I have nothing to offer anyone but my own confusion
07 April 2022 by David Bott
A bizarre set of personal circumstances meant that not only did I miss the “start the week” meeting but also the conference I was planning to attend in London. I did have a nice long chat with the Cell Therapy Catapult Enforcer before I left home to debate the language used to differentiate the between helping academics set up companies to exploit their discoveries and “a state-run cell therapy nursery”. The problem (as I understand it) is that many of the companies that the Catapult will be successful with are probably not yet formed and many of the existing companies may well not make it to commercial success – and we need to be in it for the long term. I arrived in London about lunchtime and took part in a Catapult discussion about the Registration of Interest for the Transport Catapult (Please note that RoI for most people in business means “return on investment” and using it as jargon makes us looks like we want to confuse people and don’t know much about business!). The problem, as it is with all the Catapults but more so with the later ones, is that we have started to get too close to the arguments and therefore remake assumptions about what the reader knows or understands. That makes it difficult to follow arguments and draw the same conclusions. We are also increasingly prone to using our own brand of jargon that compounds the error. Finally, we don’t seem to engage our Communications professionals in getting the basics right, and then get upset with them when they use some of our words and manage to say either the wrong thing or nothing at all!
It was a blessed relief to move down into the bowels of Tracy Island and join the Meeting of the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, the Chief Scientific Advisors and the Wider Scientific Community that John Beddington convenes every quarter. John is showing real signs of being demob happy after the advert for his job went up (see – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/jobs_jobdetails.asp?ac=92238) and was playful to the point of credible stand-up comedy. The theme of this meeting was the need to engage more with social sciences. The problem was that we therefore got a trio of social scientists moaning about how they weren’t involved in past activities with no real guide to where we should get them involved going forward. Although we (the Technology Strategy Board) are not in the forefront, we are, at least, moving in the right direction, with an increasing involvement of the “soft sciences” in our Assisted Living activities and some interesting insight from our Ultra Low carbon Vehicles Demonstrator Programme analysis. In the break, I compared notes with Adrian Alsop on the feedback he received from Paul Boyle about the Daresbury Circus and so missed the actual coffee! After the break we had table discussions – my table was “abuse of drugs” and we suffered from an imprecise question and context but had fun nevertheless. Other tables discussed “tackling obesity”, “water shortages” and ”shale gas”. The answers mostly involved the engagement of social scientists (it’s a front of mind thing) except “shale gas”, which had an interesting political dimension in that it might address energy security whilst comprising our approach to climate change.
The next day was spent working from home but was largely given over to trying to understand the alleged conflict between R&D Tax Credits and our Grants. We have known about this for a few years, but it hasn’t been seen to be a large problem – I only know of a few instances where people decided to take the Tax Credit in preference to our Grant. The basic facts are that the SME R&D Tax Credit Scheme (see – http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/ct/forms-rates/claims/randd.htm#2 and click on the SME link) allows tax relief of 200% on allowable R&D costs and can be claimed as cash back and is so generous that it is defined to be a state aids compliant scheme. This means that you cannot claim under the SME scheme if you are receiving one of our grants. This has got John Bell in a tizzy and threatening to stop the Biomedical Catalyst programme. What you can do it claim under the “large company scheme” which is less generous (only 130% of allowable R&D costs) but isn’t defined as a state aids compliant scheme, so you can have both. Being a tax thing, it isn’t anything like simple and it takes lots of specific examples to get to the bottom of what is and isn’t allowed. Anyway, at 8.30 I was debating with John the basic schemes and he was coming up with increasingly illegal ways around them and not seeing that it wasn’t a deal-breaking problem. Having managed to stop his desire to walk into the Chancellors Office (he claims he can do that) and stop the scheme (that he sponsored to add to the irony!) I then spent the next few hours adding to my limited understanding for another, wider audience meeting on the same subject that was due at lunchtime by talking to the Manchester R&D office of HMRC and a couple of CFOs from companies who have address the issue at the working level!
