Category Archives: Politics

The L’Aquila prosecutions; a dangerous precedent?

(This was originally written on 22/10/2012 for The Graduate Times’ Notebook Section, however as that publication appears to have been abandoned by its editorial teams, I’m posting it here.)

In a landmark legal case in Italy yesterday, six scientists and one politician were convicted and sentenced for manslaughter charges. Accused of failing to accurately assess and communicate the risks of the earthquake that struck the town of L’Aquila in the Apennines Mountains of Italy in April 2009. Each faces a six year jail term and collective damages amounting to nine million Euros (approaching 7.4 million pounds or 12 million US dollars).

The prosecution urged that the six scientists involved had been negligent in “having provided an approximate, generic and ineffective assessment of seismic activity risks as well as incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information”. Conversely, defence lawyers have variously called the prosecution “hasty”, “incomprehensible” and “difficult to understand”. It is understood that all seven defendants plan to appeal the decision, and according to Italian law, they have two opportunities to appeal before they will be compelled to enter the Italian penal system

For members of the legal profession, policy makers and scientists alike this raises the question of whether this case will set any precedents. If so, what affects will it have?

It is easy to imagine that this case and the judgement, if upheld, will result in scientists being less communicative, not more, regarding risk from natural disasters. After all, there would be no risk of prosecution if you give no assessment, however after yesterday’s ruling you can now be prosecuted for giving an unbiased, professional opinion, even when dealing with inherently unpredictable systems such as seismology.

Groups have already campaigned against this trial, most prominently the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which wrote an open letter to the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano supporting the defendants which was signed by 5000 scientists. Actions like this and the push for a public interest defence in English Libel laws suggest that some degree of protection could be won for scientists working to inform policy makers in areas such as risk management.

What the result of yesterday’s decision will be remains to be seen, but whatever they may be, it marks a paradigm shift in the legal status of science and scientists around the world.

“A Volcano… in Somerset”

One thing I hate about some science articles in magazines and newspapers is where a whole article is expanded to a huge length in order to basically say “No”. The problem of course being that questions like “Was Darwin Wrong?” are the ones that get the readers in, not statements like “Darwin proven right, again”. This all being said I’m about to do exactly this myself, for which I apologise in advance.

So you may be wondering what the deuce the title of this article is referring to, well in short it’s all about this newspaper story from This Is Somerset: ‘We could be sitting on a Mendip volcano’ says Somerset expert.

The article is almost a year old, but it’s so bad I can’t let it get away with itself.

So according to the gentleman quoted in the article, he believes that if oil and gas companies are to be allowed to begin Fracking operations in the Mendip hills, it may re-activate an extinct volcano whose vent is situated at Moon’s Hill Quarry, near Stoke St Michael. I’m not going to attack the man for being wrong, he’s a non-specialist policy maker trying to protect his community from a harmful industry. I’m not going to attack the journalist for sensationalism because to use a tired metaphor – “sex sells”. Though we know not who the journalist is – quite telling in my opinion – the article has no actual person attached to it so we may never know.

What I will attack is the fact that our mystery journalist has thrown caution to the wind and not actually asked an expert – a geologist, volcanologist, or even the good folks at the Somerset Earth Science Centre (actually AT Moon’s Hill) – for clarification of whether or not there is a risk at all.

Now I’m no volcanologist, I’m a newly minted geologist far more interested in fossils and sediments than the very-hot-gooey-stuff that comes out of the ground; yet I can still explain why this article is nothing more than silly scaremongering. The volcanic plug at Moon’s Hill is very, very old, and a quick search online will bring you to websites explaining the geology of the place, at least one of which even gives you the geological setting for the now extinct volcano – it was a subduction zone volcano. This is a vital piece of information and one completely missing from the article in question.

Why is it vital I hear you whisper ever so quietly? Because there is no subducting margin anywhere near the Mendip hills any more… the nearest being in the Mediterranean sea. So I ask you… where is this huge accumulation of molten rock supposed to come from? It certainly hasn’t been hanging around unfed and unheated since the Silurian period some 425 million years ago, it would have cooled and hardened into a very, very solid rock by now.

Added to which, the rocks of this region have been shifted monumentally since the plug was emplaced. By what mechanism could such a huge quantity of molten rock so close to the surface as to be disturbed by Fracking; be kept from exploding or seeping out during the folding and faulting that produced the Mendips in the first place? If there is one, I haven’t come across it yet.

And finally, you might be thinking to yourself that the hot spring at Bath is mentioned in the article, if there’s no magma down there, how does it get heated up? An excellent question but one with a clean cut answer. Anywhere you dig on the planet, as you get deeper the ground gets warmer, by a whole 25 degrees centigrade per kilometre (77 degrees Farenheit) – even without a huge mass of molten magma near the surface. As the waters at Bath are a mere 46 degrees centigrade, that’s not a long distance the water would have to sink through the earth’s crust to attain that temperature and then rise back to the surface.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a science writing master class in London, and one of the biggest things that was stressed was that in science writing you have to produce something that will grab the interest of the reader, and also be right. Sadly while this article does the former, it is manifestly wrong, and all the more so for not asking the right questions of anyone who could have answered them.

Ben Brooks
06/10/2012

On popularity politics and the Students’ Union

Ben Brooks at Hustings

Speaking at hustings on Friday afternoon.

I entered into the recent SUSU Sabbatical elections with a clear vision of how I would like to run my election campaign. It was really simple and very different from how I know the other candidates would be running their campaigns, I would run a low-key campaign driven by my policies and experience, without gimmick or palming people off with soundbites.

As the last couple of weeks have progressed it has become steadily clear to me that I could not win the election with the resources at my disposal, so I have today withdrawn my nomination to the position of VP Academic Affairs.

Firstly and fore mostly I have to extend my deep and sincere thanks to the small group of supporters I have who showed both enthusiasm for my candidacy and who kindly gave up their free time to help me. To you I have to apologise in no uncertain terms for wasting your time and support, I realise my decision will be frustrating to you as there will now be no end-game to your work and I hope you will understand the decision I took when I have set out my reasons for withdrawal.

My supporters have been a great help over the last week, providing logistical and emotional support which I greatly value. However as I and they are final year undergraduate masters student’s they all have Masters projects which require their attention more than the SUSU elections, and with almost the entire campaign team currently undertaking a short-course module with lectures running from 9-5 every day they have been unable to campaign on my behalf. Further more I would not ask any person to jeopardise their education on behalf of helping me apply for a job – that is after all what the SUSU elections are about.

This unfortunate and unavoidable state of affairs means that I have been attempting to campaign on my lonesome, which has proven to be both an isolating and nerve-wracking experience. As I said earlier I am a policy and ideas driven candidate who has to rely on both these and my experience to make my case. I do not find popularity driven politics to result in the best results with respect to the winning candidates. That is of course my opinion and it is probably informed by no small measure by being a shy and reserved individual.

I do not wish to make any political statements in this post, but the other major reason for my withdrawal needs some political explanation. This reason for withdrawing my candidacy is that I feel that the current front-runner in this election race as far as I see it is Sasha Watson. Whilst I think he has some fantastic plans and ideas, I would be happier knowing that someone with a wider experience of the representation system at SUSU is taking it forward to next year. For this reason I am withdrawing to allow those who would have voted for me to reconsider Jonathon Davies for their votes, he is in my estimation the best qualified of all the candidates that are running for VP Academic Affairs this year now that I have withdrawn my nomination.

I would like to extend my deepest gratitude also to the various SUSU media departments for keeping their elections coverage balanced and fair, and for providing all the candidates with ample opportunities to put across our manifesto ideas to the student population. If I had my time at Southampton again, I would certainly have wanted to get more involved with the SUSU media department.

To the other three candidates running in the race I have now left, I would like to thank them all for being amicable opponents and I am glad to have been able to get to know them better over the last week or so and hope that we can remain friends no matter what the end result of this race. I would also like to thank them for keeping to the spirit of the elections and running honest, fair campaigns.

