Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, where wealth accumulates, and men decay
25 September 2020 by David Bott
Another week, another “start the week”. In these changing times, some of the snippets of insight we gain from our acquaintances in BIS are solely disseminated through these meetings and thus they acquire a particular importance. Immediately after, it was into what promised to be a truncated meeting of the Heads of Innovation Programmes. It would be short because most had to take part in the LaunchPad assessment panels – and do a normal days work! We concentrated on the strategy development work. The assessment of finished projects is now entering phase 2, the Technologists have selected for potential impact and that nice Obi-Wan seems to have some money to carry out a survey of those specific projects. The development of the new dashboards, which act as a useful management tool for us as well as answering a 5 year old request from the Governing Board, are reaching a state where we are seriously debating them. The “strategic objectives” of the organisation are also getting close to something everyone (in Innovation Programmes) buys into and we need to make sure that we use them in the right way – to inform decisions made throughout the organisation. We also touched on the current bizarre behaviour of Government, where they are prepared to pay more for short-term human resource until decisions are made about long-term funding, how any IT spend is highly suspect (there are those who say that any and all government IT spending should be put in that camp) and all communications have to be approved by the new Stazi.
By now the various members of the LaunchPad assessment teams, who had been working over the weekend (some paid, some unpaid), arrived for the panels. Mike Biddle seems to have been temporarily seconded to the Competitions Team as project manager of this activity and has acquitted himself rather well. By the end of the day, the 548 video proposals had been whittled down to 59 – with Neil being more finicky than the others!
At this point, along with others I was diverted to attend a presentation by a team from Kingston University that David Coates had seen present a few months ago, and whose data suggest that we might not be as effective as we could be. From my perspective the work was deeply flawed, with a whole bunch of assumptions and tenuous statistical credibility. As is often the case, Obi-Wan destroyed their case by firstly agreeing with it, and then systematically undermining their basic tenets. He is a star at this sort of thing! That said, there were germs of things we might be seeing from other directions and we need to think through how we are perceived by all sections of our potential communities.
The final meeting was with a sales person from Gartner. I had agreed to see her because her e-mail was an almost perfect cold call – she quoted my own blog against me, she name-checked His Spittleness and she cited the demise of the RDAs as a reason to use her product. Unfortunately, she had overplayed her hand and the people who had made the decision to terminate the previous contract for lack of usefulness had a chance to brief me. She brought a “distinguished engineer” consultant with her, but his field was limited so he slowed her down. The bottom line is that many of our Technologists are now “distinguished” in their own fields and the Gartner product was not aligned with our way of operation – it assumes there is a right answer and that guaranteed information can enable people to make better decisions. In our world, any difference in interpretation of information can lead to competitive advantage (or disadvantage, it has to be said) and so the Gartner approach could well lead to regression to the mean and system failure. I think we disappointed her and I expect she will go back to Graham!
The next morning was my other job, but I still learn from it as I watch and help a small company try to make money by selling things. They are continuing to unpack and more deeply understand how the various players in the field understand their own customers and pass requirements back up the supply chain, but it’s a long, hard road.
Then it was down to London to close out the Regenerative Medicine Collaboration Nation. FL had been to the fun bit in the morning where he got to hear all the pitches, but I got to see the high level discussions in the afternoon. The “journey” panel (since this is the second time we have done it, is it a tradition yet?) went well, although at one point Healthcare Man had to dig deep into his bag of prepared questions to stop it from stalling. That said, the panel once again demonstrated the power we are acquiring to convene the right experts. In the “networking” afterwards Allyson introduced me to the Commercial Director of Science|Business who seemed to be interested in our view of the GE Ecoimagination Meetings the week before. When I said I wasn’t impressed by what I had heard, he switched tack (as do all with the word “commercial” in their title) to ask if we were interested in working with them! I made my excuses and left. I also caught up with a few old friends from my role in cobwebs!
The next day promised to be a long one. It started with another jaunt to London. First up was an invitation to take part in an event commemorating Stem Cell Day. The original invitation had come from Chris Mason and was vague, but by the time the official invite came out, I was on a panel with Chris, Richard Sykes, Pete Coffey and some guy called Willetts. We then got into the amusing negotiation with BIS about what Willetts could “announce” on our behalf. Since we have been planning the third phase of the Regenerative Medicine programme for March next year, Zahid had offered that and it had been snapped up. Apparently, the highly intelligent people in BIS had sent around a number of e-mails asking us to look after the publicity, but had failed to copy anyone in the Technology Strategy Board in! Eventually the ever-watchful Mani picked it up and we got wind of this the afternoon before when we were up to our necks in Collaboration Nation, and the Comms team were already fully committed. Chris and I started with a double act about the market and capability issues and I added timing and the reason for Government support (taken straight from the book of criteria, chapter 1). Pete then made a plea not to cut science funding (because he would have to make people redundant) and Richard Sykes waded in with “give the UK Stem Cell Association the money and we can match it with charitable donations” line, ignoring that fact that the MRC and BBSRC are funding lots of basic and “translational” research and that we have put about £40m into the field over the last 5 years. Willets then closed answering the questions in that smooth manner that only politicians can achieve and referenced us fulsomely. In questions, the prize went to the guy from the Torygraph, who linked the foreign sounding names of many leading stem cell researchers with Cable position on immigration. Willets then let me fill in the details of the competitions and I managed to get in the rationale behind them as well as saying that they would be “£10m unless we were cut hard”. All was going quite sensibly until Pete let slip that he had been offered posts in the USA and Singapore and that, although he didn’t want to leave the UK, if the cuts came he would have to consider them. I think even Chris Mason was a little put-out by this turn of events. As the crowd thinned out and after they had dealt with Pete’s visa applications, the journos turned to me for the press release, because BIS had told them we had one!! I had a nice chat with Fiona Fox afterwards who thought that we should do more with them. Have we seen them?
