The Queen's Awards: Is recognition a sufficient reward?: Domestic success becomes more important when grants are cut, writes Martin Whitfield

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The Independent Online
Scientists and engineers at the 'sharp end' of industry often complain about their lack of status and recognition.

Like their colleagues in academic research, they feel that pure monetary reward can often be better achieved elsewhere. Research and development budgets are often the first to be cut in a recession and earlier this week chemistry Nobel Prize-winner, Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson, complained of grant cuts from the Science and Engineering Research Council.

But winning the Queen's Award for Technology provides recognition beyond the peer group of other scientists and technicians. Dr Roger Heckingbottom, manager of the optical research division of BT Laboratories, said the award would be a good boost for morale in a centre which depends on team work.

The company, based near Ipswich, Suffolk, has seen reductions in staff numbers as the BT group concentrates on software and services development rather than research into telephone hardware.

'By the time we got the Queen's Award, the science had been done. We have something which is selling and is a commercial success. We are very pleased with recognition of this kind,' said Dr Heckingbottom. Part of the success is being shared with BT & D, a joint venture between BT and Du Pont and which won in the export category.

The technology award recognises the research and development of semi-conductor materials used in lasers for optical fibre telecommunications. The work involves producing incredibly thin layers of chemicals. Control is exercised by the 'crystal growers' to measurements of one millionth of the thickness of a human hair.

'We have quite a lot of papers published in scientific literature and we like to accept peer recognition. We are still in advance of the world in some aspects of the processes,' added Dr Heckingbottom. The teams are currently working on developing even more sophisticated lasers, and the company also won a technological achievement award in 1985.

'We do need the team and the interaction and dialogue between teams. The device modellers and the crystal growers, for example, set the challenge for each other and the motivation,' he said.

Another winner specialising in the technology of film devices and semiconductors is Oxford Applied Research, a small company founded in 1978 by Dr Roy Clampitt. He fears for the future of engineering research in Britain as companies and institutions cut back on development spending.

Oxford won its award for the production of a reactive atom source for use in producing high temperature superconductors. One helped to fabricate the first blue light emitting laser which could end up, in minaturised form, in compact disc players as it has the potential to deliver much more information from the disc.

The majority of the company's high technology instruments - with an average cost of pounds 30,000 each - are shipped to Japan to become the 'machine tools' of the latest inventions in electronics.

Dr Clampitt describes his machines as 'enabling technology' and the customer list reads like a Who's Who of the worldwide electronics industry.

'Britain is good at scientific innovation as we can think on our feet. But we make these scientific instruments which we sell to the research and development arms of Fujitsu, Sony, Sharp, Sanyo, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC.' he said.

The company's technology award may be of some use in export promotion but Dr Clampitt believes domestic success does not mean a great deal in Japan, his biggest market.

'The real reason to apply was to show our bankers, our auditors and the local community. We wanted to demonstrate that we deserved something like that. I wish it came with a big cheque as we need the cash for development, ' he added.

When the Queen's Award was first established in 1965, companies such as Insignia Solutions, another technology winner and computer software designer, were not even dreamed of.

According to Phil Bousfield, senior vice president marketing and one of the inventors of Insignia's most successful products, SoftPC, winning the award is important recognition in a competitive market.

'80 per cent of our business is in the US. What we export are ideas. We wanted to shout about what is a great British invention and we want people to know that the technology comes from Britain,' he said.

A chemical engineering graduate of Aston University, Mr Bousfield was one of Insignia's founders in 1986. The company now employs 190 people in Britain and the US.

Insignia is one of four computer companies out of the 12 technology winners and won its award for software emulation whereby users of non- IBM compatible computers, such as Apple Macintosh, Sun, and DEC, can run IBM compatible programs.

'We started off doing something that the rest of the industry said was impossible. Then they said it wasn't fast enough. We have been through generations of technology. A lot of technology is about determination,' said Mr Bousfield.