At the end of the day I’ll be happy to discuss the things in my manifesto with whoever wins, as every candidate brought great, new ideas to the table, and they should all be considered for taking forward to next year. This election is about getting the best for the students at southampton university, and it would be both ungracious and small minded of me not to be prepared to discuss my ideas with the winning candidate.

To those students who were considering voting for me now that elections are open, I’m sorry for forcing you to think again, and whilst it is not my place to inform your decision, I would say that the best thing you can do for the students’ union is to read through the manifestos of the remaining candidates with care before making your decision.

One final note, voting closes at 4pm on thursday 3rd March, Make certain to vote before then.

Benjamin David Brooks

28/02/2011 @ 16:30

Will the Yellow Bird soar again?

or “Why the Tuition Fees “U-turn” may just be the canniest move of this parliament”

Tuition Fees March

Image by Antony Bennison via Flickr

This last few weeks have seen what can be best described as uproar from the student community, not least from the labour leaning and very much “out-of-touch” National Union of Students because of the proposed changes to higher education funding which will apparantly force the cost of a degree on to students and away from the government purse (conveniently ignoring the fact that student finance england – the loan provider – is a government subsidised organisation).

Now far be it from me to say whether or not the plans are good ones, I can and have given my opinion before (Which for the record is a pro-fees-rise stance). Even if I was anti-fees, I wouldn’t be witch hunting every single Liberal Democrat who signed the NUS’ very silly pledge because as said very eloquently by Richieparf there is a lot that students should be thankful for and that things would be a lot worse had it been a Conservative majority government.

So why so I think the “yellow bird” will soar again? quite simple really; historically the SDP/Liberal/Liberal Democrat parties have got most of their votes from students and academics; the academics are rational people and will understand the point made by Richieparf with little difficulty and thus are in my opinion of little concern to the party. The students on the other hand are likely to react come the next general election with characteristic irrationality, will see any promise made by the Liberal Democrats as untrustworthy and also likely ignoring the thankfully fictional worst-case scenario of a conservative only 2010-2015 government. The current students at university (or at least those who feel understandably betrayed) are an unfortunate casualty for the Liberal Democrats, but I think in light of my next point; one that can be afforded and accomodated if not won back entire.

Liberal Democrat Logo

Liberal Democrat Logo | Image via Wikimedia

The point is that historically the Liberal Democrats have never been seen to govern, and thus never seen as a serious contender for government. The fees U-turn is likely to change that perception, among other things such as forestalling Trident, the AV referendum, allowing part-time students to access funding and many other negotiated middle way policies/reigning in of the Conservatives that they have achieved. All of this will make the average floating voter see the party as both serious and sensible, willing and able – an invaluable perception for any party wishing to gain the keys to Number 10.

One final note being that for some reason a large number of students have been “sharing” the video below as though it displays some amount of humour and corruptness on Nick Clegg’s part. Those people are wrong. It is only “funny” because it has been taken out of context and takes no account of the political realities of the 2010 General Election.

(Edit: if the video doesn’t load, it can be found here)

Ben Brooks

Short Link for this Post: http://wp.me/pFUij-8N

of politics and speciesism

 

How can enlightenment about one subject change the way you think and give you a whole new perspective about something completely different?

The answer: with adept subtlety

Category:Westminster constituencies in the Rep...

Image via Wikipedia

Since the UK general election I’ve been feeling a little disenchanted with my current political position, in the main I suspect because it was the closest fought general election I have ever seen. The first one I really had any knowlege of was the infamous 1997 Labour landslide victory and every election since had seen the slow but steady loss of majority that kept us under the Blair-Brown regime until this May.

The closeness of this election made a lot of people re-evaluate their positions, I would hope that many people gave the generational ping-pong a wide berth and made them really think about why they were putting their X in that box, and not the next one; but I doubt it. When I came to vote I voted pragmatically and for the purposes of my career, not my idealogical leanings, but I took a close look at the three main party manifestos and realised something very interesting; I don’t actually have majority agreement with any parties, even idealogically.

How does this have anything to do with the “completely different” perspective I already mentioned?

This is to do with my reaction to this realisation, I did very little about it other than not renew my party membership, I voted pragmatically and thought little more about it.

Original Cover of The Blind Watchmaker

Original Cover of The Blind Watchmaker - image via Wikimedia Foundation, USA

That is until I recently read “The Blind Watchmaker” yet another book by Richard Dawkins (say what you like about his outspoken irreligious tendencies, he’s a damn fine science writer) in which he talks about human conceit and speciesism. Speciesism is the view that animals, plants and so on have different (or do not deserve any) rights and priviliges equivalent to human rights. Dawkins’ fires his thoughts on this concept with the accuracy of a sniper and the power of a small logical cruise missile, and it runs as follows:

“Such is the breathtaking speciesism of our Christian-inspired attitudes, the abortion of a single human zygote (most of them are destined to be spontaneously aborted anyway) can arouse more moral solicitude and righteous indignation than the vivisection of any number of intelligent adult chimpanzees! […] The only reason we can be comfortable with such a double standard is that the intermediates between humans and chimps are all dead”

Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that I will stop eating meat because I agree with Dr Dawkins, because I enjoy meat. It would be infinitely preferable if that meat came from an animal that lived well and died swiftly though, rather than suffered in a factory farm or otherwise.

So what’s the link? Well to my mind the speciesist argument correlates to politics rather well in so far as from birth we are conditioned (either knowingly or unknowingly) by parents, relations, friends and the media we are exposed to to fall into one of the political groupings of the previous generation. We are encouraged to ignore, debase and laugh at the views of the other groups on the grounds that they think differently – they don’t belong –  in a similar way to the general idea that “animals are animals, we are humans” seems to prevail, even in such an animal loving country as Britain.

This got me thinking. In light of my realisation about not having an overwhelming common ground with any political party, I’m going independent, to hell with political groupings and the devils they entail. Taking the pragmatic view of deciding where to put my cross on each policy at every election may be a tad more hard work than “I always vote Tory” but I’ll be leaving each polling booth with a damn sight more dignity and a clearer conscience as a result of it.

It does raise an interesting question in my mind though… Why do we only get a say on our political destiny every 5 years? Why don’t we have a more “Swiss” system with many referenda on more of the issues? I think that would be infinitely preferable to hoping that the political class are somehow psychic.

Ben Brooks

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Science Is Vital: a Letter to my MP

Further to my blog-post “Vince Cable: Respectfully, You’re Wrong.” wherein I made my case for science and had a bit of a rant I’ve written to Caroline Nokes; my local MP, through the website http://www.writetothem.com which makes the whole process much faster, simpler and easier than I thought possible. Anywho I realise that some of you who read this will disagree, but as a science student looking to go into a research career, I see it as my duty to fight as though my back is against the wall for my future career.

I am posting my letter below, and will post a response – should I receive one – in the interest of open and responsible Government.

The Letter:

Dear Caroline Nokes,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, I realise you are a
very busy person and have far more pressing matters to attend to than
reading constituent letters.

I am writing to request that you add your name to the Early Day Motion,
EDM 767 SCIENCE IS VITAL CAMPAIGN which has been tabled by your
colleague Julian Huppert. See:

http://edmi.parliament.uk/edmi/EDMDetails.aspx?EDMID=41727&SESSION=905

As a student at the University of Southampton wishing to undertake a
PhD upon my graduation next year I have a vested interest in the
maintenance of or increase in science funding. I also feel strongly
that the apparent view of both the Treasury and the Department for
Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) of science funding as an
“expense” rather than an “investment” is both shortsighted and will put
this country on the back foot when it comes to future – more prosperous
– times.

Like any informed citizen of these isles I am as shocked and
disappointed as everyone else in Britain at the enormous structural
deficit we find ourselves in as a nation but I implore you to review
the proposed cuts to the Science investment budget.

