Charitable giving in times of uncertainty and distrust

This article was written by Dr Bruna Seu from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies. Dr Seu participated in a Cultural Capital debate  entitled ‘The trust virus: the future of giving’ on 9 February 2017

money-256319_1920In a climate of economic uncertainty and rampant resentment, what hope is there for giving? Is there a future for altruism in an age of isolation? Are charities the answer or do government and corporations have to take responsibility? These were some of the questions asked at ‘The Trust virus: the future of giving’, a Cultural Capital debate organised by the Y&R London on 9 February 2017. These debates are terribly important for both academics and NGOs as they engage with the complexities and moral dilemmas involved in giving as an act of helping and social responsibility in today’s divided society and conflicted world.

The findings from the four-year research project discussed in the forthcoming book Caring in Crisis, which I co-authored with Shani Orgad (LSE), address some of these questions.

Charity starts at home

All the focus group participants in the study believed that charity does start at home. Yet, to think of this as simply parochialism, in antithesis to universalism, is unhelpful and an over-simplification. Looking at how people perceived the boundaries of their care and social responsibility, we identified nine circles of care from the most inward-looking (some expressed this in terms of ‘me and mine’) to the most universalist (‘the world is my family’ or ‘I’m a citizen of the world’). Worryingly, the majority of participants did not extend their sense of responsibility beyond their local community. This speaks to the power of the ‘inward looking’ attitude at the heart of parochialism. Yet, it is in the daily practices of care that people use in their community that people find a model for taking responsibility for others, near but also afar. Members of the public expressed a wish to care for distant others built on these practice of care they are familiar with, as if the ‘world were a small village’. These practices of care can be a vital resource for NGOs to build on.

On the other hand, Brexit, based on isolation over integration, is feeding on and in turn fuelling processes of ‘othering’ of distant sufferers. Many have commented on how anxiety, verging on paranoia, is at the heart of xenophobic Brexit. This anxiety, fomented for political ends, can have very damaging effects on the capacity and willingness to open empathetically to others. For example, the portrayal of refugee seekers as scroungers, parasites and vermin circulating in the media, blocks empathy and exasperate pre-existing and outdated portrayals of those affected by humanitarian crises. Focus group participants spoke of ‘the Africa thing’, whereby Africa becomes the stereotypical symbol of what is quintessentially wrong with humanitarian causes –– intractable, corrupt, hopeless.

The defensive and oppositional stance of ‘us and them’, at the heart of Brexit, disconnects rather than connects people to others. This is very detrimental to the future of giving to distant sufferers.

This distrust is not limited to refugees

The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer identified a worrying decline of trust towards NGOs and charities. We also found evidence of a deep crisis of trust between NGOs and their public. In particular, people distrust NGOs when they were perceived to operate as businesses, in competition with each other, and manipulating people to make them donate. Many felt that ‘all they want is my money’. This distrust runs deep. Most people, even those committed to humanitarianism, talked of NGOs constantly ‘hitting on the same note’ which causes saturation and a hardening of attitudes towards giving and NGOs in general.

People are angered by this approach and likened most NGOs to marketers (self-serving and manipulative), in contrast with their wished-for model of NGOs as Good Samaritans (altruistic and good people).

Money is not the future

Although monetary donations are essential in enabling NGOs to operate, they are often a form of fleeting participation in that they give people permission to disengage. We found strong evidence of the negative ‘collateral damage’ from this transactional model of engaging the public, which we call the ‘hit and run’ model of humanitarian communication. This form of communication presents the viewer with an emergency scenario, through emotionally-charged images and contents, asking the viewer to donate money so that NGOs can respond to the emergency on their behalf. Put crudely, members of the public feel ‘hit’ emotionally and then disregarded, while NGOs deliver the help. In the short term the ‘hit and run’ model ‘“works” in so far as it is a successful fundraising tool. For this reason, it is understandable that cash-deprived NGOs resort to it so frequently. But it is counterproductive in terms of long-term public engagement. Participants commented that the ‘hit and run’ model enables people to disengage with a good conscience and doesn’t require commitment.

This is where we can learn a lesson from care in the community. When people talk about their model of caring for others, we found that it is relational rather than transactional, and based on commitment. People feel that the ‘hit and run’ transactional approach is dehumanising for themselves (‘all they want is my money’) and for the beneficiaries.

The future for giving then is not money but connectedness. People feel they want to connect to distant suffering in more meaningful ways, which they model on their everyday ways of caring. These ethics of care are deeply rooted in people’s ways of life. One participant talked of wanting to ‘give blood and tears’, not money. That would make his giving meaningful. If we listen to the symbolic, rather than concrete meaning of this, we learn that the British public are looking for symbolic, cognitive and emotional meaningfulness in their giving. On these, meaningful connectedness to humanitarian issues and deeper public participation over time can be built.

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Do we still need public research funding?

This article was written by Dr Federica Rossi from Birkbeck’s Department of Management and Professor Aldo Geuna from the University of Torino

r-and-dThe last few decades have witnessed the increasing privatisation of the public sphere – even in the realms of education and research, which, until recently, almost exclusively pertained to the public sector. Evidence from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries shows that the slow but steady increase in private sector Research & Development (R&D) expenditure as share of GDP has been accompanied by a parallel drop in public R&D expenditure since the 1980s. A mere handful of economies buck the trend, such as that of South Korea. This has recently been referred to by Birkbeck’s Professor Daniele Archibugi and Dr Andrea Filippetti in their new paper as the “retreat of public research”. In the most advanced economies this retreat might seem, at face value, to support the claim that public intervention in research is unnecessary, if not completely counterproductive to sustain technological progress.

