Oral history of British science

Ash, Eric (Part 12 of 13)

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  • Recording locations

    British Library, London

  • Interviewees

    Ash, Eric, 1928- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 12 [52:07][Interview Six: 30 May 2013] Comments on time on British Telecom [BT] board: anecdote about chairman of Imperial College governors almost forbidding him from joining board; value of link with BT for Imperial; EA only technical expert on BT board; time commitment of board membership; attending European Telecommunication Conference for BT; board member responsibilities; audit committee; role ensuring due diligence during acquisition of other companies, risks of being sued; [05:25] paid position; anecdote about BT board members all being given car phones, except EA who was given a phone for his bicycle; BT only slowly becoming interested in mobile communications; limitations of lack of technical experts on board; BT board membership, Alan Rudge later joining as additional technical expert; BT privatised by this point; discussions over how much BT should be involved with technology hardware, BT becoming more focussed on systems aspects; [10:30] differences of EA technical perspective compared to other board members; anecdote about unsuccessful attempt to raise low amount spent on research and development; value of directors offering specialist perspectives; BT involvement with BT's Martlesham research laboratory continuing after he left BT board; EA approach to balance of blue sky and applied research in industrial companies; [15:40] BT development of blown fibre for laying optic fibres; increased attention to digital computer communications; BT board little concerned with detailed technology; views on future of telecommunications in 1990s; [19:30] opportunities for BT and Imperial collaborative research, example of Imperial staff member working as consultant to BT; BT feelings about being on BT board; anecdote about enjoying lavish attention when visiting conference; BT discussions with BT CEO Ian Vance over BT approach to being a systems business; BT leaving BT board around age of 66, need to regularly replace non-executive directors to allow them to keep independent perspective. [24:05] Remarks on EA consultancy to General Electric [GE] in Schenectady in USA: advantages in allowing independence of PhD students; GE work on medical CAT scanners; GE ability to deploy more powerful research teams than UK companies; anecdote about EMI company 1930's commitment to research into television; historical anti-intellectual approach of UK industry and resistance to hiring graduates, with example of GEC's Arnold Weinstock and Morris cars; [29:00] STL open minded approach to research, support for Charles Kao's optic fibre work; EA visits to GE Schenectady; EA monitoring European developments and conferences and writing reports to GE; value of external consultants outside perspective to companies like GE, with example of EA alerting GE to early Nuclear Magnetic Resonance [NMR] scanning research; EA resignation when he become Rector of Imperial College. [33:50] Comments on EA time as CEO of Student Loan Company [SLC]: EA non executive membership of SLC board c.1994 after leaving Imperial; lack of credit for SLC; Kenneth Baker's suggestion that student loans would be in hands of private sector but backed by government, student and bank opposition to scheme leading to idea of government SLC; poor explanation of lenient rules to students leading to opposition; [37:49] problem over previous SLC CEO's entertainment expenses; major problems caused by changes in SLC rules leading to problems delivering loans; EA becoming acting CEO for over a year; anecdote about EA refusing to respond to media before he discovered roots of problem; anecdote about flowchart revealing problem in procedures; anecdote about difficulties of EA first days at SLC; [41:20] difficulties with large software systems, with reference to recent BBC problems; EA suggesting investigation into problems of large software projects at a meeting between House of Lords and RS; EA reasons for becoming SLC CEO; [44:15] limited authority of SLC board, with power held more by minister, with example of inability to increase call centre staff salaries to improve retention; anecdote about paralysing threat of parliamentary questions on civil servants; [46:30] larger numbers of students necessitating student loans rather than grants; generous terms of student loans; student reactions; continuation of Conservative policy by Labour government; need to clarify terms of student loans; current student loan situations; concerns over low numbers of foreign students; EA encouraged by students studying elsewhere in Europe; natural limiting factors on student loan levels.

  • Description

    Interview with electrical engineer, Eric Ash

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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