From the Scunthorpe of the West to the Reykjavik of the South
08 June 2020 by David Bott
Variety and surprise at the “start the week” meeting!! After the usual, cursory round the table bit, FL told us about his letter from Vince. Okay, he got a photocopy of a letter that went to all the BIS quangos, but we did at least get acknowledged.
Afterwards, the day was mostly full of Funders Panels. Plastic Electronics went well, as Myrddin and Greg smoothly took the reins from our new Care Home Proprietor. Then came Detection and Identification of Infectious Agents. Although the first competition was a mix of types, Penny, Meredith and Max seemed to have come to an accommodation and the overall balance feels right. Finally came the Agri-Food one. We had a problem. As with many of the civil servants we are dealing with at the moment, the DEFRA ones has interpreted the possible cuts as an instruction to do nothing, so they have effectively pulled the £3.5m commitment from the competition. The 2 farm-boys were not best pleased and muttering darkly about whistle blowing to Farmers Weekly, but wiser heads prevailed and we instead planned to hire some French farmers to hold a sheep tossing competition in front of Ergon House – no, wait, we decided to talk to Bob Watson and the more senior civil servants – I remember now. As it was, the “problem” was resolved by the end of the week, but it did point to the difference between ourselves and some of our colleagues in hard core government. Because there had been the potential of having to do an early interview in London, I drove home and then on to the station to catch a train down to London. Late night trains on the Chiltern Line are not good and some of my fellow travellers had interesting habits. One of the weirder moments was when I got a call from the JLR media guy offering to let us use Limo-Green in the announcement of IDP4 – if they were one of the winners, of course.
As it was, the potential early morning start was cancelled and substituted for a more congenial telephone interview, so I made my way to Tracy Island. The usual ability to connect to the wide world through the wonders of a Wi-Fi network was frustrated because we had once again failed to pay the bill and had been cut-off. I wandered up to the launch of the Automotive Industry Capability Review at the SMMT headquarters at Forbes House. This is yet another of the things we have done over the last few years that others like to take the credit for. At the beginning of 2009, the last gasp of the NAIGT had realised they had a high level roadmap which allowed for everything, a research programme that was based on the thoughts of a small cabal of self-appointed “research active” automotive companies but no idea of whether any of it was doable. They needed an authoritative survey of the current capability. We agreed to organise and pay for such a survey. Once the results were in, there were long and confusing arguments about what we should do with it, but we always held to the belief that it should be published. Luckily the main players in what was now the Automotive Council agreed with us. However, BIS didn’t want it branded as Automotive Council because it had been paid for by Government money, so we agreed months ago that it would be co-branded with BIS, OLEV and ourselves. As seems to be normal with Government departments, the Communications teams have different ideas about what is right from the people who make real decisions, so we had what is now the inevitable last minute hitches on branding and (probably) quotes. (it seems to be a bit like billing in a film, who comes first, how big a font is used, whether they get to make announcements and so on…). Attendance was worth it for me, because Michael Hurwitz told me before the meeting that we have almost certainly recovered the £9m from OLEV for IDP4 – which had been in doubt as part of the blanket ban on all SIF spending. Anyway, FL kicked off, a guy from Ricardo who didn’t do the work talked about the content of the report and then a guy who has just left a car company talked on behalf of the Automotive Council. I got stitched into chairing the Q&A and we all went home.
Actually, I got to go up to NESTA (by taxi because I would have been late otherwise) to meet a guy from the Brazilian Innovation Agency (or so I was told by the NESTA person who asked for the meeting). Fernando was a very nice man, who apologised that only one page of their website http://www.cgee.org.br/sobre/c... was in English but nevertheless engaged in a great discussion of how countries decide on priorities. I spent an hour explaining what we did and now have the offer of a presentation and meal if ever I get to Brasilia. Fat chance!!
Then it was back to Tracy Island (by tube this time because I had the time) to meet with Brian Collins. The main reason was that we were both on a panel at the Cheltenham Science Festival and I wanted to make sure we didn’t cross wires in what we said. He also wanted to unload about the Transport KTN and various other issues. I then bumped into John Beddington and took the opportunity to let him know – purely as a courtesy and not wanting any action, of course – about the DEFRA Agri-Food SNAFU. He was suitably supportive of our position. I then walked to the Royal Society (and was beaten by JB because he had taken a car) for a Foundation for Science and Technology meeting entitled “beyond Copenhagen”. Before the meeting, I got a chance to thank Bob Watson for the help he was going to give us sorting out DEFRA and realised he was more upset than we were!! John kicked the meeting off with his standard “perfect storm” talk, then Lord Jay gave the diplomatic viewpoint – which was largely incomprehensible and had no clear outcome – before Ron Oxburgh gave a rock-star performance in support of Climategate (he had chaired one of the reviews). The pre-dinner (and drinks) discussion was largely anodyne, but (as is often the case at FST meetings) the post dinner discussion was rowdy. The main point of note was a sharp divide between Pallab Ghosh and Chris Rapley, who were worried that Climategate and Glaciergate had damaged public faith in the credibility of climate scientists and that we had to work hard to get it back. JB argued that the reviews had exonerated them from anything but stupidity and it was over, to which PB/CR retorted that reviews done by your friends didn’t persuade anyone. Great stuff.
