"Our future lies in collaboration": MD of ETD Consulting discusses innovation, R and D, and exceptionalism
Dr Ahmed Shibli, managing director of ETD Consulting, shares his thoughts on what he calls the myth of exceptionalism in scientific innovation and research & development.
For various reasons we often hear, from some quarters, of American or English exceptionalism, especially during these days. However, and rather unfortunately so, both nations have more recently achieved a negative exceptionalism in terms of Covid-19 infections and related deaths. The comparison of the number of deaths between different countries is itself open to debate, but whatever the number one thing that we have not taken into account is the reduction in environmental pollution during this lockdown and the resulting decrease in the number of deaths that could have resulted in the absence of Covid-19. Taking that into account will make the picture look even gloomier.
While there is much discussion by the politicians, social scientists, epidemiologists and other related experts about the root causes of this undesired publicity of the US and UK negative exceptionalism around the world, as a scientist I will focus here on the myth of exceptionalism in scientific innovation and research & development.
While it is true that a number of our universities are some of the best in the world, and we should be rightly proud of this, it is also true that Great Britain is not known for the best engineering. Indeed, it is the application of this research to produce products which is the real wealth generator here.
As an example, while the levitation train concept was developed in Great Britain, it was applied by the Germans in China and thus Germans were the ones who reaped the economic rewards. Unfortunately, Great Britain does not have its equivalents of Fraunhofer Institutes which are the great centres of industrial research and its application, which form a bridge between the German universities and industry. We have not got the equivalents of Siemens, General Electric, MHI, IHI or Toshiba, for example, with Rolls Royce being one exception.
In the power industry, our CEGB [Central Electricity Generating Board] and its research arm CERL were some of the leading lights. Alas, these were decimated as a part of a push towards open competition. As a result, today our power industry, both fossil and nuclear, is owned and led by the likes of EDF, RWE and E.ON.; firms from France and Germany. If the CEGB was alive today, it would have perhaps become a world leader and shining light in renewables itself.
My own experience of being involved in leading some of the largest European Commission and European industry R&D projects and R&D networks, over a couple of decades now, has shown that no single one of the many European nations has all the skills and tools for dealing with every scientific innovation and, more importantly, its application at an industrial scale.
For example, while in the UK we had some of the best theoreticians who could come up with brilliant ideas and theories, in order to test them on an industrial scale we needed German test laboratories with large size component testing facilities. With international industry now operating across borders, we need manufacturers to build equipment and plants to one or maybe two international standards, not an array of national standards.
So, here in Europe the idea was to bring together UK, German, French and other standards into single EN or European standards. We also collaborated with the American and Japanese industry and researchers to harmonise and resolve differences between these different sets of standards and make the job of the manufacturing industry easier and also render industrial plants safer to operate. There was no exceptionalism felt by any one country and the benefits of collaboration were clear to all.
Unfortunately, recent trends by some governments have put paid to many of these endeavours. Is the new negative exceptionalism of the USA and England in Covid-19 infections and deaths the result of this isolationist attitude? In the UK, we reportedly refused to participate in the purchase of personal protective equipment [PPE] as part of the European block and this resulted in chaotic scenes and possibly many more deaths that could have been avoided. Our ‘world beating test and track’ app appeared not to beat any other known app for this purpose, let alone beat the world.
I would also like to share a word about innovation and collaboration with North America. Despite America’s world leading research, it is not always easy to collaborate on these projects as effectively and efficiently as with the Germans, French or Italians across the border. I could, for example, fly to Rome, Milan, Paris, or Stuttgart for a project meeting and return to the UK the same day. I cannot do the same for a meeting with a counterpart in San Francisco or Houston, for example. Even a Zoom or Skype meeting creates the same problems of vastly different time zones. The geographical and space/time zones are realities of life that we cannot just brush aside. So, although we do collaborate with the US and Japan in scientific innovations, this remains somewhat limited at least in the industrial sector. The point is that although we have left EU because of the democratic will of the people, we need to make sure that we do not downplay the importance of much-needed scientific collaboration with our neighbours.
I would also like to take the time to address collaboration and competition with China. I recently lectured in various Chinese universities, including Beijing, Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai, on the subject of the development of materials for the new generation of power and process plants and plant safe design and operation. I was taken to a large pressure vessel testing facility near the Great Wall, all being built by the Germans and Italians. I have never seen anything like this in Europe or North America. One of my hosts was an old Japanese friend and colleague, who together with a Chinese colleague and guide, had taken me to see this test facility. The Japanese colleague had recently retired as the director of an industrial R&D organisation in Japan. I was told that many Japanese senior industrialists and researchers after retirement are given large financial incentives by Chinese organisations to join them and help them build their facilities for R&D and innovation for industry. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and high-tech experience.
Furthermore, European researchers working in the region say that China's time of copying western science and technology is almost over, with much local and national innovation now taking place inside China. I myself know some of the UK scientists who have also joined Chinese institutes. This is the story of brain drain all over the world: the rich attract the talent as long as they can offer the right environment and rewards. So, is China’s march forward stoppable, or should we embrace it with the spirit of competition and match its innovations by enhancing our own innovation policies?
From a scientist’s viewpoint I will say that our future lies in collaboration, especially with our neighbours, not isolationism and exceptionalism.