At noon, I duly joined a telephone conference that consisted of John, FL, John Savile and Declan from MRC, Paul Crawford from BIS and various hangers-on. Paul threw logs in the way of John’s more outlandish work-arounds and we talked again through the basics. I had got HMRC to work on a specific example (that John hadn’t read it – although I think everyone else had) that showed large grants were very much more attractive that the equivalent R&D Tax Credits. John was climbing down slowly, but it is a complicated area and no-one really knew the simple answers, so I ended up with even more actions than I had got in the first telephone conference. I love these meetings that don’t actually achieve anything more than briefing people who ought to read the papers!
After a rushed lunch it was time to join another telephone call – this time a reflection on the Governing Board meeting. I am not sure we all took the same messages from our skirmish in Daresbury, and the discussion didn’t (to my mind) resolve anything, but as long as we had the meeting, I suppose it’s all okay?
Wednesday was a full Swindon day consisting mainly of an EMT Strategy Meeting. It started with the ritual humiliation of those who don’t carry out their actions (only joking, only a few seem to care!) and was followed by a more than usually full set of PAFs to discuss. Most were either blindingly obvious, the result of past commitments, or well supported by the sponsoring EMT member, but one was none of these and got pulled – by common consent!! Then it was time to discuss the developing networking strategy. At one point it seemed to be re-inventing KTNs but with a common back office, but Strategy Man asked his usual direct questions and we all agreed that we didn’t know what the answer was but the questions were getting better! By now we were running behind schedule but managed to squeeze in a description of how wonderfully we were interacting with the Business Consulting for Growth initiative, discuss how the Catapults (and apparently by definition any RTO) could take part in our Collaborative R&D Scheme and claim money, consider how we might take advantage of the changes in state aids rules to allow for different types of interactions with universities, Catapults and RTOs, SMEs and large companies. I am not sure we made a decision, but there are some interesting possibilities available to us now. Over lunch, we got a chance to hear about the underpinnings of the Management Information System we sorely crave (or was it the searchable database of projects we were discussing, they all run together these days!). After lunch, we heard about European support mechanisms (not programmes, just the support mechanisms), had great discussions about how we might introduce vouchers and develop the LaunchPad model (I think we agreed to run one on light engineering in the West Midlands next to stop the perception that they were all about digital media). A small diversion to decide whether we should add £70k to a centre that would look at what the financial needs of SMEs were and how we might engage in the UKTI run activities around the Olympics led us into the final area of the day – HR!!
We first discussed the staff survey, which as far as I can see tells us that the organisation is amazingly committed to our task, mostly know what they have to do and how it adds value, but would like more training and an Executive that did its job properly. (I should stress that these are my words!) We went through the “we don’t like this answer, let’s re-interpret and explain why they don’t really mean it” logic before accepting that we have issues to address. We then discussed the fall-out of Interimgate, and how we would allocate the miserly 1% pay award we have for this years motivational award! We also though about the upcoming “moderating meeting” and (I think) decided that the EMT would meet in the morning to reflect whatever input they could get before then, and then break into the directorates in the afternoon to discuss their decisions!
The only piece of AOB I remember (because I raised it!) was a discussion of MeaningMine (see – http://www.polecat.co/software.php) as an input tool to many of our activities. Apparently we have a proposal from them that is languishing somewhere in an inbox and we’re not paying them any more!!
After the meeting, Anne and I broke another interims heart with a puny offer!
