Charity begins at NESTA


The good news: the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) has been abolished! Thus spake a government news release of 19 Jan 2012.

The bad news: despite that word ‘abolish’, NESTA lives on. It has merely been evicted from its cosy government berth to float off as a private sector charity. And with the interest from its hefty £250m endowment – courtesy of the National Lottery – for sustenance, it could survive for some time as perhaps the UK’s most useless yet most lavishly funded organisation.

For those new to invention, some background: NESTA’s founding purpose, under the terms of the National Lottery Act 1998, included:

(a) helping talented individuals (or groups of such individuals) in the fields of science, technology and the arts to achieve their potential

(b) helping persons to turn inventions or ideas in the fields of science, technology and the arts into products or services.

In other words, it was set up by law to help inventors. Yet within a few years NESTA decided that inventors were the scum of the earth, so it wasn’t going to help them any more. And nobody in government or the media appeared to give a damn. But read on…

Where did all the money go?

One big question now is how much NESTA will have to cut its cloth to suit a time of austerity. It will clearly be some time before NESTA volunteers are rattling collecting buckets outside Sainsburys. Maybe NESTA can continue to spend £29m or so annually when its ‘proper’ income rarely exceeds £3m. Maybe it can continue to spend £3m a year on ‘publications, events and communications’, and £6m or so on management pay and perks. We shall have to see.

Another big question is: what happened to over ten years of largely vanished investment? The NESTA website lists some of its beneficiaries but we’re told nothing about how those investments are performing.

For example, what happened to the £3m given in 08/09 to investment company MTI Partners – one of whom was on the NESTA Investment Committee in 2006, stood down briefly owing to ‘a potential conflict of interest’, and was reinstated in 2007? Why were NESTA funds farmed out to a private investment company? What did they invest in? Was there any payback to NESTA? Does anyone know?

Cheques and balances

As a charity, NESTA will now presumably have the Charity Commissioners to satisfy, so some of the old spendthrift habits and opacity may have to go. And despite independence, it will certainly have the Conservative Party breathing hard down its neck. For thanks to political blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, we now know about a past attempt by the Tories to scrap NESTA altogether and grab its money.

In his excellent piece David Cameron’s secret war on NESTA, Yiannopoulos discloses how NESTA’s £250m pot of gold was targeted – unsuccessfully – by the cash-hungry Cameron government.

What makes his account remarkable is not the £75,000 (at least) spent by the Tories on lawyers’ fees, but the damning analysis of NESTA performance that justified the attempted take-down. The Cameroons wanted NESTA’s money not just for its own sake but because they thought NESTA didn’t deserve to keep it.

Choice quotes from Milo Yiannopoulos:

The Tory argument was that NESTA published too many lofty reports and did too little to help enterprise in a practical way. An organisation with such terrific financial resources could not be justified in an era of austerity when its primary output was high-level, self-justifying strategy documents. 

There were too many meetings with public relations companies and management consultants and not enough with entrepreneurs. Too few investments were being made, by inadequately qualified people and for too little money. NESTA had quietly become a ineffectual research body. It had to go.

Perpetual motion machine

We couldn’t put this better ourselves. To us, the cunning in the NESTA game plan always lay in its gradual movement out of projects whose success or failure were measurable – they either made money or they didn’t – and into more smoke-and-mirrors ventures where it was possible to trumpet success no matter what the outcome. NESTA invented its own perpetual motion machine, endlessly generating a form of energy that no one except itself valued or could use.

Now wiser and poorer from failing to get its hands legally on the NESTA millions, the government may have its revenge. They apparently hope that new CEO Geoff Mulgan, past founder of think-tank Demos, will re-engineer NESTA to more closely resemble the organisation it was meant to be – a champion of bread-and-butter innovation and not ‘wow factor’ froth.

Will he succeed? Will NESTA ever win respect from the innovation community? Will it revert to helping inventors?  The odds may be against the lot, but will do its best to press the case for supporting invention.

Milo Yiannopoulos doesn’t seem over-optimistic either. He ends:

Whether entrepreneurs have gained a more helpful, more enterprise-focused and more pragmatic body as a result – even if, strictly speaking, it will shortly be a charity – remains to be seen.

That seems a good enough place for us to sign off too. So all you inventors and entrepreneurs out there – no holding of breath, do you hear?

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