Government plans to turn the UK's foundering financial-services-based economy into a high tech, engineering powerhouse were showcased today in London.
The "Pioneers 09" expo was opened by Richard Noble, the man in charge of the new Bloodhound supersonic car project. However, there was also news of an even more inspiring flagship piece of technology, based on a deep knowledge of breast-squeezing.
Noble argued that rumblings of the current economic death spiral have been evident for years, as the UK forsook proper manufacturing and industry for increasingly dubious financial dealings. "There's been a sense for a long time now that engineering, manufacturing, these are messy Third World skills - and to be a high earner you should follow media studies and law," said the famous land-speed-record kingpin.
Describing his own efforts to finance high-risk tech startups in recent times, he said "by 2004, 2005 I found almost no one in the City with any technology skills or knowledge".
Noble contends that Blighty is fatally short of graduate engineers in particular, and believes that this is because there's nothing which makes science and technology inspiring to young people - thus they go to the bad. In his view, the Bloodhound thousand-mile-per-hour car project is the only thing which could turn this sorry state of affairs around.
"Students need data, information from actual projects in order to learn," he said. "Traditional sources cannot provide inspiration. The defence industry is restricted by security concerns, and by intellectual-property issues. The space industry has the same problems."
There are those, perhaps, who nonetheless find spacecraft - and even on occasion an elegant piece of military hardware - much more inspiring than the technological blind alley of supersonic wheeled cars. But Noble doesn't agree. "The Bloodhound technology will be openly available," he said, disclosing that 541 schools had signed up to work with the project. "It's a powerful motivator."
There was also a short vid contribution from Wing Commander Andy Green, RAF fighter pilot and maths graduate, who drove the last of Noble's cars - Thrust SSC - through the sound barrier. Green will also be at the controls of the Bloodhound in a few years' time.
"The goal is to get everyone in the country, from the ages of 6 to 96, interested in maths, science, technology, engineering," he said. "As the world's fastest mathematician I can't think of a better way to do that."
(Green is not, of course, by any means the world's fastest mathematician. Any mathematician who has been in orbit - there are plenty - has him beat easily. But no matter.)
Noble went on to reveal that the first 18 months of largely government-funded design study on the Bloodhound had been carried out behind an Apple-like total security blanket, because "we weren't sure it was possible".
"There were more than 1000 people involved, and nobody leaked," he said proudly.
Noble also pointed out that the Bloodhound would be faster than Clint Eastwood's .357 Magnum bullets [sic*], and characterised it as "a recession buster," which would "help the greatest country in the world to regain its confidence", before departing to get on with the challenging job of raising further finance for the car.
There was some very mild rebuttal, however, from Professor David Delpy, chief of the government's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), hosting the convention - and incidentally a major funder of Bloodhound to date. Delpy pointed out that while the manufacturing sector has shrunk to a mere 13 per cent of the UK economy, it remains the sixth largest in the world.
The shrinking percentage, he said, was more a result of the explosive growth - in money terms - of the financial sector rather than any catastrophic shrinkage. Furthermore, he argued, much of the service sector was actually technologically-based - for instance, medicine.
"We need to do better," said the professor. "But it's important to remember that we're not starting from a horribly low base."
Professor Delpy cited a few examples which he thought might contend with the Bloodhound as recession-busters. He mentioned ongoing work at Cambridge University which could see the price of LED lamps drop by a factor of ten. With 20 per cent of British electricity use going on lighting, according to the prof, universal use of LEDs in place of incandescent or fluorescent lights would cut the national 'leccy bill by 15 per cent.
He also cited another example of successful British research going on to be commercially valuable. This was the development of a much more successful way of analysing the results of mammograms - breast X-rays used to detect cancer.