Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


By the Select Committee appointed to consider Science and Technology.

Ordered to Report:


Britain's opportunities in a key global market

CHAPTER 1: Executive Summary


1.1  The United Kingdom has a bigger stake than generally appreciated in the computer chip business that underpins information and communication technology (ICT)[1] — one of the world's largest[2] (and still growing[3]) industries. Although, like most Western countries, we no longer have any significant ownership of chip manufacturing, we have under-regarded strengths in chip design. The main message of this Report is that, as the existing technology matures, there will be a yet greater market for UK chip design as new applications are developed. There will also be UK opportunities arising from the search for more powerful technologies.

1.2  Electronic computing is now so much a part of our lives — at work, at home and in society — that we generally take it for granted. Indeed, much of the computing we use is not obvious, being embedded in a wide variety of machines and equipment such as car engine management systems, mobile phones and washing machines.

1.3  The transistor-packed integrated circuits or computer chips that put such power at our fingertips embody an astonishing range of technological achievements. Computing performance will increase further, at reducing prices. This will not only pave the way for computing to become an integral aspect of everyday living ("ambient computing") but also facilitate applications yet to be conceived. Our future will be increasingly electronic. It will be powered by transistors even smaller than today's, of which half a million would fit on the full stop at the end of this sentence[4].

1.4  Engineers have found ways of making transistors ever smaller since their invention in the middle of the last century. However, on present trends — and assuming that various manufacturing obstacles can be overcome — the physical limits of the present technology will be reached within the next 20 years. If we are to continue to enjoy the progress to which we have become accustomed, we need to be planning for the future now.

1.5  Government, industry and universities need to make the most of the opportunities in this increasingly important field. As a nation, we need to recognise the possibilities, nurture the talent, encourage research, and facilitate the progress of worthwhile innovations to the global market. Our Report makes recommendations to help achieve these objectives.

Summary of the Report

1.6  Chapter 2 notes the origins of this Report in an October 2001 briefing by the Royal Society, and describes the way Sub-Committee II conducted its Inquiry. Aspects of the written evidence from a wide variety of sources were explored in greater depth in a series of public hearings between April and July 2002. That evidence was complemented by specially commissioned seminars in London and California, the latter during a visit to major computing interests in Silicon Valley. Visits were also made to the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington and the Inter-university Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) in Belgium.

1.7  As general background, Chapter 3 briefly reviews the development of computing over the years and outlines some of the key developments (transistors and integrated circuits, the latter commonly known as silicon chips) that have led to today's electronic digital computers. What generally drives the market for computers is not the machinery (hardware) itself but the applications (the programs[5] or software) that it will run. Faster computers are able to run bigger and more user-friendly applications. However, performance may not be only about speed. For some applications, and particularly mobile devices, low power consumption may be more important.

1.8  The engine of a computer is its silicon chips. Nowadays, chips with dimensions of millimetres house tens of millions of microscopic transistors that do the actual computing. Chapter 4 describes the complicated process for manufacturing chips and the ways in which, thanks to a variety of technological advances, it has been possible to continue miniaturising the already small components. This has about doubled the density of components on a chip every two years over the last four decades, greatly reducing the unit price of components and increasing the speed at which they can be operated.

1.9  That trend has been dubbed Moore's Law, and the global computing industry now tailors its investment to maintain the momentum. However, limits to the development of the dominant CMOS[6] chip technology are likely to be reached in the next 10 to 15 years. This will be because either the individual components would, if any smaller, become too small to operate reliably or, before then, the cost of the ultra-high-precision plant needed for fabrication of those chips becomes too high.

1.10  Reaching those limits will not spell the end of CMOS: as a mature and very powerful technology, it will continue to be the relatively inexpensive workhorse of computing. There could be opportunities for other computing technologies, perhaps particularly in niche areas as a complement to CMOS. Nevertheless, the computing industry and others are likely to find themselves in a quite different business environment after the next decade or so.

1.11  Chapter 4 concludes by briefly reviewing possible alternative chip technologies, together with the generic areas of lithography, metrology (where the United Kingdom's expertise could be more effectively deployed) and nanotechnology that are needed for fabrication almost regardless of the physical nature of the chip technology.

1.12  Chapter 5 complements Chapter 4 by considering design and architecture — that is, how the components on a chip are organised to do the actual computing. Increased computing power has resulted from not only the greater speed available from increasingly miniaturised components but also the more sophisticated designs that are possible as more and more components become available per chip. As discussed, different considerations arise in designing chips for various purposes. However, there are generic issues concerning the verification and testing of any chip design. The Chapter concludes by considering some current and future design challenges.

1.13  Chapter 6 discusses the ways in which the power of individual computers has been enhanced by networking with other machines, and ways in which this networking might be extended, perhaps most significantly through the development of wireless technologies. It then outlines some of the aspirations that may be realised by new computer applications and devices. Indeed, one of the objectives of the new European Union (EU) research programme is the development of "ambient" computing. Such applications will be underpinned by developments in design and architecture — in turn, drawing on improvements in the underlying microprocessor technology.