The UK has one of the smallest percentage investment budgets of all of
the G10 countries and yet we account for;

“eight per cent of scientific journal articles, and 14 per cent of
high-impact citations (a measure of how influential the research
is)…the UK spends 0.55 per cent of GDP on research and development,
compared to Germany’s 0.71 per cent, France’s 0.81 per cent and the
USA’s 0.77 per cent.”

Daily Telegraph, 21 Sep, 2010.

For a nation that has has such an illustrious history and ongoing
reputation in all of the sciences it would be very shortsighted to
jeopardise its proper and respected place amongst the scientific elite.

I would also like to point to the evidence that demonstrates a very
strong correlation between increases in science funding and an increase
in GDP and that the inverse is also true. May I draw your attention to
the following section of the parliamentary report of the Science and
Technology Committee from earlier this year as an illustration of this
point;

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/335/33505.htm

Thank you once again for taking the time to read this letter and I look
forward to meeting you at a future surgery and at campaigning events
for the conservative and unionist party.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin David Brooks

I hope to receive a response in the next couple of days, be assured that as soon as I do I shall post it here also. I should also acknowledge James Thomas from the Science Is Vital Facebook Group for providing the basic letter from which I adapted this one.

I received a response from Caroline Nokes within two hours and this alone was very impressive as I’ve had a mixed experience of contacting my elected representatives in the past, I’ve posted Caroline’s response below with the understanding that should she wish for me to remove it I will do at her request.

Caroline Nokes’ Response

Dear Benjamin

Thank you for your email of today’s date – actually I am not sure that I do have anything more important to do than respond to constituents’ concerns and issues which they raise with me!

I attended a fascinating event yesterday, the launch of the new LOFAR telescope which is located in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency.  It is the only one in the UK, and a really important project for the whole of Europe.  It would not be possible without the backing and investment of 50 universities (I think – although that number may be wrong) and the support of the scientific community, many of whom were present yesterday.  Please be assured they used that opportunity to lobby me very hard.

I have been generally impressed with the arguments put forward that whilst investment in science may not reap rewards this year, or even next, neglecting the sector will be disastrous for the UK Plc long term.  We have to recognise that this is not a manufacturing country which can compete with India or China, but we have the potential to reinforce our position as one of the strongest knowledge based economies.

With regard to the EDM, to be frank I am far from convinced as to their benefit, and I have heard colleagues refer to them as “parliamentary graffiti”.  But please do not consider my lack of signature as in any way expressing a lack of support for the issues raised.

Best wishes

Caroline

Caroline Nokes MP

I was heartened by this response and am somewhat pleased that the Science Is Vital campaign may have at least one more ally in parliament, but decided to (politely) push the EDM issue, my reply is posted below.

My Reply

Dear Mrs. Nokes,

Thank you for your rapid and candid response, I have had a mixed experience of correspondence with MP’s in the past and am heartened by your reply. I hope you will not mind my posting it on my blog at http://www.benjamindbrooks.wordpress.com but will take it down if you so wish.

I am as you may understand happy to read of your support for the broader scientific community in the UK and of their need for support and investment through these tough economic times. Whilst I am in no place as a student to comment on the UK manufacturing base I am of a similar, if less informed opinion on that issue.

As to the Early Day Motion, I understand and share your scepticism of them as a means of furthering the democratic process. I would however impress upon you to add your signature to it if for no other reasons than to help assuage the scientific community who are feeling very isolated at the present time; and to raise the issue’s profile in the parliamentary chamber.

Once again thank you for your rapid and candid response and I hope you are enjoying your first term in office.

Yours Sincerely

Benjamin David Brooks

I’ve since had a response to this email, the upshot being that I now have an assurance that she will look again at the Early Day Motion. I must say this has restored my faith in elected representatives to some extent.

Ben Brooks

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Vince Cable: Respectfully, You’re Wrong.

OK, it’s time for another of my poorly researched, overreactive rants on a subject I know only a smattering about… as such forgive me if I turn out to be wrong, which I hope I am (though i’m not holding out much hope).  

