O'Really?

December 22, 2016

2016: Annus mirabilis, annus horribilis or annus stupidus?

27751194385_4890747f8eThe year 2016 will go down as an interesting one, but was it magnificent, horrible or stupid? Or perhaps all three

Annus mirabilis?¬†ūüá¨ūüáß

For some people, 2016 was a good year, an annus mirabilis. If you voted for Trump or are brexiteer who voted to leave the European Union, 2016 was a good year.

If you are a climate change denier, you probably enjoyed 2016 too. If you are a member of a far right or populist political party, you are sitting pretty. Marine Le Pen looks happy, as do Vladimir Putin and Nigel Farage.

Annus horribilis?¬†ūüá™ūüáļ

If none of the above applies to you then 2016 was a horrible year, an¬†annus horribilis. Liberal metropolitan elite?¬†Welcome to the post-truth politics¬†(previously known by the catchy name ‚Äúlies‚ÄĚ).¬†Who needs experts anymore?

Annus stupidus?¬†ūüáļūüáł

Whatever¬†camp you are in, it is hard not to agree with¬†Dan Jones¬†analysis that 2016 was an annus stupidus¬†[1] –¬†a¬†silly season that was¬†twelve whole months long. Where else would seeing a cartoon¬†of Boris Johnson¬†getting ‚Äúdiplomatic‚ÄĚ with Donald Trump been unremarkable¬†– (see picture top right)? Here’s hoping for some sanity to return in 2017. Have a happy and sane holiday, and a prosperous new year.

References

  1. Jones, Dan (2016) Trumpageddon is awful but America has seen far worse, London Evening Standard, November 11th.

July 1, 2016

Dear Europeans, do you know who your MEP is and what they do?

banksy-does-brexitAlong with 16 million other people on the 23rd June 2016 I voted to remain in the European Union (EU). I believe the benefits of EU membership exceed the costs. Free trade and free movement have been beneficial to me personally, many of those around me, as well as the wider UK economy [1]. I even married an EU migrant too, so I love Europe in more ways that one. Life outside the EU is very difficult to imagine, professionally, financially, culturally and personally.

So when I woke up to Brexit EuroDoom¬†last Friday, to find I was in a minority outnumbered by 17 million leavers who disagreed, I felt sick. After a gloomy week of miserable soul searching, I realised I didn’t have the foggiest notion who my Member of European Parliament (MEP) was or¬†how they got elected. Although not a student of (or¬†expert in)¬†politics or economics, I don’t believe I am apathetic or unaware. I follow the news,¬†vote in general elections¬†and write letters to my MP.¬†I try to understand what is going on in politics¬†and bend¬†my head around the dismal science of economics. But until this week, I had little or no idea how the European Parliament (EP), let alone the European Commission (EC) or lots of other acronyms starting with E, actually work in practice.

Now if you are also a participant in the failing (?) European project, do YOU know who your MEP is? Any idea what they actually do? The chances are you don’t because Euroignorance is widespread [2]. Fortunately, Professor Google can help us. In Manchester, the MEPs for the North West Region of the UK comprising Cumbria, Lancashire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire are:

Unfortunately, I’d¬†only heard of two of those MEPs beforehand, and neither of them because of¬†their activity during the EU referendum. Nuttall I’d heard of because the comedian Stewart Lee performed¬†a brilliant satirical piece¬†mocking Nuttall’s views¬†on¬†immigration¬†[3]. Woolfe I’d heard of because his campaign¬†leaflet¬†came through¬†my letterbox during the 2015¬†general election. How did they get elected as MEPs because¬†I can’t¬†remember seeing¬†their names on a ballot paper?

MEPs are elected using¬†the D’Hondt method¬†[4], a form of proportional representation (PR) used in the¬†European elections in 2014¬†and elsewhere. As of 2016, the three largest UK parties in the European Parliament are: UKIP (24 MEPs), Labour (20 MEPs) and The Conservatives (19 MEPs). Isn’t it remarkable¬†that so many of these MEPS¬†were neither seen or heard¬†during¬†the almost entirely fact-free¬ģ¬†debate [1] preceding¬†the UK EU referendum?

