Archive Page 2

Decision time

Tonight the mentors and funders had to make the big decision – what projects go forward for funding, what doesn’t make the cut. It’s uncomfortable – all the more so because the process is so much more public than the usual anonymous peer review. But what’s important is that we’ve got tremendously exciting projects to look forward to, which we really don’t think would have been arrived at any other way. We were looking for a grand vision – real ambition, of a kind that scientists are sometimes reluctant to commit to. But we needed to be sure that, on the very first day of the project, it was clear exactly what the newly starting scientists on the project would do. And, while it’s obvious that for a sufficiently big vision, one can’t expect the route from here to there to be fully mapped out at the outset, we need to be sure that there are no obviously unbridgeable chasms in the way. We know, and the funders know too, that there is a significant risk of failure, but that’s as it has to be.

Now we’re in a tidying up phase; working on the details and doing the necessary, if less exciting, work of finalising the costings and tightening up the project management arrangements. Tomorrow I may be able to give some more details of what the outcome has been; for the moment I’ll say simply that, on the experimental side, we have two different approaches, each highly multidisciplinary, whose outcome is planned to be the software-directed deterministic synthesis of covalently bonded, functional nanoscale objects.

Richard Jones

Day 4 in the Big Brother house…

And there’s a lot of talk about novelty. How novel are the proposals? How novel are the approaches? And how novel is what we’ve all been doing here all week? Is this really any different from a conference or a chat in a University common room.  Before we started, five days seemed like an age. Nearing the end, it feels pretty tight. There’s no denying that, as a way of funding science, this is pricey. As well as the cost of keeping everyone here, there are the opportunity costs of taking some of the country’s best scientists away from their desks.   For me, there are many reasons to do things like this, and many reasons why they make financial sense. But the important, intangible value is in bringing people together, bumping them into each other, sparking thoughts and challenging assumptions. Everyone talks about interdisciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity or whatever. Few are trying to make it work in practice.  

Our facilitators, Martin Taylor and Gudrun Friedrich, who run a company called ClearSpot Consulting, reminded me about ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.’ It’s something Bruce Tuckman talked about in the 60s and Wikipedia tells me that it informs Big Brother. At the end of a process, it’s difficult as a participant to look back and see the point of everything that happened. But I reckon that, as we come to performing stage, the storming part has been vital. My hope is that, in months to come, our scientists will look back and appreciate the new ideas and relationships that were seeded earlier in the week.



Past the crux

At the end of today, after our first and only trip off-site, for a dinner in the nearby market town, we’re reflecting on what’s been very much the pivotal day in the Ideas Factory process. In the process we are following, four projects were developed and subjected to a kind of internal peer review. We did a lot of rethinking about the shape of the projects that were being developed and the boundaries between them, and the spread of skills needed for them. We finished the day with some concrete, yet rich and challenging, areas, to go forward. The task tomorrow is to make these into well-defined proposals, which the research council can feel comfortable about funding.

One consequence of the time it took to get through all this, was that the mysterious activities involving the theatre director had to be dropped for lack of time. We did, though, finish the day with another kind of lateral thought – sculptor Tom Grimsey, who’s been a full participant in the process, talked to us about his reflections and showed us some short films.

Sculpture table
Some malleable sculptures by Tom Grimsey

Richard Jones

The view from the industry

As a change of pace at the end of a long and at times difficult day, we had a great talk from Steffi Friedrichs, Director of the Nanotechnology Industries Association, giving a forward look about where her members see the major application opportunities for nanotechnologies on a 10-15 year timescale, and how the outcome of this Ideas Factory could contribute to or drive forward these opportunities. The NIA is a relatively newly established organisation, based in the UK, with UK government support and encouragement, but including a number of major multinationals as well as smaller startups. All their members, though, are distinguished by the fact that they make, or are thinking of making, products, using nanotechnologies. Steffi was looking well ahead of current commercialised applications in nanomaterials, to possible functional devices and integrated systems with applications in areas such as energy, healthcare and medicine, particularly, in the latter area, the ideas of the combination of nanoscale sensors and point-of-delivery synthesis which are implicit in the increasingly fashionable area of theranostics.

New technology, old technology

Day 2, and we’re starting to sketch out ideas and directions. Loads of ideas and thoughts, but we’re still very much in the divergent phase.

The wireless link in this venue is so flakey that we’ve ended up printing out all 65 comments to the blog and sticking them to the wall.

Blog corner

Getting going…

Today the Ideas Factory got going in earnest. A group of scientists arrived this morning at a country house outside Southampton, which would feel delightfully rural if it wasn’t for grey skies and continuous rain. There’s no time to enjoy the surroundings, though – we’ve spent the day immersed in flip charts and post-it notes, beginning the process of getting to know each other, finding out what we each have to offer by way of expertise and other skills, and beginning to define the problem.
New Place conference centre
Some damp ideas factory participants outside the conference centre.

It all feels very chaotic at the moment, but I expect that the process of finding definition will start in the bar this evening.

Richard Jones

Is the view worth the climb?

Richard has asked for ideas about what we could do if we had a matter compiler. There has been a range of suggestions but, to my industrial eyes, too high a fraction of “you could do this piece of science”. Jack points out the confusion between science and technology. To paraphrase a wittier quote “research is turning money into ideas and technology is turning ideas into money”.

Although there is a fair amount of activity that parades under the nomenclature of nanotechnology, I suspect much is driven by the availability of funding or the desire not to be left out! Industry does what it can identify the output of – and output that has value to society or individuals. We are surely aiming at having the output of the ideas factory accessible to society? Is there another route?

There are also a lot of questions about whether we want short or long term goals. If we are to realise the full potential of the goal we are setting ourselves this week, we need to identify both short and long term goals but – and to my mind this is the crux of the question – we need to start with is the final paragraph of Jack’s last post “What things – methods, products, outcomes, social needs – should we be imagining? And what questions should we have in our minds as we do so?” We can then prioritise them in terms of effort required and resultant benefit and decide where best to focus our efforts – over time. In other words we first need to ask what CAN we do and then what WILL we do?

David Bott