Archive for Politics

Could the SNP block a Labour Budget? No.

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on April 26, 2015 by telescoper

telescoper:

Interesting post about the constitutional limits on the ability of the SNP to influence UK budget setting.

Originally posted on Colin Talbot:

The SNP are claiming they can ‘block Labour budgets’, ‘end austerity’ and ‘stop Trident’. Their problem however is simple – most of what they say is based on assuming that Westminster works the same way as Holyrood does for budgeting – and it doesn’t. There are huge ‘constitutional’ and practical obstacles to implementing the sort of radical challenges to Government tax and spend decisions that the SNP and others seem to be mooting. The first set of problems is that in the Westminster parliament only the Government can propose taxation or spending measures. These can be defeated, or amended, but only by cutting spending or lowering or removing taxes – not by increasing either.

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Science Is Vital, So Don’t Let It Be Strangled.

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on March 15, 2015 by telescoper

The General Election looming on the horizon could prove to be a watershed for scientific research in the United Kingdom. In the period immediately following the 2010 Election there was a great deal of nervousness about the possibility of huge cuts to spending on research. One of the most effective campaigns to persuade the new government against slashing funding for science on the grounds that scientific research was likely to be the principal fuel for any economic recovery was led by Science is Vital. I have written a few posts about this organisation.

The scientific community breathed a collective sigh of relief in autumn 2010 when the UK Government announced that research funding would be “ring-fenced” and maintained in cash terms for the duration of the Parliament. Things could have been far worse, as they have been in other parts of the public sector, but over the years the effect of inflation has been that this “flat cash” settlement involves a slow strangulation as opposed to a quick fall of the axe.

A recent piece in the Guardian includes this picture, which speaks for itself:

Science_spendingThe United Kingdom now spends less than 0.5% of its GDP on research, and this fraction is falling rapidly. We are now ranked last in the G8 by this criterion, way behind the USA and Germany. Why are we in this country so unbelievably miserly abou funding research? Other countries seem to recognize its important, so why can’t our politicians see it? We should be increasing our investment in science, not letting it wither away like this.

It seems to me that much more of this squeeze and we’ll be needing to close down major facilities and start withdrawing from important international collaborations. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is particularly vulnerable, as such a large fraction of its budget is committed to long-term projects. It’s already trimmed funding for other activities to the bone, with research grants under particularly intense pressure. Will the ongoing Nurse Review of the Research Councils spell doom for STFC, as many of my colleagues think? Will be research funding  be transferred rom universities into research institutes?

Anyway, it seems an appropriate time to advertise the latest campaign from Science is Vital, which involves writing to candidates (including incumbent MPs) in your constituency to Tell Them That Science Is Vital. You might consider including some of the following, or others suggested by the website. If you’re a scientist, describe why your research is important. Here are some suggestions. If there is a local research institute in your constituency, explain how important it is to your local economy (how many people it employs, for example). If you’re a patient, or someone who cares for a patient, say how important you think research into that disease. Ask your candidate or MP to endorse the Science is Vital campaign to increase public funding of science to 0.8% of GDP. And if you do write, remember that the economic argument for investing research isn’t the only one…

Je Suis Charlatan

Posted in Politics with tags , , on January 21, 2015 by telescoper

This week’s Private Eye cover is spot-on about the hypocrisy of certain political leaders whose professed support free speech in France differs markedly from what goes on in their own country…

charlatan

Je Suis Charlie

Posted in Charlie Hebdo, Paris with tags on January 8, 2015 by telescoper

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Wind versus Nuclear: The real story in pictures

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 5, 2014 by telescoper

telescoper:

Here’s an interesting, balanced analysis of the statistics of wind power versus nuclear power in the UK over the past couple of months. There’s obviously room for more growth in renewable energy generation, but I still think we’ll need to increase nuclear capacity to provide a counter to the intermittent variability of wind power if we are to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, which still produce most of the UK’s energy…

Originally posted on Protons for Breakfast Blog:

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power. Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power. (Click Graph to enlarge)

For a few days in October 2014,  wind energy consistently generated more electricity in the UK than nuclear power. Wow!

You may have become aware of this through several news outlets. The event was reported on the BBC, but curiously the Daily Mail seems not to have noticed .

Alternatively, you may like me, have been watching live on Gridwatch – a web site that finally makes the data on electricity generation easily accessible.

I was curious about the context of this achievement and so I downloaded the historically archived data on electricity generation derived from coal, gas, nuclear and wind generation in the UK for the last three years. (Download Page)

And graphing the…

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The Athenian Option Revisited

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on September 19, 2014 by telescoper

I have to admit that I didn’t stay up to watch the results come in from the referendum on Scottish independence, primarily because I knew I had a very busy morning ahead of me and needed an early night. Not eligible to vote myself I did toy with the option of having a bet on the outcome, but the odds on the “no” outcome I thought more likely were 9-1 on so hardly worth a flutter at all. The opinion polls may have had difficulty getting this one right, but I generally trust the bookies’ assessment.

Anyway, to summarize the outcome:

  • “No” obtained a mark of 55%, which corresponds to a solid II.2 with no need for resits.
  • “Yes” obtained a mark of 45%, which is a Third Class result, but may claim extenuating circumstances or request another attempt.

Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been doing too many examination boards these days…

On balance, I’m glad that Scotland voted “no” but I don’t think it would have been that much of a big deal in the long run had they decided otherwise. There might have been some short-term difficulties but we’d all have survived. In the end what matters is that this whole exercise was run democratically and the issue was settled by voting rather than fighting, which is what would have happened in the not-too-distant past.

The aftermath of the vote against Scottish secession has been dominated by talk of greater devolution of powers not only to Scotland but also to Wales and even the English regions. One striking thing about the referendum was the high turnout (by British standards) of around 85 per cent that contrasts strongly with the dismal rate of participation in, e.g.. the recent European elections. In the light of all this I thought I’d resurrect an idea I’ve blogged about before.

Some time ago I read a very interesting an provocative little book called The Athenian Option, which offers a radical vision of how to renew Britain’s democracy.

The context within which this book was written was the need to reform Britain’s unelected second chamber, the House of Lords. The authors of the book, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty, were proposing a way to do this even before Tony Blair’s New Labour party came to power in 1997, promising to reform  the House of Lords in its manifesto. Despite being well into it’s third Parliament, New Labour hasn’t done much about it yet, and has even failed to offer any real proposals. Although it has removed voting rights from the hereditary peers, the result of this is that the House of Lords is still stuffed full of people appointed by the government.

The need for reform is now greater than ever. In reason times, we have seen dramatically increasing disillusionment with the political establishment, which has handed  out billions of pounds of tax payers’ money to the profligate banking sector causing a ballooning public debt, followed by savage cuts in public spending with consequent reductions in jobs and services.

Meanwhile, starting under New Labour, the culture of cronyism led to the creation of a myriad pointless quangos doing their best to strangle the entire country with red tape. Although Gordon Brown stated in 2004 that he was going to reduce  bureaucracy, the number of civil servants in the UK grew by about 12% (from 465,7000 to 522,930) between 2004 and 2009. If the amount of bureaucracy within the British university system is anything to go by, the burden of the constant processes of evaluation, assessment and justification is out of all proportion to what useful stuff actually gets done. This started in the Thatcher era with  Conservative governments who viewed the public services as a kind of enemy within, to be suspected, regulated and subdued. However, there’s no denying that it has got worse in recent years.

There is an even more sinister side to all this, in the steady erosion of civil liberties through increased clandestine surveillance, detention without trial and the rest of the paraphernalia of paranoid government. Big Brother isn’t as far off as we’d all like to think.

The furore over MP’s expenses led to further disgust with the behaviour of our elected representatives, many of whom seem to be more interested in lining their own pockets than in carrying out their duties as our elected representatives.

The fact is that the political establishment has become so remote from its original goal of serving the people that it is now regarded with near-total contempt by a large fraction of the population. Politics now primarily serves itself and, of course, big business. It needs to be forced to become more accountable to ordinary people. This is why I think the suggestion of radical reform along the lines suggested by Barnett and Carty is not only interesting, but something like it is absolutely essential if we are to survive as a democracy.

What they propose is to abolish the House of Lords as the Second Chamber, and replace it with a kind of jury selected by lottery from the population in much the same way that juries are selected for the crown courts except that they would be much larger, of order a thousand people or so.  This is called the Athenian Option because in ancient Athens all citizens could vote (although I should add that in ancient Athens there were about 5000 citizens and about 100,000 slaves, and women couldn’t vote even if they weren’t slaves, so the name isn’t at all that appropriate).

Selection of representatives from the electoral roll would be quite straightforward to achieve.  Service should be mandatory, but the composition of the Second Chamber could be refreshed sufficiently frequently that participation should not be too onerous for any individual. It may even be possible for the jury not to have to attend a physical `house’ anyway. They could vote by telephone or internet, although safeguards would be needed to prevent fraud or coercion. It would indeed probably be better if each member of the panel voted independently and in secret anyway.

The central body of government would continue to be a representative Parliament similar to the current House of Commons. The role of the jury would be  limited to voting on legislation sent to it by the House of Commons, which would continue to be elected by a General Election as it is at present. Laws passed by the Commons could not become law unless approved by the juries.

Turnout at British general elections has been falling steadily over the past two decades. Apathy has increased  because the parliamentary machine has become detached from its roots. If nothing is done to bring it back under popular control, extremist parties like the British National Party will thrive and the threat to our democracy will grow further.

The creation of regional assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has not been as successful as it might have been because it has resulted not in more democracy, but in more politicians. The Welsh Assembly, for example, has little real power, but has fancy offices and big salaries for its members and we have it as well as Westminster and the local Councils.

We also have a European Parliament, again with very little real power but with its own stock of overpaid and self-important politicians elected by the tiny fraction of the electorate that bothers to vote.

My solution to this mess would be to disband the regional assemblies and create regional juries in their place. No legislation would be enacted in Wales unless passed by the Welsh jury, likewise elsewhere.

To be consistent, the replacement House of Lords should be an English jury, although perhaps there could be regional structures within England too. We would therefore have one representative house, The House of Commons, and regional juries for Wales, Scotland, England (possibly more than one) and Northern Ireland. This would create a much more symmetrical structure for the governance of the United Kingdom, putting an end to such idiocies as the West Lothian Question.

Of course many details would need to be worked out, but it seems to me that this proposal makes a lot of sense. It retains the political party system in the House of Commons where legislation would be debated and amended before being sent to the popular juries. The new system would, however, be vastly cheaper than our current system. It would be much fairer and more democratic. It would make the system of government more accountable, and it would give citizens a greater sense of participation in and responsibility for the United Kingdom’s political culture. Politics is too important to be left to politicians.

On the other hand, in order to set it up we would need entire sections of the current political structure to vote themselves out of existence. Since they’re doing very nicely out of the current arrangements, I think change is unlikely to be forthcoming through the usual channels. Turkeys won’t vote for Christmas.

Anyone care for a revolution?

 

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?

 

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