Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report



III. WORK OF NESTA

 

Programmes

 

Invention and Innovation

  1.  The Invention and Innovation programme is designed to help inventors develop ideas into commercial products and services. Funding supports a range of activities such as research and development, patenting and securing intellectual property right and general business costs. Since funding began, in 1999, to the end of June 2002, NESTA had spent 5.3 million on 94 awards.[7] As part of the programme, NESTA takes a stake in each business. Any returns generated are invested in new projects.
  2.  NESTA's Annual Report 2000-2001 contains a variety of 'success stories' from the Invention and Innovation programme. The memorandum we received detailed some of the projects funded by NESTA. These varied from the production of a device to simplify key hole surgery to the development of a method of making music from the structures of protein molecules.[8]
  3.  2,000 applications have so far been received for the awards. The number of awards given each year has steadily increased.
  4. Table 1: Invention and Innovation awards distributed

     

    Financial Year (April to March)

    Number of Awards

    Amount spent ( million)

    1999-2000

    7

    0.5

    2000-2001

    34

    2.3

    2001-2002

    40

    1.7

    1 April 2002 - 20 June 2002

    13

    0.8

    Source: NESTA[9]

    Lord Puttnam told us that NESTA decided at its inception to devote around 40% of its annual income to its Invention and Innovation programme.[10] Mike Tomlinson, Director of Science Year and a member of NESTA's education committee, explained "you have to accept that from the point at which an idea is developed to its actual production, the selling of that product and the making of it, is not a short period of time. It can be lengthy and it can be quick, but there is a period of time. I think it takes about two years between an idea going through to actual production".[11] NESTA has now received its first royalty cheque although Jeremy Newton told us that it was worth "less than 1,000".[12]

  5.  Jeremy Newton told us in detail about some of NESTA's most successful projects. In addition to the one project already producing royalties for NESTA, he estimated that five or six would begin to show a return within a year. He said -
  6. "Most of the successful invention and innovation projects, interestingly, are in the transport area. They are either very small-scale improvements to engine design, like the one that is already delivering income, or they are very, very large-scale ambitious projects like the amphibious vehicle, which is one of our first projects. That has now received its first million pound order for four large-scale vehicles from British Waterways, who are keen to buy more; and Mitsubishi are planning to order many more. There is a substantial amount of income that we are likely to derive from that project. Cardiff have just committed over 25 million to the Ultra Urban Light Transport Scheme that Martin Lowson developed—again, one of our early projects. Our equity participation in that will mean that we will start to derive income, and probably quite a substantial capital gain from that over the next few years".[13]

    We are encouraged to see that NESTA's Invention and Innovation programme has produced its first commercial success. We hope that it will continue to see a return on its investment as projects come to fruition and recommend NESTA state clearly in its annual reports the level of return it achieves.

  7.  Our predecessor Committee's Report stated "NESTA will have to take risks with its selection of individuals to be nurtured and ideas to be exploited. If NESTA is to succeed overall, it must dare to fail on specific projects". We asked about the failure rate of projects so far. Jeremy Newton told us that four of the Invention and Innovation projects had so far been written off: "In two of those cases, they are fascinating failures, if you like, and we have learned more from them than we have learned from most of our successes".[14] We were worried that so few awards were made in the first years of NESTA and asked whether those in charge at NESTA felt that they had been too cautious or had 'dared to fail'. Lord Puttnam told us -
  8. " in the past two years we have absolutely spent up on the sums of money available to us and we have taken some significant chances; and I am quite sure that we will fall on our faces on one or two occasions; but I now think that we have enough of a track record now to be able to deal with that. I was less confident that was the case two years ago".[15]

    We encourage NESTA to continue to take chances with its Invention and Innovation projects.

     

    Fellowships

  9.  NESTA awards bursaries or Fellowships each year across the fields of science, technology and the arts. The value of these awards varies from 25,000 to 75,000 and they range from three to five years in length. Most Fellowships are awarded early in the individual's career and are made to those outside academia. Jeremy Newton said that "a small minority ... find their way to institution-based academics, university-based academics".[16] Funding is provided for different activities depending on the needs of the Fellow, such as financial assistance in attending courses, providing an income during research and development and research costs. A new Fellowship, the "Dreamtime" award, is to be introduced in 2003. This will be a Fellowship lasting up to a year for individuals established in their careers to take a break from their work for personal development.
  10.  The number of Fellowships awarded has increased at a similar rate to the Invention and Innovation awards.
  11. Table 2: Fellowships awarded

     

    Year

    Awards made

    Amount spent

    ( million)

    1999-2000

    6

    0.5

    2000-2001

    15

    1.3

    2001-2002

    35

    2.4

    1 April 2002-30 June 2002

    3

    0.2

    Source: NESTA[17]