Thursday was a London day, and I caught a remarkably empty train to an almost deserted Marylebone but then got a rude shock as the tube was rammed!! The goal was the Marie Celeste like Tracy Island, and my first meeting was a hospital pass from FL. For some time now, a group of people from Sheffield, with part-time leadership from a guy called Lee Strafford, have been pushing an idea called “Sheffield Tech City” – except they didn’t understand the original Tech City idea, but just caught the name! Todays’ meeting was with a couple of guys from Grant Thornton, who have been engaged by the Sheffield LEP to work out if the idea as any merit and/or legs! The proposal combines a large data centre, a “science park”, a collaboration hub and applying new process to public service activities, and they conflate the 4 ideas in lots of confusing ways. The proposers have, so far, hit on Finger Man, FL, BIS, Nick Clegg and Vice Cable’s SpAds to no avail. These guys had written to FL for help untangling what they had been told. They were nice blokes and realised that the data centre was possibly a blind alley since they had no USP, that the science park would be one of many and similarly had no USP, that the collaboration hub was a neat idea but they didn’t know how to deliver it and that Sheffield’s public service community was possibly in the Goldilocks spot for doing something different, but they had to work out what it was. I expect they will come back for more!
Next came a nice walk across St James Park up to the IoD to meet Sharon Davies and Hugo Patten from DHL. I have been talking to Sharon for about 2 years since DHL approached us to talk about Low Carbon Vehicles, but nothing has come of it until recently, when some of us scored a visit to the Heathrow Consolidation Centre. Apparently what we said got reported back as informed and creative, so Hugo (obviously senior and important) decided to meet me. He had a good brief, but we were able to take it further with things we are now doing openly, like the Transport Systems and Future Cities Catapults and the Green Trucks Competition.
Then it was back to Tracy Island, where I met Transport Man and his Catapult sidekick in the (deserted) canteen and discussed how best to play the upcoming meeting! Then it was on to that very meeting – with the Catapult Advisory Scoping Group. Sustainability Man called in from Portland Oregon and his sidekick was in the room alongside Anne Glover and Mike Carr and a lot of us. The inestimable Andrew Milligan was also on the phone. Under normal circumstances I would not be part of this group, but the last such meeting, where they discussed the Connected Digital Economy Catapult appeared to have gone wrong and the Governing Board members were still fulminating about it in Daresbury, I thought I would see what went on. The Registration of Interest documents were better than their CDE counterpart – the Future Cities one had been breathed on heavily by Sustainability Man during his middle weekend in California and was getting better, and the Monday meeting had resulted in the alignment of language and approach of the Transport System one with the Future Cities template. SM started off by giving the elevator pitch and hooked some discussion but was judged to have explained it better than the document. Mike Carr started off in a “glass half empty” mode but when it became apparent that Anne and Andrew quite liked the scope and approach, he seemed to go with the flow. There were some amusing bits: Andrew doesn’t like the observatory soubriquet, but then doesn’t hang around with social scientists who use it all the time. Mike kept quoting the “smart city” idea and not understanding the wider “integration” pitch SM was selling.
Having got a remarkable degree of agreement on next steps and process, we moved on to the Transport Systems Catapult. Andrew remained very quiet whilst Anne and Mike criticised it because they didn’t think the UK had the capability to play in the area, although they recognised the scale of the opportunity. We quoted back the history of the Low Carbon Vehicles Innovation Platform (which ought to have been fresh in their minds after Daresbury), which started with a weak and unimaginative UK automotive sector that is now a lot stronger and competitive because they used the opportunity to drive the development of their capability. Given that we operated as a pack (and outnumbered them) they eventually agreed that we could continue with the process (which by now they were quite fond of) but threatened that they would give us a hard time on the same issues at the presentation of the outline business plan.
I then had a quick chat with Financial Support for SMEs Man about the UKTI Olympic stuff and what he wanted from me, carried out the ritual beating of Transport Man that passes for a PDR, and killed some time in a by now totally deserted Tracy Island and took a call from a jubilant David Godber about the announcement of the departure of David Kester from the Design Council, before wandering down to the South Bank to meet Gordon Murray for dinner. He had missed the visit John Laughlin and I made to Shalford the other week because he was out in Geneva, and wanted to bring me up to speed with all the opportunities our support for T27 had brought the company. If any of the openings come off, we will get a lot of reflected glory from them, but we should also consider that we have done a little bit of our job successfully. I caught a late train home feeling rather pleased with us!