‘UK National Innovation Strategy: Leading the future by creating it’ published today

Reposting from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-innovation-strategy-leading-the-future-by-creating-it:

Increasing innovation will enhance productivity across the economy, and in turn bring jobs, growth and prosperity to all parts of the UK. We need the whole system of businesses, government, R&D-performing organisations, finance providers, funders and others to come together to achieve our innovation ambitions.

This strategy focuses on how we support businesses innovate by making the most of the UK’s research, development and innovation system.

Our vision is for the UK to be a global hub for innovation. In this strategy we set out our plans against 4 key pillars, which will support the achievement of that vision:

Pillar 1: Unleashing business – we will fuel businesses who want to innovate

Pillar 2: People – we will make the UK the most exciting place for innovation talent

Pillar 3: Institutions and places – we will ensure our research, development and innovation institutions serve the needs of businesses and places across the UK

Pillar 4: Missions and technologies – we will stimulate innovation to tackle major challenges faced by the UK and the world and drive capability in key technologies

Through these pillars, the strategy aims to both establish the right underlying policy environment and clearly signal those areas where government will take the lead.

Viewing Newton’s College notebook

In my twenties I became quite interested in the notebooks of Da Vinci and Newton, more interested than in their finished works, as a way to try and learn more about them and how they worked. I’ll blog a study of these later.

In 2016 I was allowed to see and handle the Fitzwilliam notebook for an hour, the first surviving mathematical notebook of Isaac Newton. it contains his early studies of Euclid, as well as a collection of his expenses and confessions of sins. Here are some photos I took. Newton was an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge at the time.

Note 1: I was told not to wear gloves by the curator – the oil of the hands is good for the paper, and the gloves make you more clumsy.

Note 2: there is an excellent facsimile available of another notebook at kroneckerwallis

The Notebook is very small.
This is a list of Newton’s confessions of sins, written in a code broken only last century.
A list of Newton’s expenses
Newton’s expenses continued – note the beginning of his interest in chemistry, and alchemy, in the top line.
Beginning of the mathematical section of the notebook

2019 The ThalamoSeq team project – an article about our research on how the centre of the brain is organised

Some of my thesis work was the subject of a press release article. It is in part this work (a team effort) that won me the British Neuroscience Association Thesis of the year award in 2020.

Copied from: https://www.janelia.org/news/now-we-know-how-the-thalamus-is-organized

Now We Know How the Thalamus is Organized: Janelia’s ThalamoSeq Project Team uncovers new details about the organization of the thalamus, a central control center in the brain.

Slowly, the thalamus is being uncloaked. 

The brain structure sits just above the brain stem and acts as a central switchboard, directing sensory and motor signals to the cortex. Different regions of the thalamus direct traffic to different areas, like the visual cortex or the auditory cortex.

Now, a Project Team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus illuminates this crucial structure’s organization in new detail. An analysis of RNA from neurons in the thalamus suggests that those specialized regions of the thalamus are built in much the same way as one another, the team reports September 16, 2019, in the journal Nature Neuroscience. This hints at surprising parallels in how different types of information are transferred around the brain.

Individual cells in the thalamus are highlighted in a rainbow of colorsA cross section of the thalamus reveals three main types of cells, marked here in different colors. Credit: James Phillips 

Based on measuring RNA, “there were three main types of thalamic pathways that repeated across essentially every system,” says study coauthor James Phillips, a graduate student at Janelia. 

Many structures in the brain send signals through the thalamus. Scientists at Janelia and beyond were studying some of those parts individually, but how those areas communicated with each other via the thalamus was largely a mystery. There just weren’t good tools to study specific subsets of cells in the thalamus, says Adam Hantman, a Janelia group leader who helped direct the project. And without the ability to isolate cells receiving messages from certain brain areas, it was hard to know exactly how signals were being relayed.

