back to article 'Mafia' of ageing scientists, academics and politicos suck at picking tech 'winners'

Rarely has a report on industrial strategy, unveiled by the Prime Minister Theresa May at the Sci-Tech Daresbury centre in the North West on January 23 contained so little about industry. The strategy is built on what the Government is calling 10 "pillars": including investment in science, research and innovation, developing …

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  1. James 51 Silver badge
    FAIL

    This stuff is always about what makes for good PR and scratching people's backs, not about actually helping the country or industry as a whole.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No body has as poor a track record as Ray Kurzweil

      Nobody. Ray has honed to a fine art, the making 1,000's of prognostications per year, yet later only "remembering" the 1 or 2 that came close to fulfillment, and then hyping the hell out of those. Those with any observational skills know that statistically, Ray probably beats anyone on the planet for the lead title of being a "Wrong Way Willie".

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Here's what the STFC pr machine had to say about the visit to Daresbury

    http://www.stfc.ac.uk/news/prime-minister-launches-industrial-strategy-plans-at-stfcs-daresbury-laboratory/

  3. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Graphene

    when someone works out how to make graphene in quantity they are going to make 10,000 patent holders very rich and themselves broke.

    1. I am the liquor

      Re: Graphene

      Not if the patents have expired. I reckon useful graphene-based products are probably 20 years away.

      ...A bit like how practical fusion power has been 20 years away for the last 50 years.

      1. J.G.Harston Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: Graphene

        In the 1960s fusion power was ten years away, in the 1970s it was twenty years away, in the 1980s it was thirty years away, it's now fifty years away. The future is receding from us faster then we approach it.

    2. TRT Silver badge

      Re: Graphene

      Was a step closer earlier this week with someone basing a production process on some sort of vegetable oil or something.

      1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

        Re: Graphene

        Indeed. I saw a report on that on NHK World last night. They also had a segment on building a space elevator, with a Japanese company planning to use carbon nanotube cables to get up there by 2050.

        I found their web site and it mentions:

        The current technology levels are not yet sufficient to realize the concept, but our plan is realistic, and is a stepping stone toward the construction of the space elevator.

        Are carbon nanotubes strong enough for this to even work, assuming it's possible to make a 96,000-km cable?

        1. Voyna i Mor Silver badge

          Re: Graphene

          Are carbon nanotubes strong enough for this to even work, assuming it's possible to make a 96,000-km cable?

          The problem with exotic materials is always the same; how do you make them defect free, and then how do you keep them defect free? A space elevator cable is going to be subject to ion and particle bombardment. If one of those multi-Joule cosmic ray particles hit it - unlikely but not impossible - would that be enough to propagate a fracture? What would be the effect of the scouring by less exotic ions?

          Wouldn't get me up in one of them things, etc. etc. Look how long it took to sort out the metallurgy of cast iron (in which time bridges fell down and engines cracked) and the aluminium alloys (Comet?). With any project like that the first one is likely to fail - and you can't build a pilot space elevator.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Industry

    Following on from Mrs. T's hatchet job in the 80s and the today's rise of the career politicians with no experience of industry, manufacturing or anything, it's not surprising they put out such PR fluff pieces with no substance behind them.

  5. maffski

    Self defeating conclusion?

    So, article suggests picking winners is not possible, and concludes with...

    '...If the PM wishes to know what sort of company should be at the heart of any future UK industrial strategy, Hayes and his many chief executive friends around the country are ready and waiting for her call'.

    And this will be different why?

    Perhaps a better choice would be not doing any of this rubbish and leaving the resulting hundreds of millions of revenue in the hands of people who have shown an ability to add value (hence the existence of that profit to tax)

    1. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

      Re: Self defeating conclusion?

      Nope, I don't think so. Picking individual winners can't be done, but picking groups which include some winners can. Arguably, don't waste time trying to pick winners based on conventional wisdom, throw a few wild-cards into the mix.

      If £100 million is split among 100 companies as R&D money, some will be wasted, some will break evenish, but there are likely to be a few that will really take off, and more than re-coup the total investment.

      Similarly with student projects - £10 or £20 million split 100 ways, amongst slightly wacky student projects will, statistically, probably find a few big winners.

      1. maffski

        Re: Self defeating conclusion?

        @Pen-y-gors

        'If £100 million is split among 100 companies as R&D money, some will be wasted, some will break evenish, but there are likely to be a few that will really take off, and more than re-coup the total investment.'

        But that £100m came, for the most part, from the profits of successful companies. So you're taking money from people that have a proven record of generating growth and giving it to a group of people, some of whom might have the ability to generate growth.

        If the state wants to invest it should be in public goods - and there should be no claim that this is investment to generate a return - it's a public good, full stop. Something like graphine for instance.

        All this stuff about industrial strategies is rubbish - the best people to evaluate risk are those taking the risks.

        1. Dan 55 Silver badge

          Re: Self defeating conclusion?

          If we want a successful industrial strategy perhaps we should just copy what Germany does.

          Although worker training, union representation, collective bargaining, and regions owning a percentage of companies probably won't fly, I'm sure local politicians on boards will do.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Self defeating conclusion?

        "picking groups which include some winners can"

        Like UK government was so good at picking the future of the space or automotive industries?

        (Hint, one suceeded in spite of the govt and the other crashed and burned with the full support of it)

    2. Sam Haine

      Why the Industrial Revolution happened here

      Perhaps Theresa May should watch this:

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01pz9d6/why-the-industrial-revolution-happened-here

      Very little state intervention involved.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Mafia of ageing scientists, academics and politicos suck at picking tech 'winners'

    One could also point to any number of tech bubbles where businesses also demonstrably sucked at picking winners, and/or invested way too much, or way too little.

    Perhaps you might just have said "humans suck at picking tech winners", with a footnote saying that they are so awful at it that even when eventually one of them gets it right (most likely purely by accident), that lucky tech-enthusiast is then lauded as though they were /obviously/ right all along, when in fact they were just as blinkered as everyone else.

    1. codejunky Silver badge

      Re: Mafia of ageing scientists, academics and politicos suck at picking tech 'winners'

      @AC

      The difference is who loses. If a business gets it wrong the business suffers the losses. If the gov picks a loser we as tax payers get to pay for it and the subsequent payments to try to make something positive of it/bungs.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Mafia of ageing scientists, academics and politicos suck at picking tech 'winners'

        Agreed - everyone sucks at predicting the future, as witnessed by the corpses of many investment firms along the way. The investors that success are an example of survivor's bias, coupled with a modest shift in the mean of the Gaussian in some generous cases; or insider information in others....

  7. Schultz
    Boffin

    Industrial policy versus science funding

    I think it's a major problem that industrial policy and science funding are getting mingled (in politics and in this article). Offering government money for the development of (potential) industrial processes often results in development projects that were considered not worthy on their own. (Would you wait for that possible government grant if you knew you had a project that could make you money right now?) Industrial policy should focus on a stable business environment that allows creative enterprises to emerge and grow.

    Science funding, on the other hand, should be broadly spread, because you can't predict the future results. If you can predict it, then the science is done and it turns into engineering. A side effect of Science funding is, of course, a population of creative and skilled scientists and engineers that might later go into profitable careers.

    1. rdhood

      Re: Industrial policy versus science funding

      "Science funding, on the other hand, should be broadly spread, because you can't predict the future results. If you can predict it, then the science is done and it turns into engineering. A side effect of Science funding is, of course, a population of creative and skilled scientists and engineers that might later go into profitable careers."

      In an ideal world. sure. In the real world, it's not. Gov't money is invariably tied to expectations, and money is spread according to those expectations. Much of the time, you end up getting the science that you expect, with the same projects sucking up vast sums of money because of prevailing attitudes and expectations. And scientists tend to go where the money flows, and tries to give the expected results. A scientist has to eat too, after all.

