Public policy institute seeks order in ‘an age of disruption’

PUBLISHED: 12:03 20 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:03 20 April 2018

At the University of Cambridge's launch for the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Wolfson Hall lecture theatre at Churchill College on Monday are, from left, Economist Professor Diane Coyle, Institute Director Prof Michael Kenny, benefactor Peter Bennett and Vice Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope. Picture: Keith Heppell

At the University of Cambridge's launch for the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Wolfson Hall lecture theatre at Churchill College on Monday are, from left, Economist Professor Diane Coyle, Institute Director Prof Michael Kenny, benefactor Peter Bennett and Vice Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope. Picture: Keith Heppell

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Bennett Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) unveil at Churchill College

Peter Bennett is a happy chappy this week! Picture: Keith HeppellPeter Bennett is a happy chappy this week! Picture: Keith Heppell

The Bennett Institute for Public Policy (BIPP), a ground-breaking new organisation initiated by the University of Cambridge, was launched at Churchill College on Monday (April 16).

The institute, enabled by a major gift from Cambridge alumnus and philanthropist Peter Bennett, has been founded “to address the new patterns of inequality and social unrest emerging around the globe, while training the policy-makers of tomorrow”.

Researchers will investigate the ways in which scientific or technical expertise and policy choices interrelate. BIPP’s mission statement says: “Our goal is to rethink public policy in an era of turbulence and growing inequality. Our research connects the world-leading work in technology and science at Cambridge with the economic and political dimensions of policy-making.”

“This is a very significant launch for Cambridge,” said the university’s vice-chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope. “The world faces a new age of anxiety, marked by the widespread distrust in business-as-usual politics. Cambridge must take a lead in bringing its unique breadth and depth of expertise to respond to social, political and economic conditions. I am certain that the Bennett Institute for Public Policy will be transformational.”

Vice Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope addresses the audience at Wolfson Hall for the launch of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Picture: Keith HeppellVice Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope addresses the audience at Wolfson Hall for the launch of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Picture: Keith Heppell

The institute is already establishing research projects on the constitutional future of the UK and Ireland post-Brexit and the increasing role of ‘GovTech’ as states grapple with digital technologies.

The institute’s inaugural director is Professor Michael Kenny. Along with Bennett Professor of Public Policy, economist Professor Diane Coyle, the new team will “combine fundamental research and rigorous analysis with the search for new practical solutions to challenges such as the digital divide, resource scarcity and the need for more equitable growth”.

“We live in an age of unprecedented disruption,” said Prof Kenny. “More and more people are disenchanted with politics, and many feel that the rules of the economic game are rigged. At the same time, technological innovations and breakthroughs in scientific knowledge are gathering speed.

“Public policy thinking needs to engage much more deeply with the challenges which these trends pose. It is time to set aside the ingrained assumption that there are technical fixes or ready-made solutions to our most intractable problems.

“We want the new institute to become one of the primary academic venues across the world for understanding these changes and devising responses to them. It will offer a unique combination of deep research, high-level training and effective policy engagement.”

The launch involved an all-day sequence of seminars culminating in an address by Mustafa Suleyman of Deepmind, who said that public policy is “failing to come to grips with a dizzyingly complex world”.

“It’s clear that technology is rapidly losing the public’s trust,” said Mr Suleyman. “There’s been a sea change in rhetoric recently which has been staggering and encouraging to see... Industry is now facing a long overdue wake-up call, and good intentions are no longer enough.”

Mr Suleyman was joined on stage by Baroness Martha Lane-Fox of Doteveryone for a panel discussion.

Questions from the audience focused on the impact of the gender divide, climate change, plus smart cities and the role of technology in general.

Debate about public policy has accelerated since Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress last week about the damage caused to the platform’s reputation following the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Facebook’s misuse of the personal data of 87million Facebook users was discussed by the panel at the launch.

“Facebook to my mind has got away with murder recently and we need to be stronger in holding them to account,” said Baroness Lane-Fox. “There is a Facebook problem, and it’s something that needs to be unpicked, whether it takes five years or five months.”

Part of the problem is that policy makers have failed to appreciate the architecture of the digital age. “It’s astonishing that as a country we’re not using better designed digital services,” said Baroness Lane-Fox.

“To start with we’ll be very focused on research programmes, and on academic processes, and in time we’ll interact with the government through the issues they’re grappling with,” said Prof Coyle. “At the moment, there are just five people at CIPP, but we’ll be starting to hire researchers after the launch. The target is to get six more and see how it goes from there.”

BIPP is based at the Department of Politics and International Studies on West Road.

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