1.14  Chapter 7 continues the tour of the general background by first noting that, although the United Kingdom's stake in chip manufacture has declined, the earlier work has provided the base a for a significant capability in microprocessor design and architecture. Much of this has developed comparatively recently as a result of many local and uncoordinated initiatives. This UK industry sector — 40% of the EU total — merits much wider recognition.

1.15  Chapter 7 concludes with a sketch of the present framework for research and development (R&D) funding in the United Kingdom. The four main sources are:

(a)  the Research Councils, where more could be done to spot and facilitate interdisciplinary activities that characterise computer engineering;

(b)  the Government, through direct funding to a few Government Laboratories, such as NPL, to enable them to carry out research in specific domains;

(c)  the EU, in whose programmes UK industry is said to participate at a significantly lower level than its European counterparts; and

(d)  industry itself, although UK industry seems to pay insufficient attention to the need for sustained and sufficiently long-term investment in R&D.

1.16  Turning then to the policy matters that are central to our Inquiry, Chapter 8 discusses the opportunities open to the United Kingdom in the field of microprocessing. It is too late to regain a place for the United Kingdom in mainstream and nearly mature CMOS manufacture, although niche opportunities to enhance that manufacture will remain.

1.17  The focus for research on devices should be on alternatives (or complements) to CMOS. As this field is still very open, the research should be blue sky in nature. There is already valuable UK research in these areas, but this lacks co-ordination. A focus for such work might usefully be linked to one of the proposed new centres for nanotechnology, with which likely future computer technologies have significant commonality.

1.18  The main opportunity for the United Kingdom, however, is in chip design and architecture which are needed not only to exploit the current CMOS technology to the full but are also likely to be transferable to alternative technologies. Existing UK strengths should be reinforced and intensified through the establishment of a single national centre. This should be preceded (and subsequently supported) by a wider national programme to stimulate activity in this area. With suitably sustained commitment, we consider the fruits of such initiatives to have potential for significant economic benefit.

1.19  In addition to those structural matters, a vital facilitator of research and development is the availability of people with the necessary skills. Chapter 9 finds that the United Kingdom is short of these. Building on earlier Reports, improvements are proposed through: continuing the welcome emphasis on improving the take-up of science and mathematics in schools; the provision of taught Masters programmes; and including aspects of entrepreneurship and interdisciplinary work within Masters and PhD programmes. There is, however, a crisis in the recruitment and retention of university academic staff in computing and electronics. This will take some time to resolve with home-grown talent. It will also remain important to encourage a highly-skilled immigrant workforce.

1.20  Although research has intrinsic merit, the hope must be that it will lead to products that will yield commercial return to the United Kingdom. Taking account of other Reports, Chapter 10 discusses means of smoothing the progress of what are sometimes arcane and abstract computing products to the global market. We see the need to reduce the confusing diversity of objectives and practice in exploiting intellectual property. Clusters of related activity need to be developed so that technologists, experienced managers and financiers can network effectively.

1.21  Such clusters might also be of assistance in resolving the wider problems of recruiting management teams for high-technology companies and, building on the Enterprise Act 2002, in breaking down the unhelpful prejudice against able people who have learnt valuable business lessons from unsuccessful ventures. The new high-technology products that will attract the global market are at one or more remove from the chip technology and design matters that are at the heart of our Inquiry. We see the need for the UK computing industry and those who provide the funding to do more to inform and enthuse others about future possibilities. They should work with them in developing those new products. Moreover, there is scope for the Government to do more to stimulate the industry — at the same time as meeting the public sector's needs — by taking a more strategic view of aggregate public sector procurement for computing in all its forms.

1.22  Finally, Chapter 11 concludes the Report with some general remarks about our Inquiry's findings as a whole.


1.23  While we welcome, as noted at appropriate points, many positive actions taken by the Government to strengthen the UK's science base, there are further improvements required in respect of computing if we are to make the most of the opportunities that now beckon.

1.24  We make various detailed recommendations, addressed to the Government and others, at appropriate places throughout this Report (where, for emphasis, they are in bold type). These recommendations are repeated below. For ease of reference, these are grouped together in a different order from the main text, under appropriate headings, together with a note of the source paragraph.