Most economists agree that public research funding is crucial for economic growth…

The mainstream view that public funding of basic research is necessary for technological progress to occur, relies on two, intertwined arguments that were first put forward in the 1940s and 1950s, and have been reiterated in various forms ever since. The first is the argument, which is embraced by scientists but originated in management schools, that innovation is a linear process whereby basic research discoveries pave the way for subsequent applied research and technological development. The second is the argument put forward by economists that basic research is characterised by large externalities and extreme uncertainty in the timing and nature of its outcomes, which make the computation of returns extremely difficult and discourages private companies from investing. Basic research outcomes tend to be very abstract and codifiable; this vulnerability to copying further discourages private investment in their production.

Together, these arguments suggest that, in order to sustain a rate of technological progress that is sufficient to drive continuous growth, the economy needs to produce a continuous amount of basic research outcomes, which would not occur in the absence of public funding.

…but some think that public research funding is unnecessary…

Those calling for a reduction in government funding of science have, in turn, put forth several arguments to oppose the mainstream view. The first is that the linear model of innovation is not only too simplistic, but wrongly organised: throughout history, technological developments have more often than not originated from efforts to solve practical problems without prior scientific basis. Rather than underpinning technological development, basic research has a habit of following promising technological developments. As Matt Ridley interprets in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal: “The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.” The second is that basic research effectively crowds out private funding. In the absence of public funding, private companies would still invest in basic research to further consolidate their knowledge of how previously invented technologies actually work, which assists further innovation, and would want to do so in-house, rather than free ride on competitors’ basic research outcomes, to generate tacit knowledge which would give them a competitive advantage over rivals. Indeed, free from the crowding-out effect of public funding, private companies might have invested in basic research, which may have yielded more productive outcomes than the basic research funded by government.

…The middle ground: public research funding for the knowledge economy

As  is the case for most complex social phenomena, the nature of technological progress is probably best understood by combining different theoretical perspectives. Suggesting that all technological developments would have occurred in the absence of prior scientific knowledge is just as simplistic as the opposing argument – that basic research is always the first step of a linear innovation process. While the rich history of technology can be mined for examples of each of these extremes, most innovations tell a complex story of coevolution between basic research and technological development, where both private and public research funding play a role. For example, Dosi and Nelson (2010) have suggested that, while the development of the steam engine in the early 18th century preceded scientific developments in thermodynamics and the theory of heat, this technology was indeed built on the foundations of earlier scientific developments (the understanding of the properties of atmospheric pressure investigated by Torricelli, Boyle and Hooke in the 17th and 18th century). This coevolution between science and technology would explain why the steam engine was not invented in China, where all its components (pistons, cylinders, etc,) were known and employed.

Basic science and technological development coevolve, and the problem begins to look like the chicken and egg situation. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons for continued public funding of basic research. On the one hand, private companies in the main cannot commit to continued funding of a research programme in the long or even medium term; not only because they tend to respond to short term investor concerns, but also because their very survival is not guaranteed. Even if some companies committed to keep their lines of inquiry open in the absence of early promising research outcomes (something which few companies appear willing to do) there is no guarantee that that programme would not be destroyed by business failure – an increasingly frequent and rapid occurrence even in larger corporations. Public funding provides a buffer to research exploration, which opens up to society a range of research avenues that simply would not occur in its absence, and whose results may be reaped many decades later, benefitting the economy in unexpected ways. Sometimes, basic research is so distant in time and origins from the innovations it contributes to, that such contribution goes unnoticed; current developments in text mining and even speech recognition technology owe a huge debt to many decades of obscure publicly funded research carried out in linguistics departments but this contribution is hardly something that springs to mind when thinking of Siri or Alexa bots. On the other hand, as Archibugi and Filippetti point out, private companies and governments have different incentives in the dissemination of research outcomes: private companies as a rule will give away as little as possible or will only give away knowledge under certain conditions, which again limits the range of research avenues that can be explored starting from existing research.

What the knowledge economy needs is a functioning ecosystem where both public and private research contribute to the creation of new knowledge, its dissemination and commercial exploitation, and create the conditions for further knowledge production. The better interconnected the two spheres, the better the system can promote an efficient division of labour between privately funded and publicly funded research, and the better it can discourage the duplication of research effort. Moreover, the better it can ensure that knowledge can be freely disseminated as much as possible without hurting commercial interests. The economic impact of the “retreat of public research” might not be negative if it has been accompanied by the growth of a more interconnected research system in which public research has become a more efficient complement to private research. However, this is a rather unexplored hypothesis at the macro level – and even if this were the case, it would still not imply that the latter can replace the former. Public research continues to play a vital role in the knowledge economy.

Professor Aldo Geuna and Dr Federica Rossi are the authors of The University and the Economy Pathways to Growth and Economic Development Cheltenham: Edward Elgar (2015). Now available in paperback.

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Trailblazing in mathematics

To mark International Women’s Day, this post was contributed by Professor Sarah Hart, Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck.

Here, she explains why there is more to do to ensure representation of women in mathematics – and how that can be achieved

Today is International Women’s Day – a day which as well as celebrating the achievements of women also serves as reminder we still have work to do to achieve gender parity. In my field of mathematics, the last century has seen a series of women pioneers who have blazed a trail for future generations. An example was highlighted in the recent film “Hidden Figures”, which tells the story of the female African-American mathematicians and engineers working at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. Those women overcame many obstacles, including having to go to court to gain the right to attend graduate classes in engineering. We have come a long way in the last 50 years, but not as far as you may think. For example, in mathematics it is still the case that fewer than 10% of the professors are women.