This project, ThalamoSeq, aimed to make the thalamus easier to study and understand. It built on techniques honed during a previous Janelia team project, which categorized neurons in mouse and fly brains by analyzing RNA from individual cells. ThalamoSeq adapted those techniques to take a deeper dive into one key brain structure, generating an online resource far more complete than one lab could typically accomplish alone.

Now, “we’ve redefined the cell types of the thalamus based on the pattern of gene expression,” says study coauthor Anton Schulmann, also at Janelia. It’s a more holistic and detailed way of looking at brain cells than simply looking at where they go or what kind of signals they send, and one that opens doors for future research into how the brain is built and organized.

By analyzing the way RNA transcripts varied between cells in the thalamus, the researchers identified three primary profiles of cells. That spectrum of cell types repeated itself over many regions of the thalamus responsible for transmitting different signals – each area contained the same subsets of cell types. That is, the part of the thalamus that communicates with the visual cortex has the same types of cells as the part that communicates with the auditory cortex, the motor cortex, or other brain areas.

“I think the most attractive and intriguing part of this is that for a long time, there’s been a suggestion that the cortex, the seat of cognition, is organized in a similar way across its structure. But what this suggests is, this is actually true right at the core of the brain,” says Phillips. “By understanding the thalamus’s organization, we can get a great deal of information about how the rest of the brain is organized.” 

But notably, the boundaries between those cell types were somewhat blurred – not everything fell into a clear category. “I think that’s an important lesson that might be true for other parts of the brain,” says Hantman. “We love to split things into types, but these intermediates are interesting.” And without looking at the thalamus in this much detail, he says, that nuance might have gone unnoticed.



James W. Phillips, Anton Schulmann, Erina Hara, Johan Winnubst, Chenghao Liu, Vera Valakh, Lihua Wang, Brenda C. Shields, Wyatt Korff, Jayaram Chandrashekar, Andrew L. Lemire, Brett Mensh, Joshua Dudman, Sacha B. Nelson, and Adam W. Hantman. “A repeated molecular architecture across thalamic pathways,” Nature Neuroscience. Published online September 16, 2019. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0483-3

Some book chapters I wrote in 2015-2017 on early neuroscience

In a previous post (‘Memoir: A Semi-Monocular I’) I posted a prologue to a book I was writing before I took up my current job. I wrote that prologue in 2018. Before then, in my early twenties, I’d been writing a quite different book, an overview of the science of neural circuits for a popular audience.

Writing the prologue, and some experiences I had in 2017/2018, made me completely change how the book was being written and largely changing the topic and style too, turning it into a memoir. But I was rereading some of the early chapters of the previous book and thought some of it might be useful to people interested in the historical origins of some key ideas in neuroscience. Chapters 2-4 especially.

So I’m posting those draft chapters from that now abandoned book here in case people find it interesting.

Note, this was some of my earliest writing attempts and I’d hopefully write much better now – my prologue, written later, is in quite a different style and more conversational. But I hope its a reasonable 1st attempt and I learnt much from it.

Sydney Brenner on how academia and publishing are destroying scientific innovation (Dzeng interview, 2014)

At dinner with Sydney Brenner, 2013

One of the highlights of my time as a scientist was having a long dinner with the great molecular biologist Sydney Brenner, who was a pivotal figure in the history of biology and whom sadly passed away in 2019.

This, along with interviewing Garry Kasparov the same year, marked the start of my interest in how we might learn from prior scientific environments to create better ones today.

There is an excellent interview of him that is sadly no longer online, so I am reposting it here.

There is also a short clip which highlights Brenner’s views, shared by many such as David Hubel [article], as to how the structure of science has changed.[YouTube]. He says:

‘Nowadays, most people who say they are in science aren’t really in science. They’re in something else. They’re in the management of science…. And these people do believe that everything can be solved by the application of what the Americans call ‘process’…. Their only challenge is ‘will I be awarded good points?’, ‘will I be promoted?’, ‘will I be able to survive in the economy of science?’’’

2013 – Coffee with Kasparov

“All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”

Below is an interview conducted in April 2013 and printed in the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper. It was in part this interview that began the Orion project. It was part of the visit to Oxford in which he gave a talk on innovation.

