Another cog in the great machine of Government. Did I want this?
20 November 2020 by David Bott
In my quest to make “start the week” meetings interesting, I am moving around the table. This week, I managed to sit next to FL so got to go first. What a rush!
After that it was a catch-up with Jools to make sure I went to the right meetings and then a discussion with Fionnuala about our presence at EcoBuild, now established as our “go to” meeting for Low Impact Buildings, and where we therefore need to make the maximum impact for the year. We discussed the difference between marketing (which we don’t do) and connecting to our community (which we do do) and how they seem to get confused with one another in the minds of some in Government.
Next came a visit from the new enforcer at LWEC. Mary Barkham was in charge of the Environment Research Funders Forum, a body that seemed to pre-date and duplicate much of the LWEC activities (aside from our bit!) and which has now been merged. Mary seems to be an important addition to the current LWEC management structure and we talked about plans, monitoring and many other delivery related protocols that have been missing from LWEC up to now. I also learned that the Partners (all 36 of them) want to be part of the Business Advisory Board, which only goes to prove that they just don’t get it!
Next up was a UKTI arranged visit by The VP Engineering of Ecomerit (see - http://www.ecomerittech.com/index.php ), part of Jim Dehlsen’s sprawling empire of sustainable technologies (see (for example) - http://www.clipperwind.com/james_gp_dehlsen.html ). They were basically trying to find out what we did and whether we were part of the UK offering to relocate innovative companies to the UK. Since they are thinking of establishing an operation in the UK to support of their Aquantis (see - http://www.ecomerittech.com/aquantis.php ) technology, we had a useful chat. I also learnt a lot about current (as opposed to tidal) power systems!
Then it was an internal discussion of options for the next moves in Transport. We discussed what we could do in the marine and rail sectors and decided how to progress.
Everyone loves a Funders Panel and there was plenty to love about the Metadata Fast Track one! For a start, everyone got a quick tutorial on what metadata is and how it can be used to add value to content. Sadly, not many consortia understand it as well as our Technologist so there weren’t a large number of projects. Those that we approved for funding were at least good, but we need to think hard about why these multi-part competitions add value – because they sure as hell add cost! The second part of what ought to be the last composite Funders Panel was on the follow-on from the EPSRC Nanotechnology Grand Challenge. Here, the EPSRC are putting up the majority of the money, but using our competition because they want business involved to develop the new science.
The final act of the day was to express solidarity with FL as he kept everyone up to speed with the bizarre goings on in the world we inhabit. I thought his observation that TICs have replaced SBRI as the “topic du jour” was correct if moderately depressing!
Tuesday was a London day, so I caught the early train down and had a quick meeting with Obi-Wan. He is helping me a lot with my contribution to the evolving strategy partly because he understands what Innovation Programmes is trying to do, but mostly because he has more spare time than me. He had looked at the new introductory presentation I had put together and made the back end a lot stronger. I then wandered over to Nick’s new gaff in the Sanctuary. The reason was a meeting called by our salesman at Detica and we feared an onslaught of new offerings, but instead got the story that he had been made redundant and was looking for connections. I didn’t see that one coming.
Then it was down to Eco 2 Trasport (see - http://www.eco2transport.co.uk/ ) and interesting new addition to the pantheon of low carbon transport events. Hidden away in Earls Court 2, it was a downbeat affair, with all the excitement of a trade show, although it had free entry to members of the public so that they could see what the fuss was about. In truth there was little to see and not many people seeing it. I met a returned secondee from Arup and discovered that redundancy was the theme of the day! Brian Collins, Keith McCabe and I then reprised our Cheltenham Science Festival panel, although we seemed to be suffering from the “difficult second album” syndrome. Keith wanted to do new, experimental stuff, I wanted to rework our early work, Brian was more interested in his solo career and the audience just wanted us to play our greatest hits. The questions were good and the compere gushed about how good we were, but Brian and I bolted for a taxi as soon as the panel ended. We ended up being harangued by the driver of a 2 year old Mercedes taxi because he was paying a higher road tax on his taxi than on his own car – which had the same engine. We were told about the cabal operated by the Taxi Drivers Association and how the Mayor of London (any one of them) didn’t get it. We did manage to discuss the NAREC situation when he quietened down! Back in Tracy Island, I was able to work on my presentation because both FL and Comms Man had sent in their comments.
