Hauser’s back

Science and Universities Minister David Willetts and Dr Hermann Hauser initiate a national Catapult review programme.

Jane Gray reports on the start of the national Catapult review programme.

“Hermann’s back on tour. This is his first gig!” joked David Willetts as he took the podium at the Royal Academy of Engineering for a select meeting of industry leaders in early May.

It’s like the return of The Rolling Stones, he quipped brightly.

With Dr Hermann Hauser sitting calmly, in navy jacket and polka-dot neckerchief, the comparison was perhaps a little far-fetched. But none-the-less, Mr Willetts was right to imply that Dr Hauser’s return to the UK is an exciting occasion for industry.

The backstory

In 2009 Hauser was called on by Peter Mandelson, then Business Secretary, to investigate the state of the UK’s industrial innovation landscape and to formulate a plan to strengthen it.

This result, in a 2010 report, was the concept for a series of Technology Innovation Centres or TICs which would be funded in triumvirate by government, industry and competition funding.

In an encouraging display of continuity and commitment to a stronger British industrial base, this concept was picked up and developed by the current government when it came to power – it was a turn of events which Hauser himself says was a surprise, but a welcome one.

A selection of findings from the RAEng Catapult review day

  • Catapults need to refine their methods of engagement with SMEs – but one model should not be made to fit all
  • Catapults should collaborate more closely with existing R&D facilities across the UK to make the most of the installed research base
  • Catapults should aim to become “iconic” centres for the inspiration of next generation professionals in their fields
  • The Catapult funding model works well but the centres could do more to put forward collaborative bids for competition funding – such as Horizon 2020

A full record of the group’s findings was taken by the Technology Strategy Board.

The review

The TICs are of course now the Catapults, of which the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is the longest standing having opened its doors in October 2011. There are seven other Catapults today, and two more to come on line next year – Energy Systems and Precision Medicine.

The network is young, some would say too young to require an in-depth review. But that is exactly what Hauser has returned for, following a commission from Business Secretary Vince Cable.

Over the next few months he will visit all of the burgeoning centres, assessing how well they are doing and evaluating where gaps between Catapult disciplines might point to a new Catapult being formed.

Hauser will make suggestions around where the two new Catapult’s might best be located and propose ways in which the Catapults could link better with other government initiatives to form a more tightly woven industrial infrastructure – initiatives like the Business Bank for example.

Willett’s speech at RAEng, which welcomed Hauser’s insight, also called for the future strategic direction of the Catapults to take into account the Eight Great Technologies identified by the Science and Universities Minister for priority science funding.

“Some of these technologies are already covered by the Catapults,” he said “But is there an argument, for instance, for a Robotics and Automated Systems Catapult?”

Willetts was also keen to find a way to use the Catapults to support a wider footprint of UK R&D facilities which are currently beyond the scope of support from the Science Budget. He used TWI as an example.

However, while enthusiastic about the idea of growing the Catpapult network, Willetts was also cautious of overstretching it. He suggested that, while government support for the Catapults must be long term, we should be wary of “fossilising” technology centres.

Government and industry, in partnership, should not be afraid to close a centre should a technology avenue fail or be superseded he proposed.

Broadly, Willett’s audience – and Hauser – agreed and during an afternoon of workshops which gave guests the opportunity share their observations on the operation of the Catapults, a recurring warning was made against investing in new centres at the expense of the capability of those which already exist.

Hauser’s first port of call for his Catapult review will be the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. More news to follow.

If you would like to contribute your own experiences and observations to the Catapult review process you can do so here up untill May 30.