Our mission: to boldly go (again)

March 18, 2005

As 1,000 students watched footage of the ill-fated Beagle 2 expedition, the message was in the soundtrack.

The Glasgow auditorium filled with the sound of Gerry Rafferty's hit song Get it Right Next Time and its uncannily appropriate refrain, "You gotta grow, you gotta learn by your mistakes ... if you get it wrong, you'll get it right next time".

Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University and a driving force behind the Mars probe, was a keynote speaker at last week's National Student Enterprise Conference, organised by the Scottish Institute for Enterprise.

Sharon Bamford, SIE director, introduced him by saying that he displayed the crucial entrepreneurial traits of tenacity, vision and boldness. The conference aimed to counter the more usual British trait of "risk aversion".

Professor Pillinger was as enthusiastic as ever. "Don't let anybody tell you Beagle 2 was a failure," he said.

"We got more viewers than Only Fools and Horses . The public still loves us and wants the voyage of exploration to take place."

There was nothing wrong in making mistakes, only in not learning from them, he said. The Beagle team had learnt not to hitchhike on someone else's mission; to reduce risk by having more than one lander; never to let a spacecraft out of the team's hearing; and to avoid the dust-storm season.

Professor Pillinger, who is planning a Beagle 3 expedition before 2009, flagged up a major success of Beagle 2 . The team miniaturised a roomful of mass spectrometer equipment into a portable, rugged unit. This had a vast range of medical, veterinary and environmental applications and could potentially prolong thousands of lives annually, he said.

The SIE originated in the science enterprise centres funded by the Office of Science and Technology, but now has a much broader remit - supported by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council - covering all higher education institutions and disciplines.

Ms Bamford told the students that it did not matter what subject their degree was in. Wider entrepreneurial skills were important in finding work.

"The bottom line is that a degree is no longer enough," she said.

Scotland's national approach, which includes business-plan and case-analysis competitions, workshops and mentoring within institutions and work placement scholarships in the US, was envied by the rest of the UK, she said.

The Glasgow conference attracted delegations from Cambridge, Durham, Manchester and Newcastle universities, as well as Scottish institutions.

Peter Hiscocks, director of enterprise at Cambridge University, said: "This is truly inspirational; a fantastic event. I want to copy it at Cambridge because it's so relevant to students."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

 

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