Science and Innovation for the many, not the few.

Innovation for a fairer future, science policy

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.




The science and technology committee shouldn’t be filled with scientists, female or not

Politics, science policy

A few weeks ago, the new membership of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was announced. It included no women.

A number of science campaigns issued statements calling for more scientists to be in parliament, with some even threatening to boycott the committee. I agree that it is outrageous to have a scrutiny committee with no women in 2017, but I don’t think this approach is helpful or shows much understanding of how Parliament and politics work. Instead, I want to encourage female politicians – regardless of whether or not they are scientists – to come forward and to participate in a topic that to many is difficult, scary and seemingly technical.  To do this however, we need to take a hard look at what the committee does -and should do.  I argue this case in an article published by The Guardian this week:

On Saturday, hundreds of Labour women – politicians, stakeholders and activists – from across the country met in Brighton, in advance of Labour party conference, for the annual Labour party women’s conference. This year was special, because for the first time it had a formal voice in Labour’s policy-making processes. But as we debated issues ranging from housing and the NHS to the economy and fair pay, I kept thinking about the irony of the recent announcement by the parliamentary select committee on science and technology that the committee will not have any female MPs sitting on it this year.

As someone who studies the impact of science and technology on society, it was clear to me that whatever issues motivated us to get involved in politics, they were going to change dramatically over the next five to ten years thanks to science and technology. Digital technologies are already making it harder to fund public services, as they enable companies to benefit from “stateless profits”, depriving the public purse of much needed tax receipts. It will be impossible to come up with a realistic business tax policy for the 21st century without engaging with this. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the advent of robots is going to rapidly transform industry, healthcare and the job market in ways we have never seen before; we need to think deeply about what this means for the skills and education we should offer future generations. And the way highly paid jobs in the tech industry are usually men’s jobs means that the gender pay gap is likely to widen as these industries grow in the future. In short, in the 21st century, science and technology is one of the most powerful drivers of change and shaper of our society. And we cannot govern the country if we don’t understand how to govern these technologies.

So during the coffee breaks, I sought out Labour women to sound them out about volunteering for the committee. In response to the committee announcement, in the past few weeks a number of science campaigns and bloggers (such as Athene Donald’s recent piece for the Guardian) have called for more female scientists to stand for election, or listed the MPs they consider to be suitably qualified to sit on the committee. Aware of these campaigns, a number of women told me they weren’t qualified to do the job as they weren’t scientists and didn’t want to sit on a committee where they would read out questions written in advance by a committee clerk. 

But the view that we need to fill the committee with scientifically trained people completely misses the point of a scrutiny committee. If science and technology is shaping our world in profound ways, then the best people to scrutinise it are the people who experience the effects, not those creating them. Because we know that the values and visions of those designing the technologies become deeply embedded in the technologies themselves, and in the societies shaped by them. We cannot have our future built upon the dreams of a handful of technical experts. Nor can we allow decisions that will change every aspect of our lives in the most profound ways, to be made by a small group of men. This is why we need women – and people from all walks of life – to sit on the science and technology select committee. 

And since science and technology is more than a driver of the economy – it is powerful shaper of our world too – the role of the science and technology select committee has to be about so much more than checking that the government is putting enough into the science budget, or using evidence in the right way. It has to be about scrutinising and holding to account the individuals, the institutions and industries that are building our futures. To do this we don’t need a bunch of parliamentary scientists. We need people with diverse experiences, from a variety of backgrounds but passionate about the future. 

So, as Labour conference continues in Brighton this week, amongst the discussions of workers rights, the economy, the NHS and public sector pay, I will continue to lobby female MPs to step forward. But I will be persuading them not just to sit on the science and technology select committee, but to take a strong hand in driving the committee to really scrutinise the role of science and technology in our world – and the kind of world we are building with it. It will be a big step for someone, but the reality is, if you really care about shaping Britain in the 21st century, then there cannot be a more important place to be.

(Image Copyright Parliamentary Estate).


Transforming Technology: The Self- Driving Cars Debate

Politics, Science and Technology Studies, science policy

CaptureLast week I took part in a Guardian Pubic Leader’s debate on transforming technology. The newspaper had assembled a group of ‘experts’ to discuss driverless vehicles, data and government regulation. The group was made up of a number of those involved with developing driverless and vehicles – and me, billed as ‘the ethicist’.

The discussion was interesting. You can read the edited version of the thread here. The topics ranged from how data from self-driving cars should be stored, to what the government’s priorities should be.  But overall, the gist of the discussion was that driverless cars are coming, they are going to be good and we need the government to help their progress by removing barriers.  One of the participants in particular voiced her view that her dream was for all cars to be driverless by a certain point in the future.

