Author: Joe Dharampal-Hornby

Evidence and safety must be central to the UK’s space strategy

Dr Jonathan Eastwood is a senior lecturer at Imperial’s Department of Physics.

Access to and use of Space is of increasing national significance, identified as a key technological, research and strategic priority for the UK. In part this is due to the growing dependence on space services and systems as an integral part of the national infrastructure for communication, finance, transport, navigation and more, affecting every aspect of our economy, wellbeing and security. Rapidly developing technology and private investment in space will add to this significance.

Earth in space

A strong evidence-based space policy and law is therefore crucial to navigating the fluid and dynamic challenges posed by these developments. The anticipated dramatic expansion of space activities and reliance on them in the next decade brings environmental and social impact, shining new light on the critical issue of space safety.

Alongside colleagues at Imperial’s Space Lab Network of Excellence and the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, we have published a report which outlines that although there is a large amount of research interest in the topic, space safety is receiving inadequate attention in national space policy.

The report examined:

  • The current state of UK Space Safety Policy
  • The capabilities and expertise of Imperial in Space Safety
  • The potential for Imperial to contribute to the evidence-based development of UK Space Safety Policy

We found that “although Space Safety is an area of growing international importance and fundamental to the UK’s aspirations in space generally, there is no dedicated reference to Space Safety in current UK Space Policy documents. However, the UK has been active in different degrees in the following five Space Safety subject areas: Terrestrial Environmental Impacts of Space Activities; Space Debris; Planetary Defence; Space Weather; and Space Traffic Management (STM).”

The examination of Imperial’s capabilities in these areas shows that Imperial has considerable technical capabilities to inform policy challenges in all five areas, in alignment with the college’s new Academic Strategy.

To deliver this policy impact, we believe that the Space Lab Network of Excellence is very well placed to coordinate and streamline efforts to bring together relevant departments and researchers, and the fruitful collaboration between ISPL and Space Lab provides excellent further opportunities for Imperial to achieve impact in the area of UK Space Safety Policy development.

It’s time to take on Big Tech over Online Harms

Dr Nejra Van Zalk is Head of the Design Psychology Lab at Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering.

The link between social media and online harms for young people has been much debated, and the current pandemic has underlined the particular threat of online harms for vulnerable users. In contribution to a report on the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I have provided evidence of the addictive features of social platforms being of concern regarding the spread of misinformation to children.

AlarminglyChild using phone, exploiting vulnerabilities in the human psyche is a common feature of the design process for many digital innovations. For example, addictive features such as harmful or factually inaccurate content is often added by design rather than accident so as to increase usage.

Information generated by clicks or smart device commands is now used as a proxy for understanding how an individual is feeling, thus making them the perfect target for advertising and misinformation, akin to emotional manipulation.

To make such innovation easier, tech companies have adopted a user experience research method called A/B testing, similar to Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT’s), as a way to deliver continuous interventions that change the experience of platforms and increase use time. Unlike RCT’s, however, these tests are conducted behind the scenes and without consent, and without the rigorous ethical considerations that form the cornerstone of research.

Despite these gloomy facts, there are positive developments. Recently, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) released their Age-Appropriate Design Code aimed at companies whose content is likely to be accessed by children and young people. It includes 15 standards aimed at increasing children’s online privacy, such as a ban on disclosing data to third parties, high privacy settings by default, and refraining from nudging techniques for increased usage.

Dr Nejra Van Zalk
Dr Nejra Van Zalk

Together with Ali Shah, ICO Head of Technology, I road-tested this code in my “Design Psychology” module at the Dyson School of Design Engineering. Third- and fourth-year design engineering students created browser add-ons that filtered out inappropriate material when accessed by children, as well as digital interventions focused on teaching digital privacy to parents and children built into phone apps. This exercise demonstrated that the oft-repeated maxim by tech companies that such regulations would inhibit growth or creativity does not hold true.

Policymakers must urgently address these issues, including:

  • Holding companies accountable to the code
  • An increased emphasis on industry to work closely with behavioural scientists
  • Treating technological applications as planned behavioural interventions.

