Are genetically modified organisms a good thing? What about synthetic biology or nanotechnology or 3D printing? Each of these is a ridiculous question. We have a horrible habit of trying to judge technologies generically, rather than recognising that every technology brings new benefits and new risks.
In the case of any new technology, the serious questions should be specific: what is the precise application? In the case of genetic modification, the questions are: what organism, with what gene and for what purpose? For 3D printing or additive manufacturing, are we talking about a gun from a design downloaded from the world wide web, or a spare part for a baby’s incubator?
These are the types of question that confront a scientific adviser to government every day. Currently, I am focusing on a specific commission from the Prime Minister, to advise him on a fast-growing application of IT - the ‘internet of things’.
What is this? Increasingly, the devices that we wear, carry and use at home, while we travel and at work, are controlled by microprocessors, are internet-enabled, can communicate with each other, and can make our lives easier through the application of advanced algorithms. But the internet of things is as much about people as it is about the things in our lives - and some are starting to refer to the ‘internet of everything’.
Understanding and vision
How should we in the Government Office for Science advise the Prime Minister on this important topic? The short answer is by finding the right experts, engaging widely to identify key opportunities and concerns, and - importantly - developing an action plan that will enable us to reap the benefits while avoiding potential harms.
Many of the initial applications of the internet of things come from the objects that we wear or carry with us - the devices that measure our exercise or our sleep, or that tell us and others where we are. The mobile phone is an astonishing example of the power of the internet of things. It signals to us where we are, how to get to where we want to go, and what is there when we arrive - and can send the same information to others.
We like this when this information is anonymised, and warns us of traffic jams or locates potholes for road repairers. We are a bit choosier when it gives away our personal information and location. It may suit us to provide this to individually selected family members, friends or colleagues, but most of us would prefer it if this information was not available to all-comers.
As part of our analysis, we have held a series of expert workshops, and key themes are starting to emerge. First and foremost, we need a clear vision - along the lines that the internet of things will enable services to be delivered more efficiently, and scarce resources to be used more effectively and sparingly.
Skills to succeed
The subjects of skills and algorithms bring me to a letter that the Council for Science and Technology wrote to the Prime Minister last year. It was about the importance of algorithms for the running of modern societies, and the need for the UK to expand its skills and research base in an area that will power our future economy and be important for maintaining our health, conserving resources and improving our transport systems.
An important outcome of that letter was the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 2014 budget of £42 million of government funding to create the Alan Turing Institute. This will be a world-class centre that will bring together the best mathematicians and computer scientists to research, develop and apply algorithms for human benefit in areas across a spectrum from health to wealth.
But £42 million is only a beginning, and we need to catalyse a partnership - between our universities and government, the philanthropic sector and industry - to reap the benefits of mathematics and computer science.
This brings me back to the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser. My job is to maximise the impact of science, technology, engineering and social science on the things that government cares about - the health, wellbeing, resilience and security of its citizens, and the economy. These, in turn, depend on our infrastructure: both the human-engineered, built, manufactured and technological type and the natural infrastructure - the physical systems of the planet and the organisms that inhabit it.
The work of business underpins and is underpinned by infrastructure, and this in turn is underpinned by the sciences. So the work of CBI members is critical to our future in the UK - and you need a workforce skilled in science. Science matters.