Archive for the Politics Category

Thirty Years since Section 28..

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , on May 24, 2018 by telescoper

I was reminded by twitter that today is the 30th anniversary of the enactment of the Local Government Act 1988, which included the now notorious Section 28, which contained the following:

I remember very well the numerous demonstrations and other protests I went on as part of the campaign against the clause that became Section 28. Indeed, these were the first large political demonstrations in which I ever took part. But that repugnant and obviously discriminatory piece of legislation passed into law anyway. Students and younger colleagues of mine born after 1988 probably don’t have any idea how much pain and anger the introduction of this piece of legislation caused at the time, but at least it also had the effect of galvanising  many groups and individuals into action. The fightback eventually succeeded; Section 28 was repealed in 2003. I know 30 years is a long time, but it’s still amazing to me that attitudes have changed so much that now we have same-sex marriage. I would never have predicted that if someone had asked me thirty years ago!

I think there’s an important lesson in the story of Section 28, which is that rights won can easily be lost again. There are plenty of people who would not hesitate to bring back similar laws if they thought they could get away with them.  That’s why it is important for LGBT+ people not only to stand up for their rights, but to campaign for a more open, inclusive and discrimination-free environment for everyone.

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Funding Basic Research in Ireland

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on May 15, 2018 by telescoper

I received an email the other day about a scheme run by Science Foundation Ireland. Among other things, the Technology Innovation Development Award is intended (among other things)

… enables researchers to demonstrate the technical feasibility of an applied research project directed toward the development of a new or innovative technology, product, process or service that has potential for further commercial development.

The thrust of this scheme is pretty typical of funding calls in Ireland, and it spurred me to go on a mini-rant.

It’s quite clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is largely because of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2.  publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3.  Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognised national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place.  On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

As the Irish economy grows, I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research and being more pro-active about reaping the Brexit dividend. Perhaps now that I live here I can play some sort of a role in campaigning for that?

EXPLANATORY NOTE: By `Brexit dividen’, I mean the real dividend, i.e. that which will be experienced by EU countries after Britain gives up all the collaborations, trading opportunities and inward investment that it currently enjoys by virtue of its EU membership.

In the meantime I thought I’d fire an opening salvo by re-iterating a line of thought I had some time ago in the hope that it will provoke a bit of debate.

A while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, I wrote  about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.

A similar thing was said in in the Times Higher, in a piece about the (then) new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general.

In other words, it’s for the public good.  Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, and if you do please feel free to tell me so via the comments box.

 

Memories of Humph

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , on April 25, 2018 by telescoper

Humphrey Lyttelton, who died on 25th April 2008

Today is a rather sad anniversary: it’s ten years to the day since the death of Humphrey Lyttelton. I posted a tribute to him here and have posted quite a few other items about Humph and his band (under this tag), including one that included this picture of my Dad (who died in 2007 and who was a lifelong fan of Humph) playing the drums with him in a pub in Newcastle:

I was reminded about Humph by the ongoing saga of this the UK Government’s scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation, who came to Britain from the West Indies in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Their arrival coincided with the rise of Humph’s career as a musician and bandleader; he started recording a long series of 78s for the Parlophone labour in late 1949. In the mid-50s Humph formed what he called his Paseo Jazz Band with a group of London-based Caribbean musicians and they made some lovely records, complete with infectious calypso rhythms. In his first volume of autobiography, I Play As I Please Humph wrote very frankly about the racism faced by these black musicians, even from Jazz fans. It is indeed hard to see how anyone can be a jazz fan and have such attitudes, but some people seem to manage it. Humph was one of those who welcomed this generation of immigrants with open arms, and in his book he argued strongly against racial prejudice. If he’d been alive today he would have had no time for the xenophobic attitudes espoused by the current Government that have created such a hostile environment in the UK for anyone deemed to be foreign.

Anyway, some time ago I came across this film from 1950 showing Humph’s band in full swing (playing King Oliver’s Snake Rag, a tune guaranteed to fill the dance floor) at a downstairs club on Oxford Street in London. Jazz was very much for dancing to in those days, and the opportunity to let the hair down and burn some leather on the floor must have been a welcome distraction from post-war austerity. As the voice-over says, the drinks on sale in the club were non-alcoholic, but I’m told a van used to turn up and sell beer surreptitiously outside…

Rest in peace, Humph. We still miss you.

On the Eighth Amendment Referendum

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , on April 6, 2018 by telescoper

When I was walking to lunch yesterday I saw that there was some sort of demonstration on the road (the R148) that divides the North and South Campuses at Maynooth University:

It was all a bit confusing as it seemed to be a protest and a counter-protest all in the same place. It turned out after asking a few people that the original demonstration was by a group calling itself the Irish Centre for Bioethical Reform (ICBR), which is  a fringe anti-abortion group that specialises in putting up gory images to make their point. They have been pulling a series of stunts in the area ahead of the forthcoming Referendum on the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, which will take place on 25th May 2018.

The Eighth Amendment introduced Article 40.3.3 into the constitution. This was subsequently amended twice (following referendums) and now reads:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state.

This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.

The counter-demonstration (which seemed to involve more people) deployed the simple device of standing in front of the the ICBR demonstration so their lurid images were hard to see. This is why I couldn’t quite see what was going on as I walked past.

Anyway, for the record, I’ll state that I support the campaign to repeal the Eight Amendment, which effectively prohibits abortion in Ireland. I realise that abortion is an emotive ethical issue for many people, but it strikes me as a new arrival in Ireland that the fundamental thing is that Eight Amendment is basically a muddle, and that it really does not belong in the Constitution anyway. In my opinion it is regrettable that it was ever passed (which it was, after another referendum campaign, in 1983). If the repeal side wins the referendum then the existing Eight Amendment (which is Article 40.3.3) will be replaced with

Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.

(Incidentally, that would be the 36th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland. It is in the drafting and amending of any such provisions that emerge when the ethical issues should be debated. The matter for the referendum is (or should be) simpler than this: it’s just about whether the existing Article should be scrapped.

Incidentally, a number of people have asked me if UK citizens resident in Ireland can vote in this referendum, as Irish citizens resident in the UK could in the Brexit referendum in 2016. The answer to that question is `no’: British citizens in Ireland can vote in local elections, elections to the Dáil, and European Elections (although presumably that will change if the UK leaves the European Union); they cannot vote in any referendum or in the election of the President (which will take place later this year). Irish citizens can vote in every election and referendum.

Peter Tatchell: Equality is not Enough

Posted in Cardiff, History, LGBT, Politics with tags , on March 23, 2018 by telescoper

On the evening of Monday 12th February, during LGBT History Month, I went to a lecture by Peter Tatchell which was held in the Sir Martin Evans lecture theatre at Cardiff University. I was going to do a post about it but never found the time. Here’s a snap of the title slide I took at the time:

Today I noticed that a video of the lecture had been posted on Cardiff University’s youtube channel which reminded me to say something about it. I admire and respect Peter Tatchell’s integrity and determination, and the way he has stood up against homophobia for more than 50 years is inspirational. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I found myself agreeing with most of the content of this lecture, the main idea of which was that it is not enough for LGBT people to seek equality within a system that is so manifestly discriminatory against whole sectors of the population. The aim of of LGBT campaigners should be to transform society, not to be accommodate within it.

Anyway, here’s his lecture. Form your own opinions!

USS Pension Proposal: Poll

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I saw the news on Twitter that negotiators on behalf of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and the employers’ organisation Universities UK (UUK) under the auspices of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) agreed a proposal to end the strike over pensions that has been going on since the end of February.

The text of the agreement can be found here (PDF). This proposal will have to be discussed and ratified formally, but the negotiators hope this can be do today and that the strike will be suspended from tomorrow.

The proposal suggests a transitional period of three years from April 2019 during which a much reduced Defined Benefit scheme will operate, but it still affirms the much disputed November 2017 valuation of the scheme which means that it is overwhelmingly likely that after three years the dispute will be back on.

I shall be leaving the USS scheme in July 2018 as I’m moving full-time to Ireland where I will be joining a Defined Benefit scheme so the changes outlined in the document will not affect me. Moreover, though I have supported the strike I am not a member of UCU. If I were I would not be in favour of accepting this deal because it seems to me that it amounts to an abject surrender on all the main issues. But given my personal situation I don’t think my opinion should carry much weight. The few friends I have discussed this with feel the same as I do, but I’m interested to know what the general opinion is. If you feel like filling in the poll below please feel free to do so. I’ve divided the responses between UCU members and non-UCU members to see if there’s a difference.

On one matter however I am less equivocal. The document calls on staff to `prioritise the rescheduling of teaching’ (lost during the strike). I have a one-word response to that: NO. Not only will it be logistically impossible to reschedule so many teaching sessions, but I am also not going to do extra teaching for free when my pay is being deducted for days on strike.

As usual, I invite your comments through the box below.

UPDATE: Here is a Google Document showing how UCU branches are responding to the proposal: at the time of posting, it is solidly `reject’..

UPDATE: Following on from the above, the UCU has now formally rejected the proposal. The strikes continue.

An Image For Our Times

Posted in Art, Politics with tags , , on March 10, 2018 by telescoper

Picture Credit: Mark Harrison

I couldn’t resist posting this brilliant photograph (by Mark Harrison) of Jacob Rees-Mogg. I’ll refrain from commenting on the subject, but I think the picture is a work of art!

Anyone like to suggest a caption?