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 Wonga.com 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 Wonga.com 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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The internet dictionary: what is astroturfing?

Yes, like the fake grass.

Thanks to the internet, there are a lot of new words. You’re most likely up to speed with your LOLs and OMGs, which became Oxford English Dictionary-worthy in 2011 (LOL OMG if you’re not). But words emerge constantly, and it can be hard to keep track of them. This is what this column is for. Every week, I’ll define a word that is crucial to understanding the internet, starting with “astroturfing” – like the fake grass.

To astroturf is to mask the author of a message to make it appear to have come from the grass roots. Messages created by brands, politicians and even the military are disguised as comments made by the public. The practice existed before the web – the term is thought to have been coined in 1985 by a US senator who received a “mountain” of letters from insurance companies posing as the public – but the internet has propelled it to new, disturbing heights.

“GIRLS U NEED TO READ THIS,” reads a tweet by a handsome teenage boy named Ashton, who tweets the same words day after day, followed by crying and heart emojis. Ashton lives to promote the book of a 19-year-old self-published author from Sheffield – or, at least, he would, if he lived at all. Ashton is fake, a profile designed to make the book seem popular. Many teenage girls have been duped by this. One told me: “I felt very cheated out of my money and my time.”

It has been estimated that a third of all consumer reviews online are fake. But it doesn’t end with bad books. In China, the “50 Cent Army” are astroturfers who are allegedly paid a small fee for each positive post they write about the Chinese Communist Party. And in 2011, it emerged that the US military was developing an “online persona management service” to spread pro-American messages, allowing one person to manage multiple online identities.

We would be foolish to assume that our own democracy is immune. Much was written about how the Tories used targeted social media adverts at the last election, and it is easy to see how astroturfing could transform our political landscape for ever. 

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

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon