Science and the Parliament November 2022
The Royal Society of Chemistry runs a conference every year in Edinburgh, with speakers and panels across scientific disciplines and a panel of MSPs who speak to the topic under discussion. This year, after 2 years of absence due to COVID, it was good to meet again, visit interest groups and organisation displays, from Geology, to Physics, Young Scientists, to Climate, Chemists and Ecologists, to hear from scientists and politicians about their views for the future of innovation in Scotland. This spirit of change has forever been present and Scotland has a widely acclaimed roster of inventors, engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and industrialists moving inventions into the mainstream of society from the steam engine (James Watt), telephones (Alexander Graham Bell), TV (John Logie Baird) to penicillin (Alexander Fleming), electro magnetism (James Clerk Maxwell), first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep (Roslin Institute) and to recently Covid 19 vaccine (Valneva plant in Livingston), Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto and many other gaming successes (Dundee).
The future of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sectors will be vital for the future of Scotland. 98%of Scotland’s energy is now from renewables but many uncertainties remain. Innovation in Scotland is strong but these are long term projects that need funding to get from laboratory to High Street and industry. The funding pipeline for inventions is vital, and support ecosystems around inventions and infrastructure are crucial to get the transformation into world beating results.
Klaus Schwab wrote: Entrepreneurship is the engine fuelling innovation, employment generation and economic growth. Only by creating an environment where entrepreneur-ship can prosper and where entrepreneurs can try new ideas and empower others can we ensure that many of the world’s issues will not go unaddressed.
The politicians had thoughts on the whole issue of education: Maggie Chapman, Green MSP, spoke of the importance of Human Sciences and those links between STEM and social science that are central to innovation. Michael Marra, Labour MSP felt STEM an indispensable component and that problems in secondary schools of recruitment and supply of skills results in students not coming through to Universities. There also needs to be shift in the kind of skills on offer in Scotland from oil to wider STEM pipeline. Jamie Halcrow Johnston, Conservative MSP, with strong interests in crofting and rural policy was enthusiastic about innovation in marine renewables and is keen to get young people interested in science at an earlier stage. Willie Rennie, Lib Dem MSP drawing on his party leadership experience felt the Scottish Parliament is not progressive enough and goes through the same issues again and again without that necessary commitment. There are new challenges because of Brexit. The Horizon Project and Erasmus Funding Schemes, EU wide education and research funding programmes are inaccessible at present. Then there is the EU productivity challenge as well as growing the Scottish Economy. His biggest worry is that research funding has now has dropped around 21% since Brexit which is deeply worrying as Scotland was outstanding in research.
One of the speakers Chris Moule, Head of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Robert Gordon University told us clearly how technology is moving faster. His slides tell us and interesting story, so thanks to his permission, some are reproduced below. The Series of Industrial Revolutions have been:
and now 4th Divergence of all Technologies, where we are now.
He used a wonderful example of how technology is moving faster. Do you remember Pokemon Go?
And how long before it reached 50 million users compared to earlier inventions?
This gives you an illustration of how speed of communication has changed; for good or less good is the insidious spread of fake news! Technology continues to move faster and faster.
Klaus Schwab: The biggest change in the world today is that the young don’t learn from the old, they teach the old about the world today.
As someone who still uses a simple Nokia 2G phone (lighter, easier to use and carry compared to my smart phone. I still prefer an A-Z of Edinburgh than an APP) but innovations are everywhere in our modern world whether we like them or not, whether we can afford them or not, they are replacing many systems we are familiar with, such as parking meters taking cash, voices at the end of a telephone answering queries, even registering for voting. In many ways Covid fast forwarded many of these changes, and even on Arran some stores stopped initially taking cash. Touch and go became the way to pay, which makes life so difficult for those without a credit or debit card, or even a bank account.
Klaus Schaub: In the new world, it is not the big fish which eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.
