Q&A with Jeremy Watson from PETRAS

Materials World magazine
29 Oct 2019

PETRAS Director and Principal Investigator, Jeremy Watson CBE FREng FIET FICE DPhil, talks to Idha Valeur about successfully securing funding several times and how Brexit could impact UK science.


Can you tell me about your background?

With a doctorate in biomedical instrumentation, my first job was as an electronics and control engineer designing high-performance industrial control systems. Then I worked across discipline boundaries in my responsibility for R&D as a technology director in a £1bln public company. Following posts saw me working as a global research director and being appointed as Chief Scientific Adviser to a government department. During this time, my engagement with the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) deepened as I chaired my regional centre and was appointed to the Board of Trustees. In recent years, I have returned to academia at UCL, motivated by research and by developing people. But I retain industrial interests through a role as Chief Scientist and Engineer at the Building Research Establishment (BRE), and at the IET, where I served as President between 2016-2017.

What does your daily job entail?

My routine is varied, with two days a week at BRE and three at UCL. Meetings with government, industry partners and funding agencies are common, but work is balanced with the administration of the large PETRAS centre grant, supervising researchers, working with faculty and company colleagues, and teaching at masters level.

What has been your biggest career highlight?

I am proud of three achievements in my professional life – leading a team that won a Queen’s Award for Innovation, being awarded a CBE for services to engineering, and latterly, winning the two PETRAS (Privacy, ethics, trust, reliability, acceptability and security) grants totalling £24mln of direct funding.

What is PETRAS?

PETRAS is a consortium of academic researchers focused on making the Internet of Things safe and secure for society. Although it has many ways in which it can be hacked, we can make Internet of Things (IoT) systems safe, to benefit society across a wide range of sectors, from medicine, to transport and domestic use. With the second round of funding, it has become a seven-year programme. The first round was for three years, with £9.8mln from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport administered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Interest raised £14mln of matched funding from industry and government partners.

We have now moved into a second phase, with a further £14mln via EPSRC from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) under the Strategic Priorities Fund. We are bringing in more partners during the second phase, and are operating as the PETRAS National Centre of Excellence. All this sits under a new overarching initiative called Securing Digital technologies at the Periphery of the Internet (SDTaP). Including the original government funding, plus match funding and a linked Innovate UK Demonstrator programme, it is £50mln over seven years. We have around 120 user-partners in government and industry and 12 universities working together with the aim to build up to about 20 through new projects that are coming through. In the first phase, we achieved 51 in total, of which six were substantial demonstrators of technology.

PETRAS received £13.8mln in EPSRC funding for a four-year project. Tell me about that.

An independent consultant’s analysis showed that over 1,100 companies were aware of us, with many using our outputs. So in addition to our direct partners, we were beginning to have some real impact.

The second phase is part of the £25mln investment including an Innovate UK piece, which has £10mln for demonstrators and is, with PETRAS, governed by the SDTaP Board. Our first PETRAS centre call has gone out and will award around £2mln to approximately eight new projects. The second call will be in about a year’s time with a further £4mln to fund over 15 projects. There is also £1mln from Innovate UK set aside for startup companies coming out of universities. It will be exciting for academics because they can potentially benefit from that money to come up with new commercial ideas. The second phase of PETRAS includes machine-learning and artificial intelligence, with Internet of Things devices at the Edge – the device being a physical computer-esque box that sits close to the IoT device i.e a router in your home and the term is often used to differentiate between the cloud services which is remote – and how we make these networks secure. It builds on the foundations we have achieved with user-partners from the first phase, but we also have new supporters for the second phase. We want to develop an enduring centre that becomes partly self-funding by taking on commissioned work as well as government grants.

How did you secure that funding?

We created a good outcome by holding a workshop with government and company partners before writing our bid. The first three-year period that ended in August this year was successful. For the second phase, under SDTaP, EPSRC selected us as one of their flagship projects because when the Strategic Priorities Fund came out from UKRI - they were looking for ‘oven-ready’ quality research programmes that were likely to be successful. We had already demonstrated our first phase of successful working, having delivered 50+ projects with over 100 user-partners. I think EPSRC felt we were relatively safe to receive further research funding. It is great to have their support, and recently EPSRC has showcased our initiative. With respect to continuity and security in the future, it is about established reputation and brand value.

This is not about any one individual, it is about what the team of 40+ researchers in the first phase of PETRAS achieved with support from their universities. Our 200+ academic and policy publications have been well received and, with the IET, we have launched an international conference series, Living in the IoT, with two annual events in London so far, plus partnership with a large sister IET conference in India. I think the brand value itself attracts government and the private sector to us. We recently received enquiries for commissioned consultancy services, so we are working on how to brigade our academics to collaborate on that, as well as separately continuing with research council-funded research. It is brand value at the end of the day – you build a reputation through high-level work and then value to partners becomes inherent, providing quality is maintained – that is absolutely crucial.

One of our key success factors is that social and technical experts are working together. The unusual thing about that is the very close teamwork we have achieved between social scientists and engineers and physical scientists, who do not typically speak the same language. But we have managed to work together. In the first phase, the hub actually had joint leaders from social and technical disciplines at each of the partner universities, and that was very successful. We have added design expertise as well, and behavioural sciences really help us. It is clear that design informs behaviours and behaviours inform design.

Do you think this collaboration has made PETRAS more investible?

Absolutely. But again, we can not be complacent, we have got to deliver. And expectations always go up with delivery, so you have to increase targets all the time.

How do you think Brexit will impact the UK funding pool?

I think it is justifiable to be stressed because we do not have a clear national policy of how we would adapt to leaving, although some very good minds are working on it. I think in the long-term, and looking at the wider international implications, there might not necessarily be too much impact if a deal is struck. But there would be a fairly long delay of settling out, re-establishing trusted relationships and working out how we’re going to collaborate with Europe in the future. I think, like Israel and Switzerland, we will be able to bid into European funds once everyone is calm again. Our government has got to find a position where it feels comfortable to put UK money alongside European money in a new context. I believe a no-deal Brexit is very undesirable.

It would create negative feelings against the UK, which will not help research collaboration. And certainly speaking on behalf of UCL, about 20% of our researchers and other students are from the European Union and we value highly the relationships that we have with them. Our work with Europe has been extremely valuable for the UK research environment. And I think we have actually, as a country, benefited hugely from the funding received from Europe. Together we have been very successful and it will be regrettable to lose that partnership.

What will be important to ensure that the UK remains a hub for innovation?

I think we need to have the right funding environment, which gives sufficient freedom of thought to researchers to attract overseas investment, and also overseas researchers. Our base arrangements have got to be appropriate to welcome overseas researchers, making it easy and attractive for them to work in the UK. And we must not make our research agenda too strictly UK-centric. We need to think internationally and look at the big challenges we have around the world, with ageing demography, and environmental and climate change challenges, which all need to be at the centre of our research thinking.

What is your main advice for other researchers about securing funding?

The key success factor for us was that we put in pre-bid investment early to identify research projects. We did this through workshops with user-partners - companies like Telefonica, BT and Ordnance Survey, and government departments – to identify their areas of importance before we put in the bid. We provided well-considered partnered projects that the Research Council could fund, which was successful. The key thing is to ensure partner engagement before application, do not just write the proposal on behalf of the user-partner, but write it with them.