The SciTech 2011 conference at The Barbican conference centre in London was quite an interesting introduction to UK R&D and innovation. Especially the speakers in the morning session gave me a lot to think and learn (more) about.
Imran Khan—Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK—took a look at growth opportunities for UK High Tech exports with a focus on the BRIC nations. He stressed that High Tech companies rely on PhDs and that they know it. He made the point at the end of his talk that he thinks
„the sales of airwave spectrum for 4G telephony is science and engineering money and should be spent in science and engineering“.
Catherine Coates—Business Innovation Director, The Engineering and Phyiscal Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)—presented facts and figures on how research is funded by EPSRC. She pointed out that EPSRC wants to „make the UK the most dynamic and stimulating environment for research and innovation in the world“. Some tools for that are Centres of excellence, EPSRC centres, Centres for doctoral training, and Industrial Doctorate centres (19 IDCs are currently funded). The UK, I learned, is the „most productive country in terms of citations achieved per £ invested“. EPSRC’s strategic goals: delivering impact, shaping capability, and developing leaders.
Stian Westlake—Policy and Research, National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA)—presented a plan for innovation. In his view measures need to put in place regarding „research funding, procurement for innovation, access to finance, education, immigration, evidence-based policy, making Europe a true single market for services“. The plan comprises only policies. It still leaves out politics. Here,
„we need to make politicians implement changes“
by showing them ways to gain something for themselves, thinking also in their time frames of four to five years. Politicians at the moment very well grasp that research and development is key to innovation, but they also need ways to implement this.
Mike Short—President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology—concluded the morning session. He focussed on mobile phones and the Internet being the drivers of innovation of the last years. He sees three waves of „mobile“: connecting people, connecting people to the Internet, connecting everything. Spot on, I’d say.
The next session comprised a set of master classes. I selected first „Engineering global biological solutions — a knowledge transfer continuum“. Prof Nigel Titchener-Hooker and Dr Karen Smith, both University College London, reported on their knowledge transfer work in biochemical engineering. They described the impressive work of the UCL Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering, available degrees (and how the biochemical degrees are complemented by engineering courses to accomodate the needs of the biochemical engineering industry). The Centre not only focusses on education for industry needs but also provides training for senior leaders in bioprocessing industry (e.g., in 3-day courses). The Centre has a 12 strong advisory board of international caliber. A (printed) newsletter is sent out regularly to more than 5,000 subsrcibers to keep the community informed. Intership placement provide job opportunities and knowledge transfer.
One of the remarks I found notable was a clear statement on what the Centre is not doing:
„We don’t do contract research.“
Prof Titchener-Hooker described such research as short-sighted (as money would be the only outcome of it) and not REF-relevant (as typically no publications about respective research are allowed).
In the second master class, Dr Clive Edmonds—Chief Executive Officer, Scienta Group—and a colleague (forgot to note the name, sorry) gave a talk on „Innovation and Commercialisation: engines for growth“. Dr Edmonds promised right at the start that he would not tell us anything new. He kept his word, but he also reminded us about a lot of things in a very good presentation such as:
- To innovate is not only a verb but a mindset.
- „Innovation means you make money from it.“
- Innovation projects need: passion, purpose (a clear business objective), and pragmatism (dynamic approach to and drive of the project)
- typically 60% of total profit come from 14% of breakout innovation (of course, risk is much greater than with incremental development)
- Motivation + Creative Thinking + Expertise are needed for innovation. Not necessarily to be found in one person, but in a team.
- True innovation takes place on the edge of chaos.
- No success in innovation without having innovation culture!
Innovation (as well as creativity) needs the right environment to flourish in – in companies as well as in universities I might add. I wonder about Scienta Group giving a talk on innovation and growth at university. Hm …
The afternoon session was not as interesting to me than the morning one. You might find the list of „Ten thoughts that will change the world next“ collected by Jheni Osman—host of the conference—of interest:
- 3d printing (Sir James Dyson)
- Quantum computers (Iain Lobban, GCHQ)
- Ubiquitous computing (Michail Bletsas, MIT)
- Mood-sensing TV (Dan Heaf, BBC)
- Biomechatronics (Lesley Gavin, BT)
- Cancer-busting beams (Steve Myers)
- Biochar[coal] (Prof Tim Flannery)
- Protocells (Rachel Armstrong)
- Anti-ageing tech (Aubrey de Grey)
- Conscious-o-meter (Prof Marcus de Sautoy)
The final talks were given by Dr Malcolm Parry—Chairman of The UK Science Park Association and MD of Surrey Research Park—on „Science Parks: Bringing a new knowledge domain to research“, followed by Andrew Miller—MP, Chair, Science and Technology Select Committee—on „The future of UK science“, and, finally, Prof Steve Caddick—Vice-Provost (Enterprise), UCL—on „University-business collaboration: driving innovation and growth“. Prof Caddick repeated some of the points already made by Prof Titchener-Hooker in his master class, albeit now on a university level. (You may want to have a look at the four grand challenges UCL identified: global health, human well-being, sustainable cities, and intercultural interactions.)
So, what do I retain from the conference:
There is quite a lot we, the University of West London, can learn from UCL. Granted, they are a much bigger university, but nevertheless. I also think we—as in we at the School of Computing and Technology – are doing quite a lot quite well already.
Second, from Scienta Group I take with me the need to have an innovation culture in place, at the level of the Centre of Model-based Software Engineering and Explanation-aware Computing, the School of Computing and Technology, and the university.