17 December 2010

TIC’d off by the name

One idea that survived this year’s change of government in the UK is that of the, er, what do we call them? Technology and Innovation Centres? Maxwell Centres?

Both names, it seems, have bitten the dust. No one likes the idea of TICs – it was, after all, coined for the previous administration and that bĂȘte noir Peter Mandleson.

As to Maxwell Centres, another idea that was rattling around, the physicists, in the shape of the Institute of Physics complained that if you must steal the great man’s name then you should use the whole mouthful. Somehow, it seems unlikely that the media, for one, would adopt the tag James Clerk Maxwell Centres. So the people in charge of the creation process, the Technology Strategy Board, have been going into huddles to come up with clever names.

The idea of these centres arises from Herman Hauser’s report on innovation in the UK, The Current and Future Role of Technology and Innovation Centres in the UK. Borrowing the idea of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, Hauser wanted TICs, as he labelled them, to “act as the bridge between research and the commercialisation of new ideas by business”.

The need arises because over the years other places that filled this role have faded into oblivion. The research associations have been privatised, the companies that arose out of the nationalised industries no longer run large R&D centres, so not railway research centre, BT’s Martlesham lab is a shadow of its former self and essentially a software a machine for the company, while energy businesses have abandoned R&D in the UK.

Universities can't, and don’t want to, do the sort of work involved in taking bright ideas from discovery to technology. And when it comes to the physical sciences that underpin much of manufacturing, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) doesn't have the research centres of, say, the Medical Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The government plans to put £200 million into TICs. Word has it that there should have been an announcement about the first of these before the Christmas recess. This seems to have been buried in the snow that has brought the UK to a halt. Or maybe they really are stumped for ideas as to what to call the things.