Moving forward, I plan to conduct further road-tests of the new design code together with the ICO and my Master as well as undergraduate students. This exercise, besides for providing an investigation opportunity, helps to enforce in students the importance of considering children and young people in technological innovation. I am also conducting research in my lab on emotional privacy together with colleagues from Design Engineering, which will help further understanding about perceived privacy transgressions in people’s emotional lives.

Learning how to effectively engage with policy-makers as a researcher

Rebecca Clube is a PhD researcher, studying the circular economy and sustainable development at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy

The important and diverse research which goes on at Imperial needs to be communicated effectively beyond the academic community. Engaging and influencing policy is an essential part of making change. It is not always easy when academia and policy may have competing and differing aims, resources and, even, language. Organised by The Forum, the non-partisan think tank Institute for Government ran an intensive workshop to help Imperial researchers understand how to effectively engage their ideas and research agendas with policy-makers.

The online workshop began with a deep dive into the structures of the UK Government, highlighting the organisational complexities which need to be accounted for when engaging with the policy community. From discussions with presentations by the Institute for Government training team, it became obvious very early on that engaging with policy-makers is not a straightforward task. It involves persistence and dedication, as well as strategy in terms of targeting the most appropriate civil servants, politicians, select committees and influential non-profit organisations to listen to your findings.

ParliamentA particular challenge and essential skill for academics is to learn how to effectively communicate research to a non-academic audience. Academic researchers are famously well-versed in technical terms, jargon and recounting complex niches in their respective academic disciplines. Learning to communicate complex ideas and theories in an accessible and compelling manner to policy-makers is therefore invaluable. During the final stage of the workshop, we had the opportunity to practice succinctly pitching our research to our peers, taking care to utilise lay terms and persuasive language to highlight the value of our research. We then gained valuable feedback from Institute for Government experts, with tips on how to develop this skill further.

The workshop was highly insightful and well-organised. I would thoroughly recommend this training to other Imperial academics, as well as encouraging them to get involved in The Forum’s wider programme of events and workshops: engaging with policy is a key skill for any academic.

For more information about The Forum, including future events, training and more, please get in touch or sign up to our bulletin.


How to effectively engage with All-Party Parliamentary Groups

In this blog post, we will look at:

  • What All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are and do
  • How you can engage with APPGs
  • How The Forum can help


What are APPGs?

APPGs are informal groups which meet to discuss an issue of concern. They have no official status in Parliament, are cross-party and usually contain members from both the House of Commons and House of Lords.

APPGs focus on a very specific issue – either a country or a subject. As a result, MPs and Lords usually form or join groups whose focus they are very passionate about. This also allows charities, campaign groups and other non-governmental organisations to become more involved in the policy-making process. They often provide a secretariat to run the APPG’s administration.

Unlike House of Commons Select Committees, APPGs do not directly shadow the work of government departments. They will generally be considered effective when they influence debate and change government policy, which due to their informal nature, varies hugely. It can depend on how regularly they meet, who they engage with, the quality of any inquiries and reports they produce and whether their focus is of interest to the Government of the day.

As of January 2019, there were 692 APPGs. To give you an idea of the wide range of APPGs, listed below are just a few APPGs whose topic begins with the letter A:

Moreover, listed below are some APPGs, also just beginning with the letter A, that may be relevant to Imperial researchers:

How can you engage with APPGs?

Forum eventAPPGs are a useful way to engage with MPs, Lords and non-governmental organisations who share a passion for your specific subject area.

  • Inquiry submissions: APPGs can invite written submissions for inquiries, which provides an opportunity to present your evidence to policy-makers.
  • Policy briefing: Even if no inquiry is ongoing, you can still submit a briefing note. This summarises your research, the policy changes you recommend and why it’s relevant to these specific policy-makers.
  • Attend meetings: APPG meetings are free to attend but you may have to register in advance. Contact the secretariat to see if it may be useful for you to speak on your research findings.
  • Host visits: APPGs often organise visits to teach members about various issues. It may be worth inviting an APPG’s members to Imperial to see your research first hand. For example, the APPG on Vaccinations for All visited Imperial’s International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Human Immunology Laboratory (HIL) in July 2019.APPG on Vaccinations for All visited Imperial‘s International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Human Immunology Laboratory (HIL) in July 2019.

How can The Forum help?

As Imperial’s policy engagement programme, The Forum can help you engage APPGs in various ways.