Golden Anniversary Blog
07 February 2019 by David Bott
Bizarrely the week didn’t start with a “start the week” meeting. It didn’t even start on Monday. Given the importance of the Monday morning meeting with NAIGT guys and the scare stories on the radio and television on Sunday, I went down to London on Sunday evening, so was able to watch the snow coming down whilst having breakfast smug in the knowledge that I was a couple of hundred yards from the DIUS offices. Fortress Kingsgate was like the Marie Celeste on the Monday morning – no people and (more importantly) no coffee. Nevertheless, a meaningful contingent of the auto industry were there to be let in at 10 o’clock. Luckily David Evans and Fergus had made it in by then, so someone could sign the visitors in!! Fearless Leader had ignored the advice of GWR staff and made it not long afterwards and Tim (who had come from Thirsk) followed him in soon. We thought about a teleconference but no-one could help us set it up and so, after a coffee run to Pret next door, we started a pretty informal but important discussion with JLR, Tata and Ford. The projects under the September 2007 competition are beginning to falter for lack of resource within the industry and they are asking us to consider higher funding percentages. We promised to consider their suggestions. We then discussed a proposal from them for a review of the auto industry supply chain. It is worth pointing out at this point that the IGT is going to deliver its recommendations based on a recognised level of ignorance – what David Evans once famously described as the “policy-based evidence” approach. We agreed to help organise a fuller “brainstorming workshop” to agree the terms of the review of the auto supply chain and then fund it. We took them for a tapas lunch before turning them out into the snow, but all friends!! It struck me forcefully that the majors and the smaller “electric” manufacturers are not very interlinked and perhaps ought to be!!
The GO-Science Food meeting was cancelled (although I did see John Beddington wandering the building looking for someone to talk to!), so the next meeting we had was with the “strategy guy” from General Motors, who was over for an FT Energy meeting (http://www.ftconferences.com/energytechnologies/bodycOverview/?PHPSESSID=17144d169e5f59cb0405faffe8d79e0b) the following day - http://www.ftconferences.com/energytechnologies/bodycOverview/ and had been recommended by Julia King to meet us. Tim was still in London (although starting to worry about having to be in Newcastle the next day) so it was just me and him to entertain Chris. His GM colleagues from London had to phone in, but we had found a spider phone by then! It turned out to be a tour de force presentation bringing together many of the themes we are exploring, and he has the backing of the US government to get there (but only recently!!) We took him for a curry in one of my favourite restaurants and parted swearing to work together.
The next day, I made it to the MNT Centre Review meeting. My first observation was that we have got better and choosing and directing consultants. Yole presented a clear analysis of the centres and included their own recommendations without having to be nailed to the table. That said, the content was depressing. I can only remember 2 centres getting a clean bill of health. Others had obviously broken business plans, with most being well below their projected revenues, many looking for a further bail-out from us, and some had clearly gouged us to fund their desired equipment with a mirage of open access. It was amusing to see the 2 steering group members who had been involved in the original selection process acquiring amazing skills in revisionism but still ending up as downbeat about the success of the scheme. My only worry is that the concept of “centres” has been dealt an unfair blow because we haven’t managed this investment – until recently!!
The weather wasn’t too bad, so I wasn’t too worried about taking a train to Didcot to rendezvous with Fearless Leader. We had been booked as a double act by UKTI – he was doing the dinner speech and I was opening the second day of the meeting. Mind you, we had had to plead for any information about what the meeting was aimed at or what specifically they might want from us. As it was, the dinner capped the first day which had focused on low carbon cars and had a large Indian contingent. Some of the guys from India I spoke to expressed some frustration that senior Ministers from both countries kept making agreements, but nothing else happened!! Fearless Leader spoke after Mervyn Davies (the GOAT Trade Minster) but before Patrick Head (designer at Williams). Everyone said what they should do and the room settled down to networking. It was a really good event for meeting relevant people, so I forgot the lack of information up front pretty quickly. On Wednesday morning, I gave the standard Technology Strategy Board intro talk and was followed by Sam Beale of Rolls-Royce. He was very good, mixing a world-dominating talk about RR, with comments like “we’re a bit arrogant at Rolls” and “the Germans understand engineering, which is why they make better cars”, but was forgiven when he told the audience of 200 that we should be given 3 times as much money, because we could usefully use it. The train back to London got me to the triage meeting for the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstrator competition. We had 21 submissions, totalling £43m of grant requests that would put 695 cars on the road. We have £10m!! We went through the submissions with DfT and BERR. There were 2 that just simply didn’t fit the completion specification – can people not read, or do they think we write all that for fun? - and then some that we felt wouldn’t deliver the goals of the competition. That still left us with £28m of grant request and about 500 cars on the road. The next stage is that the proposals go out for independent assessment and we hold a funders meeting next week. What I found interesting was the blatant attempts by officials to change the rules of the competition to suit evolving policy objectives. That’s okay for DfT because they are co-funders, but a bit rich from BERR – why should a proposal that delivered CO2 emission of twice the upper limit for a cost 8 times higher than anyone else get special treatment?
