Tag Archives: policy

George Osborne’s misplaced sense of ‘security’ in higher education

students flying a flagSussex students flying flags as they occupy Bramber House last Feburary. This post was first published on New Left Project.

Of all the lines in George Osborne’s autumn statement speech this week, the idea that UK higher education is on a ‘secure footing’ ranked high on a scale of taking the bloody piss.

This was days after the second strike from higher education workers this term. It also followed revelations last month about BIS budget mismanagement. Further, the strike was accompanied by wave of student activism which has roots in the 2010 occupations and protests but, students graduating as they do, is in many ways a very new wave of activism; one that has been building steadily across the country since the start of the calendar year, when students at University of Sussex occupied a central building in against privatisation.

These protests escalated further on the day of Osborne’s autumn statement itself. Heavy police presence which has increasingly become a norm on campuses further grew to accusations of police assaulting protestors. As has become a familiar pattern the last few years, police have been called in to control students and this has only escalated tensions.

Update: and now the University of London is trying to ban protests. Further update: Looks like the so-called Sussex Five have had their suspensions lifted (though disciplinary action continues) and Andy McGettigan’s found a hole in Osborne’s figures.

Perhaps the most haunting image was a picture of a pool of students’ blood outside Euston Square, shared on Twitter that evening (and confirmed to me by eyewitnesses later).

Is this really what secure looks like? Tip-toeing over pools of students’ blood to get the tube home? That’s ‘secure’ now?

Securities can take many hues though. What is secure, how, where, why and serving whom? The particular security Osborne seems to mean is economic, not whether students are rioting. But that security is still dubious. Even putting aside the BIS budget issue last month, as Chris Cook argues, be wary of promises to fund anything based on selling off the student loan book, as it is worth more to the government than private investors. And policies aiming for such ‘economic security’ are linked to the students protests, anyway. These protesters have quite a complex set of complaints, encompassing a range of contemporary economic and social issues, drawn from within and outside higher education. They are looking at the working conditions of a range staff on campus as well as they ways in which various economic interests are controlling their curricula, their careers advice and the research which is conducted on campus.

A trope of much of the backlash against government HE policy has been the idea that students are being treated as customer and this reflects an insidious marketisation of education. Although I have some sympathy with this critique, I think it’s a lot worse than that. They’re not customers. They’re financial assets.

That’s what first forming, and then selling off the student loan book does. It makes the students – and their postgraduate paycheques – something to invest in. It engrains both formally and informally an idea that education is about fuelling a very particular view of the economy, as opposed to the multiple other things a university could be about (including a chance to question how we choose to pattern our economy, and who gets to control it).

Repeating the complaint that the government is turning students into customers only plays into those who know the idea alludes to a promise of greater student agency (forgetting the rather curtailed extent of any customer agency, or if it’s applicable to education, it implies power nonetheless). And none of this is about student agency, it’s entirely about student use. As a friend said to me recently in the different context of the disproportionate amount of landlords’ power: It’s farming people. I’d almost settle for my students as customers at this stage, the idea of them as simple meat for the economy is so much more sinister.

I fear we’ll see many more pools of blood on the streets around universities before we reach any idea of ‘security’. I only hope there isn’t much blood, and any sense of security we conclude with is lead by and serves students, rather than seeks to exploit and control them.

Talking about climate change

future it be now

Future it be now, Vancouver. 

My column for the December edition of Popular Science UK magazine is online (you have to subscribe to read January’s one, on animal testing).

The column first went live just before the Doha climate talks, and focuses on what I see as a lack of government support on communicating climate change. I remembered Mike Shanahan’s blogpost from the year before; asking his readers what their government tells them about climate change and pointing out that in 1992, 200 governments had signed up to keep their citizens informed on this issue. The answer to Shanahan’s question isn’t especially encouraging. As George Monbiot put it in his end of 2012 column, “our leaders treat climate change as a guilty secret”. They shouldn’t. What’s more, we shouldn’t let them.

Here’s an extract of the full piece, or go over to the Popular Science archive to read in full.

Freedom of information requests to the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change last July showed that its communications budget has been cut by nearly 95% since it had come into existence in 2008. Yet recent research showed some key gaps in the public interest and knowledge of climate change and a desire for more information. Moreover, as Shanahan asked, is our Government “just producing communications” about climate change (which might feel like alienating PR) or is it engaging its citizens in a conversation? And if not, why not?

All too often, public debate about climate change happens by accident or when someone works to engineer a news event: when there is a political scandal – be this “climategate” of climate scientists or “energygate” exposing politicians – or when activist engineer stunts like flashmobs at the British Museum or living up chimneys for a week. At a recent discussion on communicating uncertainty held at the University of Oxford, climate scientist Myles Allen made the interesting suggestion that the IPCC should stop publishing Assessment Reports, as they serve no useful public communications purpose (Adam Corner has a good report on this event).