Could it be the case that women just aren’t as good at maths on average? No. Girls do just as well in maths at school – what happens is that the proportion who choose to pursue maths as a career is lower. This question isn’t even asked in most other areas where women are under-represented – are women “not as good as men” at being MPs? Or judges? The issue is certainly wider than mathematics. As Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck, I’m very aware that women are underrepresented in the UK in all three of these disciplines. This matters because these fields are missing out on the contributions of those women who aren’t there but could be.

So what can we do? Research has shown that role models are very important. With that in mind, this month the department is involved with organising two events around women in maths and economics. Today, Birkbeck’s student-run Economics and Finance Society is putting on a Women in Economics Event with two eminent economists – Vicky Pryce and Oriana Bandiera – discussing barriers and opportunities, leadership and recognition, quotas and pay gaps. All are welcome to attend.

At the end of March we will be holding an event in collaboration with global investment management firm Winton, aimed at encouraging girls and young women to consider pursuing a career in mathematics. The Winton Women Trailblazers in Mathematics conference will be a two-day event. The first day is for girls in years 11-13 at school, where they can meet women working in mathematics and statistics and get an idea of what it’s like to take the subjects further. The second day, which is also supported by the London Mathematical Society, is a Women in Mathematics day, bringing together postgraduate and postdoctoral students to meet fellow mathematicians and hear from established women mathematicians from academia and industry about their work and careers.

Why are these activities important? Because it is our collective responsibility as a society to do what we can to further gender parity. “But things are changing”, you say. “Professors are old and there are more women doing maths and economics now, they’ll become professors eventually”. The World Economic Forum has calculated that yes, things are indeed changing, but that gender parity will not be achieved until 2186. I’m not prepared to wait that long. Are you?

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Improving access to student service information

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer in Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations

Birkbeck offers a comprehensive range of services, to give our diverse student community the support and assistance it needs. These services are open to all and almost all of them are free to access. Our students consistently tell us that it is the human touch – meeting an academic at an Open Evening, emailing a Programme Administrator for assistance, seeking professional advice from our Careers and Employability Service, speaking to a counsellor about emotional issues – that makes Birkbeck so special. We are very proud of the willingness of our staff to go the extra mile: we’ve been helping students use their evenings to transform their lives for nearly 200 years now, so we know the challenges and obstacles they face – and the life changing opportunities we offer.

But how best to present over a dozen varied and distinct services on our website has been a particular challenge. In 2009, we launched My Birkbeck, a bespoke, specially designed website that presented these services in one place for the first time, to make reading about, and accessing, them more straightforward. However, in the intervening years, the design began to look antiquated – the pace of digital change is so breakneck that nothing ages more quickly and dramatically than a website – and the content became outdated, repetitive and progressively difficult to navigate. Increasingly, prospective and current students, as well as Birkbeck staff, have become frustrated with the outmoded design and the challenges of finding important and up-to-date information.

The My Birkbeck site was suffering from a proliferation of pages and files, an overload of content and a breakdown in user friendliness. We discovered that the site contained over 1100 content pages, of which 85% attracted fewer than 1000 views in the whole academic year – this is a very low number for a university with nearly 20,000 students. Moreover, well over 30% of the site had not been edited or updated in the past year, while 27% had not been updated for more than two years and 10% had last been updated three years ago. There were even pages that hadn’t been updated since the site launched in 2009. There was also excessive duplication of files: we found 1093 Word, Excel and PDF files on the My Birkbeck site, but the majority of them were copies or new versions of existing files that had already been uploaded – in one case, we found 25 published versions of the same file.

This confirmed that there was too much content and that the majority of it was out-of-date, underutilised and unloved. Although the original site had been impressive, user friendly and well designed, the intervening years had been unkind and, despite the valiant efforts of staff across Birkbeck, the site had become frustrating to navigate and off-putting to staff and students alike.

User feedback commissioned before Christmas confirmed that our students found accessing information about our services confusing and discouraging. They were aware that the My Birkbeck site was separate – in look and feel – from the main Birkbeck website, but they were critical of the site’s multiple failings. Although their perseverance and investigative prowess were impressive, our students shouldn’t have to expend lots of time tracking down information to access vital services.

In 2016 we launched a project to replace the My Birkbeck site, with the following objectives:

  • reduce the number of overall pages to make the site more navigable and user friendly
  • delete duplicate and out-of-date content
  • draw everything together into a single, definitive source of information
  • apply our new House Style and a consistent tone of voice
  • improve content to make it easy to scan and to make the key information, especially contact details, more prominent
  • optimise the content for search, to make it easier to find information via Google and other search engines
  • make it easy to login to online student services, such as our online learning environment, Moodle.

The first step was to meet with all of the key staff who run the services, to listen to their particular concerns and frustrations with the My Birkbeck site, and to work together to present the information in new, user friendly ways. We utilised high-tech tools – post-it notes and felt-tip pens – and asked staff to think about the key questions that a visitor to their services would have in mind. This helped us more intuitively structure the content on the site, giving priority to the most important and urgent questions and tasks. We also asked staff to consider the emotions that students might be experiencing when visiting the site – which ranged enormously, from excitement, optimism and determination to confusion, anxiety and frustration – which helped us adopt the most appropriate and helpful tone of voice when rewriting content. The focus throughout has been on meeting the needs of users and giving them the information they want, quickly and clearly.

The new Student Services site has reduced over 1000 webpages to just 100 – a tenth of the original size. The layout is brighter and easier to navigate, with more images and new, distinctive sections for each service. The content has been completely rewritten, following our new House Style, with an awareness of tone of voice and an emphasis on usability. Key pages from other areas of the Birkbeck website have been incorporated into the new Student Services section, to bring everything students need together in one place. As 30% of all visitors to the old My Birkbeck site were solely using it to access Moodle and other password protected areas for current students, we have improved access to those login areas by making them more prominent.