The new industry

(a)  To enable the UK's new-style computer industry to be appropriately recognised and fostered, we recommend that the Government urgently establish a task force to bring greater coherence to their dealings with the industry, through the implementation of the recommendations in our Report and otherwise. Further, we recommend that the Government give wide publicity to the composition, remit and contact arrangements for this task force. (Paragraph 7.8)

Design and Architecture

(b)  We recommend that the Research Councils — in particular, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) — should review the funding for research into microprocessor design and architecture to ensure that both its level and its delivery are matched to the strengths and needs of UK industry. (Paragraph 8.27)

(c)  So that UK strengths in computer design and architecture can be maintained and developed within the global market, we recommend that the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and EPSRC should urgently establish a single national research institute for System-on-Chip design. (Paragraph 8.32)

(d)  We recommend that DTI and EPSRC establish a national programme for design and architecture, along the lines of the e-Science initiative, for the three-fold purpose of: providing an earlier focus for research and development in design and architecture; wider support for the institute when established; and a framework for potentially useful activities not central to the particular focus selected for the institute. (Paragraph 8.40)

(e)  We recommend that DTI and EPSRC should explicitly recognise that any new funding initiative in this area would require sustained long-term commitment. (Paragraph 8.43)

Microprocessor technologies

(f)  We recommend that, within the funding allocated for research into computing devices and manufacturing, DTI and EPSRC should place the emphasis on radical developments in microprocessor technologies where there is a greater prospect that UK industry could play a significant role long-term. Further, they should also ensure that this work has appropriate co-ordination and focus. (Paragraph 8.5)

(g)  Because of the significant commonality between nanotechnology and likely future computer technologies, we recommend that DTI should include the exploration of alternatives to CMOS in the remit of at least one of the proposed nanotechnology centres. Further, we recommend that DTI should consider integrating into that centre the semiconductor processing facility recently recommended by the Foresight Defence and Aerospace Advisory Committee. (Paragraph 8.10)

(h)  Given the vital role of metrology in chip fabrication, we recommend that the National Physical Laboratory should urgently complete its review of the way it co-ordinates its activities relevant to microprocessing, and implement a clear strategy for developing and marketing its contribution to the global computing industry. (Paragraph 4.42)

Skill needs

(i)  We recommend that the Government and universities take specific action to address the crisis in recruiting and retaining university academic staff in computing and electronics. Further, we recommend that the Government should consult universities and industry about ways of making the exchange of staff between the sectors more straightforward and commonplace. As part of this, particular attention will need to be paid to salary differentials and the current emphasis on the importance of research output on the basis of publications. (Paragraphs 9.9 and 9.15)

Assisting new ventures

(j)  We recommend that the Government should revisit the general question of exploiting intellectual property, with particular reference to the complicated field of computing, and seek to establish principles that will lead to a greater uniformity of approach between Government departments and agencies, industry and universities. (Paragraph 10.7)

(k)  We recommend that DTI should consult Universities UK, the British Venture Capital Association, the CBI and the Institute of Directors to ascertain: the nature and extent of the funding gap identified by a number of our witnesses; the lack of suitable managerial skills available to new high-technology companies; and such companies' other support needs. (Paragraph 10.20)

Interdisciplinary work

(l)  We recommend that those universities which wish to be at the forefront of strengthening the United Kingdom's stake in computing ensure that their structures and processes encourage interdisciplinary research collaboration between departments. (Paragraph 7.25)

(m)  We recommend that the Funding Councils and Research Councils take further positive steps to ensure that interdisciplinary work in the field of microprocessing techniques is not only actively encouraged but also manifestly assessed in an even-handed manner. (Paragraph 7.27)

Promoting research

(n)  We recommend that DTI should investigate the reasons for and the implications of the apparently poor participation of UK industry in EU programmes (particularly those relevant to microprocessing) and, as necessary in the light of the findings, to take action to encourage greater participation. (Paragraph 7.31)

(o)  We recommend that UK companies and the finance sector should pay more attention to investing in R&D in the field of microprocessing. (Paragraph 7.35)

(p)  We recommend that the Government should consider whether the aggregate future public sector demand for computing capacity, in all its forms, can be articulated and communicated in ways that better assist not only the public sector but also the industry. (Paragraph 10.24)

(q)  We recommend that Intellect, the British Venture Capital Association and others they think appropriate should consider ways of better informing and enthusing UK industry and the wider finance sector about projected advances in high technology, with the aim of not only stimulating the necessary long-term support for these advances but also, in a two-way dialogue, encouraging the development of new products for the global marketplace. (Paragraph 10.26)

Keeping Parliament informed

1.25  All these recommended tasks are urgent, and some — for example, those listed in paragraph 1.24(a), (j), (k), (n) and (p) above — will require attention over some years. We therefore recommend that the Government, in addition to their formal response to this Report, also provide Parliament (and, in particular, this Committee) and other interested parties with regular reports on the progress of this work, together with the conclusions and further action proposed.

1   ICT encompasses computing and telecommunications, both of which are now highly dependent on computer chip technology. Back

2   2001 spending was US$2.4 trillion according to Digital Planet 2002: The Global Information Economy, World Information Technology and Services Alliance - see Back

3   See Back

4   There would be rather fewer in this area of a silicon chip since space is also needed for interconnections.  Back

5   We follow the standard practice of using the American English spelling for a computer program. Back

6   Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor - see paragraph 4.9. Back

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