22 August 2013

Manchester does the business with #graphene

Not much has been happen to graphene in these dog days of summer, when all sane journalists go to earth. With few politicians to run around making daft statements, and much of Europe shut down, publications have a hard time finding anything serious to write about. One consequence of the silly season is that, just as Friday is a good day to bury news during normal times, August is a fine time to put out stuff that you don’t really want trumpeted to the heavens.

Can this really be why the University of Manchester chose the holiday season to trickle out the news that it has "appointed a Business Development and Strategy Director for graphene to attract some of the world’s biggest companies to partner with the National Graphene Institute”?

This is, after all, the university that gives lab space to none other than Andre Geim, “inventor” and cheerleader for graphene, and the man who,  a week or so before the latest announcements, said in a programme on BBC Radio 4 that the taxpayer funded his research, so he felt no great urge to patent his work or to rush to make money out of it. (The BBC also gave air time to Geim’s ideas in a recent Radio 4 Profile of the frog levitating Nobel laureate.) If the taxpayer backed him, Geim argued, then he owes it to society to publish what he does openly for anyone to develop as they see fit.

Perhaps it is just the conspiracy theorist in us that looks for ulterior motives behind the absence of Geim’s name in Manchester’s announcement that Nathan Hill, another lapsed physicist, is to be Business Development and Strategy Director. (It can be hard to tell these days if those capital letters deliberate, and a job title, or sloppy editing.) The press release tells us that the appointment “marks a pivotal phase in the engineering and commercial development of graphene as an industrial material”.

Hill certainly has done time in a business that grew out of university research. He worked at Oxford Instruments “where, as a Managing Director, he worked on thin film and bulk superconductors and semiconductor materials and devices”, all good grounding for work on graphene. Over on the website of another of Hill’s businesses, Qi3, with a focus on “providing hands-on expertise in all aspects of marketing technology-based products, from strategy to implementation”, we read that his skills “are in sales, sales management, product marketing, strategic portfolio management, acquisitions and general management in export markets”.

Those skills probably explain why Manchester reeled him in. The job there seems to be to bring in businesses to work with the local researchers. Hill’s first job there, we read, “will be to set up a graphene Industry Club and a number of strategic partnerships with major companies”. At a strategic level, the job will be “focus on strategy and business development for the £61m National Graphene Institute”.

These days governments throw money like that at research in the expectation of a payback. They don't invest in research for its own sake. There has to be impact, as they tirelessly proclaim. So there has to be someone in there countering the woolly minded liberal thinking of all those scientists who do research fore the fun of it and for the greater good of mankind, rather than for the money that they could make out of it.

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