Overall, our ambitions have been to create a well-designed, user friendly and useful new area of the website, to bring together and re-present information about our impressive range of student services, and to make those services as open, welcoming and accessible online as befits Birkbeck’s ethos.

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Antibiotics: victims of their own success

This article was written by Liam Tom Martin and Arundhati Maitra from the ISMB-Mycobacteria Research laboratory, Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, Department of Biological Sciences, Birkbeck. Birkbeck Science Week runs from 3-6 April 2017.

antibioticsSince the development of penicillin as a treatment for bacterial infections in the 1940s, antibiotics have played an integral role in modern medicine. Beyond their obvious utility in treating serious diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia, antibiotics have facilitated a vast array of modern surgical treatments. Without them, major procedures from organ transplants to hip replacements and cancer chemotherapy would carry too great a risk of infection to be feasible. Antibiotics have become so deeply woven into the fabric of modern life that a future without them borders on the unimaginable.

Over the past few decades, strains of bacteria have emerged which are resistant to most, if not all, of the antibiotics in our current arsenal. Coupled with a near total halt in the development of new antimicrobial therapeutics, the rising tide of antibiotic resistance threatens to compromise the very bedrock of modern medicine. If those foundations were to crumble, it would usher in an era in which minor infections can develop into chronic and potentially fatal illnesses; an era in which surgical interventions and immunosuppressive chemotherapies are simply not possible.

The most recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report states that 480,000 people each year develop multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), while strains of gonorrhoea which are resistant to all available antibiotics have been observed in 10 countries, including the UK. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) also continues to cause potentially deadly infections in hospitals, putting significant strain on healthcare resources. The UK government report into antimicrobial resistance, chaired by Lord Jim O’Neill predicted that if antimicrobial resistance were to continue to rise around the world, we could see as many as 10 million more deaths annually, with a total economic cost of $100 trillion. The majority of this burden would likely fall on low- to middle-income countries. This threat has grown to such a proportion that recently, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) met to discuss the steps which could be taken by global organisations including the WHO, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to help to slow the spread of antibiotic resistance and to incentivise the development of novel antimicrobial drugs.

Antibiotics, it seems, have been victims of their own success. Their effectiveness and convenience have led to a ubiquity which provides a wealth of opportunities for development of antibiotic resistance; an issue exacerbated by misuse and overuse in mankind, animal farming and agriculture. The conditions which accelerate the development of resistance, however, are just one side of the coin. The emergence of new antibiotics onto the market has slowed to a glacial place over the last 20 to 30 years, as pharmaceutical companies have diverted their focus onto other areas. This move has been driven primarily by the limited profitability and steep challenges in developing new antibiotics with novel mechanisms of action. There is a sense that all of the low hanging fruit were picked during the golden age of antibiotic discovery in the 1940s and 50s, and that new classes of antibiotic are becoming harder and harder to come by.

As we have come to expect antibiotics to be inexpensive, pharmaceutical companies must sell them at low cost or lose out to the generics market. The short treatment times required to cure most infections also present little opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to recoup their billion dollar investments in research and development, while the rapid emergence of resistance following deployment of a drug can quickly stifle demand. The result is that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies preferentially invest in treatments for chronic conditions which require long-term treatments and thus generate a more reliable revenue stream. Essential research into novel antimicrobials is thus left by the wayside. This market failure is exacerbated by conservation programs which discourage the use of newly discovered antibiotics until resistance has developed to the standard treatments, as well as by variable regulations which create uncertainty in the market.

On positive notes, there are a number of initiatives providing funding for further research in academia, promoting collaboration between academia and industry and incentivising industry investment into antibiotic research. These include the Fleming Fund, £195 million collaboration between the UK government, the Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institut Pasteur International Network, among others. The UK government is also involved in a variety of other funds aimed at tackled antibiotic resistance, such as the Ross Fund and the Global AMR Innovation Fund, which are collaborations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chinese government, respectively.

The past 5 years have seen the emergence of the first new antibiotics for decades. Bedaquillin was approved as part of a second-line combination therapy for use against multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in 2012, following an accelerated approval process lasting just six months. There are currently numerous other novel antibiotics at some stage in the development pipeline, including Teixobactin, a promising candidate which has been found to have broad antibacterial activity while acting through a novel mechanism which may slow or prevent the development of resistance. A collaborative effort between Sequella Inc. and members of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in the USA, and Janssen Infectious Diseases in Belgium, has led to the development of the antibiotic SQ109. This is testament to the ability of private-public partnerships in spreading the risk of drug development and incentivising biotechnology companies to proceed with research into novel antibiotics.

A number of academic institutions, bolstered by increased funding from government bodies, are beginning to undertake significant research into means by which to tackle antimicrobial resistance. At the University of Birmingham Institute of Microbiology and Infection, critical research is being conducted into understanding the transmission and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance, under the direction of Professor Ian Henderson and Professor Laura Piddock. In the Bloomsbury area, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have recently opened their Centre for Antimicrobial Resistance, which will include sociological research alongside traditional lab-based research in order to understand the spread of antimicrobial resistance on a large scale. Just a stones-throw from the London School, the Mycobacteria Research Lab lead by Dr Sanjib Bhakta at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, Birkbeck College, University of London, are investigating new means to tackle antibiotic resistance tuberculosis, including a “drug repositioning” approach, by which drugs which are currently on the market for the treatment of a separate ailment may be repurposed to act as antibiotics in the fight against MDR-TB.

