From the definition of science to the need for a friendly deity
27 November 2020 by David Bott
For change on a Monday morning, I set off for London and so missed the “start the week” meeting. Instead, I arrived at Chatham House just after 9 o’clock to register for a conference entitled “Investing in Science: Securing Future Prosperity”. After some words from the CEO of the European Science Foundation, we had an address by David Willetts. The flavour was all about how well the science base had done because it had a flat cash settlement in the CSR. There was lots of self-congratulation mixed with a belief that even this was unfair and “science” should have got more money because it represented the future economic prosperity of the nation (hence the conference title). It took a question from Ric Parker of Rolls-Royce, who asked why the already relatively small amount of money allocated to translation (roughly 5% of the academic spend) had been cut, to get our first mention. Both Ric in his question and Willetts in his answer praised the Technology Strategy Board for our achievements to date, although Willetts didn’t actually answer Ric’s question. The discussion that followed was mostly about the investment in academic science and was driven by a largely academic and science policy based audience. Next up was Martin Rees who managed to make jokes (“the most valuable intellectual property to come out of Oxford was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings but that doesn’t mean we should invest more in Anglo-Saxon studies!”) whilst making links between early stage research and commercial products in the manner of a wise and avuncular old uncle. I wanted to adopt him there and then!
I had to leave to take part in meeting at Tracy Island so missed the sessions on public engagement and aligning science with global challenges but the downloaded presentations aren’t too enthralling.
Instead I first had to meet with the BIS Low Carbon Group about NAREC and the ETI Turbine Test Rig. For those with short attention spans, this arose last week at the ETI Board meeting. To recap, ETI have been working on a project to build a wind turbine test rig, and the plan had been to locate it at NAREC in Blyth. Recently, there have been questions about the competency of the organisation to deliver it and worries about the money allocated by various other bodies to build the infrastructure needed to locate the test rig. The ETI Board had asked “HMG” to guarantee the overall funding envelope. The problem was that NAREC had been set up and initially funded by One North East (which will shortly cease to exist). The funding it was seeking came from the European Regional Development Fund and the Strategic Investment Fund, and it turned out that neither source was secure. We talked around the likely scenarios for funding under the TIC scheme (where this is a timescale disconnect) and whether the Low Carbon Group could secure any of the SIF money. Various officials were set tasks to acquire information and the meeting ended. Subsequently they came back with different stories and the picture got murkier and murkier as the week progressed.
Next I took part in what my calendar says is an EEM Pre-Meet but was in fact a discussion of how we are progressing the strategy and how we will present it to the Board next week. The 2 main areas to explain are how we have built and will evolve our portfolio of investment in programmes (which I have to do present) and how we are going to roll out the TICs (which David Way is to deliver). Since David was a bit ill, another David (Obi Wan) had developed his ideas and spoke to them. The problem is that those nice coalition politicians see the investment of just over £200m over 4 years in these centres as game-changing and it has become their “disproportionately significant” activity of the year. Thus they want dynamic and focused activity that they can announce and that will translate immediately into economic growth. Unfortunately, there is more chaotic investment in centres already on the ground and about to run out of funding than we have money to support and we (will strong backing from our Governing Board) want to use this opportunity to do something radical and (long-term) effective to ensure (long-term) economic growth. It is all going to end in tears!
By contrast, the portfolio discussion was mainly about how we can get the complex message across without hitting any bear-traps and I got lots of input from my colleagues about where to find bear-traps.
FL and I then had a quick telephone call with Healthcare Man about the upcoming OSCHR Board meeting and then tried to work out why we had a meeting to discuss Wednesday’s upcoming meeting with BIS in our diaries!
Tuesday saw me wake up with a sore throat and a running nose, so luckily there was a Boots between the hotel and Chatham House and I settled down in the audience drugged up with Day Nurse and listened to the second day of the conference. It started with a talk by Brian Cox about why the UK should double its investment in academic research, followed by Peter Luff, who managed to announce TICs again (with the obvious belief that there will be one in Defence!), followed by Adrian Smith – who managed to talk extensively about the links between universities and industry without once mentioning us! And he’s our new meta-boss! Then came Evan Harris, who talked about how important he is the great scheme of things and how he started the “science is vital” movement. Having been to the “I’m a Scientist” event the other week about how the whole “science is vital” thing happened, I was not impressed! Finally, in the this session came Ric Parker, who introduced himself as the “token industrialist” and once again “bigged” us up before giving a presentation which basically said “we are Rolls-Royce, we know how to do this, just give us more money and stop getting in our way”. The panel discussion was (once again) dominated by the thought process that more investment in basic science would lead inexorably to economic growth. In the break I had an interesting discussion with the Royal Society policy dudes and dudettes, where I discovered that they are worried that the effective cut in translational work will mean the continued investment in basic science may well fail to deliver on the projected economic growth and their whole argument will be devalued and the funding cut in future – so they need us to be even more effective than we have been in the past. Go figure!
The next session on international relationships was going downhill fast in terms of relevance and I was getting panic e-mails from FLs minder, so I went upstairs to acquire signal. After tending to my calendar woes, I fell into a discussion with the Royal Society dudes, Ric and Brain Cox which basically consisted of three of us trying to get the famous one to understand that his support for academic science might be usefully broadened to include industrial science. Since he wrote to me afterwards we may have touched him!