Flushed with media frenzy, I walked back to Tracy Island (avoiding taxi and tube fares) for the Governing Board Not-a-Board meeting. It was an interesting affair. Many treated it as a Board meeting and expected to make decisions – or at least argue a lot about what sort of decisions they might make – and although we tried to asked “what if” questions about direction, there was an awful lot of requests for hard data. It is a difficult one – although I accept that we need more data, we actually spend most of our allotted time (and a good portion beyond that) merely keeping up with our various activities. At the moment we simply do not have the bandwidth to do all that is asked of us and get better – and since we don’t have a clearly articulated strategy that tells people how to make even small decisions in the wider context. Classic chicken and egg, methinks.
Anyway, subject to Guy’s record of the event, I think they gave us the remit to pick and choose those elements of RDA activity we want – and demand that they come with suitable resources (see above for justification) – that they bought into our approach to TICs (and in particular that they should fit with our overall programme strategy and come with suitable resources) (see above for justification) – that they bought into our suggested programme direction (although wanted more evidence as to why we are picking that direction) – and steered us towards a more aggressive procurement approach to use Government to do good instead of harm to SMEs!
Eschewing the offer for a drink (because it would have been forbidden under our Travel Policy) I set off for Loughborough, where I was substituting for FL at the ETI Board Meeting. Since the meeting had finished an hour later than planned, I was going to miss the dinner so I feasted at Marylebone Station!
Thursday saw the continuation of the ETI Strategy Meeting I had missed the previous afternoon. As usual, the 6 company representatives who put up 50% of the money make all the decisions and the 5 groups of Government representatives (BIS, DECC, GOScience, EPSRC and TSB), two of who are responsible for the other 50%, play dumb. The chairman is more out of control that any I have seen. When the issue that Scottish and Southern Electricity had pulled out of their Associate status, it was dismissed as “they’re tight with money” and when the letter from NAREC to Cable complaining about ETI was tabled, it was dismissed as factually incorrect. Remind me to resign if we ever get that arrogant about our place in the ecosystem! Apparently, Paul Morrell has endorsed their retrofit programme as “the most important activity in the field today” and they are being encouraged by DECC to move into Smart Systems – although their exact level of participation will be determined by the imminent joining of IBM as a full member – or was it Accenture? They are also trying to snag Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on the back of the £30m support grant that we are organising from BIS! I know they are not a quango, but they seem oblivious of the fact that 50% of their money is public and are ignoring the current austerity drive!
Friday saw a more relaxed day. I was working from home and taking teleconferences in-between sending my youngest back to university and getting my car MOT’ed. The first call was with Liam O’Toole, the CEO of Arthritis UK. We have long known that arthritis would be one of the diseases covered by the stratified medicine innovation platform, but – as we negotiated the Scottish first choice disease down from diabetes to arthritis – I worried that we hadn’t got strategic alignment with Liam. This was doubly important because Liam, in his previous role at OSCHR, had been a good friend in getting us into a sensible position with respect to the idea and his move to ARUK a year ago should have been a great boon to our efforts. He seemed to not know the position and confused the Capability Clusters project with ours. We talked for 30 minutes and I undertook to send him enough information to get him to support the launch at Innovate (assuming the Governing Board approve it). Next up was a call with Nigel Shadbolt. As previously mentioned, Fergus had asked us to see if the original IWS bid could be turned into something that fitted with the TIC rationale, was useful for the implementation of our programmes and might be used as a good news story at some point around the “chute de la merde” on October 20th. I had met with Nigel to agree high-level goals, talked to David Delpy about the EPSRC position and Zoe had put together a note on how we might define and estimate the market. Meanwhile, he had invited that Willets guy to a dinner at the Royal Society next Monday halfway through a powerful academic grouping around the subject having a conference! Thus, we had to brief Willets (through Mani) and make sure Nigel didn’t go off on an academic tangent. The call consisted of me saying in as many ways as I could “you won’t get an academic institute”, “you have to stop confusing people about open data and the semantic web” and “there is no guarantee in todays politics! I hope he heard me, or we could be wasting our time!