Science Week 2017: Microbes in the Real World

Date: Monday 3 April

Talk by Sophie Downes – ‘The Interactions Between Fungi and Heritage Buildings’
Clore Management Centre B01, 5:30-6:30pm

Screening of the film Resistance followed by panel discussion: ‘Tackling antibiotic resistance and the rise of superbugs
Speakers: Dr Sanjib Bhakta, Dr Jane Nicklin, Professor Nick Keep and Arundhati Maitra
43 Gordon Square Cinema, 7:00-9:00pm

“Antibiotics were first mass-produced in the 1940s and their ability to fight and kill bacteria revolutionized medicine and profoundly impacted everything from agriculture to war. After less than 80 years, however, these miracle drugs are failing. Resistant infections kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year and there are now dozens of so-called Superbugs each with its own challenges and costs. How did this happen? Using microscopic footage, harrowing personal stories, and expert insights RESISTANCE clarifies the problem of antibiotic resistance, how we got to this point, and what we can do to turn the tide.”

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Murdoch’s access to British prime minister shows media power still in hands of the few

This article was written by Dr Justin Schlosberg from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Professor Des Freedman from Goldsmiths, University of London. It was originally published on The Conversation

In 1996, when the web was in its infancy, the American technology writer Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the coming digital revolution would facilitate a “cottage industry of information and entertainment providers”. Twenty years on and the story of “fake news”, which had wide currency during the US election, and was found emanating from basements, cafes and computer labs in the small Macedonian city of Veles would appear to prove Negroponte correct.

Except that we are living in an era when vast sections of our media, both “old” and “new”, are controlled by a tiny number of giant corporations, most of which dominate their particular sectors and face minimal competition.

Take the local news sector which only recently argued that an arbitration system as proposed by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would undermine plucky community-based titles and weaken local democracy. The problem is that five conglomerates account for 80% of all local newspaper titles while the remaining 58 publishers account for just 20% of titles.

Or take the UK’s supposedly competitive national newspaper market where five companies – largely presided over by tax exiles and media moguls – control 90% of daily circulation. If you take online readership into account, which bumps the Guardian up the rankings, then six companies fall into this category.

The situation is even more dire when it comes to the increasingly profitable digital world. Yes, it’s possible to argue that there is a cottage industry of, for example, app and video game developers. But distribution – the means by which content actually becomes available to consumers – is subject to serious bottlenecks because of the grip exerted by dominant companies.

So while there may be thousands of digital start-ups, they have to face the fact that Apple and Spotify alone account for 63% of the global streaming market and that Facebook is fast becoming the most popular digital platform for news. Meanwhile Google has some 90% of global desktop search and Google and Facebook together account for around two-thirds of all digital advertising in the US. According to the Financial Times, 85 cents of every dollar spent on digital advertising in America went to those two companies in the first quarter of last year – evidence of “a concentration of market power in two companies that not only own the playing field but are able to set the rules of the game as well”.

Setting the agenda

One of the great misconceptions, however, is that the bewildering market power wielded by the likes of Google and Facebook has come at the expense of the mainstream press and broadcasters. Established, reputable, professional news organisations and the “real news” that they produce, are apparently losing the ever evolving struggle for eyeballs.

It is a misconception because it conflates decline in the traditional market for news with a weakening of gate-keeping and the influence of editorial agendas. Although commercialism and agenda have always been closely intertwined, they have never been the same thing. Ironically, the power vacuum left by evaporating profits and retreating corporate investors in news publishers has put many newsrooms back in the hands of extremely wealthy individuals, from local oligarchs in Eastern Europe like Lajos Simicska in Hungary to dot.com billionaires such as Jeff Bezos.

Mainstream press dominated by six big companies who control 85% of uk circulation. Lenscap Photography

The missing piece of the puzzle is the complex ways in which Google, Facebook and Twitter are, if anything, reinforcing the agenda-setting power of the mainstream news brands. Google’s news algorithm, for instance, gives priority weighting to news providers with scale, volume and those who cover topics that are widely covered elsewhere.

The problem with fakery is not so much the cottage news industry, but dominant algorithms and ideologically polarised audiences that are supposedly enabling it to flourish. It is, after all, nothing new: the tabloid press will certainly not be remembered for being champions of truth-telling. The problem is more to do with the failure of those very news brands that Google considers “reliable sources” to offer a meaningful corrective to fakery – and, worse, their tendency to amplify it.

trump

As for the post-truth politics of Trump, it wasn’t his provocative and offensive “tweets” that enabled him to burst on to the mainstream political scene, but the way in which mainstream news networks were, from the outset, hanging on his every word. The more offensive, provocative, outlandish the comment – the bigger the lie – the more newsworthy it became. Twitter gave him a platform, but mainstream news provided the microphone, and it is amplification – the ability to be heard – that is the major currency of agenda power.

Media elite

We are, therefore, witnessing not the demise of concentrated “voice”, but its resurgence in more subtle ways.

murdoch

What can be done about this? We can hardly rely on our elected governments when they seem more comfortable to bow down to digital giants and media barons than to challenge them. For example, the latest research carried out by the Media Reform Coalition and the campaign group 38 Degrees shows that there has been an increase in the number of private meetings between representatives of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and government ministers ahead of Murdoch’s bid to take full control of Sky, the UK’s largest broadcaster.

In September 2016 alone, News Corp’s chief executive, Robert Thompson, had back-to-back meetings with the prime minister, Theresa May, the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the culture secretary, Karen Bradley. May even found time to meet with Murdoch that month during a one night trip to New York.