The final session on the innovation ecosystem was a peach. First John Chisholm did a puff for NESTA and venture capitalists, then Katherine Blundell told us that astrophysics had given us 802.11 and particle physics had given us the web, so we should stop all this slagging off of long term science and just hand over the money (I paraphrase!) and then Hermann talked about his Maxwell Centres. Having seen him talked on this subject many times now, I think I note a shift of his position towards ours and he certainly knows about politically motivated timescales because he effectively announced our prospectus for the week after next! However, the main reason for lasting this long on drugs was to hear John Beddington talk. A few weeks ago, I had challenged him after yet another “we need more money for basic science” talk to include some of our work and he had instructed his gnomes to engage me last Friday. This resulted in lots of PowerPoint flavoured electrons whizzing around over the weekend and a long phone call to his more earnest gnome on Sunday afternoon to explain what an Innovation Platform was. I wanted to have closure! As it was, John did us proud, using us as his example of aligning science with national priorities and painting us a something more than a source of funding for centres!!! I snuffled my way home on the train with a small glow of achievement, and a rising temperature!
I felt a little under the weather the next morning so blew off Oli Barrett, got a pass out from FL on a joint BBC trip and took a late train down to London. I did fulfil an obligation to do an interview with Materials World journalist on the way down but instead dumped my stuff at Tracy Island and made my way up to Futerra – see http://www.futerra.co.uk/ to give a seminar. I had met their CEO through the Forum for the Future Masterclass with Jonathan I had done the other year and she had noted the way JP and I trade statistics – it’s his job and the curse of a semi-eidetic memory for me, but it’s fun. I gave the basic “scary facts” talk and engaged with a room of sustainability professional communications but decided that Sustainability Man would be the better long-term link so gave them his name and twitter handle. They were on to him before I left the building! Although I had got up there by tube (faster than walking and only £2.50 a trip) they had fixed me up with a Green Tomatoes Taxi – see http://www.greentomatocars.com/ - so I set off for Tracy Island in a Prius! Unfortunately a bunch of revolting students had caused our proud police force to have to close off the streets around Tracy Island and so I had to walk the last half-mile and was even later than planned for the retimed “BIS High Level Meeting”. I always worry when people have to describe themselves as important so was already sceptical about the meeting and my initial impressions didn’t shake the mood. I was handed a print-out of a presentation which slightly misrepresented what we did but then attempted to harness our activities to another agenda. FL had it in hand however and was displaying Churchillian diplomacy as he countered suggestions that we should just align our money with their objectives! I look forward to the action minutes of this one!
I wandered across London with Cyrus (to save money again) and dumped my stuff at the hotel before making my way down t the Royal Society for another FST meeting – this time entitled “Changing Behaviour - can a cultural shift be achieved in how people use energy?” In contrast to the train crash of the week before, this was the FST at its finest. Starting with David MacKay (looking resplendent with his new (presumably Novembeard inspired) beard) talking about the complexities of actually addressing the need for using less energy – see http://www.withouthotair.com/ and http://2050-calculator-tool.decc.gov.uk/ . He was followed by some guy from Booz who talked about a survey and made it as interesting as ditch-water. The final talk was by Pilgrim Beart of AlertMe see http://www.alertme.com/about/management . It was insightful, funny and incredibly well informed (he should certainly be a future Innovate speaker!). The discussion was also quite informed and the old guys shut up and let those who knew what they were talking about ask questions. The after dinner discussion was even better with David and Pilgrim taking turns at being charismatic and informative, while Patrick Jenkin started telling rude jokes. I sat next to Sir John Caines, who I dutifully explained the Technology Strategy Board to before discovering he was a ex-Perm Sec of the DTI, and Robert Mair, who told me what a great organisation we were because we had awarded him an IKC. By the time I had walked back to the hotel I was feeling all-in and so blew off an invitation from the young padawan for a drink and crawled into bed!
The next day I took the train home and worked on my Board presentation, my presentation for Technology World and opened my presents before taking part in a Low Carbon Innovation Group telephone conference. I well remember the days when it was just Andrew Haslett, Mark Williamson and I trying to make sure we didn’t trip over one another in the energy funding space. Now we have to deal with DECC and BIS trying to piss on one another and DECC trying to justify its flaky decisions!
Friday was to have been a Swindon day but I thought that I could just as easily discharge my meeting responsibilities over the telephone so hunkered down in my home office to do just that. The pre-call with Business Planning Man worked well, but when (virtually) re-assembled for the Pre-Board meeting, we were missing so many of those in Swindon that we rang off and tried again 30 minutes later. As with Monday, we were trying to home in on presentations to explain our portfolio and TICs to the Board and once again, the balance between convergence and divergence was a fine one. We overran – to make up for starting late – but in the end everyone ran out of steam and the meeting ended.
My final official meeting of the day was another NAREC related call, where the Strategy Director for ETI (and an old friend) gave me a no holds barred briefing on how they see things. I almost topped myself afterward, so deep is the hole the combined might of HMG seems to have dug on this one by being discrete about things. Luckily, there may be a God and so things will turn out okay!