop management (read insecticides and note the current fuss about EU regulations), fertilisers (lowering the imbedded energy of all fertilisers but particularly nitrogen and phosphorus based ones – where chemists, biologists and environmentalists need to work together) and food processing productivity (bringing together process engineers with people who understand the materials science of biological systems). The meeting ended with John asking the guy who seemed to understand to set up a summit where we and GO Science tell DEFRA what they need to do. Although there is still a strong whiff of science push in this area, I think the ball just moved down the pitch – but we haven’t got a first down yet!!
For the record, that evening I went to see Don Ross and Andy McKee play in Worcester – Andy made it big through YouTube – just see what he does with a guitar -
Friday was Swindon day. We are developing the presentation I trialled at the Thames Valley Innovation Network event last Friday with the unofficial tree-huggers group – lots of great new ideas that I have to add this weekend!! Then Paul and I went through his performance review and the outcome of his psychometric evaluation. Lots of really good ideas for upping both our performance levels!! Finally a short meeting with Heidi as she ran out the door for her well deserved holiday in South Africa!!
Interesting and varied week and with enough time to think – which I appreciate we all need.