If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion
14 January 2022 by David Bott
The week started in my guise as a mild-mannered family taxi driver, but soon settled down to a meeting of the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Project Board, which I participated in by telephone. This meant I didn’t miss the intellectual stimulation and strong chairmanship of the “start the week” meeting! They are still unclear what they are trying to achieve with this and the elephant in the room – that Birmingham applied for £25m and is now responsible for a programme it is feasible they might not benefit from – made for a rather strained discussion! They are also unsure how we are running it – they confuse an assessment panel and a funders panel – and generally give civil servants a bad name – with one exception!
After a couple of hours trying to catch up with the holiday e-mail overhang, I caught the train down to London. On the way, I took a call from Chris Crockford – the self-appointed scourge of our inefficiencies – about the Smart Power Distribution and Demand Management competition that had opened that day. He had read our scope document, decided that he was doing relevant work, so registered for more details. The e-mail we sent him had a link back to the first page he had alighted on, a link back to the registration page and a link to the Nanotechnology Grand Challenge page – none of them what he needed. He therefore decided to wash his head at me! Happily, I entered the Chiltern 3G black hole after 15 minutes and lost him – but did find text messages and e-mails waiting for me on arrival in the connected world!
The evening was given over to a soiree celebrating the launch of the Carruthers review of innovation in the NHS (see – http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsandstatistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicyAndGuidance/DH_131299). I schmoozed our friends in the MRC, talked to George Freeman and John Bell (separately) about the Biomedical Catalyst Fund (they are both keen that we are driving the process and that it didn’t result in the MRC getting credit for doing more of the DPFS scheme that both of them wanted closed!), and ended up being cynical in the corner with Fergus and Strategy Man. The nibbles were particularly good and distracted me from the cheapness and amount of wine.
Tuesday I got a lie-in because I was booked for breakfast in my hotel with FL and he didn’t arrive until after 8 (pm to avoid the mint chocolate joke). We had decided that one of our new years resolutions was to prepare more for meetings so decided getting ready an hour before our 10 o’clock at Number 10 would be a good start! We then walked across the parks to the meeting on what would pass for a nice Spring morning. The meeting was an attempt by the UK Government to be very nice to Intel, who had fielded a global team and just signed a MoU with Imperial and UCL about the proposed “institute for smart cities”. Not sure how this differs from the Cisco related one, and no-one seemed to know what they were actually going to do, but everyone was very shiny about the signing, so what the hey! The meeting kicked off with Willetts saying nice things about the UK (including us) and Justin Rattner (the CTO of Intel) saying nice things about the UK (but not mentioning us). Then FL spoke (without deviation, hesitation or repetition, but with one omission) about what we were doing to support innovation. This was what Sir Humphrey would have called a “courageous” move because he had been asked to speak about Catapults. I watched Willetts get increasingly agitated (although everyone else seemed glued to FL’s words) until FL got to the dénouement of a well-constructed story that ended up with the need to set Catapults in the right areas and deliver them smoothly and efficiently. Tim Luke then profiled a bit before the Cambridge Boris talked about the “best” universities, John Higgins talked about how important Intellect was (his organisation, not the personal characteristic) and Peter Cochran lifted the meeting with his discussion of the UK start-up scene. I will probably need to check some of his statistics out, but the comparison of the Silicon Valley first time start-up success rate of 30% and the UK equivalent number of 5% will possibly obsess me for a while!
Next up was Professor Tadj Oreszczyn from UCL (see – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/cbes/people/tadj-oreszczyn) who said sensible things about energy use in buildings, Kulveer Ranger who spoke about London Boris’s commitment to smart cities, Martin Curley from Intel who spoke about Intel’s commitment to carrying out research in this area in the UK, Tim Whitley from BT who talked about broadband roll-out as a precursor to connected cities – you get the picture. Although this was intended as a showcase for the UK, my abiding impression was of a lot of bright people who were not working together – but could and should do! Are we up for it?
A small gear change got us into High Performance Computing, kicking off with Dominic talking about his report into e-infrastructure (see – http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/science/docs/s/12-517-strategic-vision-for-uk-e-infrastructure) which suggests opening up academic computers to business (directly and not with a fee-charging academics in the way!). He was followed by Stuart Battersby of Chatterbox (see – http://cbanalytics.co.uk/), Steve Pawlowski, Intel exascale computing dude and Richard Blake of Daresbury (will Intel give them a free computer?). Everyone had run over, so there was precious little discussion, but FL and I had arranged a chat with the Intel seniors, which we had in the corner of the room until we were thrown out of the building! FL was heavily bigging up out forthcoming “doing a Cisco” with Intel, and so they now appear to be flying several extra dudes across from the US to take part. No pressure then!
