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Honorary Graduates

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 systematic evaluation.

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 Research Council.

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 always been.

Chancellor, I present to you Brian Wynne Oakley.