In my last post, I was just over halfway through my time at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) through the IOP/POST fellowship.
The fellowship scheme places physics PhD students in POST, parliament’s in-house source of impartial analysis of science and technology policy, to write a briefing on a pertinent topic. Now, having packed my parliamentary bags and reinstated my physics hat to finish my PhD thesis, I’m both excited to see the work at POST culminate in a parliamentary briefing on financial technology, but also sad to see the end of such an engaging experience.
After conducting around 25 interviews with stakeholders, the second half of my time at POST consisted of drawing together these and other research I’d conducted on financial technology (FinTech) into a four-page format suitable for parliamentary distribution – a POSTnote.
Similar to the academic peer-review process, the draft note was reviewed by external contributors – but with some obvious numerical differences. Around 20 external reviewers gave feedback on the POSTnote, as opposed to the two or three typical for journal articles. With these comments taken into account, the note was ready to be released, and was published last week.
The FinTech note, along with all of POST’s other briefings ranging from the darknet to barriers to healthy food, is available to download online from POST’s website, which serves as a fantastic open source of information on matters relating to science and technology policy.
In the briefing, we focused on four emerging areas of FinTech – alternative finance (such as crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending), data analytics (for example, using data from social media for credit scoring), payments (eg, mobile and in-app services) and distributed ledger technology (which underlies digital currencies such as Bitcoin). The note explores the opportunities that these areas present, such as widening access to finance, as well as challenges, such as how regulation of nascent technology should be approached.
As someone who usually spends their week examining processes at the nanoscale in a physics lab, it was very enjoyable to zoom out to the macro and think about how technological developments will shape our society over the years to come. Will distributed ledgers be the next internet? Will physical cash be relegated to a story for the grandkids?
One thing that struck me, which is perhaps not always so visible in a research setting, is both the scale and pace of technological development that we continue to experience, perhaps best summed up by Amara’s law: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”. The science fiction of a decade ago silently becomes an integral part of everyday life.
Being in parliament also highlighted the sometimes contradictory desire for certainty in an often uncertain world: while evidence is seldom categorical, decision-makers need to make clear-cut choices. This brought home the need to bring these two perspectives together with the best knowledge available and clearly communicate where consensus or contention lies, trying all the while to escape our human biases. The staff at POST were model examples of how to strive for this balance.
After finalising the note, it’s been rewarding to see it receive parliamentary interest, both from the House of Lords Select Committee on Financial Exclusion, as well as from the MP Adam Afriyie who discussed the note in an opinion piece on FinTech. I was also lucky enough to pay a visit to Broadcasting House to see my POST supervisor interviewed about the briefing for the BBC World Service’s Click programme.
As I return to the world of molecular semiconductors, I’m tremendously grateful to the IOP and to POST for this fantastic opportunity, and would particularly like to thank Lydia Harriss, my supervisor at POST, for making the experience so informative and enjoyable.