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Facts and futures

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Science and technology lie behind this election’s clash of worldviews, says Melanie Smallman

In an election dominated by Brexit and the National Health Service, where facts seem to be much less important than a good story, you could be forgiven for thinking that science and technology are not issues for politics in the UK.

The manifestos, of course, contain promises on science and innovation. All three main parties plan to increase research intensity; the Conservatives propose to increase R&D tax credits, while Labour wants to abolish them; the Liberal Democrats are committed to ‘responsible innovation’.

But these are far from headline issues. We should not hold our breath for any white-heat-of-technology moments in this election. Despite that, I would argue that this election is very much about science and technology. In fact, the dominant debates around narrative and values are almost entirely discussions about the kind of world we have built, and will build, with science and technology.

Thinking that the politics of science is simply a matter of funding is like seeing a car as simply a means of getting from A to B. We know cars have shaped almost every aspect of our lives, from the structure of our cities and where we live, to the jobs we do and people we meet. Likewise, the internet, data, genomics and artificial intelligence are having similar effects today on jobs, incomes, security, public services and even identity—the issues at the heart of this election.

Regardless of the good intentions behind many of these developments, the effects of technologies are not felt evenly. There is growing evidence that our poorest communities are most exposed to the downsides of technological developments, exacerbating inequalities. 

For example, the political debate about the status of the NHS in UK-US trade talks has revealed the extent to which multinational tech companies are keen to work within the health service to develop apps driven by AI and data.

This might appear to be an opportunity to rationalise, modernise and save money. But past experience suggests otherwise. Colleagues of mine looking at the effects of robotics on healthcare, for instance, have argued that the high cost of the machines means that funds are channelled from other clinically proven treatments, such as conventional radiotherapy, and care is centralised in large teaching hospitals. This means many patients have to travel longer distances or forego care.

Widespread adoption of AI and data apps in healthcare, and the diversion of NHS funds from staff salaries to multinational tech giants, would accelerate this centralisation of services—and increase the sense that many people have of being left behind and needing to take back control. Some of my West London neighbours have already taken to the streets to protest about the effects that the NHS’s first AI app has had on our local health services.

These technologies are rarely subject to public discussion or scrutiny, helping create the feeling that mainstream politics has overlooked voters’ concerns. My own research has found that scientists and policymakers have very different perspectives on science to citizens. The former groups see science and technology as problem solvers bringing widespread benefits. Any downsides are manageable risks, separate from the science and technology themselves.

Decisions with and about science have been built around this idea, with discussions of values and social issues tending to be seen as separate, and often less important. 

Citizens often have a more nuanced take, seeing the social downsides as inherent parts of science and technology that need to be included in decision making. But politicians find it difficult to take account of non-technical matters in a system that sees them as separate and less significant.

Without somewhere to discuss and scrutinse the kind of world we are building with science and technology, disputing facts often becomes the only option for those wanting to discuss the kind of futures people want.

So, in this election, what is at stake is not just access to European research funding, or whether the evidence for climate change will be acted upon. 

What is at stake is the kind of future we want to build with science and technology, expressed as competing views of how different communities are experiencing the effects of globalisation and decades of technological change.

We might not agree with many of the views expressed and positions taken. But this is perhaps a moment for researchers to listen, and to consider how we can better reflect public values in the technical discussions that help make our facts and our futures. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight