Tag 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.

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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

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

Short-Link to this Post: http://wp.me/pFUij-82

Students’ Unions breed the future’s MPs

Hi all,

During the recent uncertainty about when the last government were going to call the General Election, and when the Students’ Union at my university were in the middle of the election for next years school presidents; one of my lecturers said something which worries me somewhat.

I didn’t write down what he said and as such will have to paraphrase, but basically the comment boiled down to “Student politics like the students’ union is just for people who want to be MPs in parliament”. At the time I semi-dismissed it because most of the people I know who have been involved in the union at any depth have had very little interest in that sphere of our world known as “politics” but the more I think of it the more I seem to see his point, though I don’t think it is quite as simple as “wanting to be MPs” though that is one of my guilty secrets…

OK so we have at least established that I conform to the lecturers stand-point – though I will never make it to Westminster because I don’t do the whole lying thing very well – SUSU (the union) has produced two MPs that I can think of at the moment out of over 90 union presidents over 87 years… who happen to be two of my local MPs when I am in Southampton; Alan Whitehead and John Denham… both Labour.

The problem that student politics has is that it is seen by the wider student community as “cliquey” and uninviting… despite the efforts to make as many of the meetings open to all as possible. This is reflected in the fact that if you happen to be involved in the union in some way you will almost inevitably know most of the other people involved in the union by sight if not by name. By way of illustration I live with someone who works on the student radio station, and work as a student representative who has to attend some union governance meetings. This means that I know by sight most of the student radio committee, the sabbatical, executive and administrative officers, and the heads of all the union departments (Athletic Union, Community Volunteering, Wessex Scene Newspaper etc.) and many of them by name. Compared with one year ago exactly, when I was “merely” a course representative and knew only the VP Education and Representation and the Schools Liaison Officer by name, let alone by sight.

The result of this situation is that if you don’t get involved in the union in the first year of your degree or via a long winded route through being a lowly rep, journalist, DJ or technician… you are unlikely to be in a position to get well and truely stuck in over the other 2 or 3 years. I have no suggestions as to how to better this situation at present, and will get back to you when I have some; but there’s a big problem here, and it needs fixing.

Sorry to have spammed you all with my Election Coverage and Political ramblings over the last month… I promise my next blog will be somewhat more Geological.

Ben Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-3x

Of Voting and Politics.

(or the background politics of the polling booth)

OK… here’s a little bit of audience participation to get us started…

  1. Put your hand up if you did NOT vote in the 2005 General Election.
  2. Put your hand down if that was because you were too young or were otherwise ineligible (not a UK citizen or EU/commonwealth  citizen with leave to remain etc).
  3. If your hand is still up, think about the last 5 years and keep your hand up if you have (at any point) complained about something the government has done.

Firstly well done to everyone with their hand down. Now to everyone with your hand up you should be ashamed; and here is why:

“If you do not vote in the election, you therefore relinquish your right to complain when the parliament does something you don’t agree with or don’t want.”

What… you  didn’t realise this? I find that hard to believe as I distinctly remember the UK Electoral Commission putting out a very prolific advertising campaign including the TV Advert you can view here. Believe me this is no ploy by the Electoral Commission to make you do something you don’t want to, afterall you don’t have to vote… unlike in Australia where voting is compulsory an it is enforced by small (AU$20 – 70) fines. (REF: Compulsory VotingElectoral Offences )

However let’s just think about this for a bit, lets say you vote for a party and that party has won the election – Whoop – that party is now directly accountable to you as a voter because you have contributed to its’ mandate (i.e. how many votes/seats more it got than the opposition) and when the next election comes around they will want to make sure you are as happy as possible with what they have done – and by corollary what they put in their manifesto in the last election.

What if you didn’t vote for them then? Well in this instance you have contributed to a narrowing of that mandate. If the mandate is narrower then the government of the day might be slightly more wary about how it goes about its’ policy changes, might call more referenda and debate their bills longer to get the best possible outcome. Similarly the opposition (the parties you voted for) will have more seats and can mount a more aggressive “check” on that government – once again they are directly accountable to you.

So final scenario: you don’t vote at all, or spoil your ballot paper (which is at least voting). In this instance you are in effect voting for the winner (whether you like that party or not).

You might think that by “automatically voting for the winner” it doesn’t matter if you don’t turn up to the polling station on May 6th… but you would be very wrong indeed. No vote means no control over the outcome, and also no contribution to whatever mandate the winning party has. This means that there is no accountability, and you lose your right to complain about what is or is not being done in your name as a British citizen.

I hope that you see what I’m getting at here. Now whilst we don’t have compulsory voting in the UK I personally think that given the voter turnout comparisons visible in the aforementioned compulsory voting document from the Australian Electoral Commission it would be a damn good idea! That said no-one in modern British Politics would dare agree to it, they would become too accountable!

In closing… I’m going to merely ask another question, are you going to let yourself throw away your vote, and in turn your right to complain about British Politics after all; we all have to have something to moan about?

Ben D Brooks

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-1E

Authors Note: If you haven’t yet registered to vote, it’s really simple to do by visiting www.aboutmyvote.co.uk, filling out a form to print then signing it and sending it to your local electoral registry office. The cut off is the 20th April.

**I had previously stated that “and university students can vote in both their home and university constituencies.” however I have been informed by a good friend that this is actually not legal… so thanks to Miriam and Oxford Electoral Services for correcting me on that**