So what is the nature of an MEPs power? Back in 1998, a politician by the name of Tony Benn proposed five democratic questions to understand the powerful:

‚ÄúIf one meets a powerful person–Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler–one can ask five questions:

  1. what power do you have?
  2. where did you get it?
  3. in whose interests do you exercise it?
  4. to whom are you accountable?
  5. how can we get rid of you?‚ÄĚ

According to Benn, anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system. [5] Personally, I’d like to get rid of¬†UKIP from the European parliament. How can I do this? While I can’t vote for individuals, I can vote for political parties. However, turnout in european elections is often embarrassingly¬†low, in the UK¬†a pathetic 35.6% showed up¬†in 2014. Which means two thirds of UK voters¬†were¬†unaware or didn’t care who their MEP was, including me.¬†My bad. You could call this¬†democratic deficit, not one where people can’t vote but one where people are unaware¬†or¬†don’t bother.

Right now, it is really hard to see how any good can¬†come of what is unfolding in Great Britain and Europe. Brexit leaves the sector I work in, and many others, facing huge uncertainty¬†[6,7,8]. Let’s hope one thing will happen, a reformed EU where those in power¬†are¬†more engaged and accountable to¬†the people¬†they claim to¬†represent. Personally, I am not in a position to judge if the European Union has a democratic deficit or not [9,10]. Neither can I judge if the European Union¬†is as anti-democratic as some eurosceptics have suggested [11, 12,13]. But I do know¬†something has gone badly wrong with the EU¬†if many europeans have no idea¬†of who their parliamentary representatives are and how they can exercise their democratic rights to get rid of¬†them using¬†the ballot box.

If you are staying in the European Union you have a duty to find out who your MEP is and ask them the five democratic questions above. You better do it quickly before risking a Frexit, Czechout, Swexit, Departugal, Grexit, Bygium, Italeave or bidding Austria La Vista.

References

  1. Zanny Minton Beddoes (2016) The Brexit Briefs:¬†The 17 things you need to know before Britain’s #EUref‚ÄĒin one handy guide, The Economist
  2. Oana Lungescu (2001) EU Poll reveals huge ignorance, BBC News
  3. Stewart Lee (2014) Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Series 2: England
  4. Jeremy Vine (2009) D’Hondt Explainer, BBC News
  5. Anon (1998)  House of Commons Debates, Hansard, parliament.uk
  6. Anon (2016) Brexit vote sparks huge uncertainty for UK universities, Times Higher Education
  7. Alison Abbott, Daniel Cressey, Richard Van Noorden (2016) UK scientists in limbo after Brexit shock: Researchers organize to lobby for science as country prepares for life outside the EU Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 597-598, DOI:10.1038/534597a
  8. Anon (2016) Brexit vote highlights lack of leaving plan: Scientists ‚ÄĒ just like everybody else ‚ÄĒ have little idea what will happen now that the United Kingdom has voted to exit the European Union. Nature, Vol. 534, No. 7609., pp. 589-589, DOI:10.1038/534589a
  9. Andrew Moravcsik (2008) The Myth of Europe‚Äôs ‚ÄúDemocratic Deficit‚ÄĚ Intereconomics, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 316‚Äď340¬†DOI:10.1007/s10272-008-0266-7
  10. Michael Dougan (2016) The UK’s position following vote to leave the EU, University of Liverpool, School of Law and Social Justice
  11. Tony Benn (2013) Tony Benn speaks at the Oxford Union on Euroscepticism, The Oxford Union.
  12. Martin Durkin (2016) Brexit: The Movie (warning: contains Nigel Farage and dubious opinions europhiles will find offensive, factual content is highly questionable in places)
  13. Tony Benn (1975) Letter from Tony Benn to his constituents about the UK European referendum of 1975, The Spectator, Coffee House

* Disclaimer, like I’ve already said, my grasp¬†of politics and¬†economics is pretty basic. I have made every reasonable effort to get the facts right but¬†correct any mistakes I¬†might have¬†made below. These are personal views, which do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

May 8, 2015

MPs with Science Degrees: How did Science & Technology do in the UK General Election 2015?

In case you missed it, the people of the United Kingdom have just democratically elected 650 Members of Parliament (MPs) to run their government for the next five¬†years [1,2]. How¬†many of these newly elected MPs have science backgrounds? Like many, I was inspired by Mark Henderson’s book¬†The Geek Manifesto¬†[3] back in 2012 after reading an¬†article¬†which¬†argued that (quote) ‚Äúwith just one British MP having a scientific background, the people who run the country clearly need some expert advice‚ÄĚ. So when I heard the news that the¬†MP concerned,¬†Julian Huppert¬†(a.k.a. the ‚Äúonly scientist in the commons‚ÄĚ) had lost his Cambridge seat, I¬†lamented accordingly on twitter:

My lament was retweeted quite a bit, then Roger Highfield at the Science Museum in London challenged the interwebs to find if it really was true:

The sciencey MP factoid was quickly questioned by some random bloke on twitter called Richard Dawkins:

… and lots of people weighed in (see below) ¬†– as they usually do on twitter. Thankfully Margaret Harris at Physics World, set the record¬†straight and drew attention to the impressively large¬†Physics Vote. Viva La Relativity!

