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Q&A: ODI’s Nigel Shadbolt explores if Brexit is a disaster for digital

Sir Nigel Shadbolt is a man that barely needs any introduction to those working in the technology sector.

He’s currently principal of Jesus College, Oxford, a professor of computer science at the University of Oxford and visiting professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton.

He’s offered his expertise to a number of different government-backed technology initiatives, not least the Shadbolt Review into employability in the computer science sector.

With a keen focus on the need for usable data in all areas of life, he also worked with Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2011 to open the Open Data Institute in London.

NS Tech:  Is Brexit a disaster for digital?

Shadbolt: As someone firmly in the Remain camp, we have to find reasons to be hopeful. The digital domain is one.

Open web

The web was designed to transcend national boundaries, to be a universal and accessible platform for all. It was conceived and originally built to be truly open. We now have to work hard to ensure that openness is protected and that we don’t replicate geo-political barriers online.


One of the things that people have talked about a lot is the impact on trade. We’re not aware of tariffs existing for purely digital services in the way that they do for other goods and services.

Any new trade deals being struck for manufactured goods create uncertainty in those markets, so we may need to look to digital services to create exports and provide growth. And of course, for digital companies based in the UK to go on expanding their customer-base on a global scale.

This is why digital services are so important to the UK.

Innovation and investment

The UK is already a world leader in digital innovation and there is no reason why this shouldn’t continue. According to the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute, the UK currently ranks 9th in the world for entrepreneurship.

The open web, open data, open source and open standards offer innovators the raw materials to create the services of the future, regardless of the UK’s political situation. Our expertise and track record for innovation in this space also makes the UK an attractive investment for other countries, in Europe, and outside.


I do have real concerns about funding for our academic research which again, leads the world.

We know that 44 per cent of of all international research collaboration in the UK is with a European partner, while British higher education providers receive 16 per cent of their research income from the EU.

Between 2007 and 2013, that means the UK received an estimated €3.4 billion more than it paid into the EU in terms of funding for research and innovation. I can draw on my previous role at the University of Southampton, as professor of AI, and my current role at Jesus College, Oxford, where EU funding has been very important.

We must avoid restrictions being imposed that would make it more difficult for British staff and students to pursue their work in EU countries, and work with colleagues in EU universities. Nor can we afford to lose the hugely talented EU innovators, researchers and students from the UK digital scene.

The European Union is also taking promising steps in providing open access to scientific information. If researchers are going to have less funding or find it less easy to collaborate directly then open access and open data will be ever more important in both the UK and the EU.

Future generations

We know that 75 per cent of young people voted to remain in the EU. These are the people who will be leading the UK in terms of digital skills, innovation, data literacy, and adopting open forms of communication and culture.

Their influence in the years to come, on how the UK makes the most of data and digital services, will be huge. I am certain that for this generation, being part of a wider network of cultures and opportunities is a positive thing.

NS Tech: Is this an opportunity to do more ambitious things?

Shadbolt: Every day, more of the key ‘facts’ on which the referendum campaigns were based seem to be questioned or discredited. It’s been extraordinarily hard for voters to know what’s fact and what’s fiction.

A question for us all in a democratic society is: can a decision made on the basis of misinformation ever be right? How can we encourage more accountable and informed debate from the institutions that lead us? Will the outcome of the referendum lead people to demand more fact checking?

In this campaign, more than any before, it was hard to separate fact from fiction. Here, data can play a part. By making more data available openly and then encouraging organisations, media and individuals to analyse and scrutinise that data, we can seek to substantiate the claims that are being made.

This of course requires people to have the right skills. Data literacy is crucial: enabling organisations, media, academia and citizens to make independent judgements about the data and statistics that are promoted by political parties to justify certain arguments.

We need to actually embed the notion of evidence-based policy in our political discourse and make it mean something.

We need to promote critical thinking, the use of warranted evidence and better data skills in politics, the workplace, throughout our whole education system and in society at large.

NS Tech: What should we do now?

Shadbolt: The economic challenges that the UK is predicted to face post-Brexit will require the government to focus on both public sector efficiency and economic growth.

Open innovation, fuelled by access to data, is crucial to realising those goals. The UK must use any international trade negotiations in Brexit discussions to push for more open data, stronger data infrastructure, innovation, transparency, accountability, and open standards across the globe. This will help drive both efficiency and economic demands.