Guardian journalist Fiona Harvey replied that she liked these reports because they gave a hook for looking back and discussing everything that had happened in climate science since the last one; “it’s like the Olympics for climate change”. She makes a good point. Except climate change isn’t a sport. Also, it’s not Harvey’s job to communicate climate science; she journalistically reports and investigate it (and sells papers). She should be free to do her job, but climate science doesn’t work to a news cycle, neither does environmental change or what we might change in ourselves to deal with it: climate communications shouldn’t be left to what’s in the news.

I’d like to see the scientific community take greater responsibility for the job of engaging with the public on climate change, and I think the governmental bodies that fund them should do more to support them in this. We invest in scientists to look at climate change in detail, armed with special equipment, knowledge and methods to see it happening – but we need to invest in sharing this knowledge, too. If governments don’t take a more proactive role in helping us see this and think about what we might do about climate change, it’s easy for it to get lost.

Science isn’t just about finding out new knowledge, it’s about sharing it and putting it to use, too. As American writer David Dobbs put it so neatly a few years ago; publishing a scientific paper is only half the job. One might argue it’s even less than half. Arguably, many are on this job already, but not enough and it’s hard work. It requires some attitudinal change in areas of science, as well a range of support – not just financial – from the range of governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies that surrounds them.

Communicating climate change is the government’s job. They signed up to it and should be taking more of a lead. Government communication on climate science doesn’t have to be top-down. It can be something we take part in. And it can be something we demand too.

Review: Maximum Republic

street art in london during the jubilee

Some of the monarchy-themed street art in London this sumer.

A couple of years back, the Royal Institution made their director redundant. There were various reasons why they did this, but part of me enjoyed the basic idea that they didn’t need a director. I wondered if other scientific institutions might follow. I mean, do universities really need vice chancellors? (and it’s an interesting convention that we call them vice chancellors, as officially they are deputy to a figurehead chancellor who’s role is generally entirely ceremonial). Do we need a President of the Royal Society? Or a Chief Scientific Advisor?

I remembered this rather idle musing on a possible more anarchic science while reading Dan Hind’s new ebook/ extended essay “Maximum Republic“. Here, Hind argues that the republican cause should stop picking a fight with the Queen and focus on other constitutional arrangements. Most Brits seem to quite like our current head of state. Moreover, the actual Queen is perhaps a distraction from those global oligarchies which rule so much of the economies we live within. In Hind’s words, “the hidden wiring that connects London to global capital flows and their enabling circuits of information and untruth” (pp.12). Instead, Hind offers “another, less familiar and more substancial republicanism” which denies a necessary anti-monarchism and is more concerned with “remaking the state as the shared possession and achievement of a sovereign public” (pp. 7-8, emphasis added).

Key to Hind’s central argument is that the British too often use the world republic in ways which obscure the more interesting and useful aspects of what a republic might look like. A republic exists when the state is the shared possession of a sovereign public. This is already understood by the ruling class, Hind argues; indeed, the very idea of shared possession of the state is what defines a ruling “class” (i.e. group, not just individual). “A coalition of the wealthy and the political astute has achieved this by accepting the need for paradox and cooperating as a secret, or radically unreported, public” (pp. 15). In a way, we’ve already toppled the monarchy, there are already co-operatives ruling the state. The question is who has access to this slightly more distributed power (and the answer is that it remains within a rather small, closed group).

To deal with this, Hind suggests, we need to learn more about the processes of governance to: “We do not fully own what we do not understand” (pp. 41). He understands that such processes of understanding aren’t simple. It might be “commonplace to say that education empowers, it is also true that power educates” (pp. 43); we need more public ownership of communication systems, a point that reminded me of old debates on the circulatory of ideology and education (e.g. Bourdieu and Passeron). In places, Hind’s arguements also reminded me of the idea of science and the “modest witness” (see Shapin and Schaffer and Donna Haraway); the 17th century construction of a connection between truth and openness whereby science must be demonstrable to witnessed, except only certain people may count as appropriate witnesses, a process of exclusion which is largely hidden.

Hind makes a few specific points about science, arguing that any truly republican system of communication would not just stop at journalism, education systems, etc, but must include the discussion and conduct of science too. His ideas will be familiar to many in science policy: “the state, the corporations and a handful of industrial and post-industrial foundation largely determine the direction of science” this determines much of the direction of society “although science reflects the preoccupations and assumptions of those who fund it, scientists themselves do not like to admit this elementary fact” (pp. 46). In some ways, it’s a matter of gaining control of the means of production, just applied to a knowledge economy, and kind of Foucaultian (in a power/ knowledge sort of way).

The Royal Institution had it’s own reasons for picking a fight with their particular queen when they made her redundant in 2010, but what was left in the wake was a very long way from a Royal Institution by the people, for the people. We might make a similar point about the increasing uptake of “open access” policies, which drop paywalls for access to science but doesn’t open it up in any meaningful way to allow the public any role in that science, maintaining their role simply as recipients of knowledge (a point I tried to make in the THE a few months back). As with his book The Return of the Public, Hind’s essay has a lot to say to those interested in the social relations and structures of science.

