Not all who wander are lost
28 April 2022 by David Bott
Although it was Monday, I stifled the desire to drive to Swindon for the “start the week” meeting but instead worked at home for an hour or two before catching a train to Sheffield. An otherwise productive use of time was overturned by a story in the Sun that alleged FL and I spend all our time in swanky London restaurants (see – http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4273226/Quango-chiefs-in-125000-exes-bill.html) and the resulting need to refresh the response put together by Media Girl the other week when the FoI request was answered. It felt like we were well prepared for everything but the request from BIS for more information!
By mid-morning I was on the train to Sheffield (avoiding the gaze of anyone who looked like a Sun reader). Before the actual Council Meeting, they had arranged a visit to the animal and plant houses (to let most Council members know what the university actually did these days). First up was the zebra finch room. The noise was mildly soothing (about 1000 finches talking to one another – presumably about the group of people dressed in green lab coats?) as we got the rundown on the finches and the sorts of research they get involved in. Apparently, they are pretty robust birds that first came to the UK in boats from Australia. They can survive for a long time without water – and have therefore colonised the deserts of Australia. But they don’t survive for that long overall (our host said a year or two and Wikipedia says 8-10 years in captivity, so someone’s telling porkies!) so inter-generational experiments can be carried out. There are (apparently) two types of birds and the genomes are known for one in each class – chickens and zebra finches. The explanation quickly moved on to the effectiveness of sperm (through a logical pivot I am not sure I followed) and the work in Sheffield using zebra finches to develop more effective forms of in-vitro fertilisation. In normal human fertilisation we just take the sperm sample, do some simple “separation” and then use the first sperm that gets sucked into the pipette to do the deed on the egg (the picture everyone uses is here – http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_BMxEpZExHGg/TH1ytmIR0dI/AAAAAAAAAB4/4fGzQfjGZMU/s1600/IVF+with+ICSI.jpg). This misses out all the selection processes that are there in “normal” fertilisation. Apparently, zebra finches have similar sperm to humans so experiments on them can be used to understand how to make human fertilisation more effective. Uncorrelated facts like sperms with long tails are better were bandied about and the walls were covered with posters about effective sperm, so most of the men in the group were feeling quite inadequate by the time we left.
Next up was a large climate controlled facility where plant breeding and pests can be investigated. We learned about “witches weed” (proper name Striga) and how it is a parasite of sorghum and rice in sub-Saharan Africa, see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Striga_(plant. It apparently has no root structure of its own but uses the root structure of the host, which means it grows more weakly and delivers less useful crop. We also got the same speech we get every time from Rothamstead about the efficiency of crop growing in our country and the likely impact of climate change coming too fast for natural evolution – and the consequent need to develop new strains of wheat, barley and so on that can thrive in the future climate we cannot predict – taking account of temperature, rainfall, daylight, carbon dioxide level and many other variables. Good job we have a “sustainable agriculture and food” Innovation Platform to develop these academic ideas into products and services!
The actual Council was another insight into how universities are evolving into a form of business. First came a wonderful presentation from the Pro Vice-Chancellor of International Development, who failed to explain why the university wanted to be global and what success would look like before describing an expensive programme that is already underway. I think she may not be sending me a Christmas card after my questions. The next section had me billed as talking about the Government approach to innovation and universities, so I started with our line that we don’t fund universities, we fund projects led by companies that occasionally involve universities. We then debated innovation vouchers, who was responsible for what and why government had no real understanding that commitment and consistency were more important in this area than fashionable sound-bites and “announcables”.
On the train back, I made what has to have been the luckiest connection yet and arrived home 143 minutes after leaving Sheffield – a speed of 32.24 mph! Who says transport in this country doesn’t need organising better!
Continuing the theme of avoiding Swindon, Tuesday saw me in Oxford for the Audit Committee and Board meeting of Oxford Advanced Surfaces, and then on down to London for the “Designs of the Year 2012 Awards”. This last event was a weird affair, the audience a mixture of obvious “design types” (characterised by what, to me, were “odd” clothes and a “no fear” approach) and “corporate types” (looking a lot like me in business suits and with an air of bewilderment). It quickly became obvious to me that the Design Museum is courting us. FL, Mr Smith and I have all been shown the Commonwealth Institute (the future home of the Design Museum). Some of us have had meals with design icons and Mr Smith has received a proposal for funding. We keep telling them that we are not financial sponsors but that we are interested in co-organising an exhibition next year that would showcase the best designed UK technology. Although our programme on the Design Option is in its early days, we already have some examples of the combination of best design and innovative technology – indeed the T27 was in the running at this event – but we need to both celebrate our successes and find a way to galvanise the 2 communities to work better together.
Wednesday saw me on the early train to Swindon for the DALLAS Funders Panel – which having been at some of the assessment event the week before, I understood the logic of the selection – followed by the Technology “Big” Competition. The combination of Feasibility Studies followed by the Main Competition was started a few years back and has several advantages in the Technology area, but there was some debate about disparities between the assessor communities possibly disadvantaging some communities. I had time to be in at the start of the Assisted Living/DALLAS messaging meeting before scooting off to London (again!). We have an interesting challenge in this area because the market definition is still weak, the sociological context of our activities is fluid and liable to political influence and we have to agree and implement a fairly well-defined set of simple messages if we are to be as successful in this area as we have been in others. Media Girl and her team displayed their usual combination of support and rigour and we are making large strides in this difficult task!
