Leaders of national and European data ethics initiatives compare notes. From left to right: Prof Alain Strowel; Prof Christiane Woopen; Roger Taylor; Salwa Toko; Prof Luciano Floridi.

Earlier this month, the Royal Society hosted a two-day pan-European Flourishing in a data-enabled society conference, in partnership with ALLEA (All European Academies), the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities.

ALLEA brings together almost 60 Academies of Sciences and Learned Societies from over 40 countries in the Council of Europe region. The UK members of ALLEA are the British Academy, the Learned Society of Wales, the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

ALLEA focuses on a wide range of policy issues across the European research landscape, including European funding programmes, science and ethics, intellectual property rights, and truth, trust and expertise.

On this occasion, ALLEA interviewed Professor Richard Catlow FRS, Vice-President and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, and Chair of the Organising Committee of the joint ALLEA-Royal Society conference. This blog post is an opportunity to share this interview with you.

1. Tell us about the incentives of setting up this initiative.

In September 2017, I summarised the work of the Royal Society and British Academy on Data management use: Governance in the 21st Century at the General Assembly of ALLEA in Budapest. There was high interest in this topic, with many members from academies around Europe recognizing it was timely to consider the impact of data and digital technologies on society.

So together with then ALLEA President Gunter Stock we decided to launch a joint Royal Society and ALLEA project to explore a vision for the use of data for human benefit in Europe. This is what led to the pan-European conference on Flourishing in a data-enabled society held on 1-2 November 2018 at Chicheley Hall, UK.

The Royal Society is pleased to be hosting a conference that brings together leading thinkers on this topic from across Europe, which is one of our key roles in continuing to input into fora to shape the European scientific endeavour.

2. One of the main features of this conference is that it seeks to involve different sectors: from science to big tech all the way through to governments and public sector. What is expected from this cross-sectoral dialogue?

Currently, there are many debates on the use of data – but they are often unconnected, focusing on particular sectors or disciplines. Although governance solutions are often, and rightly, context specific, there is a need to connect debates across sectors to ensure that learning spreads across different sectors as quickly and effectively as possible.

The conference also served to explore the diversity of approaches that can be found across Europe, and to draw where possible features that transcend borders which might inspire strategic decisions from various actors, from industry to governments.

3. How can academies best help shape the debate around the controversial topic of data use?

If we consider the memberships of ALLEA’s network of academies across Europe, there is a tremendous breadth of knowledge and expertise, across all sciences and humanities, that can help shed light on questions about the use of data and digital technologies.

Academies can convene leading experts and have a critical role in gathering evidence and informing public debates. All stakeholders need to be engaged.

For example, as part of the Royal Society’s work on machine learning, we commissioned a public dialogue which gave us a better understanding of what the UK public thinks about these technologies.

4. What is your vision of a data-enabled Europe?

Overall my vision is of a data-enabled Europe that improves the quality of life of its citizens, including:

  • A thriving research community across academia and industry
  • Technology that is trusted as it supports people and communities in their life, their work and their learning, while maintaining human autonomy
  • Ethical and responsible technology that meets as best as possible the needs of individuals and society
  • Governance and strategies that ensure a fair distribution of benefits and risks
  • Technology that serves all of society and not just certain groups