I was asked by Research Fortnight magazine to write an article imagining what a truly radical science and innovation policy for the UK would look like. The article was published in the magazine today, but I below is a slightly longer (and less well-edited) version that escapes the paywall:
What would a truly radical science policy for the UK look like?
For decades, most developed countries including the UK, have seen science and innovation as the engine to economic development. While this has arguably resulted in money being pumped into science when times are good, and protected it from the harshest cuts during austerity, this view has also masked the real power of science and technology to transform our lives. From extending our lives and enabling global communications, to shaping the future of work and influencing the outcomes of elections, the most profound changes in our lives are increasingly brought about by technologies. So what would a radical science policy for the 21st Century look like?
To begin, we need to recognise that science is more than just a driver of growth, but is one of the most powerful shapers of our world today. We also need to acknowledge that particular technological pathways aren’t inevitable. They are constructed and decided upon by deliberate policies and decisions, as well as by the hidden values and visions of those designing the technologies – which may or may not reflect the interests and values of everyone. A radical science policy would first take back control and focus innovation on the values and visions of our society, rather than the views of a handful of technical experts. This doesn’t mean turning our backs on science and becoming a nation of luddites – science and technology is undoubtedly an engine of the economy and has and will continue to deliver untold benefits. But it does mean opening up science and technology to much wider voices, perspectives and values, drawing on the lessons from movements like Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and Citizen Science, so that we can use science and innovation to develop socially robust technologies that not only address the problems we want to address, but also to build the kind of social structures we want too.
We are facing a post-antibiotic age, a crisis in funding of the NHS and the spectre of climate change. We can’t afford to keep our fingers crossed and assume that science will one day produce the solutions. So as well as building in wider perspectives to help focus on the challenges of most concern in our world, a radical science policy would also use mission-driven funding to make that link between science and its social purpose much stronger. Some scientists are likely to be resistant to this, but many of the European researchers we spoke to during the recent RRI Tools project were enthusiastic about relating their work more closely to social needs. They argued that it might make scientific careers more appealing, drawing in more diversity to the field and making science stronger and more important in our world.
Focusing on social goods alone is not radical enough. Digital technologies continue to enable companies to benefit from ‘stateless profits’, in turn depriving the public purse of much needed tax receipts. Industry, healthcare and the job market is being transformed in ways we have never seen before by the advent of Artificial Intelligence. And the gender pay gap gets bigger as high-paid hi-tech jobs continue to go to men. A radical science policy for the 21st Century will challenge the economic orthodoxy that a rising tide lifts everyone’s boat, and instead recognise the important role that technology is playing in driving the new – and highly polarised – economy that is emerging. In a technologically advanced world, as well as being able to hide profits from states, companies are able to make the same (or more) profit while employing fewer people. There is a risk that technology creates historic numbers of billionaires, but at the same time growing disenfranchisement amongst the rest of the population.
Building a progressive taxation system in this context is going to be one of the biggest challenges for Treasury policy in the 21st Century. The role of technology in creating this problem – and its relationship to basic, state funded research – must not be ignored. So while the treasury looks at taxation, a radical science policy could look more upstream at the options for ownership of technologies.
To begin, the state could take a stake in companies that exploit basic, public-funded research. In her book ‘Entrepreneurial State’, Marianna Mazzucato argues that ‘traditional’ ideas around the state being a reluctant risk-taker are wrong and instead, without the role of the state, developments like the iPhone would never have happened. By seeing itself as a more active partner in the innovation process, the state could ask for a return on its investment and a stake in innovations that draw on basic state-funded research. As well as producing a potential income stream and addressing at least part of the problem of stateless profit, this approach could potentially open up new funding though borrowing, since it would be borrowing to invest, rather than borrowing to spend.
Alongside that, the problems of polarized wealth and stateless profit could be dramatically reduced if workers and customers were given stakes in the companies they interact with. If workers had a share of the payouts that company founders get, we could be less worried about where profits are made and how profits could be taxed, as some redistribution would already be in place. And there is a growing movement of tech-coops, technology companies owned and controlled by the people who work or use its services, that are leading the way and showing alternative paths to business success. A radical science policy would mainstream these ideas and models of ownership, upgrading technology transfer and startup support – as well as corporate tax policy – so that potential entrepreneurs were encouraged to build equity and social responsibility into the structures of their enterprises.
Finally, a radical science policy would dramatically overhaul education and training to be fit for the 21st Century. Automation and AI will change the job market and a traditional training in the ‘3Rs’ – an approach to education that was developed to run an Empire, long before we had computers – will not do anymore. We don’t need millions of people to document and tabulate – that’s what we’ve taught machines to do. We need millions of people to innovate and create.
Just as science and technology changes in the 21st Century, so too must the UK’s science and innovation policy. Science and innovation is becoming more than an economic driver, but also a powerful shaper of our world. A radical science and innovation policy for the 21st century needs to recognize that and make sure we are using science and technology to building the kind of world we want – not just the one we might get.