Spot the author

Garry Kasparov is widely considered to be the strongest chess player of all time. The youngest world champion in history when only twenty-two, he lost just a single match against a human in his twenty-five-year career. Now retired, he is a leader in the Russian opposition movement and a contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal.

One of the first things you notice about Kasparov is his intensity: he walks rapidly, and when in conversation his whole body seems to focus, confronting the questions I pose. Life, then, mirrors chess, where Kasparov was renowned as much for his compelling chess style as his results. It is a style that he describes as “very dynamic, aggressive chess, dominant chess”, contrasting with the more “pure”, “long-term” approach of the current #1 ranked player Magnus Carlsen.

He speaks quickly, jumping between sentences. This energy is important. For him chess consisted in intense encounters that required mental but also physical preparation, with championship matches lasting months. “Exercise was a very important part of my overall preparation” he says, “to be in the perfect shape before the match you have to work out the combination of your body and your mind, so feeling strong and being in excellent shape physically always helped to generate more energy.”

His memory is extraordinary. Kasparov reputedly could remember every professional game of chess that he had ever played, so I printed out two chess positions, selected randomly from a huge online database of his games. As soon as he glimpsed them, he told me when and where the games were played and named his opponent. He even knew which round of the tournament the games were from, the subsequent moves, and the improvements that he should have made. It was a surprising start to an interview, yet Kasparov merely looked indifferent. “But these are my own games…” he said, his voice trailing off. “You could have made that a lot harder”, added his aide, laughing.

For Kasparov, analysing one’s mistakes is crucial to success. “When playing chess I learnt that every decision requires post-mortem analysis… There is no such thing as a perfect game.” Optimising his performance was a matter of finding a unique approach: you have to “build your own — which is only your own — decision making formula to maximise the effect of your strengths, and to minimise, obviously, the negative effect of your weaknesses.”

In early 2005, after being the number one ranked grandmaster for more than twenty years, he retired from chess to shift his energy toward restoring democracy in his home country, Russia. A constant critic of the regime, he was recently detained and beaten whilst at the Pussy Riot trial rallies. 

Does Kasparov still hope to overthrow Putin? “I think that things are heating up, but this is not a linear process. its like a volcano, you have all the signs about eruption, but you can’t say its going to happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.” The man who predicted the fall of communism does not have strong predictions for Russia’s future. “I believe that Mr Putin under no circumstances will survive his six-year term. In the next two/three years maximum we will see a major explosion in Russia. I’m not saying it will bring us positive results, but I think the status quo, the current status quo in Russia, is doomed and is about to expire.”

It was the global economic stagnation that drew Kasparov to Oxford: he visited the Oxford Martin School to meet with academics and students from Oxford University to continue to develop his view of the crisis, which he has formed along with Paypal innovators Peter Thiel and Max Levchin. From Kasparov there is no talk of restructuring debt, or of yearly growth targets. To him, the crisis results from the “virus of risk-averse society”, where innovation has stagnated and short-term thinking has triumphed.

In his event at the Oxford Martin School, Kasparov contrasted the mid-twentieth century and today, pointing to the rapid development of antibiotics, rocket technology, nuclear technology and more. Even the internet has its origins in the 1960s. And today? Our planes travel at the same speed they did in the 1950s. Our major recent technological developments, mobile technology and computers, are actually advances from the mid-twentieth century. Our satellites are launched in a similar manner to Sputnik. Growth comes not from technological advance but from the housing market. We are even running out of antibiotics.

What went wrong? He points to the emergence of a safe, ‘milestone driven’ approach to progress. ‘Nobody wants to take a risk, and it reflects very much the over-cautious nature of the publicly or privately funded science today’. He points to the present lack of big, blue-sky projects, such as the Apollo missions.

