A week where if it could go wrong, it usually did…
12 June 2020 by David Bott
The “start the week” meeting seems a long time ago now and nothing sticks in the mind, so either it was very important or I am losing my marbles. It was followed by an Innovate Steering Group, where Huw tried once again to rein in his creative group and motivate their inner completer-finishers. This led seamlessly into a mega-Funders Panel, where we knocked off the next 2 bits of Zahid’s master plan to revive the regenerative medicine industry in the first hour, worked hard to overcome the likely loss of the £2m contribution to our Marine Competition from SWRDA – I thought we had come up with a plan but the Competition Team decided on using a different tactic – and laboured long and unproductively on the Integrated Delivery Programme 4thCompetition. We are now making serious mistakes in process because we are trying to do too much, but we are also making a rod for our own backs by not introducing the checks and balances we have discussed on many occasions and, as a result, the clean-up work takes even more resource away from the day job. Just as Cyrus was beginning to fulminate I had to leave to join Fearless Leader, Brains and Junior SBRI-man to meet with the Welsh Deputy Minister for Science and Innovation. It was harmless but part of the courtship ritual.
After a couple more internal meetings, we had the 3rd Competitions Sign-Off meeting. We seemed to get a higher turn out of Innovation Programmes Heads than last time and, within the allotted hour, we derived the full years competitions wish list. There was a lot of muttering that previous contributions had been “lost” – in one case someone had sat with Rachel and seen her enter the changes only to find they had gone in the versions we started with. There was an action to circulate the output, but I haven’t found it yet in my overcrowded inbox. The final meeting of the day was a discussion on the role of the KTN connectors. We seem to go through this at regular intervals and I don’t sense any change in goal, but obviously circumstances are stopping us from implementing what we agree.
Tuesday was a London day. First up was a meeting of the Partners Board of the Living With Environmental Change Partners Board. Meetings with 33 people never promised well, but I was looking forward to introducing Colin Drummond, who is the chair of the LWEC Business Advisory Board, to the assembled throng. Before that, we had to sit through a proposal to amalgamate LWEC with the Environmental Research Funders Forum, a body composed of almost exactly the same people (though not us) and with similar goals. There was an amusing set of comments from Miles Parker and Tim Allen about possible cost savings as a result of this amalgamation – a thought that had seemingly not occurred to the various people involved in the executives. They now looked worried. There was an update in accreditation – although still no-one can explain what it gives the accredited bodies or programmes. Once again it was Miles who suggested that an unseemly race to accumulate allegedly related funding might not be the best tactic in the current environment!! When it came to the business input, both Colin and I were remarkably restrained (the comment I wished I had the nerve to repeat was from the businessman who described LWEC as “a lot of unrelated and irrelevant research projects explained with meaningless twaddle”). After that came a presentation by the LWEC Director who always reminds me of the Douglas Adams quote where the situation is so unredeemingly awful that “his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save humanity, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.” Interestingly, this seems to be a common feeling among the Partners, but we don’t do anything about it!! The day did redeem itself because the next meeting was the equivalent of a five-a-side friendly with the Design Council. This was born of various discussions between myself and David Godber over the last couple of months about achieving better integration between some of our overlapping activities. I took in Sustainability Man, Digital Man, Assisted Living Boy, Communications Man, Media Girl and our own equivalent of a Policy Wonk. They fielded an equivalent group and we spend 2 hours talking about what we were already doing (both jointly and separately) what we could do together and what would be seriously and earth-shatteringly impressive if we could manage to do it together. I used the memories of the last 2 hours to drown out the awful images of the LWEC on the journey home and so stayed sane.
And so Wednesday came to pass. I got down to Swindon well in time for the 9 o’clock meeting, which didn’t start until 9.30 because of signalling problems at Didcot. That was followed by a Governing Board Briefing Meeting where we tried to stitch together the high level agenda for the next meeting – which will largely be about matching the short and long term goals of our organisation with the new (and not yet fully defined) environment we find ourselves in. That ran into an FL talk to the troops and it wasn’t until later that I realised I had missed a stratified medicine steering group telephone conference. I went quickly into my quarterly scourging by FL but managed to escape to Cheltenham. Comms Man had “persuaded” me some weeks ago to take part in a panel on “Intelligent Transport” at the Science Festival, so I duly wandered into the Green Room. We were sponsoring the room and it was full of our posters – although many people pointed out that they were now getting a bit long in the tooth and possibly out of currency!! I was on with Brian Collins (of the DfT on this occasion) and Kevin McCabe of Atkins, so we spent more time planning our ad lib jokes than telling one another what we were planning to say. Since I had actually circulated my notes at the weekend, I got voted into pole position! About 200 people had paid £5 each to see us, so the jokes went down well. I think the introductory comments did as well, but the questions were mainly from the lunatic fringe (can we put tubes across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and run trains at Mach 2 across to the USA? Would anyone let Halliburton have the contract?). Afterwards, the groupies (who were all older men) kept pumping us. One looked like he might be important in office clothes (banker or senior civil servant!), so when he asked me what the Technology Strategy Board did, I answered very carefully!!