    The Royal Academy of Engineering praised NESTA's Fellowship scheme, and mentioned the mentoring aspect of the award: "Most NESTA Fellowships involve the appointment of a mentor, who can act as a source of support and advice, as well as playing a role in assessment and monitoring. This scheme works well, with many mentors providing advice and assistance 'beyond the call of duty'".[18]

  12.  The Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) expressed concerns about aspects of NESTA's Fellowships.[19] In its business plans, NESTA has given targets for the number of Fellows it wishes to appoint each year. The AHRB was not sure why NESTA wanted to set targets. We asked NESTA if it had met its target of creating 30 Fellows in 2001-2002. Lord Puttnam told us that they had appointed 28, although figures provided after the evidence session state that 31 had in fact been appointed.[20] We too question the wisdom of targets for Fellowships, given that the length and amount awarded varies according to the recipient. There is a risk that targets might lead to the appointment of NESTA Fellows for the sake of it.
  13.  NESTA's first Fellowships are still ongoing. The AHRB told us "we are not clear as to the monitoring and evaluation strategies and mechanisms that have been put in place to enable NESTA to reach a rigorous assessment of whether the scheme has met the aims and objectives set when it was established".[21] We share these concerns but appreciate that it will not be possible to carry out a full appraisal of the scheme until the conclusion of the first set of Fellowships. We urge NESTA to identify the objectives of the Fellowships, and the basis of its monitoring and assessment of them, and to carry out an appraisal of its Fellowship programme once the first awards are completed.
  14. Education

  15.  NESTA's education programme aims to work through collaborative projects to further public understanding of science, technology and the arts. Each year a 'priority' area is selected and project proposals are then invited, which are put to the Education Committee. Successful bidding organisations then work in partnership with NESTA. In the last three years, these areas have included stimulating interest in design and technology and the re-engagement in learning of low-performing groups. NESTA told us "we seek out initiatives which improve the public's understanding of creativity and we pilot new methods of creative learning and support ways of fostering individual talents".[22] The value of the award varies from project to project. From 1999 to 30 June 2002, NESTA spent 4.6 million on 69 education projects.[23] Examples include "Technogames", a robot-building exercise carried out with the BBC and others which is now in its second year, and Online Jemma, a 'cyber heroine' studying science who will take part in interactive online dramas featuring topical science related issues, invented by XPT Ltd.
  16.  The Royal Academy of Engineering told us " [we] would encourage NESTA to steer away from supporting educational projects, for which other sources of funds exist".[24] We put this suggestion to NESTA. Lord Puttnam rejected it, telling us "I would say that of all the relationships we have created in the last two years, the most dramatically successful and productive has been that with the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency over the re-design or support for the design technology curriculum".[25] We received a memorandum from the British Antarctic Survey and Braunarts who have been involved in Education projects for two years. They told us "Working with NESTA's education team has been a very positive experience for our production team. During the two years since we first approached NESTA for funding ... we have received an unprecedented level of support and encouragement as well as practical guidance".[26] NESTA's Education programme appears to have found a niche in an overcrowded market and we are pleased to hear of its successes. We recommend that NESTA take steps to ensure that it is not funding projects which could be better funded by others.
  17.  

    Applications for funding

  18.  Jeremy Newton explained the process used by NESTA in allocating awards across its programmes. Three committees, each comprising three to four trustees (members of NESTA's governing board) and the same number of non-trustees, decide which applications will be successful. The inventions and innovations committee meets monthly and the others every other month. Mr Newton told us -
  19. "They receive quite a substantial amount of background information about all of the substantial proposals we have had in the previous couple of months, and they are discussed and decided on in detail at that stage. They have a reasonable degree of delegated authority to take smaller scale financial decisions. In larger scale cases they are remitted to the next full trustee meeting for final ratification. Most of the detailed discussions and assessments and decision-making is done at committee level".[27]

    Applications for the Invention and Innovation and Education programmes are open to all. The Department for Media, Culture and Sport told us that NESTA was "seen as a model for electronic handling of applications".[28]

  20.  The AHRB perceived that "the majority of awards to date have been made in various areas of the arts".[29] We would be concerned if this were indeed the case. Lord Puttnam told us that NESTA did not separate what was spent on the arts, technology and science, "as we believe that could lead us into making a series of wrong decisions, so we try very, very hard not to make decisions on that basis, certainly quarter-to-quarter". [30] We asked if NESTA monitored its work across the categories. Lord Puttnam replied "we monitor very closely, but not in a category sense".[31] NESTA covers science, technology and the arts. We recommend that NESTA give close attention to the distribution of its awards between those sectors as well as the quantity.
  21.  

