O'Really?

July 1, 2016

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

eu-flagAlong 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® 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:

“If 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?”

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—in 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 — just like everybody else — 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’s “Democratic Deficit” Intereconomics, Volume 43, Issue 6, pp 316–340 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.

August 7, 2013

A sweet taste of beekeeping with @Grow4ItChorlton in Chorlton-cum-Honey

busy bee

Mosaic of a busy mancunian bee in Manchester Town Hall

Down in deepest, darkest Chorlton-cum-Hardy [1] the good people of Grow for it Chorlton have been running a series of taster sessions on beekeeping (a.k.a. apiculture). Here are some notes from one of these sessions held last weekend and some info on where to find out more if you’re interested.

Bee Science

With the ongoing mystery about the decline of bee populations [2,3] and controversial pesticide bans [4], there’s been a surge of interest in bees and beekeeping. If you’re thinking about starting a hive, here’s some things you’ll need to consider:

  • Beekeeping can be very rewarding. Remind yourself how fascinating the biology of bees is: dronesworkers, queens and swarms – you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
  • It’s a real buzz breaking the propolis seal on a hive full of ~60,000 bees and having a look inside, you can’t beat hands-on experience – handling bees was the highlight of the taster session.
  • Apiculture  takes lots of time, in peak season you’ll need to be inspecting hives at least once a week for any potential problems, such as the emergence of new queen cells or pests & diseases like Nosema and Varroa mites.
  • Beekeeping can be a substantial financial commitment too, depending on how resourceful you are. There’s a lot of kit you need, see thorne.co.ukbees-online.co.uk or beekeeping.co.uk for some examples of what you can buy and how much it costs.
  • One of the biggest threats to bees is irresponsible bee-keepers! If bees aren’t looked after hygienically, diseases can be spread to the  larger population. You don’t need a license (yet) to keep bees, but it’s a good idea to register hive(s) with DEFRA’s BeeBase (not to be confused with BeeBase.org) [5].

For such a tiny insect with even smaller brain, bees are surprisingly good at maths and computation. For example, bees use sophisticated vectors [6] to tell members of the hive where the food is during their famous waggle dance. Also, honeycomb is hexagonal because this is the shape that makes optimal use of beeswax – covering the maximum area using a minimum of material.

If you’re interested getting your hands on some bees in South Manchester, contact Loucas Athienites, Nancy Green or Erica Gardner at Nam-Bee-Pam-Bee Beekeepers, Chorlton based at Grow for It, Chorlton – their next (most excellent!) beekeeping session is due to run in late August 2013. Manchester & District Beekeepers Assocation (MDBKA), part of the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), run a longer two-day course at Heaton Park (and elsewhere) which is essential if you going to take things further. [7]

References

  1. Yes, as you might expect, Chorlton-cum-Hardy suffers from the Scunthorpe problem
  2. Bill Turnbull et al (2013) What’s Killing Our Bees? A BBC Horizon Special featuring Rothamsted and BBSRC
  3. Charlotte Stoddart (2012). The buzz about pesticides: Common pesticides affect bumblebee foraging Nature DOI:10.1038/nature.2012.11626
  4. Daniel Cressey (2013). Europe debates risk to bees: Proposed pesticide ban gathers scientific support as some experts call for more field studies Nature DOI: 10.1038/496408a
  5. Munoz-Torres MC, Reese JT, Childers CP, Bennett AK, Sundaram JP, Childs KL, Anzola JM, Milshina N, & Elsik CG (2011). Hymenoptera Genome Database: integrated community resources for insect species of the order Hymenoptera. Nucleic Acids Research, 39 (Database issue) PMID: 21071397
  6. Rossel S, & Wehner R (1982). The bee’s map of the e-vector pattern in the sky. PNAS, 79 (14), 4451-5 PMID: 16593211
  7. Ted Hooper (2010) Guide to Bees & Honey (updated): The World’s Best Selling Guide to Beekeeping Northern Bee Books, ISBN:1904846513

July 27, 2012

Olympic Science: The Long Jump to Conclusions

Snohomish Long Jumper by Philo Nordlund

Long jumper for Snohomish. Creative Commons licensed picture by by Philo Nordlund on Flickr

If Science were an Olympic sport, which events would scientists excel at?

During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I wondered what Olympic activities scientists would be good at, with a list of events. This satirical post was kindly re-published [1] by the learned American Physical Society (thanks guys!) in their newsletter, though some of the proposed events look a little dated now.

Doesn’t time fly? Here we are four years later and London 2012 is already upon us. The Boris Johnson Olympic Stadium is finally complete. Oscar winner Danny Boyle has the eagerly anticipated opening ceremony all planned out. Sculptor Anish Kapoor’s spectacular Orbit Olympic observation tower looks out over the Olympic Park. Teams of athletes from all over the world have gathered in the capital to see how years of training will pay off.

Meanwhile Team Science [2] also play their part in supporting the Olympics, through sports science, drug testing and other services. Some are sparring for their bouts of impact factor boxing but may need a soothing ego massage afterwards to recover from the particularly painful peer-reviewed punches. Others are limbering up for the long jump to conclusions an event at which some scientists (and many policitians) are strong medal contenders. There are lots of other events proposed for the future too, some of them quite controversial [3,4,5], they might need genetically enhanced security guards, with superhuman abilities (sponsored by G4S)?

Readers of this blog will probably have much better ideas than the rather ropey suggestions I cobbled together. If that’s you, please post them below in the comments section or tweet them with the hashtag #OlympicScience.

Scientists and athletes have much in common, many are naturally obsessed [6] with their eyes firmly fixed on the prize and will often bend the rules to win Gold [7]. So wherever you are, whichever prizes you admire, enjoy the superb sporting spectacle that is the London 2012 Summer Olympics.

References

  1. Yours Truly (2008). If Science Were an Olympic Sport Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science, American Physical Society (APS) Physics
  2. Daniel Cressey & Ewen Callaway (2012). Science at the Olympics: Team Science, Nature, 487 (7407) 292. DOI: 10.1038/487290a
  3. Helen Thompson (2012). Performance enhancement: Superhuman athletes, Nature, 487 (7407) 289. DOI: 10.1038/487287a
  4. Timothy Noakes & Michael Spedding (2012). Olympics: Run for your life, Nature, 487 (7407) 296. DOI: 10.1038/487295a
  5. Juan Enriquez & Steve Gullans (2012). Olympics: Genetically enhanced Olympics are coming, Nature, 487 (7407) 297. DOI: 10.1038/487297a
  6. Mariano Loza-Coll (2012). Piled too high, Nature, 486 (7403) 431. DOI: 10.1038/nj7403-431a
  7. Michael Brooks (2011). Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science ISBN:1846684056

Update: The real games started on a scientific and technical note with help from Tim Berners-Lee

#OlympicScience didn’t really take off, but #Nerdlympics (Olympics for Nerds) did much better – a selection below. 

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