The major problem facing our democracy isn’t the subterranean digital activities of Macedonian teenagers corrupting a supposedly pure news environment. Instead, it’s the fact that we have a media culture that is dominated by billionaire proprietors and elite insiders and a political culture that is too fearful of this media power ever to challenge it. “Fake news” may be grabbing the headlines but we shouldn’t forget about the concentrated market power that has allowed it to thrive.The Conversation

 

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FIFPro global report on players conditions of employment

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.footballI am writing this as the January transfer window heads towards its final few frenetic hours, with breathless TV pundits reporting any last minute deals that clubs may make. The headlines during January have, as usual, focussed on the big money multi-million pound transfers, with Oscar’s move to Shanghai for a reputed £60m the stand out piece of business.

While the media will be concentrating on the Premier League and big name moves that helps to establish football in the minds of many as a game saturated in unimaginable amounts of money, a report from November 2016 tells a different story altogether.

On Tuesday 29 November, FIFPro, the global professional footballers’ union, released their long anticipated report on employment conditions of the world’s professional footballers. For those who are brought up on a daily media diet of staggering transfer fees and salaries of elite players at the top of the European leagues, the report will make sobering reading.

In a survey of over 14,000 players, out of a global membership of 65,000, and covering every region of the world, the report reveals that 45% of players earned less than $1000US per month, while just 2% could be classified as the super-rich elite with earnings of over $720,000 per month.

However, to observers of the global labour market such figures would not come as a huge surprise. Disparities of wealth between the lucky few at the top and the unfortunate masses below have been a growing trend to the point that in developed and developing countries, the bottom half often controls less than 10% of the wealth. Such disparities in income between rich and poor have been growing since 1980 and the adoption by countries across the globe of the neo-liberal economic model promoted by the IMF and the World Bank. It is not surprising that football, a highly competitive business, should also see similar disparities of wealth between its players.

As the FIFPro report notes, income disparity between players is a function to a large extent of the differences between wage levels in individual countries.  It should be remembered that $1000.00 a month in many parts of the world is a huge salary compared to the meagre wages that many people earn. The World Bank estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are 389 million people living on less than $1.90 per day. So while there may be inequality within football, for the lucky few with the skills, talent and determination, football still seems to offer a better way to make a living than most. It is not surprising that young people in every part of the world still dream of making it in the big time.

However, earning a reasonable salary only means something if it is actually paid up and paid on time. One of the more startling results of the survey is that for professional footballers this is by no means certain with 41% of players reporting a delay in their salary during the previous two seasons. Some delays in salary payments lasted for over a year. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that professional footballers, unlike employees in other sectors, cannot simply take their skills elsewhere – they are subject to football’s transfer system that regulates how and when players can move to another club. At present a player can only break his contract of employment for just cause if he has not been paid for 90 days. If he tries to leave before that time he is liable to pay compensation to the club that holds his registration. This is a situation that is unique to football, and although there are good reasons for regulating the labour market to ensure stability for clubs and fair competition, it can also lead to the abuses that the FIFPro survey has revealed.

Late payment of wages is also a critical factor that threatens the integrity of football as it makes players vulnerable to the attentions of match-fixers. As I discovered in my own research into match-fixing in Europe, personal financial difficulties are a major contributing factor to corruption in sport. Large income disparities and late payment of wages, combined with the inability of players to move quickly to another club, is a perfect storm for corruption,and it is no surprise that the latest FIFPro research reveals that 1 in 11 players have been approached by a match-fixer. That is not to say that they have succumbed to temptation, but while late payment of wages persists in the game it will always be vulnerable to match-fixing.

The FIFPro survey shines a welcome light into the recesses of the world’s favourite sport that is so often insular and hard to penetrate. It shows that football is not immune from the global economic processes that have seen dramatic rises in precarious employment and temporary contracts even for professional employees. To this extent, those of us who work on the edges of the British academic system might say welcome to the modern world of short-term work and fixed-term contracts. But the FIFPro survey also highlights how the football sector has its unique systems of pressure that are exerted on its players, especially the journeymen who make up the vast bulk of the global playing staff. It is a highly competitive environment with a career-threatening injury never more than a moment away and where the pressures to perform and succeed are intense. Perhaps, most of all this report should make us all realise that a professional footballer is just another worker trying to make a living – just like the rest of us.

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Birkbeck’s Commitment to Occupational and Organizational Psychology – a new doctoral route at National Level?

This article is by Dr Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology (a.mcdowall@bbk.ac.uk)

businesswoman-1901130_1920Birkbeck has a long and proud history of pioneering activities applying the science of psychology to the world of work. Birkbeck’s MSc programme was the first of its kind in the UK, and in fact coined the term ‘occupational psychology’. We remain the only dedicated work psychology department in the UK. Other countries use ‘organizational psychology’ (reflected in the current name for our department), ‘industrial and organizational psychology’, or simply ‘work psychology’. But regardless of the exact words, we all have a common aim, which is to apply our expertise to work activities.

The profession of psychology has seen several changes in the UK, not least that several titles have been protected by law for some years, including educational, counselling, clinical, sports and also,of course, occupational psychology. The intention is to provide assurance to the public, so that people know that a qualified psychologist bearing such titles has undergone rigorous and robust training, and is regulated by the Health Care Professions Council (HCPC).

While the other strands of applied psychology have long recognised the need to train to doctoral level through education delivered by universities, occupational psychology has been slightly different in that there has been only one qualification, delivered by the British Psychological Society (BPS), which leads to eligibility for ‘Chartership’, the gold standard for the profession.

But are there changes afoot about how and by whom the qualification is delivered in the future?

Together with a committed group of academics and practitioners, I have been working over the last four years towards the agreement of new standards at a doctoral level for occupational psychology, which were approved by the BPS in late autumn 2016. We briefed members of the society at the Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference in January 2017.

