Dr Mhairi Aitken, a research fellow at the centre for population health sciences at the University of Edinburgh, is not your typical festival performer. She is speaking as part of a programme of Fringe shows that recruits academics to debate previously “off-limits” subjects in an accessible style.
The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas was first held in 2013 and has gradually expanded since. This year’s line-up includes shows arguing why we should bring back child labour and asking whether we should colonise space.
Dr Aitken was buoyed by success of her previous Cabaret shows to produce this year’s performance on how much data is too much data to share when it comes to our health.
The academic will challenge her audience on why they willingly give up some data to commercial interest - but then baulk at allowing that data to be shared between the public and private spheres in a way that could potentially benefit millions.
She told The Scotsman: “The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas puts out a call for university researchers in Edinburgh to suggest shows - preferably those that are provocative or controversial.
“It’s a fun thing to do. A lot of presentations on academic research try to avoid being controversial and want to water down the riskier elements.”
The show is split down the middle to ensure a thorough debate, with half an hour of Dr Aitken’s presentation, and another half hour of discussion.
She added: “The audience can often go in tangents, its unpredictable, there’s always new insights in that second segment, it makes things much more fun.
Comedian Susan Morrison, is the resident compere for the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, and is a key part of the second act of the Doctor Google show, keeping the debate moving and injecting levity.
Dr Aitken says Morrison’s contribution is partly there to ensure that the show meets her stated aim of being both fun and interesting.
She said: “I’m there to be the expert and provoke ideas and debate, but Susan is there to be entertaining.
“I’ll do my best to be interesting. I have done comedy shows in the past.”
The show takes on the dichotomy that research in the public and private sectors are carried out separately, and asks whether the data from the NHS could be linked with the research taken on by Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google for the public good.
Dr Aitken said: “The possibilities of what we could uncover if we look at patterns (especially around consumption habits and lifestyle choices) from private sector research and raw data from the NHS and similar bodies are huge and could be beneficial.
“But there a lot of questions around what is ethical to and who we (the public) trust to handle our data responsibly.
“There is more and more private sector involvement in research, from funding to their own data, and we possibly need to re-evaluate who we trust.”
Dr Aitken believes that these are legitimate concerns but remains a proponent of collaboration.
She said: “The primary motive has to be generating public benefit, and if profit comes along with that, that’s ok, but if it is all about profit at the expense of the public good, that’s unacceptable.”
Doctor Google Will See You Now takes place on August 6 at the New Town Theatre at 8.20pm