Informatics Informatics Department The Alvey Programme

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After Alvey

A good source of information on the Alvey Programme is the book Alvey by Brian Oakley and Kenneth Owen (MIT Press).

Angeli Mehta, a science and technology journalist who worked for the BBC wrote at the time in the New Scientist:

BRITAIN'S computer industry is languishing because the government failed to encourage firms to exploit the research developed under the Alvey programme, Britain's effort in the 1980s to make it more competitive in the field of information technology. Or so says Brian Oakley, the programme's former director.

The original Alvey proposals called for initiatives in education and training, alongside government support for product development. But the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, blocked the idea that Alvey should include a training initiative, and the government refused to use its influence as a big buyer of products and services to help technologies out of the research laboratories and into the marketplace. Such patronage has worked well in France.

According to Oakley, the government's refusal to encourage the exploitation of research it has funded stems from a misunderstanding of what R&D alone can achieve. During the Second World War, politicians of all parties saw prototypes, such as radar navigation equipment, come out of a research laboratory in the morning and go into battle the same evening. They were convinced that the future of the economy depended on R&D, but were ignorant of the investment needed to get a technological development into production. In the computing sector, the costs are huge, and a product can be obsolete within three years, says Oakley: 'R&D is not enough.'

At the end of last month, Oakley's personal reflections on the Alvey programme were published* together with recollections from other officials, academics, industrialists and researchers who were involved in the work. The analysis comes as the government is implicitly acknowledging for the first time that Britain's Link programme, designed to stimulate collaboration between industry and academia, is not working as it should.

Oakley's Alvey story reads like another missed opportunity for Britain. Nearly a decade ago, a small army of civil servants in a tower block overlooking the River Thames began struggling with the task of breathing new life into Britain's computer industry. Japan and the US had already realised how important computing would be to their future economic success - Japan with its fifth generation programme and the US with its policy of allowing industry access to the funds of the national defence agency, DARPA.

Britain's response, in 1983, was the Alvey programme. Nothing like it had ever been tried in Britain. The Alvey initiative, supported jointly by government and industry, engaged more than 2000 researchers over five years on around 200 projects. On a par with both the US and Japan, which offered $600 million over five years and $500 million over ten respectively, Britain set aside Pounds sterling 350 million for Alvey - Pounds sterling 200 million from the government and Pounds sterling 150 million from industry.

The idea was to coordinate the efforts of a strong research community. In the early 1980s, Britain's research effort was fragmented: Alvey sought to bring academics and industrialists together and so ensure that industry exploited the ideas of academia. According to the programme's proponents, the collaboration would bring faster chips, more reliable software, and computers that were easier to use.

Patrick Jenkin, who was industry minister at the time, summed up the excitement surrounding Alvey's announcement. He told the House of Commons that the government was convinced Alvey would 'ensure for British industry secure access to the new technology and to the products and processes on which our future prosperity depends'.

Just five years later the tide had turned. As Alvey ended, the government refused to fund another programme to exploit the technological developments begun in the Alvey years. Instead, it chose to support different, scattered initiatives under what it termed the Link programme - in much the same way as it had been doing before. So, was the Alvey programme worth all the effort? Oakley, director of the programme until 1987 and now chairman of Logica Cambridge, a research company, is equivocal. It is questionable, he says, whether the awareness and the expertise in new technologies developed under Alvey can be turned into wealth solely through the marketplace.

Oakley is a physicist turned computer scientist. He was a civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, the Science and Engineering Research Council and the Department of Trade and Industry: the only person, he says, who had ever worked for the three government departments sponsoring the programme, and survived. He had to steer the difficult course between convincing the government that money was being well spent, and giving the academics and industrialists the programme they wanted.

'In the first years of the programme we had much trouble with the collaboration agreements between the partners,' he recalls. Oakley wanted these to be drawn up at the start of the project to avoid delays or misunderstandings later, and assumed that industry would have had plenty of experience in drawing up such agreements. The assumption proved wrong, and some projects were delayed as a result. But Oakley is unrepentant: 'If I had my time again I would require them once again.'

Oakley battled with the government appointed steering group. He argues that the group should 'keep the director in line and sack him if he doesn't do a good job. But it should not try to second-guess him over what projects to support.'

The funding rules were also a headache. At the start of the programme, the government promised to provide industry with 50 per cent of its research funds; academia was to receive 100 per cent support. In practice, academics discovered that the government grant did not cover their overheads, which meant they could not afford to get involved in too many Alvey projects.

To make matters worse, the government wanted to renege on its initial proposition: it began to negotiate 'up to 50 per cent' support for industry. Oakley fought the change. 'It would have been impossible for firms to do any serious planning.'

He also fought off controversial new rules that now govern the funding of collaborative projects. Under the so-called Link rules, the government provides no more than half of the costs of a project, which discourages industry from participating. As a result Link, which was designed to support research in a broad range of fields, is under-subscribed.

In his published account of the Alvey years, Oakley is discreet in his comments of Whitehall civil servants or government ministers. This is not entirely surprising because, as he notes in the preface to the book, retired civil servants writing about their work must submit a draft for approval by government officials. Oakley did this - and changes were made to the book as a result.

Other critics complained that Alvey supported too many large firms, which were keen to take public money for research they would have done anyway. Major British companies, such as GEC, ICL and Plessey, dominated the programme; just 37 small firms, those employing less than 200 people, took part. Oakley is unrepentant: 'Any belief that small, high-technology firms will make a significant impact on the economy, or even on unemployment, is moonshine.'

But he remains critical of big companies. He notes how the failure of British industry to invest in research that does not produce quick returns has cost it a place in world competition.

The problem is not that the quality of research in Britain is poor - just the opposite, as American and Japanese firms demonstrate by setting up research laboratories in Britain to tap local talent.

Oakley concludes that Alvey was hugely successful in bringing industrial and academic communities together and in stimulating an awareness of information technology. The trouble, he says, is that Britain failed to build on that success. Instead, through the Link programme, Britain is back to supporting fragmented initiatives.

A SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION . . . WITH TOO LITTLE COORDINATION

THERE is no doubt in Oakley's mind that Alvey created an immense spirit of cooperation; in this sense, he says, the programme was 'absolutely right'. The success of that collaboration is confirmed by two teams of academics that Oakley appointed to evaluate the programme. These were drawn from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex and from the Programme of Policy Research in Engineering, Science, and Technology (PREST), at the University of Manchester. They expect to publish their final reports later this year.

According to Ken Guy, who led the team at SPRU, more than half of those who took part in Alvey said they had benefited from the involvement of their partners. Only a quarter said they would have been better off working alone.

But the programme could have been coordinated better, says Guy. He is critical of the way that the Alvey directorate evaluated each project in isolation without forcing participants to consider the relevance of the work to their business goals.

There have been tangible results, however. For example, Alvey introduced industry to formal methods, a mathematical system that enables computer scientists to develop more reliable software. Nearly every university in Britain now teaches, or has plans to teach, formal methods as part of their undergraduate computing courses.

In other areas, such as parallel computing and networking, Alvey researchers influenced work being done elsewhere in Europe. For example, further work on the Alvey project that aimed to develop a standard system of communication between computer networks in different countries, the Pounds sterling 4 million Advanced Networked Systems Architecture project, is now funded under the European programme, Esprit.

The Alvey Programme completed in 1988. On January 12 1988, Lord Young announced a new role for the DTI in a White Paper entitled DTI - the Department for Enterprise The reorganisation replaced the industry divisions by market divisions, organised by sector and covering a wider range of activities.

Most of the coordination and support functions of the Alvey programme were no longer required and researchers funded by Alvey were forced to look elsewhere, mainly the European ESPRIT programme and IEATP. The Alvey funding for Infrastructure ended officially on March 31 1989. Mike Russell alone continued being funded by Information Engineering Division (IED) of SERC to set up and operate a Monitoring Officer (MO) programme for the new SERC/DTI IT programme IEATP, Information Engineering Advanced Technology Programme to improve productivity and maintain the UK science base in Silicon Technologies, Systems Architecture and Systems Engineering.