Ian Taylor MBE was Minister for Science, Space and Technology from 1994 to 1997 in the Conservative government under John Major. He continued to take a strong interest in science and technology during the remainder of his parliamentary career. After standing down as an MP in 2010, he has pursued his business interests with a wide portfolio of directorships and advisory roles, mostly with science and technology companies and those who invest in them.
Ian Taylor was born in Coventry in 1945. After the war, his father his who had been in the army, lost his place in university and retrained as a chartered accountant. He ultimately became the Chief Education Officer for Coventry. His mother had a variety of part-time roles including school secretary.
Ian says his childhood was happy and he enjoyed playing rugby for Coventry and Warwickshire at every level really up to senior. He says: “Coventry was the foremost rugger club in those days, so although I didn’t play in the first team, I did play with all the greats who, one way and other, played for England; Duckham, Peter Jackson, Frank Cotton, John Owen, Bill Gittings.” Ian also enjoyed running and cricket which he played until his late fifties.
Ian attended Whitley Abbey School in Coventry, where he flourished. He sat A Levels in English, history, French, general studies, plus two S Levels in French and history.
Feeling frustrated that he had not studied maths, physics and chemistry, Ian chose to do a foundation year in maths and physics at Keele University before starting his degree in international relations, modern history, economics, politics. He says: “Keele was one of the new wave of universities and it had this distinction of a foundation year, where they deliberately forced you to do subjects that you weren’t going to study for your main degree. So, I did maths and physics, and philosophy as a subsidiary subject, and you really did have to pass. … It was really, really stimulating.”
After gaining his degree, Ian applied for a Ford Foundation research scholarship which provided grants to support interesting subjects. Ian was offered grant and went to study French foreign policy towards Eastern Europe either side of the Second World War, at the London School of Economics (LSE). He says: “I spent those two years really in politics, both national politics, I was National Chairman of the Conservative Students, and then European politics, I was the first ever Brit to be chairman of the European Christian Democrat Conservative Students. I was in the middle of student rebellions, particularly at LSE.” This was set against a period of unrest and protest among LSE students. Ian adds: “LSE was in upheaval of course. We had meetings of over 1,000 people, packed into the LSE library, arguing about whether we had a seat on the catering committee or something. Tempers were short in student politics in those days, and they were quite dangerous actually.”
Ian’s interest in politics started through his interest in debating as a means to being able to express himself. He started a debating group at school and then joined the Debates Union at university. He says: “I thought I was a social democrat, if you had to put a label on me. I probably was right actually, but at the time became active in Conservative politics through debating.” As a result of his interest in debating, Ian found himself wanting to progress and became National Chairman of the Conservative Students with Andrew Neil as his vice-chairman. Ian says he was the first to hold the post having come from a non-traditional university. It had previously been held by Ken Clarke three years earlier and had otherwise been dominated by people from Oxford, Cambridge, Glasgow and London universities.
One of Ian’s inspirations for joining the Conservative Party was the approach to the Common Market, he says: “the inspiration initially was, it was a one nation, open-minded, pro-European attitude that attracted us.”
Following university, Ian went into investment and corporate finance for eighteen years. With technology increasingly underpinning companies, Ian says his work was often relevant to technology. One lesson that he learned from his time was that brilliant technology isn’t necessarily commercially exploitable. He explains: “You’ve got to marry, both from the timing point of view, the attitude point of view, and the cultural point of view, the one with the other. … Technology is not useful unless you can provide a cultural and human and commercial aspect to it.”
MP for Esher
In 1987 Ian was elected as MP for Esher, now known as Esher and Walton following a boundary change in 1997. Ian remained MP there until 2010; twenty-three years. Between 1994 and 1997, he held a number of different roles, including; Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office, Health Department, Cabinet Office and Minister for Science, Space and Technology. He says: “I became a Minister, following the science portfolio, slightly after I arrived at the DTI. … It was a phenomenal opportunity really. I was lucky enough to get that portfolio alongside technology and I think it’s interesting to note that… I didn’t have universities, as, more recent science ministers normally have universities attached to them in one way or another, but parts of university research came both under me and the Department of Education. What I had was not only science, but the whole of telecommunications, Oftel, the whole of radio communications, as well as all the stimulus that was needed, and training and skills for technology, as well as other areas like security, and, intellectual property and all the rest of it. Now a lot of that has gone to a different department, that was started by Blair, he broke it up, and so the Secretary of State for Digital Economy was really the equivalent of my old job responsibility.”
During his tenure Ian persuaded Government that the growing opportunities for interconnection through the internet raised important security issues which needed to be tackled; a responsibility that he took on in his role and which then transferred to the Home Office in 1997 under the Labour Government. He says: “What became the Interception Powers Act under Labour, actually started under me.” Ian privately briefed Charles Clarke, the Labour Home Office Minister, about the bill and transferred some of his DTI staff to the Home Office. He adds: “It’s amazing now to think that the sort of things I was talking about, protection of individuals and children online, is still an agenda. We’re still perfecting these things.” Ian, as Minister, with some private sector help from Peter Dawe, also started the national scheme for protecting children online.
With the internet reach growing, Ian’s department ran a number of research projects to understand the potential implications. Ian drew on insight from experts in the field to enhance his knowledge and understanding of complex science and technology, however he says: “It isn’t important for the minister to be an expert in the technical aspects of, for example, spectrum analysis and what hertz you are dealing at, it’s what the significance of it is, and what the implications for release of more spectrum could be.”
Ian also insisted that he had an email address and became the first minister ever to do so, despite protests from his permanent secretary who feared that it would undermine security measures.
To make sure that Government departments made the most of the new interconnectivity, Ian insisted on a change in the Civil Service structure. He says: “I very quickly realised that every section head was siloed and actually, the interconnectivity that was beginning to happen, both in industry but also beginning to happen through the Internet, made this obsolete. So, not only we changed the Civil Service arrangements, but I set up a multimedia industry advisory committee.” The committee involved many high street names such as Dixons, WH Smith, Boots, FT, and the music industry, including EMI.
In 1997, the Government launched IT For All, Ian explains: “Alongside the Information Society Initiative, which was attempting to educate people on what the implications of the information society might be, we had a concept of IT For All, which, in those days, mainly meant schools. Microsoft were brilliant at helping, I had several talks with Bill Gates personally about ways he could assist UK schools. Obviously, commercial factors were taken into consideration for non-conflict. Microsoft were very, very good at bringing technology into schools, and training teachers which was very important because teachers were very hesitant in many cases.”
1997 also saw a change of Government to Labour, with Tony Blair as Prime Minister. Ian says that there was some continuation of projects started by his department under the Conservative Party, such as the launch of NESTA and Ofcom, while other elements were spread to different departments. Ian says: “Issues don’t stop just because there’s a change of government. There is very little political antagonism between science (and technology) ministers, because you’re facing very evident challenges. You are also learning from each other how best to persuade the more doubtful in government about the importance of skills, technology, science, to the national GDP. That communality of interest continues to this day really.”
Ian continued to be involved in many different committees related to science and technology after the change of Government. He became co-chair of the Parliamentary Information Technology Group (PITCOM). He says that you don’t lose interest when you’re no longer Minister and describes it as “being bitten by the technology bug”. He wanted continued his work to ensure that the general public could reap the benefits of science and technology and not be scared off by new advances. He says: “I think the common challenge for ministers is this analysis of risk, and how that can totally obstruct.”
The group was an all-party committee. Ian says: “I chaired the cable industry committee, and there was the European Information Technology Group too, and, I later chaired the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which is the oldest of the parliamentary committees, and the Parliamentary Space Committee, which again was very technology driven. Space is an application of technology.”
Space and the National Space Academy
Space is a particular area of interest for Ian, he explains: “I’m so old that I remember Dan Dare in the Eagle magazine and things you could hardly hear on your crystal radio, so space has always been exciting. We had the Apollo missions. So, suddenly to become Space Minister was really, really, wonderful from my point of view. I’m not saying it was the most important part of my portfolio, it wasn’t, but as a, a subject, it was, fascinating. I managed to do the first National Space Review, which was launched in early ’97. There have been many since and the space industry has grown astronomically and is now largely driven by the private sector. Government, which used to be the dominant player, is now a key player, particularly in stimulating new missions and ventures and applications, but of course it is, private sector has transformed with downstream activities. I’ve taken an interest in that all the way through.”
During his tenure, Ian says that it was a question of where to focus energies given a limited budget, with communications and earth observation being two important areas. Ian explains: “What we had started to develop was an interest in the embryonic downstream, what we could learn from space about the Earth, what we could do to improve communications and security. Those were the driving factors.” Based on this Ian took the decision not to participate in the International Space Station which would have consumed the entire £200m space budget. Instead, Ian says, “Instead, we put a lot into the developments of an indigenous capability which led to the growth of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited.”
The result has been a growth of vast numbers of smaller satellite manufactures, Ian adds: “If you get a successful idea, you get a cluster around it of people who are feeding into it. So, in terms of technologists, the space industry is now, not only a big employer, but, indirectly a big employer, and this has pushed out the demand for skills for people who are going into space, which starts in schools of course.”
For eight years after he left Parliament Ian chaired the National Space Academy, which trains teachers using science – space, as an exemplar to improve their confidence in teaching, maths, physics, geology, and biology.
UK GPS and Brexit
Ian explains that Brexit has led to the exclusion of the UK from Galileo; the international global positioning system and therefore work is under way to potentially develop a UK system with Inmarsat potentially playing an important role as one of the largest operators of satellites, global communications.
He says: “We are suddenly faced with this, in my view, very unfortunate exclusion from Galileo, which is a project which we’ve put a lot of money into over the years, and, it’s very technical as to why we’re excluded, because it’s almost self-exclusion. We had defined the status over what’s called a third nation on the Galileo project, which would have access to the global navigation side of it, but not to the encrypted public regulated signal side of it, which was the sort of stuff used by the Home Office and, Defence, and NATO and all the rest of it. At the heart of Galileo, the PRS was developed actually by CGI in the UK, a Canadian company, but, taking over Logica. But when we announced that we were leaving the European Union, which is still not done yet but, we were leaving, the French pretty well turned to us and said, ‘Well you’ll be a third nation, so you can’t be part of the PRS development.’ And the British government said, ‘Oh we must, have to be. Unless we are part of the development of the PRS, then, we are going to have to set our own system up.’ So, Inmarsat is a big player in any potential venture to develop GPS in and for the UK.”
Ian goes on to add that our reliance on the satellites that support our many different systems and communications now means that space is a major part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. He adds that there are interdepartmental committees and there is going to be a cross departmental national space to look at such issues.
UK Skills Shortage
Ian is passionate about ensuring that the UK has the skills it needs for the future and has been involved in promoting this to schools. He says: “On technology, we still haven’t really worked out how we’re going to deal with the need for more people in technology. … I regret the passing of polytechnics, not because I’m in any way, against universities who were polytechnics, but it is vital that we do provide avenues which people can access to make sure that we’ve got the skills that we need in the future. There has to be a diversity of ways of doing that, and I don’t know that we’re doing it well enough. … Technology skills of all sorts are critical to the sustainability of the things that we’re going to be doing and need to do in the future in a global market, which goes beyond Brexit, and whether Brexit happens or not, these skills are going to be necessary.”
The UK Innovation and Science Seed Fund (UKi2s)
Ian is involved with the UK Innovation and Science Seed Fund which he is trying to help grow in size so that it can increase its impact.
He says: “One of the things that I was aware of was the lack of patient capital for genuine start-ups. Bear in mind in the 1980s, before I came into Parliament, I had been involved in what we would now call venture capital, and I realised then the difficulties if the company’s too soon, you don’t know when you’re going to get your reward from the investment, the return on capital. I was intrigued by something called the Rainbow Seed Fund, and, out of the blue they approached me as it happened, and asked if I would become chair, in 2013. I accepted and we’ve got a really powerful, experienced advisory board around me, who have made money out of scientific and technological projects themselves, but they mainly, have science and technology backgrounds as well. There’s also a professional management team. What we do is, out of the Research and Innovation Campuses, which are basically the public research establishments, we take ideas that we think can be commercialised, and possibly put in the first £50,000 to help business plan and, really get the idea together, and then we keep putting money in as we mentored the companies through the first difficult stages.”
The money is Government money, ultimately. Ian explains; “For many years it’s come in through the Science and Technology Facilities Council, BBSRC, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, and the National Environment Research Council. The first two are the big backers, together they are the core partners.”
The group is focusing on a wide variety of companies ranging from synthetic biology, data companies, fintech, space, the detection of gases in wide areas to improving treatment for prostate cancer and gaining a better understanding of why antibiotics are no longer effective.
Ian says: “It’s picking sectors which are going to be critical to the future of the British economy or, where we have a vested interest in being successful. … Our role in UKi2s is a critical interface between the scientific laboratory and the beginnings of commercial exploitation of ideas which is critical for the UK. We’re brilliant at research, but we’ve got to be also brilliant when ideas emerge that might be commercialised, at commercialising them.” Ian adds: “That’s a role for Government. I absolutely refute the idea that Government should stay out of this, both in terms of importance of sectors which we need to move forward, and importance of stimulating science to the point at which the private sector is prepared to take a risk, and that is a genuine public private partnership.”
Other Roles and Honours
Since standing down as an MP, Ian has taken on a number of chairmanships, non-executive directorships and advisory roles, mostly in science, technology and engineering. These include Living PlanIT which is, developing open standards software for urban areas and the TPX Property Exchange. He has also been awarded a number of honours including an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list of 1974 for political services.
Ian says of his later career that he thinks he has “brought a context to help very bright people understand the world in which they are operating and think beyond just the technical applications of what they’re doing.” He is able to do this because of his vast range of experience, his network and “all the other benefits you get from a career like mine.”
Reflecting on his political career, he says: “I’ve managed to raise, in my own way, the profile of information technology and science, to people who seem to listen to me and pay attention. I’ve managed to keep those contacts and encourage others to do that and I think that’s important ultimately to be delivered by other people, other governments, other companies. But, whether it be through things like the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, or whether it through the National Space Academy, or from my involvement with the Science and Technology Facilities Council, trying to provide a political context to boost the relevance and importance of engineers and scientists, technologists, I think has been very important.”
“Go for it but bear in mind the social context. There’s virtually no activity in technology that doesn’t have somewhere a human interface and it’s not just necessarily the end user.
“Take a mobile phone; the technology behind the mobile phone is by itself exciting, and one of the real benefits of this which we’ve not touched on, and we haven’t got time to touch it, but design becomes critical to the user interface. You have to build design right in at the beginning. Apple have done that brilliantly with a British designer Jony Ive, who started, by educational standards, in a school not dissimilar from where I started, he went to Newcastle university and then became head designer. Apple’s success is a combination of design and technology. There’s a context for technologists that they need to understand if they’re really going to be successful.”
Interviewed by: Ian Symonds on the 19th September 2019 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda