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The Policy Ask with Mark Girolami: “Computer science should be compulsory at GCSE level”

The Alan Turing Institute’s chief scientist on the importance of computing education and using data to clean up the UK’s air.

By Spotlight

Mark Girolami is chief scientist at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence. He is one of its founding executive directors, and previously led its data-centric engineering programme. In 2019 he was elected to the Sir Kirby Laing professorship of civil engineering at the University of Cambridge, and was previously chair of statistics in the department of mathematics at Imperial College London.

How do you start your working day?

By feeding our three cats and making the first essential coffee of the day while simultaneously checking email, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook’s overnight feeds.

What has been your career high?

For highs, I would say firstly when the public reading of my research in statistics to the Royal Statistical Society received the largest number of contributed discussions in its 186-year history. Secondly growing data-centric engineering at the Alan Turing Institute to a multi-million pound global phenomenon, while delivering a few world firsts. Thirdly being elected to the Sir Kirby Laing professorship of civil engineering at Cambridge. And lastly my appointment as chief scientist at the Alan Turing Institute.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

After working with IBM for ten years it was challenging and risky to leave the relative affluence, financial comfort and safety to start again as a PhD student and attempt to move into an academic career. It seemed to work out OK, though.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

Chill out. Do what excites you and gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you out of bed in the evening. Enjoy the process.

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Which political figure inspires you?

For the past few years I have been fascinated by many political figures throughout history, reading about William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Barack Obama, Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. They are all people with feet of clay, yet they all inspire me by their ability to lead people and movements.

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria). The UK science and innovation landscape needs long-term funding for high-risk, high-reward research with less bureaucracy.  

And what policy should the UK government ditch?

The government should re-establish its commitment to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP for research and development (R&D), and in fact actually aim for a higher percentage to bring the UK in line with international comparators and demonstrate our competitiveness on the international stage. By the time we reach 2.4 per cent, some of our competitors will be at 3 per cent.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Clean Air Bill, which looks to establish the right to breathe clean air. Poor air quality is bad for human health. This is one of the things the data-centric engineering programme at the Alan Turing Institute has worked on through a project to use machine learning algorithms to improve air quality over London.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

Singapore has some great pro-business policies that I think the UK could learn from, for example it’s progressive intellectual property (IP) regime and regulatory sandboxes.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

It’s really important that people have the right skills in an increasingly digital and data-driven society that employs artificial intelligence, so I think computer science should be a compulsory subject in schools up to (and including) GCSE level.

[See also: The decisive decade: Only huge collective action will persuade decision-makers to change course]

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