I love engineers, but couldn’t eat a whole one
17 April 2020 by David Bott
Monday started both early and late. Early, because I had to pick up my wife from Heathrow and late because that meant I would have got to Swindon by lunchtime and so missed the “start the week” meeting. As it was, I had to be diverted to London in the afternoon to support Brian Collins, who is chair of the interim “how to build a Transport KTN” group, in trying to seduce Alec Broers into being the chair of the Transport KTN proper. I was shoehorned into this meeting at the last minute because David Way was off on holiday and Iain had another last minute meeting rammed into his diary!! It didn’t start well, with Alec asking us the value of networks in general let alone a government subsidised one. Brian and I pulled out example after example of added value (if only we could capture it all!) and about 30 minutes in, Alec changed his stance to pointing out how he was involved in lots of things already and wasn’t sure how he could find time for another. Brian and I found another gear and after an hour, he promised to go away and think about it. Brian thought that the absence of an immediate turndown was a success, and we agreed to follow up with Alec on any detail points he raised.
I then went off to the House of Lords (if it’s a Monday, it must be a climate change related HoL dinner) for the pre-meeting dinner of the Living with Environmental Change Business Advisory Board. Hosted by Lord Selbourne who kept referring to it as a cross-Research Council activity (and thereby threatening to destroy all the pre-positioning we had done about business relevance) and asking Alan Thorpe what he thought. Colin Drummond played a blinder by proposing a counter approach and I got the first of many chances to express our support for fundamental research. There is no doubt we have assembled a powerful group and we need to keep the pressure up on the rest of LWEC if we are not to lose them.
The next morning we started the meeting proper in the bowels of Tracy Island. Alan Thorpe was late and the IT skills of NERC were saved by Ian Miekle proving he had either read the manual or played around enough to be able to fix a VGA connection. Andrew Watkinson’s presentation, which had already been significantly upgraded by a pre-meeting with Ian, Em and Steve Loader, still got denounced as “an uncorrelated list of research project expressed in unfathomable terms”. Like all good Boards, they weren’t sure whether to take the intellectual strategic high road or get immersed in the detail so they decided to try to do both at the next meeting. They have asked for a means to distribute all the projects across some kind of meaningful “space” – which correlates nicely with our proposed work with Forum for the Future, although the Arup guy made a play to implement their protocol an all the projects (what is it about Arup people that they assume their way of best?) – and for a more detailed run through the low carbon mitigation thread, which includes Low Carbon Vehicles, Low Impact Buildings and some NERC stuff they didn’t appear to be really interested in. Unfortunately, our loaner from NERC doesn’t know how to arrange a meeting properly, so I will have to get a pass from Fearless Leader since the next LWEC BAB clashes with an Executioners Meeting.
This was followed by a meeting with the Intelligent Transport Systems and Services team to go through the questions thrown up by the impact work done by Obi Wan and the metrics ninjas earlier in the year. I think we have agreed that, with the overhaul of the underlying DfT policy and the difficulty it has had engaging a sufficiently wide tranche of business, it is probably best to allow the Innovation Platform to cease at the end of its 5 year lifespan (it was launched in November 2005) and consider how to address aspects of its plan under the now integrated Transport area.
I then made my way to Loughborough for the Engineering Professors Congress. David Way had done the Chemistry Professors last year, so we agreed it was my turn in the barrel. As I hung around waiting for the coach to the dinner, I was called by Alec Broers, who was destined to be awarded a bowl at the dinner, and who had missed his train – because I had given him a card the afternoon before and mentioned the meeting, he called me to explain his new plan and asked me to tell the organisers. I made several people happy in the process!! The National Space Centre in Leicester is curiously tacky place, with cardboard mock-ups of things you can see for real in the US – because they did most of the things on show. The food was also a bit down market. Weird!! That said, it did give me another chance to talk to Alec as he clasped his newly awarded bowl,
The next morning we resumed the meeting, with talks from HEFCE and EPSRC to set the scene. It was then that I realised I was in the “funding” section of the meeting. The HEFCE guy had sensibly decided to arrive late the evening before and leave immediately after his talk but he still got a hard time about how engineers were hard done by in the system. Then the EPSRC person got a similarly hard time about whether they were cutting in general and why they weren’t supporting STEM more aggressively. I gave the challenges-capabilities-us talk but pointed out that it was not our role to fund universities and the fact that any of our money went to universities was that the companies involved recognised the contribution they could make to addressing challenges in the commercial world. The question time veered perilously close to verboten subjects, but Alec Broers was on hand to report Herman Hauser thought his centres report was politically driven and a travesty of a mockery of a sham. On the way home, Alec and I talked on the platform about the Transport KTN, where his stance had now become “can I find enough time to do the role justice?” Some progress then?
Back at Tracy Island I had a chat with the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University – I had been a corporate industrial advisor there years ago and he wanted to ask my advice about how to get more engaged with business.
Thursday was spent working from home, but I sandwiched in another vain attempt to track down the intermittent vibration in my car, a check-up of my teeth and a few phone calls.
Friday it was back down to London. First up was a discussion with a guy from 3M about Innovation Platforms. It was interesting to note that he didn’t know that we had met 3M a few years ago under the ITSS banner, and I ended up offering to “do a Cisco” for 3M – he owes me a list of the priority areas and then we’ll go mob-handed and tell them what we do in those areas. That was followed by a telephone discussion with OSCHR about the progress on selecting their “clusters”. They have 18 proposals in one area and 21 in the other and had started off planning on funding 4-6 in each area. They know that those who don’t succeed will be sore losers, so I described the Grand Challenge Consortium Building approach and the success of Collaboration Nation. They were going to consider how we could help them make the programme work better, which is good because the money actually comes through us, so it would be appropriate for us to make sure it is well spent. I then went off to the Plastic Electronics Design Workshop assessment panel. Mike had been called away to a funeral so I worked with Max to make sure the Technology Strategy Board approach took precedence over the prejudices of the assessors. Most were from the sandpit itself, but the extras had some funny ideas about what we wanted from the programme and from projects in general – like no risk!
I rushed off to catch an early train to the Midlands because I was due to attend the Midlands Engineering Dinner in Birmingham. I was at the MIRA table, Nick was at the Aston University table and it turned out that Robin was at the IMechE table. It was the usual sort of event with 2 memorable pieces. The first was the Paul Golby, as the major sponsor, had decided not to give the entire keynote himself but to let 2 young engineers talk about why they were engineers. That did lead to another round of self-pity but they were powerful ambassadors. The other was James Cracknell, who proved to have a nice line in self-mockery and showed this clip of his part in the Sydney Olympics - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP03nRs3bHA - before getting down to some ideas totally unrelated to engineering. Luckily the master of ceremonies was fast on his feet and made the connections they had presumably paid Cracknell to make. Such are awards dinners that the speaker invariably makes the points they wanted to make rather than the ones the organisers long for!! I spent some more time talking to engineers before I decided that I was a scientist after all!