Stephen Metcalfe: UK must remain open to foreign researchers to keep science superpower status

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An article published in Politics Home on March 14, 2017

by Josh May

From the rise of AI to exit from the EU, unprecedented challenges are facing those involved in science – including parliamentarians. The chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Stephen Metcalfe, talks to Josh May

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence have raised questions about the viability and desirability of humans in professions previously considered safe from mechanisation. But rest assured, at least one discipline is future-proof, according to Science and Technology Committee chairman Stephen Metcalfe.

“A question we might pose at some future seminar is ‘the future of mankind: is it science or is it arts?’ I think MPs combine the two and I don’t think a robot could ever do that.”

So what about a role that hinges more on forensic scrutiny and the ability to gather and marshal large quantities of information? A role like, say, chair of a select committee? “Never going to happen,” Metcalfe laughs. “Not in a million years; we’ll be pulling the plug long before that.”

Estimates vary on just how many jobs in the UK’s workforce are vulnerable to automation but the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane said in 2015 the figure could be as high as 15 million. The replacement of human labour by machines is nothing new, of course, but it is the nature of the work under threat – “the drivers, the accountants, the solicitors” – this time that sets the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” apart.

As well as his role on the STC, Metcalfe chairs the all-party parliamentary group on artificial intelligence and he says the group has already had approaches from major accountancy companies and legal firms who are investigating how such technology will affect their business models.

Although the Conservative MP says it is “impossible to say” what the long-term implications are for the UK – “if I knew the answer to that I would be a very clever investor indeed,” he deadpans – he points out that those who have embraced, rather than opposed, previous moments of technological advance are those who have benefitted.

“As long as we manage the pace of change – and by that I don’t mean stand in front of the technology and try to hold it back, but make sure that we are giving people skills to work in this changing environment and enabling new technologies, new opportunities to take hold fairly quickly – then I see no reason why, although there will be disruption, we will not continue to succeed, our people will continue still to have rewarding, fruitful careers, jobs. They just may be in things we have yet to identify…

“It’s impossible to know where this will finish but we can see where it’s starting and we’ve got to be conscious of that and one of the things I want the committee to focus on is how we make sure that society comes along with this technology rather than it suddenly arrives and there’s so much disruption we don’t really know how to handle it.”

Disruption is not coming just from technology but politics, too. Few sectors were more united against leaving the European Union than science and research. Metcalfe, who was elected chairman of the committee in October after his predecessor took a job in the prime minister’s post-referendum government, has been lobbying the government to allay scientists’ fears about Brexit – with mixed results.

The committee’s call for a unilateral guarantee of EU scientists’ and researchers’ right to remain in the UK has gone unheeded (though, perhaps optimistically, Metcalfe floats the idea that the government thinks a comprehensive agreement is so close that there is no cause to make an exception for scientists) and the Department for Exiting the EU is still – to the bemusement of Metcalfe – without a chief scientific advisor.

“It would be a very easy win for the government,” he says. “Why they don’t do that, I don’t know. I think it would send out a very clear signal that science, technology, research, innovation are key areas that the negotiations will hopefully do a lot to protect. The fact they’re not doing it puzzles me.”

He underlines that the last six months have been anything but a simple bad news story for science. There was Philip Hammond’s announcement in the autumn statement of an extra £2bn for research and innovation – more than most in the sector were anticipating; Theresa May set making the UK “the best place for science and innovation” as one of her 12 priorities for the Brexit negotiations; investment in science and developing skills are two of the 10 ‘pillars’ of the government’s industrial strategy. “I think they understand all the challenges and they’re saying all the right things,” he says of ministers.

But a big question mark remains unresolved: the movement of people. “Cutting-edge science and research is done by people who have the ability to move around the world and base themselves wherever they feel the best science can be conducted,” says Metcalfe. “Britain traditionally has been a science superpower. We have punched well above our weight in our research output. But to maintain that we need to have a system in place that allows scientists to come here, collaborate, go elsewhere, come back, and for our scientists to do exactly the same into Europe…

“We benefit from this, Europe benefits from this, the world benefits from the research that we do – whether it’s around food security, climate change, energy policy. These are global challenges and we have the ability to play a significant role in tackling some of those.”

If Brexit put doubts in the minds of those wondering about conducting their research in the UK, the same is likely to be true of Donald Trump’s election in the US. The president’s first draft budget cuts federal science funding by 10.5%. The UK “may get a boost” out of Trump’s election, Metcalfe says.

“There’s an opportunity,” he adds. “If Trump does not want to invest in science and we are, then obviously science is a global, collaborative process. If people want to come and do their science here, all the better.”

A common feature of the Trump and Brexit campaigns – at least in the minds of opponents of both – is their willingness to discredit expertise, most famously articulated by Michael Gove’s declaration that people have “had enough of experts”. Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse said the comments were part of a movement that was “undermining science and scientific evidence”. It is not a view that Metcalfe is particularly comfortable with: “I think this post-truth world has been overstated in some ways. I don’t think it’s undermined the trust in science; I think science is held in high regard by the public and rightly so.”

The committee reached beyond traditional experts and politicians for inspiration about what it should be investigating through an idea called ‘My Science Inquiry’. It invited members of the public to submit ideas, with nine invited to give a Dragon’s Den-style pitch to the MPs. An inquiry into algorithms has already been launched off the back of the scheme, with more expected to follow.

While Metcalfe is comfortable asking questions of ministers, top scientists or ordinary members of the public, the tables will be turned during Science Week (from 10-19 March) when he is in the hot seat himself and quizzed by young scientists and students. It is one of a number of programmes – being held inside and outside parliament – designed to engage young people with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

He returns to the hope of inspiring the next generation of scientists when he cites the idea of a “virtual laboratory” as one of most exciting innovations he has come across. “Cutting-edge science in the classroom but in a virtual reality world: blow things up, play with nuclear fission, do all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise in any other environment be able to do,” he says.

When he became committee chairman last October, Metcalfe said he was determined to make sure the government did “all it can” to maintain the UK’s status as a “science superpower”. So what is the progress report after five months?

“I’m never going to say it’s done all it can; it’s done a lot,” he hedges. “But it’s a good start.”

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