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?

Curtis Holland
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Living the Meme: What happened to the "Bacon is good for me" boy?

Eight years after becoming a meme, the boy dubbed "King Curtis" explains what life is like now.

It is hard to pinpoint the one quote that made Curtis Holland a viral sensation. When he appeared on Wife Swap eight years ago, Holland – aka King Curtis – battled ferociously with his replacement mum Joy, who wanted to rid his home of unhealthy snacks. “Chicken nuggets is like my family,” he said at one point; “I don’t wanna be skinny! I wanna be fat and happy,” he said at another; during one particularly memorable scene he wrote “I am not lisning to your rules” on a Post-It note.

“Bacon is good for me!” perhaps comes out top. The quote – like all the others – has become an internet meme, featured in screenshots and gifs, but has additionally been remixed into a song. The original clip has over ten million views on YouTube. Now aged 15, Holland is speaking to me from his home in Vanceboro, North Carolina. “Oh yes!” he says when I ask if he still likes bacon. “Every morning my mum gets up and we all cook bacon together.”

 

Before speaking to Holland, I had eaten (ten) chicken nuggets for my tea, but when I tell him this I'm not sure he believes me. “I know some people say this just to say it,” he says, before admitting he himself had eaten some that day. “This morning that's exactly what I had.”

Holland speaks in a straightforward matter-of-fact tone that is just as endearing now as it was when he was seven. He is incredibly respectful – calling me “ma’am” at least three times – and is patient when I struggle to decipher his thick Southern accent (“pennies” for example, becomes “pinnies”, “cars” is “curs”).

“We live in a small community, and a lot of people say that I'm the movie star,” says Holland, when I ask him to explain how life has changed since appearing on TV. When I ask about life after becoming a meme, Holland is less sure. “I mean I don't have a Twitter but a lot of people say that I'm up there just about every week,” he says (in reality, the clip of his appearance alone – never mind gifs, quotes or screenshots – is tweeted multiple times a day).

There is one meme moment, however, that Holland definitely didn’t miss. In 2015, Pretty Little Liars actress Lucy Hale posted a photo to Instagram asking for an update on his life. In response, Holland created a YouTube video asking for money to rebuild cars and confidently saying “Someday I’ll get my own bacon brand.” The video got over 400,000 views.

“I went viral for I think three or four days and I was on the most views on YouTube,” explains Holland. “That was pretty cool for me, to see when I look on YouTube there my face is.” How did it make him feel, I ask? “It makes you feel good inside. One day I come home from school and I was mad, and I can tell you it just made me feel really good inside to see that [the video] was pretty much one of the top in basically the world.”

Despite enjoying the attention, Holland has no aspirations to be a TV or internet star again. He is part of an organisation called the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and plans to go to his local community college before becoming a welder. “There’s a few know-it-alls in the community,” he says, “They just say it’s crazy how you went and did all that and now you’re not going on in the movie field. That’s not something I’m really interested in.”

Yet although Holland says it’s “time to move on a little bit”, he also admits he would be open to any offers. “A lot of people say well why don’t you just get up with a bacon company and do commercials or something… I mean I wouldn’t mind doing that if they came and asked me.” After Wife Swap, a company did come and film a pilot for Holland’s own show, but it never amounted to anything. “I mean you'd be lucky to get on TV once in your whole life and I feel like I really enjoyed it when I was up there,” he says when I ask if this was disappointing.

All of this means that Holland hasn’t made much money from his viral fame. Unlike other memes I’ve spoken to, he hasn’t earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I believe I got 150 bucks,” he says of his “Update” YouTube video, “All the other stuff like the ‘Bacon is good for me’ songs, they’ve [the creators] made $75,000 and that’s a lot of money putting away."

“I mean it don’t annoy me because it ain’t my fault; it’s nobody’s fault in the situation. They found a way around the system,” he says when I ask if he’s annoyed at others’ making money at his expense.

Nowadays, Holland is still recognised when he is out and about, and says he has signed over one thousand autographs in his life (once he was wary of a neighbourhood policeman who was asking him to sign a parking ticket, before he realised he simply wanted an autograph). “I don’t get sick of it, but of course you’ve got a few people that want to be rude about what you’re doing.

“I really don’t care, I’m a really upbeat kind of person. If there's somebody in a computer screen telling me something that means nothing, you know?”

For Holland, then, the good outweighs the bad. Apart from being asked after by Lucy Hale, his favourite thing about going viral is that he gets to make people laugh. “If I can go up to somebody and make their day and make them smile, I feel like I’ve done a great thing,” he says.

I end the interview with Holland like I end all of my interviews with memes: by asking him if there’s anything he would like to say – a message he’d like to get out there, or a misconception he’d like to clear up – now that he has the chance.

“Oh nothing I've got to say,” he begins, “except bacon is still good for me.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

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