    2. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

      Re: Industrial policy versus science funding

      @Shultz

      Very good points. We see a similar trend in the Netherlands: science funding of big projects, preferably with industry. This can and does produce some good science, and the odd bit of new product development. However, there is less and less funding for fundamental science, and in particular the smaller "what if?" projects for just one PhD student who can work on some weird idea of their own or their supervisor. In such projects you often end up solving totally different problems than we set out to do along the way. They rarely fail in their entirety, for even if the original goal isn't reached, the serendipitous discoveries along the way, and the insights gained on why something didn't work are still valuable in their own right. Not necessarily valuable in terms of money (what price do we put on the Schroedinger equation?), but valuable for other scientists to build new ideas on, and not least in having trained another intelligent person with an inquiring mind. Money spent of research projects is very much money spent on education, after all. Besides, many scientific breakthroughs only bear fruit much later, and often in unexpected areas. If we hadn't gone into the weird world of quantum mechanics, we would probably not have developed the transistor, which would be a pity, as I am quite a fan of the transistor.

      This is not to say collaborations with industry should not be encouraged. I get a lot of ideas from problems facing such industrial partners as I have, and in computer science in particular, the distance between theoretical concept and practical application is small. I might develop the theory of some new image processing tool in the morning, develop an algorithm in the afternoon, and have a working prototype the next day. In e.g. material science, this is unthinkable.

      Science is an evolutionary process, with ideas mutating and recombining in new ways, and being submitted to selection by experimental validation (or more properly, ideas survive as long as we cannot falsify them), and by allocation of funding. In any evolutionary process, we can easily get premature convergence on suboptimal solutions by applying too much selection pressure. By funding a few, big projects in narrow fields, we run precisely that risk.

    3. EBG

      Re: Industrial policy versus science funding

      It's likely to get worse. Government has just merged Innovate UK into the (much bigger) academic research councils.

  8. TRT Silver badge

    The Crick is no waste of money. But the Atrium is a bit vast.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      All new science buildings seem to need an atrium.

      I can only assume its mandatory to have somewhere nice to hold 'a bit of a do' on the one day when the great and the good come visiting*.

      * The staff are rarely invited to these events, and if they are do, the workers are told to stand quietly out of camera view whilst a politician or minor royal lectures them about the economic potential of a scientific concept they only learned about a couple of minutes ago.

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: All new science buildings seem to need an atrium.

        Having spent quite a lot of time in science buildings over the years (mostly physics ones), I can testify (IME) to the slightly-grim corridor-heavy scruffiness of almost all of them; although occasionally you get lucky and might get a brief period of generic 90's office, or a superficial refurb where they paint the walls white, add a few extra lights, and change the floor covering. In general, some evidence that the architect actually thought people might be working there at some point would be nice, although slightly more reliable-than-average lifts are also appreciated.

        1. MondoMan

          Re: All new science buildings seem to need an atrium.

          Paul, many (most?) of the molecular biology research buildings built in the last few decades near Boston, MA, have clear evidence of architectural design foresight, with desks located by outside windows, lab benches further in, and big common-use equipment like chemical rooms and incubator rooms in the building core. To ensure easier access, there are even parallel rings of corridors and cross-corridors. Finally, the elevators typically work.

          Perhaps molecular biologists with their cool big-data genomics and fancy-looking neuroimaging can sweet-talk big donors better than the physicists (who after all developed nuclear weapons over 50 years ago now).

  9. nijam

    The author seems quite ill-informed about what Universities actually do, I note. Of course, he's grinding his own axe whilst complaining about politicians grinding theirs.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You mean buildings

    primarily the National Graphene Institute, a costly bespoke building in itself

    http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk/news/revealed-new-60m-graphene-centre-cgi

  11. It wasnt me

    Really?

    "First, space has often been described as a sector with huge potential – totalling £19bn in turnover by 2020 and 70,000 jobs. In fact, space revenue is rather modest – a few hundred million – which goes into satellites and instrumentation development, with a few lucky firms taking the lion's share."

    --Sorry, that just patently isn't true. One has to assume the rest of the article is unsubstantiated crap as well. Have a look around at what money really comes from space. Tens of thousands of jobs and £12billion in 2015 for a start. Growth rates ahead of most industries.

    What is your problem with space? At least back your assertions up with some data.

