Science fact or fiction

Science fact or fiction

Elation for Newcastle’s new status as a science city is warranted, but aren’t there two big obstacles to overcome? BQ asks science city chief executive Dr Peter Arnold.

WHEN the initial euphoria recedes over Newcastle’s plans for a science city, two hard questions will need answers...

First, will Newcastle, with an envisaged time scale of 10 to 15 years, secure all the inward investment it needs when five other science cities in England will also be tapping many similar or the same sources? And will the resource asset of the five North East universities provide access to sufficient knowledge skills? A recent guide to best-performing universities put the region’s universities between eighth and 88th out of 113.

Its assessment of graduate prospects puts Durham third out of15 universities top-ranked in chemistry, and sixth out of the top 15 in mathematics, while Newcastle comes fifth among the top 13 in medicine.

Well and good. But another guide, similarly authoritative, puts no North East university among leaders in bioscience.

It does rate Newcastle second nationally for chemical engineering, and gives it a mid-table place in the top echelon for teaching in dentistry, medicine, computer sciences and information technology.

It also squeezes into 16th place, two ahead of Sunderland, in the top 18 for pharmacy and pharmacology.

Tables seldom tell all and they can be subjective.

Those of us familiar with the institutions know their capabilities, but a potential bioscience investor thousands of miles away could be inclined to look to one of England’s other designated science cities.

Also, if 15 years elapse before the city’s Science Central district is completed in the heart of Newcastle (property leases often complicate urban regeneration), do the other five science cities get a head start? Dr Peter Arnold, newly appointed first chief executive of Science City, expects eventually to be largely promoting the research there and chasing inward investment: “Tracking opportunities,” he says.

“We shall have to map out where Newcastle will be really competitive.” Meanwhile, he fields our awkward questions with equanimity.

At 46, he looks and speaks less like an entrepreneur, more like a scientist or a consultant surgeon: calmly, quietly, like the specialist building your confidence as he explains your heart bypass to come. Don’t be misled.

Dr Arnold’s experience as a senior research and development leader, in cancer predominantly, included building a business later bought by Shell.

He was with Johnson & Johnson and, latterly, was group technical director of technology at FTSE-100’s Smith & Nephew, Europe’s largest medical devices company.

He has experience of science management on both sides of the Atlantic, and has led significant programmes of corporate change.

He has also fed into government policy on clinical research, nano- and stem technology; two of the “ologies” of paramount importance to Science City in Newcastle.

Professor Chris Bink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, for one, expects Dr Arnold’s experience and expertise to benefit the city and the region greatly.

Dr Arnold, barely into the job, already chooses to live in the Tyne Valley, rather than commuting from York where he worked previously and where he gained his PhD at the cancer research unit of the university.

He was only four days into his present job when visual projections for the science district were published, and he already fields awkward questions comfortably.

On matching other science cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham and York – he is assertive: “We are ahead of the game,” he says.

“We have in Newcastle Science City Partnership three public organisations – One NorthEast, Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University – which, besides being big institutions with great vision, have already shown by securing the city site at the speed they did, how quickly they can move together.

Our partnership behind the project is something we are very privileged to have.

“It has already done a lot of hard work early on, as has Sarah Stewart, director of Newcastle Science City, in terms ofclarifying what is needed to develop a new district with a new meaning in the city centre.

I can start a real estate review straight away to create space and have buildings for people to work in from 2014.

I want them filled to the benefit of spin-out businesses.

We are building a totally new science enterprise which is highly innovative.

I am confident skilled and talented people will want to live and work here.” About 100 scientists have moved to Newcastle since the city was designated for science in 2005.

Dr Arnold says: “You can get good value and good people at all levels.

You don’t have to be a multinational.

Many scientists are eager to see Newcastle higher in world recognition.

We have staggering ambition.” But the ambition is also realistic, he adds, knowing the work going on within university walls and noting the region’s expertise in attracting inward investment.

“We want to bring big industry in without it taking over,” he says.

“We want it integral, using incubator space for example.