I, of course, had to spoil the party. Because the promise of self-driving cars is far from straightforward. As my colleague Jack Stilgoe has written extensively, there are serious questions about the desirability, practicalities and safety of autonomy.

For me however, the questions are much more around who decides and who benefits. It is easy to see why rich entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are pushing to develop these cars, but underneath their claims of safety and ease of use are more sinister matters of ownership, power and money. While it makes no sense to spend tens of thousands of pounds on a lump of metal that sits outside your house most of the time, do you really want to hand over your freedom to move around the country to a group of large, unaccountable corporations? If you’ve tried booking a room on Airbnb during a busy conference or holiday period, you’ll have experienced their surge-pricing algorithm – do you want to rely on that to budget your daily commute? And how keen are you on letting Uber or Google know your every move? There is much more at stake than simply who sits behind the wheel.

Out of the Loop – why public dialogue finds it hard to influence policy.

Science Communication, science policy

This article first appeared in Research Fortnight, February 2015.

Fifteen years ago, in the aftermath of Mad Cow Disease, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology looked into the relationship between science and the public. Their report, ‘Science and Society’, published in 2000, identified a ‘crisis in trust’ between the public and science that, if ignored, could lead to technology being ignored or abused. In response, the report called for a ‘new mood for dialogue’, which would ‘help the decision-maker to listen to public values and concerns; and give the public some assurance that their views are taken into account, increasing the chance that decisions will find acceptance.’

Since then the old ‘deficit model’ style of public understanding of science, which focused upon explaining science to the public in order to build support, has largely been replaced in most funding structures by a public engagement/public dialogue approach. In this approach, the public are invited to debate and discuss science with various experts and organisations, through activities ranging from formal debates and Q&A sessions, to consensus conferences and citizens juries. Through programmes like ScienceWise, numerous public dialogue activities have taken place on new and emerging areas of science and technology – from nanotechnology and synthetic biology, to human-animal hybrid embryos and stem cells.

So what have we learned from talking to the public about science and technology and has it made a difference? For the past few years this is one of the questions I have been trying to answer. I have been looking at how the public talk about science and technologies in reports of public dialogue events and comparing this to how ‘experts’ have been discussing the same issues in the various reports from the learned societies, and how policymakers settle the matters in their final policy reports. While there are some echoes of the public’s voice in the policy reports, particularly around the need to anticipate and act upon unforeseen consequences, it is clear that the policy reports are more closely aligned with they way in which scientific ‘experts’ see science and innovation. Interviews with government officials, advisers and politicians have reinforced this conclusion – the views of expert bodies, rather than the outputs of public dialogue, appear to be the key sources of advice for policymaker.

Why is this the case and should we be concerned? One possible explanation lies in the visions of science that emerge from the public dialogues. For the public, science is seen as a source of progress – particularly in biosciences’ ability to produce medical cures. But this sense of progress is tempered with a clear understanding that the benefits that science and innovation can offer come hand in hand with risks, downsides, social and ethical issues and unforeseen consequences. While science represents progress, it has also caused problems and these problems are inherent in the science itself. The experts, in contrast, talk about science as a much greater force for progress bringing about changes beyond medical cures, and offering the power to address the really big problems ahead – particularly around the economy and the environment. Social and ethical issues are seen as being either the result of poor public perceptions or insufficient scientific knowledge. Downsides can be dealt with by more information or more research. For a science policymaker operating under the constant eye of the Treasury, and where science is seen as an important driver of economic growth and competitiveness, it is possible to see how this ‘expert’ vision of science is much more helpful as it offers a way to develop innovation while managing away any associated problems.

Interviews with policymakers tell a more complex story though. All of those I spoke to understood the nuanced nature of the role and challenges of science within our society – and how inter-related they were. They were also clear that the views of wider society needed to feed into the decision-making in a meaningful way. They did however have very different understandings of how this would happen. Firstly, they were keen to take advice from ‘experts’ – whether that was legal advice on ethical matters, hearing the implications of a particular policy from service users or particular faith groups. The outputs of public dialogue, with its focus on deliberately lay views, appear to fall outside this category of ‘expert advice’. Secondly, policymakers rely heavily on their networks for advice and support – and public dialogue activities also appear to be outside these networks. As a result, when public input is needed, other sources of advice are turned to – networks of stakeholders and, for politicians, feedback at advice surgeries and in their post-bags.

