Accepting the difficulty of the challenge - is it sensible or a route to despair?
29 November 2018 by David Bott
I set off with the intention of making the “start the week” meeting but was delayed (a bit) by an accident and the fog and arrived to find that Cyrus and Paul W (the only ones there) had finished the meeting and got on with life!
The next step was to go through the output of the assessment centre for Head of Technology (note to Peter, sorry, I know you are still here and doing a good job, but we have a plan!! ☺ ). The output was not stunning and I don’t hold out much hope. Next, and on a more upbeat HR note, I met Jeremy Silver – Paul and Sian seem to have found him somewhere and we will be joining us as an interim to help energise the Creative Industries area. Since meetings with the Home Office and Foresight were cancelled (by them) the rest of the day was spent catching up with e-mails and reading the CVs of the 4 people for the Head of SBRI role – Fearless Leader seemingly intent on ruining my birthday.
Tuesday duly arrived and after having the cancelled Foresight meeting – how do we integrate the output of Mental Capital and Well-Being into our programmes? - as Jon Parke and I discussed it we realised that, with MCW, Foresight have actually “got” the integrated challenge piece. Most of their programmes align nicely with our platforms or areas (and just about everyone else’s) but MCW represents a genuinely new look at the problem. He is now trying to work out how to do that more often.
We then went through 3 of the 4 candidates for the Head of SBRI role. What struck me most forcibly is how none of them actually understood (or at least they couldn’t explain when presented with open questions) why the area gets so much attention. Given the sensitivity around the area at the moment, I had to duck out of the 4th interview to represent Iain at the SMMT Annual Dinner, so I rushed down to London and changed into my penguin suit in time to meet Heidi and Tim and walk to the event. I managed to schmooze the CEO of SMMT as instructed. Since I was representing Iain I was surprised to find myself on a lowly table, not as the guest of the SMMT but as the guest of the SMMT Foresight Vehicle. I guess we still don’t rate as important of lowly BERR officials? We were a small island of sustainability in a sea of climate change deniers, and Julia King made what Sir Humphrey used to call a “courageous” decision to attend. Since I was sat next to someone who ought to have known better, I listened for several hours to why we aren’t listening to industry (sadly lacking any examples but then...) and how we should give all our money to JLR and WMG. I saw a couple of the players from AWM skulking in the corners trying to avoid the BERR crowd. Times must be hard in the automotive industry. They usually find an after dinner speaker of some quirkiness – a couple of years ago it was Alistair Campbell with a one-note paean to Tony Blair and last year it was an ex-CIA Analyst whose central message was that buying petrol was supporting terrorists!! This year they saved money, but to be fair maintained the quirkiness level, by asking Richard Parry-Jones to speak. Richard has an impressive record, rising through the ranks of Ford and now chairing the New Automotive Innovation and Growth Team, but he chose to speak as an individual. It was designed to play to the crowd – sympathy for the automotive industry, exhortation to the Government to cut Vehicle Excise Duty and lessen regulation of emissions, grudging acceptance of climate change but transfer of responsibility elsewhere. I left more than a little worried that the bulk of the SMMT membership just don’t “get it”.
Next morning as back down to Swindon, where Julie had told me that my desk was a mess and I needed to do some filing. It was not that difficult, what I hadn’t actually dealt with was mostly proven to be not worth addressing and I ended up with a lot of nice Board and Executive files and the attendance lists of the various functions I have attended. One day, when we have a proper intelligence system, they will all go in there with notes – if I can remember that far back.
In the afternoon, I made the trek back to London. First stop was a meeting with Jane Whewell, head of the BERR Automotive Unit. In-between fielding calls from European equivalents about the Euro-Bail-Out package for the Automotive Industry, I gathered that BERR are beside themselves with rage over last weeks AWM announcement, not a little worried that JLR are taking the wrong track (and sending mixed signals at different levels) and wanting to work with us to fund the “better ideas”. I ran through my understanding and thoughts on our current calls and the need for us to be balanced in our support for large, medium and small companies.
I then went on to a Foundation for Science and Technology meeting – this time on “risk”. Actually, it turned out to be the balance between risk and regulation, and was poorly attended for an FST event.
Once again, the early morning saw me on a train from London to Swindon. This time it was to take part in the sift panel for the Digital Economy sandpit. With 240 plus applicants and 30 odd places, the process was always going to be ruthless, but I think we ended up with a balance of the very good people and those we need to round out the portfolio.
Next day was another Swindon day. It started with a brief chat on a paper I hadn’t actually read to progress the sustainability debate with the Board, then into a meeting with a guy from WRAP that Fearless Leader had invited me to. What we discovered what yet another largely uncorrelated set of well-intended activity spread over a wide range of areas. It feels like they wanted us to back their food waste initiative, but we ended up with a broader canvas and a commitment to bringing the technologists together in the new year. Since that ran over, I was late for a Cyrus-initiated meeting on simplifying the support space – this time with AEA and the Energy area. Paul Mason and I then grabbed a catch-up time before a meeting with Heidi and Steve to consider the feedback from the last ITSS Steering Group. Considering that it was originally launched on a politically inspired whim and that DfT have basically pulled support from its original justification, the fact that we have a plan that most support is a tribute to our dogged plugging away at the various interfaces!!!
At the end of the day, I made the short trip to Oxford at the invitation of a friend to take part in his pitch to ISIS Innovations about the Carbon Trust Incubator scheme. It was a salutary and depressing experience. He had been told by ISIS (in an attempt to lure the company to Oxford) that they were agents for the Carbon Trust scheme and that they could “help”. It turned out that the scheme would pay for ISIS’s cost in supporting the company but not the company itself – but there were other schemes that did that. I think Tom Delay would have squirmed to hear his carefully crafted schemes misrepresented to to those who need his help but are being confused by intermediaries. What I realised that my schadenfreude for Carbon Trust was misplaced and that we probably get the same treatment up and down the country. If I am right, we have an even bigger communications challenge that I (for one) first understood. Are people out there passing on their imperfect understanding of what we do – or could do – and doing harm to our long-term market place?
This being an unusual week, I got up on Saturday morning and made my way to Boston for the Materials Research Society meeting (and so will be unable to “start the week” with you all). The Fall MRS meeting is a gigantic pick’n’mix for even lapsed scientists and I am going to learn new things - see http://www.mrs.org/s_mrs/sec.a... for my options!!