    Really not worthy of the register.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      What is your problem with space? At least back your assertions up with some data.

      Let's hear it then. Where is the "space data"?

      UK launchers ain't that many.

      Taxpayer-funded projects don't count.

      1. Mike Richards Silver badge

        Re: Really?

        EADS Astrium, Surrey Satellite technology and Inmarsat for three.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Re: Really?

          > EADS

          > Not taxpayer funded

          All of the above also sound like "comms satellite tech" mainly, under "space" I would like to see some adventurous things.

          1. Esme

            Re: Really?

            Reaction Engines. Fund those lads well and the UK could grab a hefty advantage in the industry of delivering cargo to low-Earth orbit and rapid intercontinental transport. RE = top boffinry in the true British tradition IMO.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Another problem is that the taxpayer has pushed billions of pounds onto the banks to subsidise the cost of lower-rate loans to SMEs, only for that money to be diverted into mortgage loans instead.

  13. clanger9

    I'm all for policy-bashing

    ...but the article seems a it light on the usual level of El Reg insight.

    What about the other (potentially promising) areas of the policy doc around energy systems and battery tech? We've got some good, successful companies in this space, may of whom are located in the North-West. Are you saying these sectors NOT worthy of support? Less worthy than "innovative pallets"?

    Also, there's a bit of a weird Mersey fetish going on here. You Mancs and Scousers seem to be perpetually at each other's throats. This is a UK strategy, so how about dropping the regional rivalries for a bit.

    1. Sam Haine

      Manchester is dying

      I like Manchester, but the harsh truth is that it never found a replacement for its original reason for becoming a city, textiles, and it is slowly dying. Public sector employment will keep it going for a bit longer but there's nothing on the horizon to reverse the decline.

  14. Lars Silver badge
    Coat

    Graphene

    Long and interesting story behind that one word (as always).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphene

    And looking for Manchester we find:

    "One of the very first patents pertaining to the production of graphene was filed in October 2002 and granted in 2006 (US Pat. 7071258).[37] Titled, "Nano-scaled Graphene Plates," this patent detailed one of the very first large scale graphene production processes. Two years later, in 2004 Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov at The University of Manchester extracted single-atom-thick crystallites from bulk graphite......"

    Well done Manchester for attracting then two foreigners.

    Andre Geim

    "Andre Geim was born to Konstantin Alekseyevich Geim and Nina Nikolayevna Bayer in Sochi on 21 October 1958. Both his parents were engineers of German origin.[30][31] In 1965, the family moved to Nalchik,[32] where he studied at a high school.[32] After graduation, he applied to the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute .............".

    Kostya Novoselov

    Konstantin Novoselov was born in Nizhny Tagil, Soviet Union, in 1974.[14] He graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology with a MSc degree in 1997,[1] and was awarded a PhD from the Radboud University of Nijmegen in 2004..........".

  15. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Holmes

    The more reactors become "small"

    Promoting Rolls-Royce's "small modular" nuclear reactor programme could deliver much cheaper energy than the £18bn Hinkley Point power station to be built by the Chinese and French firm EDF.

    Emphasis on "could":

    The Forgotten History of Small Nuclear Reactors: Economics killed small nuclear power plants in the past—and probably will keep doing so

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: The more reactors become "small"

      Nice link. Worth a read.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: The more reactors become "small"

        I discovered there is also a link to the "World Nuclear Power Report 2014".

        Here is the one of 2016:

        http://www.worldnuclearreport.org/IMG/pdf/20160713MSC-WNISR2016V2-HR.pdf

        Unfortunately for my nuclear aspirations, the economics currently seem to be against further pursuit of this branch. Where is my fusion reactor?

    2. IT Poser

      Re: Emphasis on "could":

      The problem is that the small reactors referenced were one off prototypes. To really understand the economics we'd need a production run numbing in the hundreds.