So where does that leave those championing public participation in science? Firstly, I would argue that the dialogues to date have helped us develop a more detailed understanding of how the public conceptualise and come to know new technologies. This understanding could and should help to make public policy – and science and technologies – more in-line with wider societal concerns. Secondly, while politicians appear to access alternative sources of public input, officials, arms-length bodies and research scientists don’t have that same regular and direct access to outside voices. Indeed officials made up the group that mentioned reports from ScienceWise projects most often, and they had clearly been affected by them. Public dialogue activities in the UK could perhaps have the most value in supporting decision-making at this level and in building themselves into the policy networks that exist. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, airing inconvenient truths is in itself valuable, regardless of whether they are acted upon by those with power. As science and technology continues to change almost every aspect of our lives, continuing to question and challenge the way in which we come to terms with these changes has to be a vital role in a healthy democracy.

Why the world needs more female scientists

science policy

I am currently helping set up the UK hub on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) at UCL. One of the keystones of the concept of RRI is gender. Responsible research is research which reflects the views of society – men and women. To me, this must mean more than the traditional ‘women in science’ approach that aims to get more women doing science (which is an activity I fully support), but more explicitly seeks to take account of women’s perspectives.

Just as I was starting to give this some thought, I was asked to write a piece responding to an article that claimed that there is no point in getting more women into science because we aren’t good at it. My reply, published on the Progress website is below:

Last week, the Times Education Supplement ran a story with the headline ‘Gender equality in science would “deny human nature”’. Reporting on a recent education conference, the article cited Gijsbert Stoet, a (male) psychologist at the University of Glasgow who has declared that trying to get more women into science was a was a waste of effort because innate differences meant that boys and girls would always be drawn to different subjects and careers.

This is, of course, nonsense. As many girls as boys study science at GCSE and while fewer study maths and physics at A level, girls do better than boys. And though the history of science is built around stories of great male discoveries, whether it is the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA or Richard Doll’s research into the link between smoking and cancer, in so many cases the crucial work was carried out by (overlooked) female scientists.

But as well as irritating women like me who love science, articles like this (which appear on a regular basis) perpetuate a mythical view of science which ultimately will only serve to damage science – and its place in our society. Because, although science is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of human ingenuity, based as it is around the notion of truth and objectivity, it is also very much a product of society – or a product of our male-biased society to be more precise. Science and its history has been developed by men, based on their knowledge, perspectives and values, to address their visions and aims. Most of the time that coincides with the wishes of the other half of us, but we should not be surprised when they say it is something that women are inherently incapable of doing. Nor should we be surprised when science displays the characteristics of other male-dominated industries like financial services – the focus on individual goals and achievements rather than teamwork, competition rather than collaboration, or power-seeking rather than consensus, for instance.

But we should be concerned. Because the world, science and its place in our society has changed. From mobile technologies that are extending our friendship circles or surveillance technologies that challenge our sense of privacy, to personalised medicines that are changing the way we treat illness (and fund the NHS), or emerging areas like synthetic biology that have the potential to make us rethink what life itself is, science and technology is changing how we think, act and feel in profound ways. We can no longer separate the social or ethical effects of science and technology from the science itself. As we saw with the debate around GM, the ‘people’ side of science has become as important as the ‘rational’ side.

As well as our relationship with science and technology becoming more entangled, so too are the challenges ahead. Male-dominated science has been very good at understanding and solving things that can be reduced to the sum of its parts – such as infectious diseases of the west and computing. But the big problems ahead – like feeding, growing world population, tackling health issues like obesity, dealing with climate change and creating a more equal society – are all far more complex and entangled. If science is to keep its place at the problem-solving centre of our society, it has to have something to say to address these problems. And, while it is almost impossible to imagine any other way of understanding the world offering more effective solutions, the current, male-dominated form of science still does not seem to have the interdisciplinary, collaborative and holistic approaches that will be needed to produce effective and socially acceptable answers to these problems.

To keep its place in the 21st century, science needs all of the perspectives it can get. In the face of urgent challenges like this, saying that women, by nature, are not fit to do science runs the risk that society will conclude that science, by nature, is not fit to solve our problems.

Beyond the Ringfence

science policy

The Scientific Community’s focus on research funding is not enough. Unless they engage with the wider debate on industrial strategy, the spending review will leave research and innovation on the margins, I argue in this week’s Research Fortnight:

Over the next few weeks the UK’s science community will be lobbying hard to protect the science budget, in advance of the government’s June interim spending review for 2015/16.  Already the Presidents of the four national academies have launched a statement ‘Fuelling Prosperity’, calling on the government to secure the ringfence on the science budget and provide a stable investment framework for research over the next ten years.  And rightly so. The evidence that is a driver of the economy is compelling and growing.

