Why Government Needs The Web Science Institute

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The Institute for Web Science is one of the first projects to be scrapped by the new government, but this could be a big mistake, says Sophie Curtis

This week the new coalition government cut funding for the Institute for Web Science, as part of plans to reduce the country’s deficit by £6.2 billion during the current financial year. But in the rush to take swift and decisive action on the budget, the government could be losing out on meaningful long-term cost savings.

Gordon Brown earmarked around £30 million for the web science institute in March, claiming that it would help to make the UK a leader in digital services and content. The Institute was to be jointly based at the Universities of Oxford and Southampton, and headed up by web pioneer Sir Tim Berners Lee and web science expert Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

“British innovation brought the web to the world. This Institute will ensure the UK remains at the forefront and that we anticipate and fully exploit the economic and social benefits of future developments,” said Lord Mandelson at the time.

Along with Becta – the government agency promoting the use of technology in education – the Institute for Web Science is one of the first quangos to be axed in the coalition government’s cull of what it deems to be “wasteful” projects set up by the Labour party. But could the government be shooting itself in the foot?

Tech innovation brings savings

From video conferencing to virtualisation and cloud computing, progressive IT solutions help businesses across the country reduce wasteful spending, as well as cutting carbon emissions and saving energy. If, as it claims, the government wants to reduce the deficit and restore economic growth, as well as making the coalition the “greenest government ever”, it should do all it can to improve the use of IT.

In December 2009, Gordon Brown claimed that the migration of key government services online, combined with other “efficiency savings”, could help the government to save £12 billion. “Our aim over the next five years is to shift the great majority of our large transactional services to become exclusively online and this has the potential in the first step to save £400 million but as transaction after transaction goes online, billions more will be saved,” he said.

While the role of the Institute for Web Science remained fairly vague in the early stages of planning – with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) claiming it would “bridge the gap between research and business” and “commercialise web technologies” – a logical use for it would have been to help government bring about these innovations and savings.

A tech-friendly government?

To its credit, BIS said in a statement yesterday that research councils are investing £117 million in a Digital Economy Programme to help drive related research, and over £30 million in semantic web projects. Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt were also gracious in defeat, saying they understood that “immediate decisions had to be made” to cut the government deficit, and that “the future remains bright” for the web science project.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee“It is clear from the new government’s Big Society declaration, the Coalition Partnership and speeches such as David Cameron’s to TED before the election that open government data is a high priority,” they said in a joint statement. “Our understanding is that the data.gov.uk portal will in fact grow significantly in the months to come.”

Following the launch of the Conservative Party’s tech manifesto in March, Tory MP Francis Maude said “Our proposals will make the UK the most technology-friendly government in the world, introducing a right to government data, extending superfast broadband and creating a much more level playing field for SMEs.”

The coalition has also shown its commitment to providing superfast broadband, with its proposal to top-slice the BBC licence fee in order to fund the building of a nation-wide broadband network. The plans move the UK closer to the idea of Internet access becoming a fundamental human right, as it is already in Estonia, France, Finland and Greece.

Fantasy world economics

However, while many of these projects are worthy, former Digital Britain minister Stephen Timms branded them “hopeless”, and the Liberal Democrats have previously accused the Tories of operating fantasy world economics. One of the main problems with dealing with government or public sector IT projects, as Gartner analyst John Kost has pointed out, is that governance is often poor.

“Sometimes IT people are not getting enough guidance and are left to make their own decisions,” said Kost. “We need to educate, so that there are enough proactive decision makers. Remember, government people can be very smart, but they often lack IT understanding.”

In axing the Institute for Web Science, the government may remove a useful source of advice and cut itself off from the potential “economic and social benefits” of web innovation; it is distancing itself from web science experts who could provide the education and governance the country so sorely needs, and it is also reversing previous efforts to make Britain a digital leader.

Far from being a “wasteful” project, the institute could have been a source of economic growth, but in cutting it and promising to double the delivery plans for savings in IT, the new “technology-friendly government” is starting to look not-so-friendly.

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