It’s a great life if you don’t weaken
20 June 2019 by David Bott
My original plan for Monday – to attend the official launch of FERA – was stymied by John Beddington and Brian Collins, who have set up a steering committee for low carbon transport activity across government and asked (nicely but firmly) if I could be there, so John Whittal got the long march to Sand Hutton and I took the train to London. Jools and Anne had been busy and filled the rest of my day with interviews, so first up was a possible person to help us develop the case for a “stratified medicine” Innovation Platform. Not sparkling and probably too expensive – the latter a common theme in interviews these days!!
I then took part in the aforementioned low carbon transport committee – officially named the ED(SI) sub group on clean transport. In addition to road transport they have the rest of surface, so rail and marine sneak in, despite a paucity of real thought or action in the areas. The meeting was a bit of a non-event, with us going through Brian Collins “suggested” terms of reference and everyone playing pork barrel. It will be interesting to see what the minutes say!! Since my next interview wasn’t for a few hours, I got a trip to the less travelled parts of Soho to meet the media company looking after the launch of the Ultra Low Carbon Vehicles Demonstration Programme. If their combined ages added up to mine, I would be surprised and you will be gratified to know that I am “on message” but Lady Claire and Paul (W) were nice about it and I know not to walk down that street again. The next 2 interviews were more compelling than in the morning, with the first person being knowledgeable but not that exciting and the second one being – you’ve guessed it – probably too expensive.
The next morning started with a meeting with the Home Office Science Dudes. The meeting room had a broken air conditioner and had been bathed in sunlight for 4 hours by the time Mark and I arrived and was a bit sticky. We opened the windows and hoped. The meeting started with the usual “this is what we do, what do you do?” but since a few of their team had been involved in earlier meetings it went faster than usual. Towards the end Paul Wiles made the usual observation that the “science guys” had a lot in common with the Technology Strategy Board but that we needed to interact with the policy wonks and the procurement people as well, and that government departments were bit siloed – a lesson we learnt 3 years ago with DfT and keep re-learning with every new department we make friends with. I made it back to Fortress Kingsgate to meet a person who wrote into Fearless Leader offering to discuss how they might help us – greater love has no man, etc.....
Then it was down to the Board Meeting. I had to present the latest work on the Sustainable Agri-Food Supply Chain. We had presented this area originally to the Board last October, but we weren't then convinced that DEFRA got the “sponsoring department” bit, so we had recommended just general Application Area activity. Several of the board were more keen and asked us to have another go at DEFRA, so Paul (M) and a new interim did just that. The same keenies thought we hadn’t gone far enough and should have more about meat (a director of the Roslin Institute said that) and more genomics (a BBSRC Council member said that) which opened the floodgates of “it’s not good enough to get our backing”. Luckily, I could answer all the detailed questions and Fearless Leader kept pointing out that we were only asking for approval to do what they had asked us to do and eventually we got the green light – but told to do it in secret until they had a paper they thought was good enough. The points they raised were all good, but the episodic nature of the interaction makes a proper dialogue a non-starter and we are wasting elapsed time with our current approach.
David (W) went through the MNT Review (which I think they accepted) and we got onto the “centres” discussion. This went all over the place at first but, once we got concrete, raised the excitement level around the table. I think we ended up with a request to develop the ideas further.
The dinner was to say goodbye to Julia King and Peter Ringrose, who forgot to re-apply and are therefore leaving the Board. In the second half of the evening his Spittleness got quite worked up about metrics and dragged Fearless Leader out of the room to give him new “your mission, and don’t even think of not accepting it” orders. I guess we are going to do metrics over the next few months.
The next morning it was a trip to Birmingham to watch the second day of the great Digital Britain coming. Actually, Carter was ineffably smooth, knew everyone’s name and activities and came across as a rather impressive individual. I am sure these thoughts also occurred to Fearless Leader, who was about to follow him and probably wondering “how do I top that?”. His message was good, he had a few good jokes and he reached into himself to find his inner Presbyterian preacher and did rather well. I stayed on a bit to watch Mike Biddle on a panel but then had to go to Jaguar, so missed Appleyard do the same.
The JLR visit was interesting. Some time ago, AWM had approached us with a plan to “invest” the bulk of the £25m they had allocated to LCV into the development of projects we had kicked off in our September 2007 LCV call. They had £7m for this financial year but only £12m for next year against a proposal from JLR, Lotus, Tata and Zytek that totalled £17m. I suggested that they should submit a “large project” - in the proper definition of the term – and we waited. What Jaguar wanted to tell me was that AWM hadn't asked for enough, so we went through the process (as I understood it) again and we should be seeing an initial letter from the consortium informing us on their intentions so we can start the clock on the project.
Thursday saw the 3rd of our workshops in support of the evaluation of the potential of a “water” Innovation Platform. Having done a general, “sighting shot” one at OFWAT, we had one with the water companies and their supply chains in Leeds a month ago. This time it was the regulators and policy wonks. We are getting better at these and Brian managed the invitation list and process well, Em came in as an extra facilitator and me and the young padawan strutted our stuff. We got the usual anti-OFWAT stuff but are beginning to see the pattern of problems – and hence possibly the first couple of competitions. We also got lots of offers to help – importantly from people who wouldn't charge us!!
Thursday evening saw another monthly catch-up with David Godber on the various Design Council interactions. The “hot products” piece is going well (although there is a side issue that DC and the Home Office are mildly arguing about the superior brand), we are locked into DOTT and trying to work out how we combine their new “water” work with our possible Innovation Platform. We shared contacts at OFWAT, DirectGov and Devices for Dignity.
Friday saw the trek out to Excel for the NHS Expo. First up was Drayson talking about how the OLS launch in July would change the playing field and drive the NHS into a force for innovation. There was lots of sceptical questioning, but Paul (and Ara Darzi) obviously believe it and it would be awesome. I had to miss Martha Lane Fox to take part in a briefing telecon with Quentin Wilson, our celebrity of choice for next week’s LCV launch. We were doing okay until he espoused his theory that we would all end up in normal cars driven by biogas or hydrogen. I tried to get across the concept of challenge and technological agnosticism, but I think the guy from TriMedia is going to take him aside and point out who was paying and what the message was. I then had the luxury of wandering around the Expo and learning new stuff. It was fun and I should do it more often!!