But while the discussions within the academies are focused on how much funding should be directed where, following the economic crisis, politicians from all parties are interested in much bigger issues – what the future of the UK economy will look like and what will be our relationship with the rest of the world. These discussions might be termed “Industrial Strategy” or “Foreign Policy”, but they are about the future of science, technology and innovation as much as they are about anything else.  These are the discussions that will determine whether the UK becomes a hi-tech innovation based economy, a low-wage manufacturing nation or a country dominated by the service industry.  And these are the decisions that will set the UK on a trajectory that will shape the nature of UK research, development and innovation for decades to come.

Take the current debate about Europe – and Britain’s place within it.  While it might appear to be about wooing UKIP voters, one half of the government is serious about withdrawing from the UK’s biggest export market and from a significant funder of UK research.  What would that mean for multinational companies looking to site their head office and attract the best talent?  Why would they choose the UK over Germany or France?  And what would happen to UK research without the 3.7bn Euros it has received from Europe’s FP7 in the last five years?

Even more interesting and challenging is the debate about industrial strategy and our future economy however. Because while this is new territory for the scientific community, it is also new territory for many politicians and economists.  And there are very few answers yet.  For the last 30 years or more both economic and innovation policy thinking has been almost exclusively dominated by free-market ideology, whereby the best role for the state (after funding expensive basic research) is to get out of the way.  The credit crunch demonstrated very painfully that markets alone aren’t the answer however.  So whether it is David Cameron talking about responsible capitalism, or Ed Miliband talking about pre-distribution, it amounts to the same – suddenly, for first time in more than a generation, active industrial strategy, and a role for the state in markets, is on the table.  This means that more than funding levels and % of GDP are up for grabs.  Research from political science into alternative economic models – such as Peter Hall and David Soskice’s work on varieties of capitalism – suggest that it is factors such as private sector financial regimes, industrial relations and models of company ownership that play the most significant roles in determining the types of industries that develop.  In Sweden, for instance, the relationship between the workforce the employers and the state is thought to have been significant in building an innovation-based economy – as the trade unions drove up wages, companies moved towards more skilled, hi-tech industry in order to justify the high wage bills and the state stepped in to provide the training necessary.  Financial systems appear to have played a similarly important role in other countries such as Germany, where access to finance that was not entirely dependent upon current profits allowed companies to invest in projects that generated returns in the longer term.   Yet despite these matters having clear and lasting implications for UK research, innovation and development, they are areas where the scientific community are entirely silent.

This is of course unsurprising – and entirely forgivable.  Such issues have been outside the scope of most science policy thinking until relatively recently. While there is some relevant research being carried out in universities and think-tanks, it is not always easy to access and there are gaps.  In the longer-term, there is lots of new research to be done.  But as a first step, the academies should set up a policy commission on science and the economy/industrial strategy, bringing together scientists, economists and science policy experts, to move the debate beyond funding and the economic contribution of science, into more fundamental issues about the innovation society. If science and innovation is such a driver of the economy, then is the best role for the state just to provide the conditions for innovation to flourish, or is there a role of the state to require it to happen? Is a real-terms freeze the best thing to be asking for or would science (and therefore the economy) benefit from government taking a counter-cyclical investment strategy, spending now to stimulate growth while interest rates are low?  Is there an innovation case for a British Investment bank? What does the government need to do to unleash the £800bn that private sector organisations are believed to be holding onto rather than investing at the moment?  What skills do the workforce need to meet such an investment?  As well as pushing science policy thinking forward, the answers to these questions could provide a very fruitful starting point for developing policy ideas for economic growth.  Armed with such ideas, the scientific community would find themselves with a place at the manifesto planning table in the run up to the 2015, rather than running behind the big boys begging to be spared the cuts.

In the next few months and years, political decisions will be made that decide whether the UK continues to see science and innovation as the icing on a service industry dominated cake, or if the UK really does become the innovation nation we hope for.  This is no time for modesty.  When politicians and economists talk about growth, they mean science and innovation.  When they say they are looking for ways of stimulating growth, they are opening the door to the scientific community’s suggestions for how to do more science in the UK. Let’s not miss this chance. Science must be THE driver of Britain’s new economy.  With so much to gain, it is time science, and science policy, steps out of the science portfolio and becomes a mainstream economic and political issue.