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31 January 2010

Changing the topic: questions for aspiring political leaders

Filed under: general election, leadership, politics — David Wood @ 1:10 pm

Electioneering will be ramping up, in the UK, over the next few months.

As well as the question of “which politicians are the best choices to be voted into parliament”, there’s a broader question at stake:

  • What criteria should we be using, as an electorate in 2010, to assess aspiring politicians?

Of course, high on the list of criteria comes the matter of economic competence.  Which politicians are the most likely to be able to oversee an economic recovery?

Similarly, there’s the question of general trustworthiness: is this a person who can, on the whole, be trusted to be take hard decisions, and to follow through responsibly on the results of these decisions?

However, alongside that kind of traditional criteria, I’d like to try to inject some additional questions into the public debate.

My hope with these questions is to identify politicians who have responsible and well-informed techno-progressive views:

  • They understand the tremendous difference that can be made to the well-being of society by swift and thoughtful development and deployment of new technology;
  • They are aware of the drawbacks that new technology can bring, but they are able to assess these drawbacks within an overall positive and constructive framework;
  • They will not allow important questions of technology development to be submerged under lots of other day-to-day debate.

My list of questions is by no means final.  But I’d like to start somewhere.

So here goes.  Here’s my list of ten open questions, that I am preparing to ask whenever the chance arises.  Hopefully the answers that politicians give will provide an indication as to whether they have a good understanding of the huge transformative potential of science and technology.

  1. What are the most serious risks of major disasters affecting the UK in the next 20-40 years, and what do you think needs to be done about these risks?
  2. Under what circumstances would you approve of a government minister overruling the advice of an expert committee of scientists about a matter of science (eg whether a particular drug is harmful)?
  3. What’s your view of genetically engineered medicines and foods?
  4. What’s your view of nuclear energy?
  5. Would you approve of research into geo-engineering to counter possible runaway global warming?
  6. What kinds of medical research would you prioritise?
  7. What’s your reaction to the changing population demographics (where there’s an ever greater proportion of older people)?
  8. Which technology sectors do you see as most important for the future of this country?
  9. Do you approve of the way the current patent system interacts with the development of technologically innovative solutions?
  10. Do you think any special attention should be paid to the opinion of religious leaders over matters such as medical research or the application of technology?

Most of the questions have no “right” answers, but there are plenty of “bad” answers which would cause me to be distrustful of someone who gave that answer:

  • One set of bad answers is “techo-conservatism” – insisting on lots of caution with any new technology (similar to the people who demanded that a moving motor vehicle should be preceded by a pedestrian carrying a red flag);
  • Another set of bad answers is “techno-utopianism” – praising technology without appreciating its potential drawbacks (but I’m not expecting many aspiring politicians to make that mistake);
  • Finally, I fear answers that would indicate “techno-ignorance” – lack of practical awareness of the issues about new technology (nanotech, synthetic biology, new sources of energy, robotics, AI…).

I’m not expecting that any one party will have politicians who give uniformly good (or uniformly bad) answers to these questions.  The techno-progressive spectrum cuts across traditional party lines.

Are these the right questions?  What questions would you want to add to this list, or subtract from it?

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