We then caught a taxi (no time for alternative, cheaper routes) across the Governing Board meeting at Cisco’s HQ in Finsbury Circus. It was a curious affair, FL talked about what he had done in the 14 working days since the last meeting, David Way talked about the final stages of the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult development process, Strategy Man talked about the process for agreeing the 2012/13 Delivery Plan and I outlined the competitions we were looking to run as part of it. Throughout, the Board appeared to be largely disinterested and disengaged – did we use up a year’s worth of discussion at the last meeting, or did they have overindulgent holidays? Who knows?
I went back to the hotel and had a beer with Finger Man, where he explained why he thinks our management accounts show that he will spend more grant money in the final third of the year that he has spent in the first 2/3 without any action on his part! I then wandered off for dinner with FL – with a late addition of Baron Eric. FL was hob-nobbing with his aerospace friends at the Cinnamon Club, so Baron Eric and I caught up with Tech City news. When FL arrived, we discussed the Tech City LaunchPad, what had worked and what we still needed to fix. BE had caught the backwash of our careful financial analysis of companies we had been talking to since August and worried a bit that our processes might be a tad over-institutionalised, offered the help of his mentoring network to provide extra support for the 18+20 companies and generally encouraged us to skinny down our processes. He also pointed out that we ought to run a media campaign to give the companies the exposure they deserve and set the tone for future Launchpads. FL and I arrived back at the hotel about 11.30 and spent another hour setting the world to rights – I think!
Wednesday morning, I crossed slightly with Finger Man for breakfast but otherwise wandered down to Tracy Island. My first formal meeting was down as a PDR for Healthcare Man but there is so much going on at the moment, we spent most of the time catching one another up with stuff that has gone on since he went off before Christmas!
That led inexorably into a Heads of Innovation Programmes meeting, where Catapult Boy joined us for a discussion of where we think we all are on these beasties. We discovered a confusion about allowed staffing levels, which I undertook to clarify with David Way, and real fear about the about of work we need to do to simultaneously keep the communities onside and understand and satisfy the demands of the Governing Board – which still appear to be poorly communicated to our own staff! Next up was (what they call in Thomas the Tank Engine) a desputation about design in Catapults. The basic ask from the Creative Industries KTN is that we impose a “chief design officer” on every Catapult with the assertion that this would lead to extreme economic growth. I countered with the fact that members of the Creative Industries KTN were the mostly insular of the people on _connect, and Incubator Man described the Design Option scheme and how we were playing a long game and using more of a carrot than stick approach. We agreed that they would lobby CEOs and Chairs but that each Catapult would (and should) have an individually tailored solution to the integration of design into their activities!!
I left Tracy Island and caught a taxi (again, no time!) up to MRC for more discussions on the Biomedical Catalyst Fund. (I would like it noted at this point that despite the fact that that it is not really about biomedicine, doesn’t do any catalysis and isn’t a fund – and specifically isn’t a catalyst fund – because His Daveness called it that I am towing the line!). Declan keeps bringing his tame Hobbitt into these meetings and he desperately holds onto the philosophy and practice of DPFS, so I have to go through the logic we have sold to all and sundry (including the MRC CEO) over and over again whenever he is in the room. (He subsequently called people in Operations and Communications to tell them the wrong thing, but Healthcare Man has now got to them and saved everyone a lot of extra work!)
Having a bit of time and in an attempt to save money I walked up to Euston for an early evening PDR with Sustainability Man – only to discover that his previous meeting was with FL and therefore ran over (by 45 minutes!). I have, however, discovered that if you hang around in the lobby of the Thistle Euston you do get propositioned! We grabbed a few minutes in the bar to discuss the various issues already doing the rounds – Catapults (programmes and resources), Finances and the Delivery Plan. Then it was on to the Living With Environmental Change Business Advisory Board (henceforth known as the LWEC BAB). It is one of the nicest and most informative dinners I get to go to and this was no exception. I ended up sitting next to the new CEO of NERC – Duncan Wingham (see – http://www.cpom.org/people/djw/) - who claims to have bought 2 Russian rockets (the second after the first blew up!). The through dinner entertainment was provided by Paul Leinster, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency. He started well but seemed to respond to some of the more business oriented question in a mildly Stalinist manner.
Thursday, I got up early and anti-commuted – out from London Bridge to East Croydon – to catch the third day of the DALLAS assessment meeting. Of the 17 submissions, 8 had been supported to develop their ideas, they had submitted these developed ideas and been given more feedback and inputs from potentially analogous areas to stimulate their thinking. El Presidente had promised me 8 cool presentations but (I subsequently discovered) had told them I was a total bastard and would rip their ideas to shreds in pursuit of economic growth!
