31 January 2009

Can R&D save the world's economy?

Buried in all the hand wringing about the collapse of the economy as we know it, a handful of folks are pushing for an economic revival built on technology, on R&D and brain power. The notion has even made it into corporate PR, as I found in the usual scour for ideas to feed LabNotes on Science|Business.

Ray O’Connor, president and CEO of a company that "designs and manufactures precise positioning products and solutions for the global surveying, construction, agriculture, civil engineering, mapping and GIS, asset management and mobile control markets," Topcon Positioning Systems, decided to have a rant in his "State of the Industry Message" about the need to continue spending on R&D even when the economy is at death's door. He is not alone, which is why it was worth writing R&D rides the recessionary bandwagon.

26 January 2009

Mix messages in R&D Scoreboard

The UK R&D Scoreboard always provides a lead for a piece on Science|Business. This time there wasn't even any need to read the report to get the ball rolling. (That can come later.) The R&D Society raised enough questions about the numbers to spark off the piece, Scoreboard delivers mixed message.

It seems that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills concentrated on the top of the table when writing its press release. The R&D Society noticed that the "increase" in R&D spending by smaller companies was actually less than inflation.

23 January 2009

Can technology save Detroit?

Motor shows aren't my cup of tea. I went to the London show once, and even managed to write a story. It was about some fancy electronic diagnostic system that Volkswagen was pushing out into the dealers that serviced its vehicles.

That was a long time ago. But even then it was pretty obvious that Detroit, the city that gave as the mass produced motor car, was behind the curve when it came to adopting technology.

Japan threw technology at making cars. It also began the arms race of adding technologically inspired bits and pieces to make cars more attractive to buyers.

European car makers were no slouch when it came to technology. Wasn't it Audi that gave us the "vorsprung der technik" slogan?

Detroit simply didn't feature in the technology game, as you found when you went to the USA and hired one of the cars made there. But now we have the leaders of the American motor industry calling for the US government to help to fund the adoption of technology, as I found when writing my latest rant for the IET, Can technology save Detroit?

Much of the enthusiasm for technology hinges on the electric car, which both Chevrolet and Ford talked about long and loud at this years Detroit car show, inevitably labelled the "North American International Auto Show".

Americans generally have more enthusiasm for new technology than Europeans, but when it comes to cars, they don't seem to have the same love of the new, or of the environmentally responsible. So Detroit may have a hard time selling this particular package to customers even if the government buys the sales pitch.

20 January 2009

Decongestion is not for Manchester

While many people are happy to proclaim their green credentials, ask them to vote for measures that might actually achieve something and they seem less convinced. Voting for congestion charging, for example, brings out dirtier tendencies.

Working on a comment piece for the IET's "Transport sector," The wrong medicine to clear congestion, turned up evidence that even Swedes, often seen to be greener than many, will reject such proposals.

When asked for their views on congestion charging in Stockholm, there was a narrow vote for the idea in the middle of the city, but suburban Swedes were heavily against the idea.

As an aside, these commuters would not have had a chance to vote under the original plan. It was only when surrounding municipalities decided to hold polls that the rest of the region got a chance to vote on the plan.

In the event, Stockholm got its congestion charge because it was down to the parliament to make the final decision. That should be a lesson to others who want to implement green measures.

As in London, the charge brought positive benefits. But it seems unlikely that this will carry any weight with voters in other cities.

Research in magic circles

It is interesting to see how companies change their models of working with academics. One recent development, most visibly promulgated by Rolls-Royce, is the "university technology centre". UTCs, as Rolls-Royce dubs them, are big university teams with the company as the "sole proprietor". These centres work on specific issues that appeal to the company.

Originally a British phenomenon. RR now has UTCs all over the world. For example, one of the most recent, number 25, is in Darmstadt, where the Technical University in Darmstadt has a UTC that specialises in "the aerothermal interaction between the combustor and turbine".

Now we have a new variation on the theme. Well, GE Healthcare says it is new, but I gather that the late lamented chemical giant ICI did this sort of thing years ago. The new model is the "research circle," which I can across when writing about it for Science|Business, Research in magic circles.

Instead of a fragmented web of bilateral arrangements with dozens of different academic groups the company sets up a club of academics who work on different aspects of a subject. In this case the subject is a promising new way of doing magnetic resonance imaging, bringing it into the realm of "live" analysis of how drags treat cancer, for example.