Wenlong Li tells Behind the Scenes at BLS about the challenges of starting at BLS during COVID and the joy of connecting legal scholarship with other disciplines
Joining the BLS community is the most exciting thing for me in 2020, but it was not easy amid the COVID-19 crisis. In order to come to the campus, I worked restlessly on numerous required documents and procedures, and the pandemic made everything extremely difficult and costly. I would say the research project at BLS is probably the greatest motivator I had, apart from the company from my parents which was an unexpected bonus. The project, entitled ‘Digital Experimentation in the Public Sector’, engages a highly troubling phenomenon in the digital era, when public sector organisations seek to take advantage of the experimental technologies such as machine learning, as part of their broader ambitions framed as public sector innovation or the digital transformation of the public sector.
As I expected, the project immediately dragged me out of the legal zone with a clearly defined scope, and into a borderless interdisciplinary zone. Upon completion of my PhD thesis, I was already on my way towards interdisciplinarity. I thence found myself lucky to meet Professor Karen Yeung and Professor Andrew Howes, leading investigators of this project who are both open-minded and visionary.
The project has an important aspect that immediately speaks to what I have been researching for my PhD on data protection. The majority of other aspects, however, require me to stand out of my comfort zone, to become increasingly reflective and critical, and to always learn new things. Overall, it is an eye-opener forcing me to engage literature that I would otherwise never touch as a lawyer. But it is absolutely fulfilling, inspiring and entertaining when I get a sense how scientists, historians, and philosophers think and act. Having recognised the fantastic but ignored (mostly by me) work by people from other disciplines, it is exciting to return to my legal zone, reflecting on how we can eventually solve the problem identified through law, policy or other norms. I liked how the project has unfolded so far, particularly how it has transformed me from a pure data protection lawyer to an interdisciplinary researcher. It is also exciting to see how the project finds its way into the public debates while retaining its integrity, originality and rigour.
While the virus has forced us all ‘online’ for most of our time, I can still feel a strong sense of care, company and peer support. I feel them on the screen, through text exchange, and most importantly, by being closely engaged with the BLS community. That was another important reason for me to march over 5000 miles to join. The pandemic has indeed prevented us from having a good time on campus freely and fearlessly. But it will never, ever, hold us back from doing great things at BLS.