The evening was an Energy Technologies Institute dinner in Greek Street. Unusually, I was doing the dinner as well as the meeting, so I got to do some nobbling of the CEO and Strategy Manager on the NAREC situation. This paid off the next morning when the Chairman came out with our position as the first negotiating position of the ETI Executive. By way of background, about 2 years ago, ETI started developing a project to build a turbine test rig at NAREC. It had bounced along the bottom with some personal rancour between ETI and NAREC (about competency) and become a focus of the power struggle between DECC and BIS about energy space! What transpired was that none of the private sector members had ever wanted to do it, but no-one had been sufficiently clear that it got fully discussed and killed. Now, with the confusion over who is funding what – and the potential white knight of TIC funding – it has assumed epic proportions, with the Scots offering money to relocate the project to Rosyth, factions of BIS and DECC all claiming ownership but not wanting to pay and everyone expecting us to save the situation! As the various companies wished that we weren’t where we were but (through gritted teeth) saying they would support the project we got perilously close to getting away with it. Then one oil company opined that this was a good reason to leave ETI and the cat was out of the bag. The chair ended up backing down from his initial position and asking HMG to guarantee both funding and the future of NAREC, which led to the setting up of an HMG drones meeting – so we still won’t have a strategic position to guide our decisions making!
Bob Sorrell and I escaped from the ETI meeting and made our way up to Hatton Garden for the EGS Steering Group Meeting. Actually we got there early and so had a coffee and discussed the possibility of a secondee from BP into the TSB. The actual meeting focussed, as does everything at the moment, on the possibility of a TIC in energy space. We went through the logic of TICs and the idea of a multi centre “wet” renewables one. The discussion was going well, but (once again) I had to get back to Tracy Island to check in on things, so I look forward to the minutes.
After that, I dragged through the drizzle up to the Royal Society for another Foundation for Science and Technology meeting – this one was on “Building Strong European Research Partnerships”. It was a bit of a train crash, with the main speaker (from France) speaking for 40 minutes rather than his allotted 20 and not saying much either. The Commission guy who closed out the speeches seemed to be parroting our strategy and (over dinner) claimed to know us well, although he couldn’t remember the names of the people he knew and then explained innovation platforms wrongly! The after dinner (technically after drink) discussion period even failed to get heated, so I left and took a shower walking back to the hotel!
Next morning I went down to the Charing Cross Hotel for the Inside Government meeting I had foolishly agreed to talk at (see - http://www.insidegovernment.co.uk/economic_dev/research-development/ ). First up was John Alty, who gave an uninspiring and empty speech, and then Tim Bestwick who tried to make STFC relevant. I then tried out the new introductory talk for the first time. Aside from the fact that the ad-libs added 5 minutes to the running time, it seemed to work well. I was followed by Aileen Allsop of AZ, who talked mostly about public engagement, and then we had a panel discussion. Alty was replaced by Claydon (the IPO economist) who was much more inspiring but the majority of the questions were about the Technology Strategy Board. As I left, I had lots of cards pressed into my hand and requests for more information on both programmes and TICs. I had to leave to make it back to Tracy Island again, this time to impersonate FL at the Automotive Council. Although I had been sent the papers, when I got there I discovered that I wasn’t supposed to be there, so managed to sit at the top table without a name badge. The first presentation, on intelligent transport ended up with the statement that the government had to have a policy in the area and that someone should pay for industry to develop products and services. It was even stated that this wasn’t Technology Strategy Board territory because we only did cars and didn’t do IT. I frantically waved my hand until Jane pointed out to Richard Parry-Jones that I had a contribution to make and pointed out that we had run an Innovation Platform in this area for almost 5 years and had had to close it because there was not consistent government policy and that (also) when we had held competitions not a lot of industry had applied. I did wonder whether they know what is going on or whether they just want to be seen to be important. Since this was played out in front of Vince, I assume I won’t get an invite back! A few minutes later, Jerry Hardcastle managed to confuse the relevance of academic work and TICs, but no-one asked for my input – although Mark Prisk stated authoritatively that he favoured the hub and spoke model and he expected there to be a TIC in this area but wasn’t sure which university would host it! You couldn’t make this stuff up! Actually, the university stuff would cause apoplexy in the research councils, with the auto makers deciding which university would get all the money because they were good at one aspect of research.
Another rush across town (in a taxi because I was late and it was raining heavily) got me to a rendezvous with Media Girl to meet Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre. We seem to have come off well in our recent interactions, but it was amusingly disconcerting to be discussed by the pair of them as an asset for “newsjacking” like I wasn’t there! I think we (sorry, I mean they!) decided that I was the fast response unit but that the Heads of would constitute a second line of considered response.
