It came from the skies

2 min read

Features editor

Yesterday’s announcement of the government’s Innovation and Research Growth Strategy served as a great example of the difficulties of making imaginative policy when you haven’t got any money to do it with. It’s pretty tricky to turn an extra £75m into a major announcement, since that’s roughly the cost of a dozen decent long-term research projects these days. Presenting the policy to an audience of science and technology correspondents, Vince Cable and David Willetts had the air of a double act — Grumpy and Brains, perhaps — who knew they had to pull out something eye-catching.

The renaming of the Technology and Innovation Centres probably wasn’t it. TIC might be a bit clumsy but it has the advantages of those old adverts for Ronseal — it does exactly what it says on the tin. Herman Hauser’s suggestion that they be named after a prominent British scientist (he suggested Clark-Maxwell Centres) seemed like a good option, but Cable seemed keen to downplay any similarity between the TICs and Germany’s Fraunhofer Centres. Could this be why the name-it-after-someone idea was dropped?

Leaving aside the question of why you wouldn’t want to emulate something highly successful, known worldwide, and widely seen as a mark of quality, it’s not entirely clear why they chose to call them Catapult Centres. Willetts mentioned that it’s both a verb and a noun and shows the aspiration behind the concept — to catapult (ahhh, see?) ideas from research into commercialisation. However, any idea which leads to a spate of jokes on Twitter is probably not a great one. The Space Catapult sounds a bit primitive; rockets are generally preferred these days. The Defence Catapult does rather imply that BAE Systems will be developing a brand-new, laser-guided trebuchet. And the Cell Therapy Catapult just sounds like something that’ll go splat. On the other hand, advanced composites are at least pretty good materials for building catapults. Maybe BAE Systems can use them to build their trebuchet.

Catapult: probably not what Cable and Willetts had in mind

The revival of Smart awards, the idea of X-Prize-like awards, and the publication of publically-funded research in open access journals, are all intriguing; the last of these, in particular, makes very good sense. But the best idea of the day, it seemed to us at Engineer Towers, came from Imran Khan, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. Set aside the proceeds of the upcoming auction for the 4G mobile spectrum to be reinvested in science, engineering and innovation, Khan suggested.

That seems very fitting — money raised by technology going back into technology. However, seeing as the 3G auction, back in 2000, brought in £22.5bn, it’s unlikely that the government would reserve such a windfall purely for science and technology. But think about what could happen if it did. Now that really would be imaginative.