The objective of these standards is to (wording adapted near verbatim from the standards) enable practitioners to:

  • Engage in effective, ethical and reflective practice;
  • Be adept at formulating psychological activities across all five content areas of occupational psychology;
  • Apply evidence-based psychological skills and knowledge to maximise individual and organisational effectiveness;
  • Demonstrate competence to apply the consultancy cycle having provided evidence relating to all stages across this framework;
  • Acquire a breadth of areas of knowledge underpinned by the appropriate professional skills;
  • Be prepared for lifelong learning and development as commensurate for an independent applied psychology practitioner.

The underlying philosophy for the new standards is that they are flexible and broad, and will enable potential education providers to offer relevant doctoral level qualifications which take a unique and considered approach. But the common elements have to be that individuals practice ethically and with reflection, can make sense of how complex organisations are, and work through projects from the initial identification of what needs to be done through to eventual evaluation, drawing on best evidence at all times.

The profession of occupational psychology has seen many changes, as large departments have been down sized and/ or abandoned, and practitioners are now likely to be working in independent practice. This has meant that our work is perhaps less visible to those who don’t know or understand what we do. But the reality is that businesses need people, as in our knowledge economy it’s what we have in our heads, rather than infrastructure or technology, which equates competitive advantage.

This is the focus for our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes here at Birkbeck. We are now considering a new doctoral, route, too. Do get in touch by email or in the comments below if this would be of interest to you, as we are keen to engage with potential students during our scoping phase.

Further information:

This blog forms part of the ‘School of BEI’s OP week’. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to learn more about studying in the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck!

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Action on Home Education: impact challenges

Daniel Monk, a Reader in the School of Law looks at the background to a short debate about home education that took place last week in the House of Lords

home-educationThe right of a child to an education is widely accepted as being a ‘good thing’. It is what some people describe as an ‘apple pie’ issue: something that is so obviously nice, and comforting, that no one could possibly object. But what the right to education means in practice is complicated and contested and inherently political. And nowhere are the underlying tensions as acute as in debates about home education.

This is because ‘education’ is often equated with ‘schooling’, and the latter exposes the child not only to other children but also to the ‘professional’ gaze of teachers, inspectors and social welfare agencies. Consequently, home education challenges popular assumptions about child development and ‘socialisation’ and at the same time raises questions about the state’s role in both enforcing the right to education and in defining the content of education. These latter questions go to the heart of debates about the nature of democracy and this is evident from comparative perspectives. In Germany home education is unlawful, whereas in the USA it is constitutionally protected and practiced on a large scale. This country adopts a characteristically mid-Atlantic position. It is well established in law that parents can comply with their legal duty to educate their children by means of home education. But while this is unquestioned by policy makers, what is disputed is the extent to which home education should be monitored.

Concerns about raising educational standards, the number of children ‘missing education’, increased inspection of independent schools, and an emphasis on ‘safeguarding’ agendas in inter-agency cooperation, have all highlighted the anomalous position of home-educated children. And at the same time the number of home educated children has and continues to increase and is sometimes referred to as a ‘quiet revolution’. There has been a 65% increase in children recorded as home educated over the last seven years, and estimates vary from 36,000 to far higher. However, no one knows precisely how many children are currently home-educated. This is because unless a child is being removed from a school, parents are not obliged to tell anyone.

The reasons for this increase are complex and varied. Home educators include those who object to conventional schooling, sometimes on the basis that it is too permissive and liberal and, conversely, sometimes for being too traditional and overly prescriptive. But they also include parents who have felt that have no other option as a result of failures to address bullying in schools or through the much-criticised practice of ‘unofficial’ or ‘illegal’ exclusions.

Even when a local authority knows about children in their area that are home-educated there is confusion about what their current monitoring duties and powers are, and this is compounded by the fact that the current guidance produced by the Department of Education in 2007 is both out of date, unclear and provides advice based on questionable interpretations of the existing law that restricts a more pro-active investigatory role.

Attempts to address the issue were made by the last Labour government. It commissioned a review of the law, The Badman Review, which recommended the introduction of a compulsory national registration scheme. This was included in – but subsequently dropped from – the Children, School and Families Bill 2009. At the same time a report by the House of Commons Select Committee for Children Schools and Families (2009) concluded that it was ‘unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated or are otherwise not at school’. The Committee heard from Sue Berelowitz, The Deputy Children’s Commissioner, who argued that it was ‘not acceptable that the state should not be able to vouch for the education of so many of its citizens’. In its final report the Committee also quoted extensively from an article of mine. This confirmed what others have found: that in an age of political sound bites, Select Committees are institutions that can often be refreshingly receptive to academic research. More recently, in May 2016, the Wood review of local safeguarding children boards, commissioned by the Department for Education, concluded that in relation to home education, that a ‘local authority is not able to assess either the quality of education being received by the child or whether there are any safeguarding issues that require attention’ and that ‘this needs to be addressed urgently’.

Despite these widespread concerns, to date both the Coalition and the current Conservative governments have refused to act. One possible reason for this is the highly effective lobbying by home education activists. While apolitical, the lobby’s arguments against enhancing monitoring cohere with predominantly Conservative parliamentarians’ concerns about expanding the role of local authorities (in particular in the context of education), the necessary additional expenditure, and perceptions of the ‘nanny’ state. However, the contingency and indeed inherent contradictions underlying these concerns came to the fore in 2015 when the government initiated a consultation about the law regarding unregistered schools. This was motivated by wide-ranging safeguarding and welfare concerns raised by OFSTED, but also by distinct concerns about ‘radicalisation’ and the perceived existence in some places of ‘a narrow Islamic-focused curriculum’. While wishing to address these issues, the government at the same time made explicitly clear that it had no desire to address issues relating to home education. In responding to the consultation I argued that not only did this further exacerbate the anomalous position of home education, but that it also failed to acknowledge that home education could be exploited by anyone wishing to avoid the proposed enhanced monitoring of other out-of-school settings.