Thursday started late because there was no point leaving the comfortable Wi-Fi enabled cocoon of the hotel and making the pilgrimage to Tracy Island just to be cut off from the outside world, so I had a late start down to Local Government House. We were meeting with the Local Government Association for the first time en masse. They fielded a mixture of councillors and “officers” and we fielded me, SBRI-man, LIB-man, LCV-man and ITSS-man – ably backed up by a pair of Brian/Bryans. It was an interesting meeting. They were bright, articulate people with a commitment to local government, but they stated the strangest things as “facts”. I wonder how we came across to them? The important news is that after 3 hours we agreed there was lots to do, and they came up with more than enough volunteers to work with us on transport, housing and social care issues. Expect more work but also more and wider engagement as a result. SBRI-man and I then escaped to Kings Cross (note, using a taxi because we were late and had lots of bags) for a quickie to Scotland. The 4+ hours trip up gave us a chance to discuss the evolving strategy and, in particular, to take him through the 2008 WWCDIWGAF presentation we used as a “get out of jail free” card after a less than successful Governing Board meeting in December 2007. He didn’t realise that we had once actually thought about why we did what we did. Of course he had no evidence!!
Friday was always going to be busy. I should know better than to let Brain and Jools work on my diary together. The day started with a breakfast meeting with Rhona Allison and Andrew Henderson of the Life Sciences bit of Scottish Enterprise. They were the first wave of the “choose diabetes” lobby for stratified medicine. We described what we were doing in the area, where we saw unanswered questions and why we were still asking for hard facts and batting off assertions. We also reinforced our commitment to healthcare and explained the new structure – and Zahid’s pivotal role. After 90 minutes and incipient indigestion, Brain and I walked up to St Andrews House. Edinburgh glistened in the early morning sunshine but remained resolutely hilly. Our next meeting was with John Savile and Alison Spaull and they continued the “choose diabetes” theme. It is interesting that our role in an area where we have no track record is getting to be legendary. The diabetes lobby are slagging off cancer in an attempt to persuade us to endorse their disease. I had to explain again that we make such decisions based on analysis of confirmed facts and were looking for the maximum opportunity for UK based companies to make money – not to cure either disease state. I can hardly wait for my next meeting with the Arthritis guys!! John and Alison expressed much learning as a result of our 60 minutes together. Brain was staying on to meet others but I had to make my way down to Leith docks. Not that many years ago, and even in daylight, this would have been a hazardous trip, but the area is now seriously gentrified and I was on my way to visit an IT company – the one that young woman who had criticised us at the Edinburgh workshop came from. Bulbecks - http://www.bulbecks.co.uk/. They are a typical small IT consultancy. They are good at what they do, but they basically respond to customers’ needs. We discussed what we did and why we did it and she agreed that – in their current mode of operation – they weren’t the sort of company we should help. However, it sounds like they have now decided they want to step up a level and are looking for a USP to make their own. I suggested the next round of Beacons that we are planning to run in the Autumn – assuming we still have the money! Another taxi ride (no time but bags) took me back to the School of Informatics at the University to meet the Director of Commercialisation. In passing I should say that his office on the 8th floor of Appleton Tower has one of the best views I have ever seen. Anyway, he wanted to know how to better engage with the Technology Strategy Board. He actually called us the TSB but I edited it because I know how much FL doesn’t like that acronym! I did the “we don’t set out to fund universities, the fact that we do is because the companies we do fund see the value of the interaction” speech and he got it. I explained the way we operated by engaging with the whole community, understand what could be done and what was stopping it – and then running competitions in the pinch points. Again he got it. I was beginning to like him!! Towards the end he offered (or did I ask him) to help organise a visit to Edinburgh for a small deputation of ICT/Creative Industry types from us to meet a cross-section of the local culture. I walked back to Waverley (I had the time and although I was carrying al my bags, it was a nice day and it means I would save £2-3) and caught the train home. Edinburgh is much nicer when the sun shines and when you get a chance to meet real people and talk in more detail.