To Kasparov, this shift began in the “late sixties”, but was only visible much later. “We had such a huge pile of innovations allocated over decades, so that’s why you didn’t even feel it in the seventies or eighties. I think the first time where we actually could feel the heat was the early nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The existential threat for the free world has disappeared, and it helped to expose the public appetite for a safe, comfortable life.”

Kasparov sees Fukuyama’s End of History as symptomatic of this shift, the view that society has reached an endpoint. “So the world reached the end of history, so now we can afford, you know, to enjoy the life we inherited from our parents and grandparents.” He hits the table, emphasising the point. “No more sacrifices, the ideal of sacrifice has disappeared from the public, private and social agenda.

“Now its time to recognise that the notion that the next generation will have a better life than the previous one may not work, actually, it will not work.” So can we do anything? “Of course we can… At the end of the day its about public pressure… If the public wanted a Mars expedition, Americans would be landing on Mars in this decade.”

Kasparov admits there is “no immediate solution.” The answer lies in creating opportunities. “All we have to do is create opportunity for those who want to take risk. If we start funding this, there will be a long line of young people who are willing to participate, and will release a huge energy which has been so far suppressed. That’s why I’m trying to promote this message.”

Update: links on Kasparov w/Putin


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A few years ago, the exalted Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov came to dinner at my house in New York. It was a memorably intense evening. As we dug into our desserts, Kasparov regaled the assembled group of American policymakers and financiers with his views on Russia, a country he had fled in 2013 after challenging President Vladimir Putin. Kasparov warned that Putin was becoming increasingly authoritarian, isolated from the west and, as a result, likely to lash out at neighbours such as Ukraine in a dangerous way. When the rest of the table rowdily dismissed his catastrophising, Kasparov became heated and, as the wine flowed, the conversation grew so animated that I started to worry that guests would walk out. So, despite sharing many of Kasparov’s fears, I decided to keep the peace by changing the subject to chess instead. It was one of several occasions when I saw Kasparov correctly predict impending disaster only to be rebuffed. When we caught up by phone last week, he recalled that night, lamenting, “I was stunned by the unwillingness of people [in the west] to hear these warnings, because I grew up in the Soviet Union and knew all about the historical events of the 20th century. I knew that you could have stopped Hitler in 1935 and 1936 and 1937 and didn’t. But I had so much outright rejection of what I have been saying.” Why were westerners so dismissive of Kasparov’s analysis? It is an important question given that many observers have reacted with complete shock to events in Ukraine. Among the biggest culprits have been the western elites with businesses in Russia. “Nobody I knew expected Putin would actually invade!” I was told last weekend by an expatriate former director of a Russian commodities company, who has now resigned. “We are all just in disbelief.” Kasparov thinks the issue is a tendency to presume that everyone else shares your innate world view. The key here is western ideas of motive and rationality. Western culture is soaked in a capitalist ethos, underpinned by a widespread assumption that the profit motive rules supreme in terms of shaping political calculations, and that it’s “the economy, stupid” that drives decision-making in Russia and elsewhere. The collapse of the USSR reinforced this view, since it seemed that market principles and global business interests had triumphed. Recommended World Garry Kasparov not returning to Russia out of fear of prosecution As a consequence, western leaders and business groups generally turned a blind eye when Putin gave speeches that clearly demonstrated his nationalist, expansionist agenda and then annexed Crimea. Worse, they failed to appreciate how isolated Putin had become. Instead, as Russian oligarchs became a fixture of global business, Putin was seen as an extrapolation of this group. The idea that he might be so hell-bent on the destruction of democracy and the expansion of Russia that he would be willing to accept deep economic pain wasn’t taken seriously. “It’s not like his actions were done in the darkness; it all happened in plain sight,” Kasparov tells me. “But after the end of the cold war there was some kind of allergy for any warnings about repetition of events. There was this assumption that Putin would never destroy business because it seemed irrational for him to do that.” Recommended War in Ukraine: free to read Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in maps — latest updates Given Kasparov’s acuity in predicting current events, I ask what he thinks might happen next. He believes Putin has “already lost” the battle, in the sense that his key objective of swiftly annexing Ukraine has failed. “I don’t think that a Ukrainian leader can accept anything less than the return of land [in Crimea]. This war will end with the Ukrainian flag on Sevastopol.” But he points out that “what price the Ukrainians will pay for this is unclear”, since it would be foolish to expect Putin to back down quickly merely because of economic pain. The one tool that might force a rapid positive conclusion, he thinks, is Nato backing a “no-fly” zone or getting directly involved. “Putin only respects strength.” Could a coup be another ending? Kasparov does not expect this right now, but pressure is building. “From history we know that one [of the] most important ingredients [for a coup] is geopolitical military defeat. That would send a powerful message to all layers of Russian society that the big boss has failed, and the mafia boss can afford many things except showing he is weak and lost.” But a fear of looking weak could also cause Putin to lash out. Thus, argues Kasparov, one of the biggest questions now is “whether Russian officials would actually carry out the orders” if Putin tried to conduct a nuclear strike. He doubts it. “The moment one Russian warship fires a tactical nuclear missile, Nato will respond, and there is unlikely to be the same fanaticism for Putin as there was in Germany with Hitler. I don’t believe that we have kamikaze Russian pilots.” Is this reassuring? Not necessarily: a stalemate threatens yet more suffering and destruction in Ukraine. Either way, as the tragedy unfolds, it is a powerful rebuke to the west on the perils of blinkered thinking and assuming that everyone looks at the world through the prism of a balance sheet. The next time an unpopular idea sparks a row at my dinner table, I will let it run. Sometimes, there are more important things at stake than being polite.