VinceCable

Vince Cable, Image via Wikipedia

 

 Today the church bells of the scientific world are ringing loudly, it’s a call to arms for anyone in or wanting to be in scientific research in the UK, and here’s the reason why: – Vince Cable has passed his sentence; and Science is to Hang on the scaffold, with the UK sailing away from all it’s colonies in the “Empire of Knowledge” – perhaps never to return. 

So this morning Vince Cable – the Business Secretary – made his first major speech on science and scientific research, which has been dreaded for days by those in the scientific community as anyone who follows many science advocates on Twitter may already know. What message did he have for the scientific community? a ring-fence for science funding? real terms increases? no… what it boils down to is that if the government won’t see a return on its’ investment, then there’s no money for you. 

Now, I certainly don’t think that all research is useful research, indeed today’s “science of the attractive male dance moves” has no conceivable purpose in my opinion, and those scientists would no doubt say the same of palaeontology, but to kill off research areas because there’s no “immediate financial return” is about as sensible as cutting off your nose to spite your friend’s face, let alone your own. Electricity was discovered long before there was a purpose for it to use an obvious example. 

Vince Cable says in his speech that the government is in favour of this sort of “blue-skies-research” – this is undoubtedly a good sign – but it is immediately thrown to the four winds when he said that whoever divvies up the cake (the money) should be “identifying and building up the areas where the UK truly is a world leader”, and preferentially funding areas where there are “broad problems” such as gerontology (aging populations). So while he thinks blue-skies is a good idea, I would infer from these two quotes that he’s willing to see it fall by the wayside in favour of things which will be “better” research or more pressing right now. 

OK, fine, but who choses? according to the Haldane principle, it shouldn’t be the Government, but without precise guidelines from them how are the research councils going to know what whitehall would consider to be good or useful research? It’s a case of Catch-22;

We [the government] can’t tell you how to spend the money, but you can’t spend it (“correctly”) without us telling you how to spend it, but we cannot tell you. 

 

So the Haldane principle forbids the government from telling them who to give research money to, and the research councils will have to get guidance from the government somehow, so to regress to the obvious question – who tells them? I’ll leave that question open, because I don’t know the answer. 

What happens if we [whoever divvies up the cake] picks the wrong research to bin? many so called “winners” have been shown after a bit of research to be “losers” for one reason or another, this is ok, science falsifies bad ideas – that’s half the point. The real problem is where so called “losers” get cancelled or not funded for the sake of this new economy, and they are actually “winners” – but because we didn’t fund them we never know – or worse – they get funded elsewhere (US/Germany/Canada/China…etcetera) and not only do those countries then benefit from our loss, but our talent goes after the funding and we have another “Brain-Drain” on our hands. 

Elsewhere in his speech, Vince Cable talks about screening out Mediocrity in the scientific community – a noble idea this may be, but I would have one question for Mr Cable; has he heard of the Peer Review process? I assume he has, and I would hope he knows something about it, in which case why doesn’t he let it do the job it’s been doing well for as long as it has been around? 

There isn’t such a thing as “Mediocre research”, where it exists it is shown to be that by peer review and isn’t funded again, and where it is perceived to exist it is usually merely a cloak and dagger way of saying “Research I don’t understand/see any profit in”. 

At the end of the day as a blogger there isn’t a great deal I can do to stop this, and there are far better, far more qualified people out there doing what they can including Dr. Evan Harris (1/2), Lord Drayson, Prof. Brian Cox and many others. I hope that the scientific community puts down it’s mantle of being separate from the rest of the world for just long enough to secure it’s future. 

I want to be a Scientist, I want to do Research, and I would like to stay here to do it, but the way things are going, I’ll be moving abroad, just like I said yesterday about tuition fees, it’s going to be a three option choice:

  1. research what the government wants you to,
  2. get screwed,
  3. or go research abroad.

 

However unlike tuition fees, I’m going to be graduating into it, not out of it. So whoever isn’t fighting this that should be, get off your academically complacent arses and start shouting… and make sure you SHOUT LOUDLY. 

Ben Brooks   

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