We started with a proposal led by Torbay. Although it was poorly presented, with a style that could send the listener to sleep, I recognised that enough of the content was in line with our intentions for Assisted Living that I felt confident the team understood the goal. By contrast, the next team were all show and proof by assertion and it was harder to extract the core of the proposal and what they would actually do. Up third was an interesting proposal to provide a common “back office” to the other, regionally based, centres. It came across as thorough and worthy. The Scottish proposal, which had scored highest on paper, seemed to suffer a bit from overconfidence but nevertheless addressed the issues of independent living. It was the final presentation before lunch that provided the real contrast, with what came across as a web-based tool that made almost no mention of the underlying principles we had heard from the others. After lunch, the Welsh group struck me as hollow too and I started to worry. The Newcastle based proposal appeared from the presentation to be no more than an extension of a programme already in place. Given that the final presentation had scored lowest on paper, I was staring at a depressing day! It is therefore a tribute to the process our people had taken these teams on that the final presentation will stay with me as an example of great selling!! Using the artifice of giving a presentation from the end of the project, they reviewed the success of the project, listed the problems it had encountered and how they had dealt with them and went through the deliverables! Shame we didn’t record it! In the discussion between the assessors afterwards, it was fascinating to watch how the paper proposals were largely forgotten as they responded to the presentations and (to my eye) scored the proposals more on change over the workshop than on content. Since we were only after losing 1 or 2 proposals and the one we lost everyone agreed on, the endpoint was acceptable, but I did worry about our assessment process once more – even for the interactive version!! I caught the train back to London with much to think about.
The evening was the Royal Society “Science meets the Media” party, and I met up with the Media Dominatrix for a quick pizza to line our stomachs (I have been to this event before and the booze is there to meet the needs of the journalists but the scientists don’t complain, so having an empty stomach is a disaster!) There was a great scene-setter by Martin Poliakoff, standing in for a sick Paul Nurse, followed my jokey encouragement to drink and be merry by editors from the New Scientist and the Times and an earnest attempt by a senior Rolex person to relate expensive watches to science, then it was down to mixing! We worked the room in our own ways (she has more success in meeting new people than me!) and exchanged scorecards after the first hour. I had nice chats with Martin (see – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=op3w7Gl83mU for his take on one of the issues de jour!), David Phillips (see – http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/Governance/RSCCouncil/CouncilMembersBiography/DPhillipsBio.asp), Tony Cheetham (see – http://www.msm.cam.ac.uk/department/profiles/cheetham.php), Peter Williams (see – http://royalsociety.org/people/peter-williams/), Julia Higgins (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Higgins), Graham Hutchings (see – http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/chemy/contactsandpeople/academicstaff/hutchings-graham-overview_new.html) and Frances Ashcroft (see – http://www.dpag.ox.ac.uk/academic_staff/frances_ashcroft) but was told I had to meet more journalists, so had a chat with Alok Jha (and his coterie) and a debate with the 3 Sirens of Research Fortnight (Elizabeth Gibney, Laura Hood and Miriam Frankel) about the Catapult name. For future reference Laura wears Rossy de Palma, which is a pretty stupid name for a perfume when you analyse it the way she was analysing the Catapult name! Since it was beginning to get difficult to talk without falling over (man’s inability to multi-task coming to the fore), I sought out MD, who was talking to a guy from the Oxford University (see – http://www.neuroscience.ox.ac.uk/directory/stephen-l-hicks) who is going to send me details of his spectacles than enable those with badly compromised eyesight (as in post macular degeneration) to regain an awareness of their environment. MD and I retired to the hotel to drink coffee and write down what we remembered before it was lost!
Friday saw a train back to Swindon for a series of meetings, but first a chat with the not really Head of SME Engagement so that he knew all the things FL and I had stitched him with on Tuesday evening. Then it was a discussion with the interim Director of HR about our manpower plan, a pseudo PDR with Energy Man and an interview for Low Impact Buildings, where we saw a person from the EPSRC who had all the right characteristics but no industry experience – so we’re going to try for a secondment! Then David Way and I had a particularly effective catch-up, where we came up with what we think the staffing levels for the different growth phases of a Catapult should be, tried to work out whether we can turn the MoD letter offering financial support for a sensors Catapult into support for an on-going competition programme and discussed how we add KTP more into our activities as a thread that runs through our programmes. I was scheduled for a meeting with Cyrus but we got through the main points we need to address in 10 minutes and so I was able to leave early for the 3+ hour trip home – I had left my car in the wrong place again!