Bring me the horizon
14 March 2019 by David Bott
The week started with the rapidly enlarging “start the week” meeting. How long before we have to move again to accommodate the management team? ☺ Oh, I forgot, we can double the size of the room.
Then on to various internal meetings, working out what we had agreed with the Board the week before, preparing for the Executioners Meeting, showing solidarity with Fearless Leader as he updated the troops and so on. The evening ended with a slightly bizarre visit from someone I used to go to university with who is now an MNT Monitoring Officer and wanted to meet me.
The next day was an early trip to London to take part in the NESTA Public Services Innovation Summit. It was a typically glossy and well organised affair, with what felt like a good cross section of the great and the good from both national and regional government. After an almost Shakespearian speech from Jonathan, we were “led” by someone called Ross who seemed to think he was famous. Maybe I don't get out enough these days? We were then split into 10 groups of less than 12 to discuss the sub-issues. I chose the positive spin on climate change group and managed to bond with John Elkington, who didn't seem to know much about the Technology Strategy Board – when will people learn not to admit that in our presence? The really good discussion and work was interrupted by the appearance of the Scottish dude and a couple of his Ministers who said all the right things but effectively delayed the development of real ideas. After they spoke and panelled, John Denham was left to say a few more words before we were allowed back to work. This time I chose “barriers” and ended up in Michael Bichard’s team, so no room for intellectual laziness there. Really good ideas, but no real time to develop them, so my take was that the whole thing was a beautifully executed, impressive waste of time.
It finished at lunch, so I was able to flit up to the new Novotel at Paddington for a meeting Zahid had organised to beat the ignorance of regenerative medicine out of me. We have a great 4 hours of discussion where the field was at the moment, what would happen without intervention and what Technology Strategy Board actions would do the most good. It seems that we have a very strong science base and about 25-30 potentially good companies working in the field. The Vulture Capitalists have all fled the scene to see who survives the downturn (not a bad strategy to husband your reserves, but not helpful to the field) and so these companies are all at risk and fragmenting as a community rather than binding together to form an “ecosystem”. The problem with all things medical is that they need about £1-2m to get through Phase 2 trials to the point that they are commercially credible, so we need a phased support mechanism that feeds in money against milestone delivery. We also came up with the idea of a large project to bind the community together.
The next day was the Executioners Meeting in Swindon and I got away in time to make it to a bar in Heddon Street for a DrinkTank meeting that had been organised as part of the launch of WebMission 09. See http://blog.huddle.net/fun-and-games-at-the-inaugural-drinktank-awards#more-117 for an idea of what I had to put up with. Actually, it was an amazing collection of new companies and people all wanting to hook up. Zoe and I were there as sponsors of WebMission and pretty soon word got out that we had money so we made friends fast. I began to lose track of both the technologies and the business models that I had explained to me and need to go back through my contacts in slow time. Zoe will be going out to San Francisco with 20 of these companies as part of the WebMission team and I envy her.
Thursday was among the weirdest days in the Technology Strategy Board so far. It started with an update on Innovation Platforms to the Operational Advisory Group (a.k.a. RDAs). I don’t go every time, but do notice the changes in personnel, and it seems like we have to go over the basics every time. Brain was subbing for David G as the chair and did a good job, skewering me for all the high level agenda items before he let me leave!