2018 – Telegraph article (Phillips/Phillips): Science holds the key to unlocking economic success [with comment by Alan Kay]

This is an article published in the Telegraph in June 2018 by myself and my brother, concerning UK national strategy in science and innovation. We called on the UK to ‘lead the future by creating it’. Below it is a comment and endorsement of it as ‘good advice’ by computing pioneer Alan Kay, whose phrase ‘create the future’ was an inspiration.

As in the Telegraph, June 7th 2018

Science holds the key, June 7th 2018, Telegraph, James W. Phillips & Matthew G. Phillips

The 2008 crisis should have led us to reshape how our economy works. But a decade on, what has really changed? The public knows that the same attitude that got us into the previous economic crisis will not bring us long-term prosperity, yet there is little vision from our leaders of what the future should look like. Our politicians are sleeping, yet have no dreams. To solve this, we must change emphasis from creating “growth” to creating the future: the former is an inevitable product of the latter.

Britain used to create the future, and we must return to this role by turning to scientists and engineers. Science defined the last century by creating new industries. It will define this century too: robotics, clean energy, artificial intelligence, cures for disease and other unexpected advances lie in wait. The country that gives birth to these industries will lead the world, and yet we seem incapable of action.

So how can we create new industries quickly? A clue lies in a small number of institutes that produced a strikingly large number of key advances. Bell Labs produced much of the technology underlying computing. The Palo Alto Research Centre did the same for the internet. There are simple rules of thumb about how great science arises, embodied in such institutes. They provided ambitious long-term funding to scientists, avoided unnecessary bureaucracy and chased high-risk, high-reward projects.

Today, scientists spend much of their time completing paperwork. A culture of endless accountability has arisen out of a fear of misspending a single pound. We’ve seen examples of routine purchases of LEDs that cost under £10 having to go through a nine-step bureaucratic review process.

Scientists on the cusp of great breakthroughs can be slowed by years mired in review boards and waiting on a decision from on high. Their discoveries are thus made, and capitalised on, elsewhere. We waste money, miss patents, lose cures and drive talented scientists away to high-paid jobs. You don’t cure cancer with paperwork. Rather than invigilate every single decision, we should do spot checks retrospectively, as is done with tax returns.

A similar risk aversion is present in the science funding process. Many scientists are forced to specify years in advance what they intend to do, and spend their time continually applying for very short, small grants. However, it is the unexpected, the failures and the accidental, which are the inevitable cost and source of fruit in the scientific pursuit. It takes time, it takes long-term thinking, it takes flexibility. Peter Higgs, Nobel laureate who predicted the Higgs Boson, says he wouldn’t stand a chance of being funded today for lack of a track record. This leads scientists collectively to pursue incremental, low-risk, low-payoff work.

The current funding system is also top-down, prescriptive and homogenous, administered centrally from London. It is slow to respond to change and cut off from the real world.

We should return to funding university departments more directly, allowing more rapid, situation-aware decision-making of the kind present in start-ups, and create a diversity of funding systems. This is how the best research facilities in history operated, yet we do not learn their key lesson: that science cannot be managed by central edict, but flourishes through independent inquiry.

While Britain built much of modern science, today it neglects it, lagging behind other comparable nations in funding, and instead prioritising a financial industry prone to blowing up. Consider that we spent more money bailing out the banks in a single year than we have on science in the entirety of history.

We scarcely pause to consider the difference in return on investment. Rather than prop up old industries, we should invest in world-leading research institutes with a specific emphasis on high-risk, high-payoff research.

Those who say this is not government’s role fail the test of history. Much great science has come from government investment in times of crisis. Without Nasa, there would be no SpaceX. These government investments were used to provide a long-term, transformative vision on a scale that cannot be achieved through private investment alone – especially where there is a high risk of failure but high reward in success. The payoff of previous investments was enormous, so why not replicate the defence funding agencies that led to them with peacetime civilian equivalents?

In order to be the nation where new discoveries are made, we must take decisive steps to make the UK a magnet for talented young scientists.

However, a recent report on ensuring a successful UK research endeavour scarcely mentioned young scientists at all. An increased focus on this goal, alongside simple steps like long-term funding and guaranteed work visas for their spouses, would go a long way. In short, we should be to scientific innovation what we are to finance: a highly connected nerve centre for the global economy.

The political candidate that can leverage a pro-science platform to combine economic stimulus with the reality of economic pragmatism will transform the UK. We should lead the future by creating it.

Comment from Alan Kay:

Good advice! However, I’m afraid that currently in the US there is nothing like the fabled Bell Labs or ARPA-PARC funding, at least in computing where I’m most aware of what is and is not happening (I’m the “Alan Kay” of the famous quote).

It is possible that things were still better a few years ago in the US than in the UK (I live in London half the year and in Los Angeles the other half). But I have some reasons to doubt. Since the new “president”, the US does not even have a science advisor, nor is there any sign of desire for one.

A visit to the classic Bell Labs of its heyday would reveal many things. One of the simplest was a sign posted randomly around: “Either do something very useful, or very beautiful”. Funders today won’t fund the second at all, and are afraid to fund at the risk level needed for the first.

It is difficult to sum up ARPA-PARC, but one interesting perspective on this kind of funding was that it was both long range and stratospherically visionary, and part of the vision was that good results included “better problems” (i.e. “problem finding” was highly valued and funded well) and good results included “good people” (i.e. long range funding should also create the next generations of researchers). in fact, virtually all of the researchers at Xerox PARC had their degrees funded by ARPA, they were “research results” who were able to get better research results.

Since the “D” was put on ARPA in the early 70s, it was then not able to do what it did in the 60s. NSF in the US never did this kind of funding. I spent quite a lot of time on some of the NSF Advisory Boards and it was pretty much impossible to bridge the gap between what was actually needed and the difficulties the Foundation has with congressional oversight (and some of the stipulations of their mission).

Bob Noyce (one of the founders of Intel) used to say “Wealth is created by Scientists, Engineers and Artists, everyone else just moves it around”.

Einstein said “We cannot solve important problems of the world using the same level of thinking we used to create them”.

A nice phrase by Vi Hart is “We must insure human wisdom exceeds human power”.

To make it to the 22nd century at all, and especially in better shape than we are now, we need to heed all three of these sayings, and support them as the civilization we are sometimes trying to become. It’s the only context in which “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” makes any useful sense.