Showing little foresight

The Government’s Technology Foresight programme is trying to make scientific advances and new technology accessible to UK industry, so why do so few people know about it? Michael Evamy reports

Despite the persistent efforts of Tomorrow’s World, science and technology are still alienated from popular culture. In the mass media, most stories about technological advances are imbued with the image of the scientist as a loopy lab-hermit with specs and no friends. And the public continues to be freaked out, rather than edified, by reports of the latest breakthroughs in genetics, communications and robotics.

It’s a very old problem. Some historians claim it goes back to the mid-seventeenth century, when the God-fearing Galileo was forced to shroud his arguments about a heliocentric universe in obscure maths in order to make them incomprehensible to an enraged Pope. Others say it started with the publication of Frankenstein, the novel that invented the deranged scientist. They didn’t know that their King was a fruitcake, but the Georgian population knew all about the mad Baron. Science became a pretty scary subject.

Facing such a deep-rooted unease about what goes on in laboratories, maybe it is asking a bit much of the Government – particularly this one – to come up with some original and effective ways of publicising modern technological advances. There are all kinds of excellent reasons why it should try to do so, which have to do with industrial competitiveness and democracy. However, in the muddle strewn since the publication of its Technology Foresight reports in May, the Government looks all too ready to let an excellent opportunity slip through its grasp.

Technology Foresight is the Government’s attempt at the kind of exercise performed for decades in Japan, where the Ministry of Trade & Industry (MITI) speculates on technologies that will come to dominate markets in the next 10 to 20 years. By identifying emerging technologies, the UK Government hopes that it will encourage companies to invest in research in these key areas, and give them a lead into the 21st century over their foreign rivals.

The Office of Science & Technology (OST) commissioned 15 panels of experts to present their visions of the future in different sectors. In a research programme costing 1.6m, over 10 000 people were canvassed in surveys, seminars and interviews. On the same day that Michael Heseltine published his White Paper on Competitiveness, a steering group announced a set of cross-sectoral “priorities for action”. These included software applications; “smart” materials; human factors in the workplace and home and automation technologies of value to manufacturing pro-cesses and services.

Foresight has been welcomed by all political parties and industrial groups. The Design Council, for instance, backs the programme: chief executive Andrew Summers calls the recommendations “sensible, especially in relation to new product development opportunities. The priorities are consistent with work the Design Council is undertaking in areas such as environmentally

sustainable technology, remote working and multimedia.”

But, despite the support, concern has spread that all the good work will be wasted if the results of the research are not disseminated effectively throughout industry. The OST says it has 110m with which to back Foresight’s dissemination and related projects, but who has heard of it? In the press, coverage of the culminatory Foresight report was eclipsed by Heseltine’s White Paper. What press there was concentrated on gadget-spotting, highlighting the more bizarre ideas such as a remote device for changing the colour of wallpaper.

The OST promises a year-long series of sectoral seminars across the country, but does not know how many there will be. They will act as briefings to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) “who have expressed an interest in Foresight”. In addition, says the OST, it has direct-mailed all those consulted during the preparation of the reports.

So at present, Foresight appears to be known about only among those involved in putting it together. Industrial groups are concerned that the important information from the research is packaged in easily digested form and delivered to the right people. However, unless it is communicated in a pro-active way to targeted groups, large sections of the intended audience will continue in blithe ignorance of the work.

“We really need a clear, well-publicised communications plan,” says Dr Philip Wright, a senior policy adviser with the Confederation of British Industry’s Technology Group. “There has to be a great deal of flexibility. But what has to be considered is who the actual audiences will be for particular types of information. Then you can consider the best ways of getting it there,” he adds.

Labour’s shadow science and technology minister, John Battle, has in mind a network of “science shops”. “They would be a bit like a Citizens Advice Bureau office – a place of enquiry about science, engineering and technology issues that anybody could use. There would be someone there who may know quite a bit about science, engineering and technology issues, and about communicating it. There could be computers to give on-line advice. They’d be about making sure science isn’t just left to the experts and would go some way to dispersing Technology Foresight knowledge to industry and the general public.”

Some also worry that Government departments have missed out on the recommendations that require public sector action. Before it issued its statement, the Design Council – a Government-funded body – needed prodding and a reminder of what Technology Foresight was. Battle recalls his own party’s grand sectoral studies of the Sixties that were left to gather dust on government shelves. He believes a lack of policy and “joined-up thinking” between departments threatens implementation of Foresight’s infrastructural action points by ministries such as education, defence and the Department of Trade and Industry.

The DTI’s Business Link network has been proposed as the principal channel of Foresight information to SMEs. However, the lack of co-ordination is almost tangible. The Design Council, planning to disseminate its own research through Business Links, should take note of the shambles.

A DTI spokesman – a “specialist” on the Business Links – was unable to say how pro-active the offices would be in targeting local firms with relevant Foresight material. “You should talk to the OST,” was his reply. “How pro-active BLs will be depends on the broader dissemination strategy that the OST is drawing up. I don’t know what that is, I’m afraid.”

The OST’s “specialist” spokeswoman said that all the OST would do is send the reports to Business Link offices. “We give out the info on Technology Foresight, and however they [the Business Links] take it forward is up to them.”

It begins to sound like bickering schoolchildren, doesn’t it?

“If that continues,” says Battle, “it will completely beggar any strategic policy that can carry the Foresight programme forward. And it will say to all those who have taken part so far, ‘thanks for the ideas but they’ll have to wait’.”

Galileo must be turning in his grave.

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