The London gig was part of the continuing “suggestions” by our political sponsors that we should engage more in international activities – last week both FL and I were involved in the UK-India Science Council (although he got the good bits) and this week it was the UK-India Business Council. During coffee, Media Girl had fixed for me to talk to a journalist (from the Evening Standard but moonlighting on this one) about Jonny Ive, who seems to have inherited the Steve Jobs mantle of pseudo-deity and will be featured as the cover story of next months Wired. For the actual event, I gave a variant of the standard non-corporate presentation, sandwiched between people from Imperial Innovations, BAE and Artevea (see – http://www.artevea.com/index.php) and presided over by Patricia Hewitt (who was the Secretary of State at the DTI when the Technology Strategy Board Mark 1 was developed and implemented – a fact she delighted in telling everyone!). The questions were an interesting insight into the bilateral trade between the two countries and I think UKTI (in the shape of Bob Driver) are still using us as inward investment eye candy.
I had been chased all day by Rashik Parmer of IBM to meet and so I snuck out early and met him and Victoria Burton of their Smarter Cities team in the nearby All Bar One (where, it seems, city types go to re-invest their bonuses in the UK hospitality industry at a prodigious rate!). It was mostly what has become a standard explanation of the situation 1) that Catapults aren’t going to be allocated by a competitive process, 2) that therefore their “consortium” needs to get inclusive in a hurry and 3) that the Future Cities demonstrator will not be decided on political grounds!
I then caught the breakdown afflicted tube from Moorgate to Euston to dump my bags before hoofing it off to St Pancras to meet Keith Thompson, the (then) soon to be announced CEO of the Cell Therapy Catapult (see – http://www.innovateuk.org/content/news/technology-strategy-board-appoints-cell-therapy-ca.ashx). We talked about the history of the Catapult programme, our different views of the hiccup in the Cell Therapy process, what the relationship between the Catapult and our Thematic Programmes needed to be, and the possible locations for the Catapult that he would be seeing the next day. We also covered the history and culture of the Technology Strategy Board, working in London and an increasingly non-work related set of issues as the evening wore on!
Thursday morning saw the receipt of the response from Nigel Shadbolt and his imaginary friend to the assessment feedback on the Open Data Institute. He was still thinking about the process as an academic and I “reached out” to Zoe and Hadley for help in telling him this wasn’t a negotiation and that he had to comply with the conditions, or he wouldn’t get the money (without using the phrase “what is it about this you don’t understand?”). I was not really looking forward to Thursday anyway, so this didn’t help! Some time ago, the Director of the Photonics bit of the EU had written to FL expressing support for the Photonics Catapult and wanting to talk about it. FL had “passed” it to me, but delays in diarising and at least one postponement, meant that we were going to discuss something that wasn’t happening and I anticipated some ear-bending. The Eurostar was crowded and noisy, so working was difficult but I navigated the Brussels Metro with help from Jools’ interrogation of Graham Mobbs and Mike Biddle and arrived safely and cheaply at their offices. Luckily, they seemed to have picked up the message and the wider intent and so we had a really interesting discussion about the logic and approach of the Technology Strategy Board across all its areas and what Europe could learn as it developed the Horizon 2020 programmes. They are comfortable with what they are doing in research but the politicians are apparently pushing for “guaranteed” returns from investment in innovation, so we discussed the conundrum that if there was a guaranteed return, then business would do it without support and what government should be doing is identifying those areas where the various types of risk were discouraging companies for starting to explore the commercial opportunities. I caught the train home by the skin of my teeth because I hadn’t realised that the Gare du Midi had 2 sets of passport control to slow everything down. I got the sense that the Euro-dudes think we are doing some interesting things but don’t really understand why we do them or how it works at the operational level. But is it our job to educate the rest of Europe to compete with UK companies? Throughout the trip how I was monitoring the ODI stuff on my BlackBerry and promising action when I got home, but I discovered that my Outlook password had expired during the day so had to spend time forwarding things from my BlackBerry to my home account to be able to draw the threads together and get our response ready for the morning.
By Friday, my list of excuses for not going to Swindon had run out – and there was an exciting Executioners Meeting, so I followed the Fosse Way to work. The discussion about the Away Day is probably best kept secret (to heighten the sense of anticipation I know you are all feeling) but we had 2 excellent external inputs to broaden the normally stultified atmosphere of these meetings.
The first was from Healthcare Man and his Cell Therapy droogies. With the Interim Advisory Group getting its act together, the appointment of a CEO and the imminent selection of a location, it was time to explain to the EMT what was going on and what would happen next. The main problem we still face is clarity of language in how we communicate – which luckily we don’t do very much! The discussion showed more chinks in our communications, although the underlying logic was validated on most points.
The second was feedback from Strategy Man’s Business Process Enforcer. He started by telling us that his discussions with the Heads of had demonstrated that the EMT is not very good – the word he repeated was “dysfunctional”. He cited our lack of teamwork, our inability to address performance issues and a litany of management failures. What he missed off was our ability to know all this and never find a way to address it. Luckily, he seems to have some processes that, if we do them even halfway decently, will cover the cracks with wallpaper.
Over lunch, I put the finishing touches to the (team) response to the response to the assessment of the ODI and sent it off to Nigel. Meanwhile, in a car somewhere between Swindon and Bristol, FL was being harangued by the Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University – wound up by Nigels’ apparent belief that we were being too bureaucratic (and conveniently forgetting that the process was a month behind the original plan because he had consistently missed the agreed deadlines for his input.)
I then sat in the (now sadly renamed) Brainstorming Room with Strategy Man, listening to Miles Davis and trying to work out whether we could actually answer the critique of our performance or whether mass resignations would be a more honourable course. We also (in response to an EMT action) discussed how we might get an extra bit of alignment between the SBRI programme and the Thematic programme. We agreed to extend the inclusion of Stephen (who, it has to be repeated, is seen by my team as a great improvement on Strategy Man himself) in our team meetings and that SM would come to one of our Innovation Programme meetings!