Revolutionary Measures

Million pound dropped

English: Harrison's chronometer on display at ...

On the face of it, David Cameron’s announcement of a £1m prize for solving a ‘grand innovation challenge’ is good news for UK science and industry. The competition will look at the biggest issue of our time (as selected by the public) and then be judged by an illustrious panel, chaired by Lord Rees, the English Astronomer Royal. The Prime Minister likened the competition to the 1714 Longitude Prize which was created to solve the problem of navigation at sea, and which spurred unknown Yorkshire clockmaker John Harrison to develop much more accurate marine timepieces.

All well and good – anything that stimulates debate on pressing problems for mankind and supports scientists and engineers is obviously welcome. Even Cameron’s idea of a ‘Britain’s got talent’-style show to identify the key issue that scientists have to solve is an attempt to put engineering and research back into the mainstream.

But there’s three main problems I can see – and unfortunately they run through a lot of the coalition’s thinking on science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship.

Firstly, £1m is a pitifully small amount of money for an idea that will solve ‘the biggest problem of our time’. The annual Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (bankrolled by Mark Zuckerberg, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and tech investor Yuri Milner) has distributed $33m to 11 winners. And that’s just in one year. The new Longitude Prize is being funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and it appears (from what I’ve read) that the £1m is not new money, but is from the TSB’s existing budget. Hardly an expansion of government investment in science and engineering.

Secondly, like all politicians Cameron is driven by short timescales. Solving the problems the world faces can’t be accomplished in a single term in office. Research simply does not move that fast. If the Prime Minister checked his historical facts (perhaps he needs to speak to Michael Gove), this has always been the case. The original Longitude competition began in 1714 but Harrison’s clock was not successfully operational until the 1760s. And even then he was judged not to have won the official prize itself (though he was awarded multiple grants during his lifetime to recognise his achievements).

Thirdly, modern research is a global undertaking. Scientists work with their peers across the world, collaborating to solve problems across disciplines and countries. Look at the Human Genome Project – while the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge made an enormous contribution to sequence human DNA, it was a truly global effort, involving scientists from across the world. So if Cameron expects his prize to be won by a 100% British entry, he’s likely to be proved mistaken.

I really hope that the new Longitude Prize takes off and increases interest in science, engineering and technology. But, like investment in championing Tech City, it smacks of a short term, PR-led approach by the Prime Minister – aiming for headlines, not the lasting breakthroughs that take decades to unlock.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weird Science

We’re continually being told that innovation is critical to our future as a nation – indeed, last week’s Budget included plenty of talk about encouraging research and development, technology and bright ideas.

Getting kids interested in science is vital to this – and after all it shouldn’t be too difficult, given their love of things that explode, make a mess or beep loudly (or all three). However at the moment not enough children see the link between studying science and doing cool stuff – just look at the stereotypes of white coated, glasses-wearing, techie nerds if you don’t believe me.

So as the parent of destructive but inquisitive boys I had high hopes of the Cambridge Science Festival, the annual two week series of 180+ events put on by the University of Cambridge to show everyone (not just children) that science is vital, fun and something they can get involved in. We went along to just some of the festival last Saturday and I can’t help thinking that it was an opportunity not quite delivered on. I’m not sure if they were expecting fewer people but both the Centre for Mathematical Sciences (a building I never knew existed) and the Institute for Manufacturing were crammed to the rafters and beyond with eager children and their parents. That had a knock-on effect on having to wait to do activities (and the laser bunny hop had broken, boo), leading to grumpy kids and increasingly stressed parents.

Amongst the bodies it was great to see a Raspberry Pi in the flesh, but for me the standout activities were all organised by the Cambridge Science Centre. Set up to establish a public interactive centre for science aimed at locals, tourists and schools it is currently raising funds to eventually create a permanent base in the city. It’s a great initiative and from the range of activities they put on and their sheer enthusiasm they demonstrated that they really understand their target market and know how to connect with them. My kids (aged from 3 to 8) had to be dragged away from the air cannon that showed how seeds are carried by the wind (parents, think of it as a supercharged Elefun game), while inside the Institute for Manufacturing they had a whole range of gripping hands on activities. Take a look at http://www.cambridgesciencecentre.org/ to find out more – this is exactly the type of innovation that the government is talking about and a project that really deserves to succeed.

 

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March 26, 2012 Posted by | Cambridge, Marketing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment