£50m for atomic-scale chicken wire

One welcome piece of news from George Osborne's speech.

Do not adjust your Newstatesman.com but there's one bit of George Osborne's speech to the Conservative party conference that's worth praising: his commitment of £50m to research into the "wonder material" graphene. It was part of his package of science-funding announcements, including £145m for supercomputer research and £150m on extra mobile phone masts.

Graphene is a form of carbon in sheets one atom thick, described handily by Wikipedia as "an atomic-scale chicken wire". It won Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, who are both Russian-born but based in Britain, the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics.

This amazing substance -- transparent, an electrical conductor, stiff but stretchy and completely impermeable -- could have a huge range of practical applications, for example in solar panels or touchscreens. Some 200 patents associated with it have already been filed.

Since Geim and Novoselov's groundbreaking research in 2004, the UK has fallen behind in the worldwide race to develop graphene technology (South Korea's Samsung is particularly keen). But with the research cash, it is hoped that a "hub", producing large quantities of the stuff, can be set up and staffed with some of the best researchers working today. The location will be Manchester, where Geim and Novoselov both hold posts at the university (and where the Tory party conference is being held). Or, as Osborne called it: "Manchester: where Rutherford split the atom and the Miliband brothers split the Labour Party".

Perhaps the new cash will change Geim's opinion about the coalition's commitment to science funding. He told the Independent in 2010: "I have no plans to move, but if George Osborne's axe is as sharp as the rumours tell, we will all be considering moving to places like Singapore, where they spend 3 per cent of their GDP on research -- not a paltry 1.5 per cent, which is going to be cut."

PS. For more on graphene, including the story of how sticky tape was vital to its discovery, there's a fascinating article by Geim here and a Q&A on the substance here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.