The next meeting was to support Fearless Leader as he met the Dark Lord. Actually it turned into quite a party with spare officials sitting on the window sill because there were lots of them and not enough chairs! Mandelson and Denham had been in a 15 minute pre-meeting, Drayson turned up and Geoffrey Norris and Simon Edmonds and a bevy of PSs and others made up the room. Fearless Leader spoke without deviation, repetition (well, only a bit) or hesitation about how wonderful the Technology Strategy Board was for 20 minutes. Sauron then stirred and asked why we had been set up. A short debate concluded that no-one really knew, but it gave FL an opportunity to point out that we hadn’t been given enough money because most of the headline stuff was already committed. That produced a discussion on how BERR was a “department of penny-pocket initiatives” (their words, not mine) and a chance for us to pitch our 2 stage plan for world domination. Drayson then had a short but productive rant about how SBRI wasn’t working and needed more support. Everyone was getting a bit comfortable, so FL pulled out his pre-arranged master quote “we think Carter isn’t ambitious enough” to obvious alarm of Simon and Geoffrey but to warm smiles from Denham who seemed to know it had been coming. At this point the next group of people who had booked the roomed tried to come in. Sauron destroyed a few of them with his laser eyes before he was reminded that he needed to be on a train, so he asked where he could get a copy of our strategy. FL gave him a copy he had prepared earlier and we were ejected onto the street. I wonder what happened next?
I made my way down to Portcullis House where I was speaking as part of a National Science and Engineering Week meeting organised by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on the question - “Do we need more multi-skilled scientists and engineers to manage economic recovery and change?” There were speakers from Imperial College, STFC, NPL, ourselves and the Renewable Energy Association. Each of us had 15 minutes and in the absence of any real guidance from the organises had all plumped for the same approach – 10 minutes on what we did followed by a desultory attempt to address the question. That was slightly upstaged by Paul Drayson who opened the meeting, and who answered the question in the affirmative and told us what the Government was doing about it!! However, as I listened to the other talks – a weakness of mine that I must address – I realised that we were all interpreting the question differently. Those from academe were assuming the other skills scientists and engineers needed were complementary and additional scientific and engineering skills. This led them to suggest that their organisations were great opportunities for people to broaden their science and engineering base and that they should have lots of money to train these people to prepare for the recovery. I, and to a lesser extent John Pethica, were arguing that the skills scientists and engineers needed were those of communications and teamwork because we need teams of people to address large and complex problems such as climate change, the ageing population, the low carbon economy and so on. This led me (and John) to suggest that what was needed were programmes to address these major challenges and on the job training to maximise the effectiveness of the teams built to address the challenges. Given that there were mainly people from universities, trade associations and very few business people in the audience, I suspect that the other view held sway, but I would rather be right than happy any day!! (apologies to DA!)
Friday was another in the series of meetings with what is effectively the technology subcommittee of the NAIGT. They keep talking about their roadmap and comparing it to NATS, but they really don't have that much detail and are generally all over the place in thinking, so we promised them a facilitated workshop to help progress their ideas. We started with the Ricardo proposal we received about a month ago – written by Ricardo and with only Ricardo bidding for a project worth almost £150k. We started by pointing out that, procedurally, this didn't look good and what we needed was for the wider community to specify the work that needed to be done and agree that Ricardo was the best option for carrying out the project in the time allowed. We got agreement that the work was probably right, sent Ricardo out of the room and the remainder agreed that Ricardo were probably our best bet – although Lotus did say that if they had had more warning, they would have liked to tender. They were part of the NAIGT so did know this was being discussed, so I got confused. We then wasted 30 minutes while the guy from Jaguar took us through the NATS brochure from 3 years ago pointing out all the things they had achieved – specifically a clear Government funding agreement (he only read the brochure and hadn’t been listening to FLs peerless description of the NATS story at the last meeting). We then went through the proposal agreeing deliverables and all agreed what we needed to do next. AOB then gave the JLR guy more air time to tell us that our competitions were poorly specified – although he was on the group that specified them – and we were about to waste £10m of money. Since we have just agreed to bail out the JLR projects from the first competition to avoid losing them and since one of his people is on the assessment committee that 2 days earlier had rejected the bulk of the JLR proposals on quality grounds, we have a suspicion he might have been game playing, but I guess it is really nasty out there at the moment, so.... We then got an insight into the difference between JLR (largely based in this country and stuck here) and BMW, Nissan and Tata (who can decide to place their research and manufacturing anywhere in the world) as we closed the meeting and will bear that I mind going forward.