Orations and responses
Brian Wynne Oakley, CBE
Oration given on 9 July 1998
Chancellor: The Senate of the University has resolved that the
degree of Doctor of the University be conferred on Mr Brian Oakley.
Last month saw the fiftieth anniversary of the world’s first stored-program
computer running its first program in June, 1948. This was achieved not in
the United States but in Manchester University.
Less than twenty years later, in 1964, the incoming Labour government, under
Harold Wilson, launched a new Ministry of Technology with a major mission to
‘save the independent British computer industry’ from its apparent demise at the
hands of IBM and other foreign competition. All the advanced countries,
not just this one, have chronically worried about their relative achievements in
computer technology. Even so, there has been a tendency for the British to
think and invent; while others invest , build, manufacture, sell and profit.
Today, we award our honorary doctorate to Brian Oakley - a leading computer
science and computer industry figure who directed the 1980s attempt to improve
British performance in this field. This was the government’s ‘Alvey
Programme’ of 1983 to 1987, so named after the chairman of the committee which
had proposed a national initiative. Its purpose was to lay out and
co-ordinate public and private money in an unprecedented applied research
effort, bringing together government, the computer industry and university-based
skills. The challenge was severe. Two years earlier, in 1981, the
Japanese Government and IT industries had jointly announced their planned
assault on the high-tech, large-scale end of the burgeoning world-wide IT market
using new ‘fifth generation’ computers.
The first four generations were seen as successively: using valves;
using transistors; using integrated circuits; and using large-scale integrated
circuits. The shift to the fifth stage would be much more dramatic:
with computer speech and pictures and, even more fundamentally, making the
computer a ‘problem solver’.
How should Britain react? Our IT was weak and getting weaker. The
value of imported IT exceeded its export by £300 million: in another three
years the difference would be £1 billion. Even though Continental Europe
was perhaps no better off, the British IT industry was small in world terms,
fragmented and over-committed to British military demands rather than commercial
markets (the other British disease).
The Japanese were famous for government-industry collaboration on ‘pre-
market’ product research. This approach was proposed for Britain.
The Thatcher government rather surprisingly accepted a limited programme.
Getting industry, government researchers and universities working together was
crucial: so was welding at least three Whitehall departments’ IT interests
into one. So a unique Alvey Directorate was created to run this
unprecedented programme. Brian Oakley was made its director, perhaps
because only he had worked in all three of the government agencies mainly
involved in this novel field.
There may have been other reasons. He was certainly not the terribly
conventional senior civil servant type, even though he occupied a high (Deputy
Secretary) grade. For example, his preferred form of transport was an old,
open-top MG sports car. And he showed his individuality in this crucial
new job. His Directorate was ‘civil service’, with the usual constraints
on authorising spending and issuing contracts, but he otherwise ran it more as
an independent agency to offer good access to both the firms and the university
scientists whose active collaboration was vital. He insisted that the
Programme’s work must be properly evaluated by independent academics. He
was the very model of a modern mandarin - dedicated equally to co-operation and
Brian Oakley studied science at Oxford and later became a Fellow of
both the Institute of Physics and the British Computer Society (he was later
elected president of the Society). He began in telecommunications research
and moved on to the civilian applications of military research before entering
Whitehall and later became the chief official of the Science and Engineering
What happened to the Alvey Programme - and plucky little Britain’s attempt to
look the Japanese and the Americans in the face, even unto the fifth generation?
The government refused to fund the second phase in 1987. When the
minister, Kenneth Clarke, announced this at the annual Alvey Programme
conference in Manchester, five hundred delegates responded by maintaining
complete silence when he sat down. The Japanese model of public-private
collaboration was now rejected by an increasingly free market-minded government.
Brian Oakley’s work on Alvey was found by the academic evaluators to have
improved collaboration between universities and commercial R and D in ways which
(once again) many other countries have since copied and benefited from.
After his Alvey Programme days, Brian Oakley joined the leading IT consultancy
company, Logica, on the research and university liaison side. He also
chaired the managing board of the University of London’s Computer Centre,
which was a major national super-computing centre. He currently assists
the European Commission in the new field of quantum computing.
This University has always been strong in computing science and the
associated field of electronic systems engineering. It is one of the
world’s major centres for the social science use of computers, both data
archiving and research analysis. We are therefore very pleased to be
recognising Brian Oakley today. He is one of the most important figures in
the history of the British computer science community.
He has trod several official stages trying to promote British technology
since he played Hamlet while a science student at Oxford. Effective and
lasting planned technological progress in Britain has received much lip service
but (as Hamlet puts it, in another context) “more honour’d in the breach than
the observance”. This fine public servant, turned eminent private industry
leader and European Union adviser, has done his best and a very good best it has
Chancellor, I present to you Brian Wynne Oakley.