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Photonics short-listed for UK 'Turing' center

18 Feb 2011

The UK's new technology and innovation centers will be called "Turing Centres", after the World War II code-breaker.

The UK’s optics and photonics community will find out in the next two months whether or not one of the country’s new “Turing” technology and innovation centers will include a specified photonics element.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on the proposed Technology and Innovation Centres (TICs), which will receive total funding of £200 million over the next four years, said that the initiative has been broadly welcomed by all those queried by the committee.

In its report, published February 17, the committee made a number of recommendations, notably that the TICs should be called “Turing Centres”, after the computing pioneer and famed World War II code-breaker Alan Turing.

“This country owes [Turing] a debt of obligation for the way he was treated,” said the committee. Turing was a key figure in the Bletchley Park team credited with cracking the Enigma code. But he was later prosecuted under laws banning homosexuality in the UK at the time, treatment for which the British government apologized in 2009.

However, the committee did not make any recommendations about which specific technology areas should be chosen as Turing Centres. In January, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) published a prospectus on TICs in which it short-listed six initial “candidate areas”. The six candidate areas are:

• High-value manufacturing
• Energy and resource efficiency
• Transport systems
• Healthcare
• Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
• Electronics, photonics and electrical systems

Iain Gray, the chief executive of the TSB, said in that prospectus that high-value manufacturing had already been identified as the first TIC, and will be fast-tracked into existence. In the initial phase of the scheme (2011-2012), a further two or three Turing Centres will be identified from that candidate list, with a second phase set to be funded in 2012-2013.

The TSB has been collecting views and proposals from organizations interested in operating the Turing Centres over the past few weeks, and is expected to announce which of the initial candidate areas has been selected for the initial phase in April.

Faraday echoes
The Turing Centres have echoes of previous attempts by the UK to emulate the way that other countries – particularly Germany’s Fraunhofer network – have been able to successfully bridge the gap between scientific excellence and economic impact of that science, an acknowledged weakness of the current UK approach to commercialization.

In particular, the Faraday Partnerships set up in the UK in the 1990s failed to achieve that goal. “One of the problems with the Faraday Partnerships was the lack of reliable core funding,” acknowledged the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee. It added that although the £200 million of core funding that has been ring-fenced by the government over the next four years was an acceptable foundation for the Turing scheme, that it should not be spread too thinly. “We consider an initial target of six to eight TICs to be sensible,” it said.

Although initial funding will be from the public purse, the intention is for each of the Turing Centres to imitate the Fraunhofer funding model ultimately, in which one third of funding is public, one-third from private contracts, and one-third from competitive public-private funding.

Interaction with the private sector, for which Turing Centres will be able to provide services that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) would otherwise be unable to access, is seen as a key requirement for success, and the Science and Technology Committee also urged the TSB to engage more widely with business and financial organizations:

“One other concern was the lack of knowledge in the business world regarding existing UK capabilities,” the committee reported, adding that the TSB ought to consult with venture capital providers and banks, to ensure that there are no barriers to SMEs engaging with Turing Centres.

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