    Nominations for Fellowships

  22.  NESTA Fellows are selected by a network of nominators, experts who are asked to identify talented people in their areas; there are around 150 nominators at any one time. Each nominator may only make two nominations. Once nominated, the candidates are subject to consideration by a fellowship committee and an independent assessor. Applications are not openly sought and only those nominated by the nominators will go forward for consideration by the fellowship committee. Our predecessor Committee's Report concluded that
  23. "NESTA will have to be constantly alive to the risk of partiality in the selection of Fellows and projects. It must also be prepared for close scrutiny of its selection procedure and be able to demonstrate that it is operating in a fair and open manner".[32]

    We heard no criticism about this method of selecting Fellows in the memoranda we received. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport told us "on the whole, the selection processes are open and fair".[33] Professor Ian Halliday, the Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), who had acted as a NESTA nominator, pointed out that inviting applications for such Fellowships might well have resulted in many thousands of applications. He felt NESTA had acted wisely when it "chose instead to seek Fellowship nominations though organisations such as PPARC who already had highly competitive selection schemes in place for funding individuals".[34] Lord Puttnam told us that NESTA had taken its system from the MacArthur Foundation in the United States because "it would have been very easy in years one and two to be flooded by an avalanche of inquiries, and then you are just dealing with the consequent situation in which many people are terribly disappointed".[35]

  24.  We asked how NESTA picked its nominators and Lord Puttnam told us the organisation had looked for people who were "full of energy and self-starters".[36] NESTA told us in writing that "nominators are recruited for their level of expertise and achievement within a specific field...and for their knowledge of cutting edge practice ... Nominators come to our attention through networking, suggestions (solicited and unsolicited), desk based research, our own contacts within the sector and through media attention".[37] Organisations such as PPARC have also been invited to become nominators and 50 are now registered. Having received almost no nomination from the East Midlands and appointing no Fellows from that region, NESTA has established a network of 'talent scouts' there to be more pro-active in finding nominations. Across the country it is also inviting organisations to nominate individuals. We note with approval that the new Dreamtime Fellowships will be open to applications from all.
  25.  We remain to be convinced that the nomination system does not rely too heavily on who knows whom. Nominators are not recruited through an open appointment system. We understand that NESTA's nomination system is designed to avoid a flood of applications which could overload its administrative capabilities. We have not heard any evidence of problems with applications to NESTA's Fellowship programme but we are nevertheless concerned that it lays the organisation open to accusations of networking or favouritism. Those who are not working in areas which have a nominator appointed within it, or do not move in the same circles, may not be given access to a Fellowship. We recommend a rethink of this system to ensure it does not discriminate against any suitable candidates.
  26.  

    Other work

  27.  Over the past four years, NESTA has also moved into other areas. It has taken the lead in the Government's Science Year project; developed the NESTA Futurelab, which is a project to discover new ways of using new technologies in education, and extended its awards programmes. Partnerships have been established with other bodies for a series of projects. For example, the Science Museum and the Royal College of Art have produced a 'Product of the Future' exhibition which showcased young designers' work. Channel 4 and Blackwatch Television have received backing for a digital animation project, MESH; and NESTA and the BBC, in partnership, distribute the Tomorrow's World Awards for inventions and innovations.
  28.  

    Science Year

  29.  NESTA was awarded the contract to manage Science Year by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). Funding for Science Year was initially 3.35 million.[38] It was to run from 7 September 2001 to 31 August 2002 and was aimed at 10 to 19 year olds. In July 2002, DfES announced that it intended to extend Science Year to July 2003 and rename the project Planet Science. We asked NESTA whether Science Year had cost it any money, in terms of extra staff or programme costs. Jeremy Newton told us
  30. "it is all paid for from the DfES. We have allocated some of our programme money towards projects that relate to Science Year, so some of NESTA's education programme money has been allocated to the Science Year project; but the total operating bill has been picked up by DfES".[39]

    We were told that NESTA would retain management of the project for as long as it runs. Lord Puttnam told us that NESTA would sign a new contract and "see it through".[40]

  31.  Mike Tomlinson, Director of Science Year, told us "I am worried at the moment how one is going to say to schools in September that we are not finished and we are starting again with a second year ... We are faced with a challenge".[41] The profile of Science Year has not been as high as its organisers had hoped. NESTA told us that there had not yet been any formal evaluation of the success or otherwise of the project but that "quantitative measures, for example the numbers of schools, teachers and pupils involved in different activities" appeared to show a good level of involvement.[42] We are concerned that the public awareness of Science Year/Planet Science, a project to which well over 4 million has already been committed, may be low, even among those in the target age range. We recommend a thorough analysis of Planet Science be carried out as soon as practicable, and an assessment of its impact in the media and in schools made to inform future projects of this nature.

 


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Prepared 31 October 2002