I managed to hang around the Royal Institution for my next meeting with their Head of Operations. What I learned was that post the recent kerfuffle over leadership, the Ri has decided to go back to its roots – “useful mechanical inventions to aid the common purposes of life” – and was therefore looking to engage with organization closer to commerce. As part of this drive, they are looking to build a web-based video channel to identify, explain and demonstrate the role of science AND technology in everyday life. This felt perilously close the need that Quentin Wilson had identified only a week earlier, so I guess it would be nice if we brought all the protagonists together rather than allowing a plethora of new routes to market all wanting our connections and content to compete with one another!
Friday started with a telephone call to MRC to attempt to confirm and resolve the latest rumour that they wanted us to run “academic led” consortia. As they explained it to me, they actually want to ensure that consortia have access to the best academic research, so the twin pronged response seems to have worked!
Then it was down to 7 Millbank to meet with David Cope of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (see - http://www.parliament.uk/mps-lords-and-offices/offices/bicameral/post/ ). They provide briefings for parliamentarians on matters scientific and were behind the meeting a few weeks ago on the impact of research councils, were they celebrated their success in attaining a flat cash settlement. It seemed to me a bit wrong that the whole innovation angle had been conveniently missing, so set out on a charm offensive to get us into the picture. This quest was helped by the fact that I knew the head of POST, David Cope from my days in Materials UK, and could name-check Simon Haskel as a friend. It turns out David is trying to get Simon onto his Council, so we started on a high. We agreed that whenever possible, the researchers in POST would check with me before they issue a POSTnote in case we can strengthen the information in it and even link it to economic impact. David was as good as his word and by the time I had walked back to Tracy Island he had put me in contact with his research team – and one of them (energy) had followed up. A bit more work but a useful addition to our reach into government!
At this point I got an amusing e-mail from John Beddington office. A few weeks ago, I had challenged him to say more about innovation – to add to and complement his words on science – and he had asked me what to say. I had put together a few thoughts and sent them to him. Now, since he has to talk to Chatham House next Tuesday and book-end David Willetts, I got a request to write some of his talk! Doh!!
For lunch I had an appointment with Sebastian Conran and Deyan Sudjic (the CEO of the Design Museum) (see - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deyan_Sudjic)
but at the site of the new Design Museum! (see - http://www.e-architect.co.uk/london/commonwealth_institute_design_museum.htm) The goal is to use this new space (opening in 2014) as a design hub for London and they are interested in how they could include technological innovations (if suitably designed!). The site is astounding, being a parabolic roof, clad on the outside with copper and with a glass curtain wall. Inside it is one huge space, split into open tiered floors that allow visibility of the whole space. We talked a lot – and I continually pointed out that we have no money to put towards their fund – and we would have to work out how best to contribute links to companies and themes for galleries if we were to make it work – but we have time to work it out!
Afterwards, Sebastian asked me my advice about the Creative Industries KTN, of which he is the chair. He is worried that they are not doing the job that needs to be done – of linking the design and technology communities – and wondered how much he, as the chair, could drive such an agenda. I recommended he talked to David Coates and Paul Mason but averred that we might be quite supportive of the direction he was suggesting and that we saw the chair as a vital part of the management structure of a KTN.
The final meeting of the week was with Glenn Shoosmith (the poster boy of the Shoreditch posse). After his “there is no tender process for innovation” speech to the Prime Minister the other week, we have been talking about what we do and why he didn’t know about us! Bookingbug (see - http://uk.bookingbug.com/) offers an integration and distribution service to booking sites and enables efficient resource usage. Glenn has been trying to work with local government to drive usage of the sports and leisure facilities but keep running across bureaucracy and wide variation in the interpretation of rules – which led to his “rant” at the Boilerhouse. He has looked at our support mechanisms but sees only poor communications of intent and bureaucratic implementation. We talked a lot about this, and I think I convinced him that he needs to look harder and broaden his interpretation of what he sees. Nevertheless, I could not easily see any of our activities that might support what Bookingbug does! That said, he is still keen to work with us and recognises that (as far as he sees) we are a unique government activity in that we seem to be focussed on outcomes and not processes! We agreed to think more on our discussion but he made me worry that we aren’t really reaching out to a lot of companies that are providing services that are enabled by technology and which might well constitute part of the Big Society (okay, I just threw that in gratuitously as a joke!