Thursday was the Executioners Meeting. We started by trying to work out what was going on, then moved to what we wanted to do in the longer term before looking for a path between the 2 areas. The biggest problem is supposed to be that we get extra jobs but no extra resource, although everyone seems to have been charmed by Willets and, if I have learned anything over the last 3 years, it is that you can’t predict politicians’ actions!! I had an early pass out because it was the Royal Society of Chemistry Industry and Technology Forum Awards dinner. It was nice to see lots of old colleagues, hear of Ian Shotts’ new life as a consultant after selling Excelsyn, get an ear-bashing from Carol over how there ought to be a Chemistry Technology Area and hear the “offspring of Miller-Klein the Sage” describe their sustainability activities, but the highlight of the evening was talking to BP’s Chief Chemist about the problems of oil dispersion and saline stratification. I think I may lose my years at BP from my CV!
Friday started with a brace of telephone conference. The first was being briefed by Media Girl and the Edelman Office Junior on the Cookson Podcast I am doing next week, then I got an update on the activities of METRC. I then spent an hour as an observer at the Design Councils Innovate for Universities Close-Out meeting. The idea is good – to help Technology Transfer Offices introduce a “designed” approach to spin-outs. The feedback was patchy, with some universities obviously “getting it” and some not even realising that 5 minutes did not mean 15 minutes for their feedback!! All but one were jargon-rich and content-lite and I think Godber started getting embarrassed that I was watching. Kester thought it was a huge success! I wandered down to Detica for a meeting designed to broaden our engagement with them as the Digital Britain TeStBed seems to be working well. As with many companies we meet with strong “defence” backgrounds, they struggle to really do the “business” thing. Although when challenged they say the right sorts of things once you get down into more instinctive behaviour, they revert to type and think their products would work better with the right sort of users. Nevertheless, there were some of them that we had fun with and could well contribute to our activities.
I caught the train back with Digital Man and Security Boy and started catching up with the evolving communications problems with the latest competitions. If only we had fully implemented the competitions communications strategy the media dominatrix proposed last year we might be avoiding these time intensive SNAFUs, but alas…..
And then came the piece de resistance. 3 weeks ago, Cyrus had arranged for me to explain to the Shared Services CIO why they should let me use my Mac to get e-mails. He (the CIO, not Cyrus) offered to find out what was required (on their expense) and then work out how we could implement it. Since there had then been a long pause, I assumed they were going to tell me what I needed to do to make it work. No. They wanted me to explain what I needed again because they obviously didn’t think their boss had heard it right. Once I had explained, they told me that although a Mac could go on the network they would have to buy an equivalent one and rent it to me. I couldn’t use my own. I explained my contractor status, and they countered with the fact that the rules were in place because they couldn’t control what I put on “my” machine but they could control what I put on an “ISS” machine. Since I have installed various things on the Dell PoS I am trying, I thought that a little strange, but the secondary point that people had turned off the encryption and anti-virus and that was against the rules left me speechless. I realised that they start from the place that their users are stupid, or malevolent, or both. We then got on to why I didn’t use the Dell. I pointed out that it wasn’t set up for remote working. They agreed because that was outside our SLA. I explained that the size of my mail file apparently contravened another rule. They explained that I could locally archive but that would mean it would take about 5 minutes to find things in early years. This is against the 5-10 seconds it takes me on the Mac. And, since they couldn’t back up local archives, I could lose everything if my machine borked. They told me I was the only one to have these problems. I replied that many of the Technologists had similar experiences but had given up reporting them because it was outside our SLA!! I was told that Cyrus was opposed to people using their own machines on the network. I queried why he had therefore introduced me to their boss. I got the impression that they had arranged the meeting to say they had done something, but they had no intention of doing anything. And now the long wait begins…..