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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You are living in a Black Mirror episode and you don’t care

The Investigatory Powers Bill is likely to become law later this year, but barely anyone is resisting the dystopian surveillance it will bring.

“They’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we're clumsy,” explained Charlie Brooker when asked to describe the concept behind his science fiction series Black Mirror. When series three was released on Netflix last week, this sentiment was reiterated over and over. “Omg, it’s just like Instagram!!!!” squealed individuals in their masses after watching episode one, “Nosedive”, set in a world where everyone rates one another out of five after their interactions. The parallel with social media is easy, obvious, and intentional, but it doesn’t teach us much. The real ways in which our world is like a dystopian sci-fi are, in fact, much more boring.

There will be no suspenseful songs or dramatic jump cuts preluding the third reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill in the House of Lords next week. The “snoopers’ charter” is likely to become law after it passed through its House of Commons readings with a few amendments, with 444 MPs voting in favour and 69 against. In short, the Bill will give the government unprecedented surveillance powers, allowing them to intercept and collect your communications, collect a list of the websites you visit and search it without a warrant, and force your internet service provider to help them collect your data.

Even though this is highly comparable to the dark visions of the future offered by Black Mirror, no one cares. Though the Bill faced initial resistance when it was announced in 2015, it has passed through its readings relatively unscathed. Black Mirror should provide a prime opportunity to discuss issues around privacy, but people prefer to compare dystopias to things they already hate. Lord help us all if we take selfies or stare at a device which is simultaneously an encyclopaedia, a newspaper, a book, a map, a bank, a radio, a camera and a telephone for more than ten minutes.

Yet the Investigatory Powers Bill does hold many parallels to the last episode of Black Mirror series three, “Hated in the Nation”. In it, the government use autonomous drones shaped like bees to spy on its people, which are then hacked to murder hated public figures. “Ok! The government’s a c**t, we knew that already,” says DCI Karin Parke, moving on to the real issue – not that the government spies on its citizens, but that the spying device can be hacked by those naughty, naughty citizens themselves.

The hacker – Garrett Scholes – has programmed the bees to kill whoever gets the most votes on Twitter via the hashtag #DeathTo. Then, in a Jon-Ronson-worthy twist, he sets the bees on the people who used the hashtag in the first place. The actual, moral, wake-up-sheeple message of “Hated in the Nation”, then, is that we should be careful who we wish death upon on social media. But it is precisely this freedom that we should be protecting. Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, your emails and search history could be used to argue that you really want to kill Katie Hopkins, rather than were just blowing off steam.

Yet it’s hard to blame anyone for ignoring the Bill, which is off-putting not because it’s not an episode of Black Mirror, but because it is long and confusing. Breaking through the terminology is hard, even in the handy fact sheets provided, and the government can claim transparency while using alienating language and concepts.

“Some of the powers in the Bill are deeply intrusive, and with very little possible justification,” warned former MP Dr Julian Huppert last week, “the cost to all of our privacy is huge.” The good news is that you don’t have to worry about metal bees spying on you, and the bad news is that this is because the government will soon have permission to do it the easy way.


Now listen to a review of the new series of Black Mirror on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.