      I also have to quibble with the definition of small based on using power generation and not physical size. IMHO, to be defined as small, it doesn't matter if the reactor produces 200MW or 1.21 jigawatts, what matters is if it can be transported on the boot of an early 80's sports car. Barges and rail cars sized models are not appropriate to examine. Instead the economics of modified Delorean cargo capacity sized models are what we care about when examining small reactors.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      Re: The more reactors become "small"

      Interesting read but misleading on several points.

      The reason why PWR's are the most popular design is because the US Navy paid for the development costs and Westinghouse realized they could flog it everywhere.

      It's a great design for pushing a large sub along at 30Kn a mile below the surface. But it's a s**t design for most other tasks.

      Cheap efficient reactors need low operating pressure (so no massive pressure vessels), high operating temperatures (at least 540c to match coal plants. PWR use 200atm to get a measly 315c) and (ideally) natural Uranium to side step all the proliferation issues. Prompt load following (IE minutes, not days) would be quite nice, something smaller reactors should be better at.

      And yes design for both construction and recycling. 1960's SMR's were designed with 1960's design tools. The materials and properties databases for reactors have grown somewhat in the last 6 decades.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: The more reactors become "small"

        "Cheap efficient reactors need low operating pressure"

        Molten salt

        "high operating temperatures"

        Molten salt

        "and (ideally) natural Uranium to side step all the proliferation issues"

        Thorium (but you can feed it natural uranium if you wish)

        The vast majority of the cost associated with PWR plants is tied in with handling high temperature/high pressure radioactive water. Nixon did the world a great disservice by killing the Oak Ridge research program.

        The bare fact is that nuclear is expensive, but we can't afford to keep using carbon and "renewables" don't produce enough energy to cover requirements when you eliminate carbon.

  16. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    "Offsite construction, which promises to solve the acute housing shortage, is one."

    I just had a flashback from the 1960ies (when this sort of thing was called prefab).

    No, we need something revolutionary to solve the housing shortage.

  17. arctic_haze Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    Time travel is THE future technology

    We need more Tardises!

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Picking winners and losers is doomed to failure

    I really don't understand why the UK government continually tries to pick winners in industrial strategy. They suck at it. Let the investment flow where the market sends it. If Liverpool is the best place for a port, warehouses and trucking centres and railheads will spring up anyway. D

    When you look at old cities, you can see that they got their start because of some key feature that attracted a critical mass of people that then attracted more. Like, a river or a natural defence. The modern equivalent is smart people with access to intellectual, labour and legal capital.

    So, what the government should be doing is making the UK the best place to do research and to turn that research into jobs. A well-funded university producing people and a banking and legal system that lets them try new businesses out is the environment you need. The US used to be unbeatable at this but lately their universities have gone nuts and their polity is barely legal any more. So plenty to play for.

  19. HKmk23

    BBC micro repeat

    The same addled thinking that allowed the BBC micro to bugger up a generation from original thought. The trouble is that by the time teachers know enough to try and teach it the concept is either dead or so far out of date it is no longer relevant. IT is not history or geography...! The only way I can see forward with the classroom and IT is workshops and apprenticeships (if UK IT companies will let the kids in).

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RE. Re. Graphene

    Low quality graphene, via contained detonation of acetylene in a resonant chamber.

    Irony: this could have been invented earlier if someone had analyzed the "soot" produced during accidental detonation of said acetylene.

    Still holding out home for MH being found in nature, in vanishingly small quantities.

    For that matter room temperature superconductors might be found if we knew where to look, some intriguing studies suggest that the Ancients may have been aware of more than just lodestones.

    What if... (insert off-the-wall hypothesis about a gigantic quenching event being responsible for Atlantis aka Zealandia being "sunk" by some freakish combination of a natural disaster, sea level rise and folks messing with their new-found geomagnetic power source)

  21. Richard Barnes

    Courage and honesty

    Governments of all political colours have been proven down the years to be awful at making investment decisions. So why do they still do it? I think the answer is that they are scared of being asked the question "what are you doing about X?" and being unwilling to give the courageous and honest answer, which is: "X is not a matter in which government should be directly involved. It is for the market to decide".

    Instead, the knee-jerk response from politicians to every question has to be: "look how much money we are spending on X. Aren't we great! Vote for us!"

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