Doing science the Wonga way

The model used by the payday loans company might finally make science work for everyone. Could we be about to enter the age of Wonga science?

Occasionally a corporate entity tries to get science done its way. Google, for instance, sponsors various researchers to find out whether their worthy, planet-improving idea can work. But what would we get if the payday loans company sponsored science?

It’s not an idle question. Just recently, up in committee room 17 of the House of Commons, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s science minister, gathered academics and asked for thoughts on the public role of science and how we should fund it. The responses weren’t terribly conclusive or enlightening. But one interesting thing came up – the origins of Wonga.

Wonga’s eye-watering prices (borrowing £400 for 28 days will cost you £117.48, for example) have been the subject of questions downstairs in the Commons and the Lords. Stella Creasy MP is trying to get the Financial Services Authority to cap the rate of interest a company can charge. She is supported in the other chamber by the future archbishop of Canterbury, who has called Wonga’s business model “morally wrong”.

Apparently the algorithm behind was originally developed to detect banking fraud. The subtext in Onwurah’s meeting was clear – Wonga is an evil application of perfectly good algorithms, and if someone had said those algorithms could lead to Wonga questions would have been asked of those funding their development. Especially, perhaps, if Onwurah were in charge. When Wonga ploughed £24m into Newcastle Football Club in exchange for on-shirt advertising, Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed outrage. She called Wonga a source of “debt and misery”.

There are two reasons to take issue with this. First, many people are clearly happy to pay hundreds of pounds for a short-term loan. Wonga’s reported customer satisfaction is above Apple’s and far above that recorded by any of the high-street banks. Second, Onwurah’s remit is innovation, science and digital infrastructure and yet she slurs a company that has used science and digital infrastructure to innovate. The firm is expanding into the US and is on course to become a billion-dollar company next year.

The good news is that the government will soon have a Wonga-friendly chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport is at present the director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest scientific and medical research charity and an investor in Wonga. When Creasy challenged Walport about this, he replied that he finds Wonga “extremely engaging”, with a good business model and a willingness to listen to feedback.

This bodes extremely well for Walport’s stint as the UK’s most influential scientist. Clearly, he’s not populist, he’s not swayed by conflicts with authority and he’s not averse to a bit of level-headed thinking.

Coming round

If Onwurah comes round, she and Walport might even usher in the age of Wonga science. This would be open to no-fuss funding of projects and people that are currently considered unfundable, ending the pyramid scheme that makes life easy for established professors and near-impossible for those trying to become established. It would reward people who cross disciplines to achieve optimum productivity (one of Wonga’s co-founders, Jonty Hurwitz, trained as a mathematician and physicist and then became a software engineer and entrepreneur). Pursuing interdisciplinary research is widely known as a fast track to the funding wilderness.

Wonga science would present straight-talking science advice to government and pursue research that has no useful application in sight. It would also encourage scientists to take things we already have and find entirely new purposes for them. Most appealing, it might show us gaps in our scientific research that no one even realised were there. The Wonga model might finally make science work for everyone.


Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Why I’m sick of fake theorists lamenting the “millennial problem”

Wise Thinkers lament smartphones, social media, and self-entitlement – ignoring how badly off this generation is thanks to its predecessors.

There is a certain sort of Wise Thinker who loves nothing more than to offer advice on the “problem” of “millennials”. Oh, Wise Thinker, where has this mysterious generation of lazy, entitled narcissists come from, and how am I supposed to deal with the ones who keep showing up in my office?

The answer, we’re told, is a massive failure in parenting that started in the 1980s – suddenly children were told they were special, that they could do anything they wanted to. Worse, they were shown they didn’t have to work for it – they were given participation medals just for showing up, and any time they did badly at school, they didn’t need to improve; their parents just complained to get them better marks!

No evidence that any of this is substantially true (or caused the claimed effects) need be offered: that can be left as an exercise to the reader’s own preconceptions.

(They’ve given out participation medals in the modern Olympics since it started in 1896, by the way. No one ever seems to mention that.)

A particularly refined example of this sort of thing has been doing the rounds of social media recently – a video clip in which motivational speaker and TED talkist Simon Sinek rehearses the familiar lines but then makes a rather bolder claim: millennials are losing the capacity for joy (and some of them are even killing themselves), and it’s all because of mobile phones.

Their use of mobile phones and social media is addictive, Sinek says, in exactly the same way as drugs and alcohol. He refers to the brain chemical dopamine, which immediately turns his every utterance into rigorous neuroscience – regardless of the quantity and quality of the evidence available to support it.

That every millennial is suffering from this terrible addiction is taken as read, as much as everyone who’s ever had a glass of wine is a raging alcoholic. Non-millennials, we all know, completely eschew the mobile phone and have never been seen on Facebook.

But this is only part of the broader millennial addiction to instant gratification – same-day delivery, movies-on-demand, even getting a date is now as simple as swiping right, as anyone who’s never actually tried online dating will surely agree!

It seems all millennials can have everything they want, whenever they want it, so they will never learn the hard lessons that the Wise Thinkers learned in the old times: how to be patient, how to have self-restraint, how to work hard for something.

This can surely be the first time in history in which the old have considered the young to be impatient and lazy.

Worst-case scenario? Sinek points to a rise in depression and suicide, and lets us draw arbitrary lines as we please. His best-case scenario: the millennial will never learn how to find joy, unless, apparently, their benevolent employer helps them with such innovative solutions as banning phones in meetings. Sure.

There is of course nothing wrong with some scepticism towards new technology and the effect it can have on the fragile human mind. If only we had heeded the scientist Conrad Gessner’s dire warning of a powerful new invention that would overwhelm, confuse and ultimately harm us with its unstoppable flood of information. That invention? The book. Gessner lived through the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century. History doesn’t record whether or not he wore stupid glasses.

But maybe Sinek is right – maybe only by abandoning the embrace of Siri will you know true love, millennials, some of you who are actually in your mid-thirties these days and have probably already started tutting at those younger than you who never learned “real” patience by sending texts on a Nokia 3310.

It must be a lot of fun, theorising about the possible origins of the “millennial problem”, and coming up with brilliant outside-the-box solutions to it. Weird, though, that all these Wise Thinkers never seem to talk about how many millennials started their careers in the midst (or the aftermath) of an uncertain job market caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Or how many of them had to start their careers with unpaid internships. Or, more fundamentally, that they’re the first generation for decades to earn lower wages than their predecessors.

Perhaps, for some strange reason, managers so supposedly desperate to understand millennial employees are not quite as interested in paying motivational speakers to tell them about things like that.