NERC’s great “de” risking strategy

Every time I walk past these posters outside BIS a bit of me dies.

On Sunday afternoon someone forwarded me a story from the Guardian saying top UK environmental scientists were being told to use their skills to help “de-risk” oil firms drilling in polar regions. I was a bit shocked. And sceptical. Reading a bit further, the drilling thing is a bit of a jump, but there is still a fair bit to be concerned about.

It’s the final bullet point in point 19, page four of this document (pdf) though it’s worth reading in the section (or whole document) in full, as well as extra reporting from the Guardian’s Terry Macalister, especially the claim that Duncan Wingham, (NERC’s chief executive) feels under pressure to ensure they’re providing value to the UK economy.

I was fuming, and had a bit of a rant on Comment Is Free. To summarise my three main objections: 1) They hope to “de” risk? Oh, please. 2) Stop with the creeping privatization already. 3) The spirit of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty is kinda lovely. We should extend, not erode, it.

The defensive claim that NERC scientists are pressured to demonstrate value for the UK economy especially irked me. It’s just plain unimaginative. There are a variety of ways science might support the economy, it does not necessarily mean supporting the oil industry. Moreover, there are a variety ways to show value, not just to the economy. Academics often complain about “the impact agenda” (there was the mock funeral for British science thing, and then the arts and humanities and the big society fuss), but working to ensure your research has impact is a lot more than listening to what the more powerful industries want of you. Or at least it should be. The idea that “demonstrating impact” is simply a matter of crawling up to oil, arms and car manufactures might be a myth some people would like propagate, but it doesn’t have to be the case (this is the official line, if you’re interested).

As I’ve argued before, I worry we’re sleepwalking into a position where more and more of the innovation process is captured by rather narrow interests of a few powerful industries. I wish academics would reach out to the public more, I suspect they’d find a more diverse set of ideas about their work.

Honestly, I think this story is a case of a single badly written document. But it’s worrying such naivety exists and people at NERC feel this way. As a friend wrote on Facebook: “No wonder our politicians don’t try to interfere with the research councils, they’re perfectly capable of interfering with themselves” (though I do wonder a bit about the pressure they are under here, I would like to know more).


Clarification: there’s a line in the first paragraph of that CiF post that’s incorrect. I say the document in question is NERC’s submission to a recent government consultation on merging research centres, when it’s their own consultation It was a last minute edit from something that was more accurate but confusing if you didn’t know the context. I should have replaced it with something better though, for which I apologise.

Oh, Canada. Oh, Rio.

Rio 1992, by Alice Bell aged 11. No idea why I still have this, somehow got filed with my swimming certificates.

I have a post on Comment is Free arguing this week’s protests by scientists in Canada are not just a local issue, but of global concern. Modern science is a global enterprise: people from all over the world have studied at the Experimental Lakes Area (currently threatened with closure). It’s also a global concern because the biggest tensions seem to surround environmental issues with global impact: the Experimental Lakes Area is where where the first evidence for acid rain came from. Plus, there are multinational industries and NGOs involved, and that’s without delving into any intersections with defence policy (cough, polar hawk purchases, cough). We can’t pretend Canadian science is simply a Canadian matter any more than we can divorce the natural world from political decisions.

I also wanted to stress a need for democratic engagement. These protestors held banners proclaiming “No science, no truth, no evidence, no democracy”. They did so partly because they worry corporate interests are clouding public debate, especially around energy policy (see, for example, Robin McKie on this back in February) and want to offer science as a way out of corrupted discourse. Still, it’s important scientists bring the public with them when they make proclamations like this; share their ideas and show how the public value science. Otherwise they’re just demanding people listen to them, and I’m not sure how democratic that is.

Thinking about that question of democracy made me reflect back on the Rio +20 summit last month. Reading the various requiems for these talks, the key message seems to be that our leaders have failed us but there is hope in public activism. Mary Robinson has some strong words on the topic. Even the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need look beyond governments. Part of me is really inspired by statements like that. Part of me’s still cynical.

I dug out Naomi Oreskes’ LA Times oped from January, where she argues the need for leadership on climate issues. I didn’t like it when I first read it. She seemed to give in to a top down approach to science in society which just doesn’t sit well with me. Re-reading it now I want to shout “ha, well look at your leaders now, ner-ner-ner-ner”. But I take her point sharing esoteric expertise isn’t that simple. It’s also hard (impossible?) to do public engagement at the scale of global population.

John Vidal cites the emergence of “eye catching bottom up initiatives” as some reasons to be cheerful after Rio+20. I’m really not sure his examples are the best ones. I think they are projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They look like rather downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame, more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. I felt echos of Steve Yearley’s argument (e.g. 2008) that the green movement enjoys the rhetoric of mass participation but only on their own terms. Maybe that’s ok, they are campaigns after all, but lets not kid ourselves into imaging we’ve found a new type of politics. Yet.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being grumpy.

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change – subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.