Clearly for some of those jobs there is sense in moving to more automation, for example in mining with autonomous machines making the workplace safer and more productive and we can already watch Amazon boxes being directed around the fulfilment centres without anyone in view. This month Amazon has announced a new robot, dubbed “Sparrow”, which the company says is its first warehouse robot that can “detect, select, and handle individual products.” The company says the machine is capable of recognizing and handling “millions of items” and that it will reduce the repetitive tasks its human workers have to do. In other words, robots replace hourly paid employees though of course there will need technicians to program and service the robots.
Major thoughts running through my mind through these excellent presentations by the leaders in Innovation in Scotland prompted others in wider spheres. The IT, and artificial intelligence (AI) industry, robotics etc. will undoubtedly affect employment, and make a heap of money for investors and those with the skills to contribute. How does society deal with large numbers of employees without those new skills losing secure, full employment, full salaries, pensions, health cover? Will these companies be properly taxed by the governments in whose jurisdictionthey are or will they be like so many tech multi-millionaires/billionaires and their companies who are off-shored, pay little tax, leaving communities and systems of support impossibly poorer.
Already we are seeing vast changes in working practices, skill sets and the expectations of how work, careers and skills are changing. From self-driving cars,
remotely controlled by IT to 250tonne autonomous trucks transporting mining materials, The consensus among many experts is that a number of professions will be totally automated in the next five to 10 years. A group of senior-level tech executives who comprise the Forbes Technology Council named 15: insurance underwriting, warehouse and manufacturing jobs, customer service, research and data entry, long haul trucking and a somewhat disconcertingly broad category titled “Any Tasks That Can Be Learned.” Artificial intelligence is here to stay and expand!
So, what about Generation Alpha (born between 2010-2024)?
Their society will be Digital, Social, Global, Mobile, Visual, Environmentally Conscious, Taking Ownership of Issues, Looking to Innovate- the latest and the newest. So how does education prepare for this from the earliest levels to university and life-long learning? But be aware, all is not always good, since referrals for language and speech help of children arriving to start at primary school who lack language skills is rising rapidly; due to too little time interacting by talking with real life people!
So, what should education look like?
- Be more than just a place of learning.
- Evolving teaching styles with collaborative inquiry-based learning co-designed with students.
- Individualised and self-directed.
- Focus on transferable skills-collaborative, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
At question time, there was a discussion on the whole ethical and moral debate about the aim to replace human effort by robots. It is important to have a public dialogue on the way forward. Innovative IT/AI is invasive, the amount of knowledge the tech companies already hold on us individually is concerning. Privacy is a vital component, already compromised. We, the public, have to make choices as to what kind of society we want? It seems human to human speech is less, and email does not substitute in the same way. The framing of such questions is important too, as so often questionnaires and consultations on line are biased so the originators get the answer they desire.
In all this there needs to be a responsibility to reach rural areas, including the islands, as the preservation and development of these communities is important for the future. There are some key questions over this push to innovation:
- Is short term profit driving this? As we already seeing the wealthy get wealthier, and the rest, get poorer, as clearly has been shown recently. We pay tax, wealthy IT entrepreneurs have philanthropy and little or no tax!
- Regulatory systems must be enhanced. Taxation reformed. No offshoring, remove non-dom status as an option, and dismantle the tax havens under UK jurisdiction.
- Social infrastructure, be it post offices, hospitals, GPs, banks, pensions and other vital social systemic infrastructures will have to be maintained. By what process will this all be achieved?
- At present the precariat society is being born, a few hours of work here, maybe some next week, low paid, seasonality, compulsory self-employment, no sick pay, no pension, no contract or employment rights, high private rents, no capital in local authorities to build affordable homes. Is this the only future for those outside the creative hubs? We know that leads to ill-health, early death and long term family difficulties.
This was a thought-provoking event. My heartfelt thanks to the Royal Society of Chemistry which arranged it and to Chris Moule of Robert Gordon University who kindly let me use his presentation slides in my reporting.
Schwab, K. (2016) The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Penguin