On Wednesday evening, I was at the Royal Society for a meeting of the Foundation for Science and Technology on the subject “To what extent should UK funding for science and innovation be focussed?” which we partly sponsored. It was kicked off by Lord Drayson. It had obviously been well publicised because most of the scientific glitterati were there. I was disappointed that the initial response from the science community (Lord Rees – Royal Society, Sir Peter Gershon – Royal Academy of Engineering and Peter Ringrose - BBSRC) seemed to be a response to the suspicion that Drayson was going to move money from science support to technology support, but that wasn’t anywhere in his speech and (having seen him close up in DIUS) I am certain that wasn’t in his mind. The questions had the standard statements of prejudice from engineers, David Hughes and others and didn’t add to the debate Drayson was trying to start. That over-reaction was also prevalent in the BBC Have Your Say site - http://newsforums.bbc.co.uk/nol/thread.jspa?forumID=6008&edition=1&ttl=20090207133715. Having trained as a scientist, and having worked most of my career in industry, but close to universities, I find the internal debate rather disappointing and futile. Investment in the whole knowledge base (it is interesting to note how the social sciences and art and design, equally important in “doing business”, tend to get omitted from the debate) is, and always has been, vital to develop ideas, understand what already exists and train people to the highest standard. The point Drayson is focusing on is how to extract more value out of that investment for the benefit of society. As well as the main topic, the concentration of that many science and technology leaders made it opportune to build some more bridges. I was particularly pleased to be able to discuss the (broadband speed) recommendations of our Electronics, Photonics and Electrical Systems Strategy document with the David Puttnam, who has quite strong views on the subject of enabling the next digital revolution, and ended up quoting the Technology Strategy Board in a question to Drayson. I also chatted to Sally Davies and Mike Kelly – who is apparently leaving CLG!!
Thursday started early with a breakfast meeting hosted by the Design Council at Number 11 Downing Street. It was an interesting meeting, made up of 3 examples of the imbedding of design early on in the process of development and considering the final goal in the selection of first steps. The case study on tackling Healthcare Associated Infections – Bugs Out – is, like our own joint DoH SBRI programme, part of a wider initiative by the NHS to engage all the relevant communities and solve the right problem, not the symptom. The second, called Low Carb Lane was explained by a representative of National Energy Action, who was keen to work with our Low Impact Buildings Innovation Platform on its latest demonstrator programme – Retrofit for the Future. The final one was a bit different, in that it was about designing a purely service offering. Called Make it Work, it showed how a holistic approach to the problem can improve the quality of life for those affected by unemployment and get them back into work – with a measurable economic impact. What was fascinating about all three examples is that they have been around from some time. Low Carb Lane is 2 years old and (apparently) in a state of suspended animation because no-one will pay to implement it more widely. Bugs Out was presented as a Design Council initiative but the guy from NHS PAS was at pains to point out that it is a small part of their wider initiative that includes SBRI and a lot of other things. Lastly, the Make it Work people came up to me afterwards to tell me they needed further support. In the discussion, I made the point that Government confused the users of all of their schemes by constantly starting things without stopping defunct schemes. Bichard liked that as a theme and tried to provoke a fight about BSSP, but no-one wanted to defend it!!
The bulk of the day was a series of meetings in Kingsgate House, including a meeting with Nico MacDonald, who I met through Twitter, but the day ended with a strategic brainstorm for the Network Security Innovation Platform. Like all Innovation Platforms, Network Security has a Steering Group made up of its major stakeholders. This underwent a refresh about a year ago, and has had 3 meetings with its new, more business focused, membership. We all thought it time to think about the longer term programme so we started in Kingsgate House at 5 o’clock and allowed 15 minutes per topic to think through what could be the next big challenges. We started with a discussion of our involvement in the “hot products” thread of the Designing Out Crime programme. This led to a discussion of how ubiquitous mobile products are these days, a complete riff on “trust”, some serious questioning of why security seems to always be an add-on in operating systems, the role of gender and “generation” in attitude to communications and security and lots, lots more. These ideas will be captured and added to our evolving strategy in the area. By way of reward, we took the hardier souls out for a curry – bad planning on my part - at the same restaurant I had eaten at on Monday!!
Friday was a rush to get home before the cold and damp gave me trenchfoot. Bizarre week or what?
By way of interest, this is my 50th internal blog. I started a year ago on 8th February 2008 and have, so far, written almost 67000 words. Is that sad or dogged?