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The Alvey Programme was the dominating focus of Information Technology research in the period 1983 to 1988. Prior to the Alvey Programme, university, industrial and government research were primarily separate activities. The Science and Engineering Research Council's research grants were, on the whole, reactive in that proposals were sent in and SERC either accepted or rejected them. In the late 1970s, SERC had become more pro-active with the appearance of Specially Promoted Programmes such as the Distributed Computing Systems Programme that ran from 1977 to 1984. Here the emphasis was placed on a coordinated programme of research in an area which was regarded as particularly relevant.
The Alvey Programme made a major change to the way computing research was organised in the UK as a whole. For a variety of reasons, it was decided that there needed to be a more focused way of doing industrial and university research in this important area.
Some of the main points were:
- The area was pre-competitive advanced information technology research
- The focus was four areas that seemed particularly relevant at the time:
- Software Engineering
- Intelligent Knowledge Based Systems
- Man Machine Interaction
- Advanced Microelectronics (VLSI Design)
- Research was a collaboration between academia, government and industry
- Research was directed into important areas and coordinated
- Funding was substantial, £350M at 1982 prices
The involvement of Informatics Department in the Programme came about because of its role in coordinating the DCS Programme and later the Software Technology Initiative. Bob Hopgood, Rob Witty and David Duce were the three academic coordinators over the life of the DCS Programme. Rob Witty moved from DCS to fulfill a similar role with the Software Technology Initiative.
In both programmes, the importance of a standard infrastructure was emphasised. It allowed researchers to concentrate on research and fostered the interchange of results. The Atlas Computing Division had been heavily involved in the provision of that infrastructure and Informatics performed a similar role for the Alvey Programme.
Some of the ideas and directions that came about in the Alvey Programme borrowed from the work of an earlier SERC panel, the Roberts Panel. This was formed in October 1977 under the chairmanshhip of Derek Roberts of GEC and included Colin Haley of ICL, Iann Barron of Inmos (who had chaired the DCS Programme), and Philip Hughes of Logica, all of whom became members of the Alvey Committee. Bob Hopgood acted as secretary to the Roberts Panel. The panel recommended that silicon chip design, software technology, database utilization, man machine interaction, robotics and artificial intelligence were important areas that needed improvements in education and training as well as research. The recommendations were never implemented in full by SERC but it did lead to more directed research in SERC and paved the way for the Alvey Programme. New graduate-level courses in integrated circuit design, supported by RAL, were set up. The Software Technology Initiative was launched (it ran from 1981 to 1984). A Specially Promoted Programme in IKBS was under consideration when the Alvey Programme was launched. The proposal was made to SERC in May 1982 and a Research Area Review Meeting (RARM) took place in September 1982 and the results of this meeting were a major input into the definition of the Alvey IKBS Programme.
A good source of information on the Alvey Programme is the book Alvey by Brian Oakley and Kenneth Owen (MIT Press).
1983 IT film on Alvey programme