Who knew there were so many physicists involved in the election? Not me. Turns out, the article about only one science MP, is a bit misleading. Julian Huppert was the only MP in the last government to be a “primary science worker” – that’s not quite the same as studying science at university. Julian was the only MP in the last government with¬†scientific background at PhD level:

Members of the UK Parliament with science and technology degrees in 2015

So with help from twitter, the list of MPs with science degrees looks something like this (for a 2017 update see MPs to watch via the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE)):

  1. Heidi Allen MP for South Cambridgeshire (BSc in Astrophysics)
  2. Steve Baker MP for Wycombe (BSc Aerospace Engineering, MSc Computer Science)
  3. Gavin Barwell MP for Croydon Central (BA Natural Sciences)
  4. Margaret Beckett MP for Derby South (BSc Metallurgy)
  5. Karen Bradley MP for Staffordshire Moorlands (BSc Mathematics)
  6. Tom Brake MP for Carshalton and Wallington (BSc Physics)
  7. Julian Brazier MP for Canterbury (BA Mathematics)
  8. Andrew Bridgen MP for North West Leicestershire (BSc Genetics)
  9. Alan Brown MP for Kilmarnock (BSc Civil Engineering)
  10. Therese Coffey MP for Suffolk Coastal (BSc & PhD Chemistry)
  11. David Davis MP for Haltemprice & Howden (BSc Computer Science)
  12. Robert Flello MP for Stoke-on-Trent South (BSc Chemistry)
  13. Liam Fox MP for North Somerset (Bachelor of Medicine)
  14. Mark Hendrick MP for Central Lancashire (BSc Eletrical Engineering)
  15. Carol Monaghan MP for Glasgow North West (BSc Physics)
  16. Liz McInnes MP for Heywood & Middleton (BSc Biochemistry)
  17. Chi Onwurah MP for Newcastle Central (BEng Electrical Engineering)
  18. Chris Philp MP for  Croydon South (BSc Physics)
  19. Alok Sharma MP for Reading West (BSc Physics & Electronics)
  20. Alec Shelbrooke MP for Elmet & Rothwell (BEng Mechanical Engineering)
  21. Graham Stringer MP for Blackley (BSc Chemistry)
  22. Stephen Timms MP for East Ham (MA Mathematics)
  23. Philippa Whitford MP for Ayrshire Central (Bachelor of Medicine)
  24. Sarah Wollaston MP for Totnes (Bachelor of Medicine)
  25. Valerie Vaz MP for Walsall South (BSc Biochemistry)
  26. Nadhim Zahawi MP for Stratford-on-Avon (BSc Chemical Engineering)

So there are at least 26 MPs out of 650 total who have some kind of¬†STEM¬†educational backgrounds, and hopefully¬†several more.¬†Thankfully, much better than¬†none – but still not that high considering the¬†proportion of STEM in¬†the general population. This article MP’s Degrees: What do they know?¬†claims there are many more scientific MPs, but it depends what you mean by Science of course. Over at the Science Campaign,¬†they have counted¬†83 politicians with a background or ‚Äúinterest in‚ÄĚ science. Doesn’t everyone have an interest in Science & Technology at some level? If so, there are¬†650 out of 650 MPs (100%) with an interest in science and technology then? As for MPs who have an actual science education, your mileage may vary, especially if you think Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) are all sciences. Wannabe sciences? Yes. Actual Sciences?¬†No.

In an ideal world where politicians create policies based on evidence, rather than finding evidence to fit their policies, how many scientists and technologists do we actually need in our government? Would it actually help make for better policies?

[Update: Jo Johnson MP for Orpington (BA Modern History), is the newly appointed Minister for Universities and Science [4], a post formerly held by David Willetts. Apparently, Johnson¬†doesn’t know anything about Science. Does it matter?]

References

  1. Castelvecchi, D. (2015). Why the polls got the UK election wrong Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17511
  2. Gibney, E. (2015). What the UK election results mean for science Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17506
  3. Anon (2012). Books in brief: The Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters Nature, 485 (7397), 173-173 DOI: 10.1038/485173a
  4. Gibney, E., & Van Noorden, R. (2015). UK researchers fret about downgrading of science minister role Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature.2015.17535

Thanks everyone who weighed in on twitter:

June 18, 2012

An Open Letter to David Rutley MP on the Geek Manifesto

The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson

Mr David Rutley MP
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

Dear David,

The ‚ÄúGeek Manifesto‚ÄĚ and the importance of science in politics

Please find enclosed a copy of a new book by Mark Henderson, titled ‚ÄúThe Geek Manifesto: Why Science Matters‚ÄĚ. I¬†hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

According to the Financial Times:

‚ÄúThe Geek Manifesto is the most compelling, engaging and¬†entertaining account I‚Äôve read of the relationship between¬†science and politics.¬†‚ÄĚ —James Wilsdon

The book laments the undervalued role of science in politics on pressing issues such as the global economy, healthcare, education, justice and the environment. For many politicians, science is a tool to be exploited when it supports an existing policy position, and an inconvenience to be discarded when it does not. As Henderson puts it, the cynical quest for policy-based evidence has trumped the desperate need for evidence-based policy. This is not surprising since only 1 in 650 British MPs has a Science qualification and his name is Julian Huppert. Your conservative colleague Adam Afriyie is proposing compulsory science literacy lessons for MPs in order to tackle this serious problem, but there is still a long way to go before science becomes integral to political decision making.

As well as the serious issues the book raises, it is also very positive and inspiring. The state of¬†affairs it describes can not be blamed politicians alone. It is also the fault of¬†people who value science and¬†evidence based decision making – the ‚Äúgeeks‚ÄĚ. We geeks must engage in the¬†political process, not stand on the sidelines and moan – this is the geek manifesto.

This thinking led me to join a campaign for people to buy a copy of this book and send it to every MP in the UK set up by Dave Watts. The book you now have is a direct result of this campaign, which you and 649 other members of parliament now have a copy of. Despite the recession and challenging economic circumstances, over 300 ordinary voters like me have spent their own time and money in order to send you these books.

Please take the time to read your copy of the book. If politicians can learn from geeks, and geeks can learn from politicians, we will all get wiser and decision making can only improve. I would be especially interested to hear if and how this book has changed your decision making and will post any of your replies here on my blog.

Yours Sincerely

Dr. Duncan Hull

School of Computer Science
University of Manchester

P.S. A copy of this letter has been sent by post accompanied by a hardback copy of the Geek Manifesto. Another copy of this letter has been emailed to david.rutley.mp@parliament.uk. Some of the content of this post has been adapted from letters authored by Dave Watts and Chris Chambers.

Update, David Rutley sent a written reply (below) dated the 22nd June 2012, which didn’t reach me until the middle of July:


Dear Dr. Hull

Re: The Geek Manifesto

Thank you for your email of 18th June and letter enclosing a copy of the Geek Manifesto.

It was very thoughtful of you to think of me and I appreciate you sending me a copy of the book.

Like you, I believe it is important that science subjects are well represented in the House of Commons and society as a whole. It is important that young people are encouraged to study STEM subjects, so that the UK can compete on the international stage and our universities can continue to be world leaders in scientific research.

I will be sure to bear the views put forward in the Geek Manifesto in mind during my work in the House of Commons and in my conversations with Ministers.

Thank you once again for taking the time to send me a copy of the Geek Manifesto. I look forward to reading my copy.

With best wishes,

David Rutley MP

July 25, 2008

How to spend a ¬£400 million Science budget

A thought experiment with lots of money

The Queens Ahead by canonsnapperThe Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the United Kingdom’s funding agency for academic research and training in the non-clinical life sciences. It supports a total of around 1600 scientists and 2000 research students in universities and institutes in the UK. The head of our laboratory, Douglas Kell, has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the BBSRC [1]. Congratulations Doug, we wish you the very best in your new job. Now, according to bbsrc.ac.uk, their annual budget is a cool ¬£400 million (just short of $800 million or ‚ā¨500 million). This has left me wondering, how would you spend a ¬£400 million Science budget for the life sciences? For the purposes of this article, imagine it was you that had been put in charge of said budget, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown (texture like sun) had given you, yes YOU, a big bag of cash to distribute as you see fit. A mouth-watering prospect, I think you’ll agree. Here, is my personal opinion of how, in my dreams, I would spend the money. (more…)

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