“Our experimental area encouraging viable ideas will have mechanisms to help those students and post-graduates who wish to set up a business.” Universities including Durham will adjust to the science city theme, he asserts, and One NorthEast and Newcastle City Council will re-engineer new management structures, incentives and resources.

Dr Arnold - married with children aged 14 and nine – already has his team interesting schools in encouraging science as a career.

“We want energy and enthusiasm,” he declares.

And besides the research institutes at university level, Newcastle College will have a new school of applied sciences in the district.

Local scientists already contribute through Newcastle University, he says.

“Durham University will also be very welcome.

We shall probably shape many things towards them.

It would be wonderful to see the district, once established, more regional.

The region as a whole has lots to offer.” I remind him of Sunderland’s potential in pharmacy and pharmacology, and the proximity of Easington which, with probably the country’s worst health record (despite measures already in place to improve it), could offer a rich test bed.

Will Dr Arnold allow himself to be embroiled in stem cell controversy? “There are others more able than me who will explain developments as they occur,” he says.

“People may have objections until they have a loved one who is very poorly.

Then, often, their mood changes; they feel they would try almost anything to solve the problem.

We have an opportunity to discover new treatments, and that’s important.” The stem cell research underway, notably in Newcastle and London, seeks better treatments in the first instance for Parkinson’s disease, cancer and children’s genetic conditions.

Then there are health sciences: ageing and vitality.

”What can we do to help society as a larger proportion of our population gets older?” Dr Arnold asks.

“We may have parents or grandparents.

We have to find ways to help people like them more as they become older; even doing little things to help them to get on with their life makes a huge difference.” Professor Tom Kirkwood, director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, will go on to build his global reputation as he enables Newcastle to help society achieve a big ideal, Dr Arnold says.

During the present planning and promotion, Dr Arnold has a team of five or six secondees from within the partnership.

A permanent staff of up to 30 might be expected eventually, with a priority to involve everyone in Newcastle; scientifically minded or not.

While setting up a science city on a business park, as other cities are doing, can avoid planning complications, Dr Arnold believes that developing one centrally has advantages.

“We can transform the prosperity of Newcastle at the same time.

A strong agenda for science exists here.

It appeals to people’s altruistic side, and at the same time will benefit society.

“The brewery site just happens to be at the epicentre of all our institutions covering the various sciences.

So at a stroke we can link the institutions and also bring people into it from all walks of life because it will not be an exclusive, gated community.

“This is Newcastle’s advantage; a science quarter in a new central district with a resident population, boulevarded and with friendly meeting places and things to do - not an isolated development, but an opportunity to put new life and new buildings into the area.

“It won’t empty at 5pm like a business park.

Residents will interface, and people from elsewhere will happily join the social mix.

Yet it will remain an experimental area where students want to study and post graduates want to set up business.

We want big business and incubator space alike to be integral.

“The aim is for the district to create the sort of pride the city gained when the Quayside was redeveloped.

And we want outsiders seeing it as somewhere that, when they recall the science going on there, will say: “We’ve got to go to Newcastle and work with them there, because they know what they are doing and have got results.’” Some sceptics, meanwhile, may be hoping to see faster progress on Newcastle’s science district than has been evident at Newcastle’s other sectoral suburb, the high-tech and oxymoronic Great Park.

Something largely overlooked about Science Central is that it will not only feature health and medicine for commercial advantage, but also feature energy and environment, and molecular engineering within the innovative technology implicit “No-one can fail to be interested in energy and environment when you have £80 or £90 worth of fuel in your tank.

And micro-engineering will be about producing innovative solutions in technology, like the next wave of computers,” Dr Arnold explains.

So what drew Peter Arnold to the chief executive’s job? “The big ideal, the challenge and opportunity to transform a city’s prosperity with a much stronger agenda for science,” he says.

“It appeals to people’s altruistic side - to engage in and create something beneficial to our society.

“There are few opportunities to realise that sort of desire, and with the level of support there is here.

We are privileged here to have three big institutions so much wanting to do this together.

With not much in the way of nuts and bolts at this point, there is a big chance for me to show what it will mean on the ground.”