Tying to motivate the government to act over home education is hard. But concerns about unregistered schools have, albeit unintentionally, opened the door to calls to act more widely, and for those not uncritical about the ‘radicalisation’ agenda this linkage highlights the messy complexity of political strategizing. Another way of keeping the issue of home education on the agenda, indeed any issue a government would like to shelve, is by drawing an issue to the attention of sympathetic parliamentarians who are receptive to engaging with work by academics. I adopted this approach here, and last week the cross-bench peer Baroness Deech asked an oral question in the House of Lords about the government’s failure to respond to the recommendations of the Wood review. These questions provide approximately seven minutes for a mini-debate. Condensing detailed academic arguments into a briefing note to effectively assist peers in this debate was challenging and brought to mind the quip: ‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one’. In response to Baroness Deech’s questions and to those of the six other peers who spoke, Lord Nash, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, offered no clear answers. But the questions and the short debate send a message of support to local authority professionals who struggle in difficult circumstances to do their best to support and protect home-educated children and reminds the government that their inaction is not unnoticed.

Further information:

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Bringing life to the Brontës

This post was contributed by Dr Siv Jansson, Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. She was Literary Advisor on To Walk Invisible (written and directed by Sally Wainwright: BBC).

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

The Brontë Sisters by Patrick Branwell Brontë restored

A drama about the Brontes was something which Sally and I had talked about over a number of years, and I knew it was a topic she had long wanted to do. In 2014  it was green-lit by the BBC, and by the end of that year the process of producing the script began.

Sally did a tremendous amount of research and had clear ideas concerning the approach she wanted to take, and it was my job to support that. There is no clear ‘job description’ for the role of literary advisor; it depends upon the people you are working with and the nature of the project. The literary advisor is there to do just that, advise: the decisions rest with the writer/director and producer. Sally and I had many, many lengthy discussions, and I read the drafts of the script bit by bit as she wrote them. I’d comment or suggest, but it was always Sally’s script. She made the decision to focus on the period 1845-8, and I agreed with this; even though the BBC gave us an extra 30 minutes – making it a120-minute instead of a 90-minute film – to try to fit all the Brontes’ lives – and deaths – into two hours would have been an impossible task. 1845-8 is the period when the writing emerged into the public domain so it made sense to concentrate on that.

A major part of my role was research; for example, I found the newspaper story which Charlotte is reading to her father in one of the early scenes. It’s from the Leeds Intelligencer: Sally wanted something which would have been in the news at that time and of interest to Patrick (it was a story about Irish politics). I also re-read all the biographical material available and anything Sally didn’t have time to look at, looked up details – for example what information was available at that time on delirium tremens – put together a compendium of descriptions of the Brontes and the various images which are or have been claimed to be them, and also investigated some of the most well-known but possibly unfounded Bronte myths. As Juliet Barker has pointed out, Branwell not only didn’t go to London, but was never intended to do so – there is a letter from Patrick which talks about sending him the following year. Following up on this, I spent an afternoon in the British Library looking at coaching timetables and journeys to establish that he actually could not have made the journey he is supposed to have made on the dates or times he is thought to have made it, and that the planned trip to London was, indeed, a myth. We considered whether to excise the flashback scene where Branwell is describing to his father and aunt that he had been robbed in London (while Emily observes from the doorway), but decided that it did important work in terms of establishing character and Emily and Branwell’s relationship, and that it should stay for these reasons. These kinds of decisions are part of the business of producing a drama.

We were very lucky to have rehearsal time with the cast who were playing the family, and they spent a week in Haworth with Sally, where I joined them for a couple of days. It was an opportunity for them to see the Parsonage and spend time with the staff, work with Sally, benefit from the expertise of people like Ann Dinsdale (Principal Curator at the Parsonage), Juliet Barker (historian and author of The Brontes)  and Patsy Stoneman (Bronte scholar), and to bond in a way which I firmly believe contributed a great deal to the success of the film and the strength of their performances.

There has, of course, been some coverage in the press over Branwell’s use of the word ‘fuck’. I understand that some people have been troubled by this as being inappropriate or too contemporary but Branwell would have been mixing with quite a range of individuals as his drinking and opium habit developed and I think it perfectly credible that he would have sworn at all of the family as his life deteriorated. We referred this to Ann Dinsdale who concurred with us. I also think that there remains an assumption that great writers, or even those associated with them, must talk in some kind of ‘elevated’ way rather than like ordinary human beings. Anyone who knows Sally’s work will be aware of the sheer believability with which she imbues her characters and her dialogue. One of our key principles in developing the script was that the Brontes should behave and interact as much like a real, ordinary family as possible; there was to be no mystic wafting on the moors or notions that people born and bred in Yorkshire would talk as if they had just left elocution school. It is also essential, from a commercial point of view, to create characters who will have some resonance with contemporary viewers who may not be Bronte experts, or even fans.

Getting details right was a commitment made by everyone involved, and when I saw the recreation of the Parsonage rooms at the studios in Manchester, I was, quite frankly, amazed; without the benefit of any contemporary images from which to work, Grant, our designer, and his team came up with brilliant representations. Equally, the reconstructed parsonage on the moors was astonishing; seeing it built (and seeing what it looked like before it was finished!) gave me a real appreciation of the levels of skill involved in making something like this happen.

As anyone who works with biography will know, it is a slippery art form. Biographies are shaped by their cultural moment and the direction pursued by the biographer, whether on paper or screen. Bronte biography is particularly problematic because it is so dogged by myth-making , as Lucasta Miller has so aptly observed, and also because it is so patchy and erratic. We know a reasonable amount about Charlotte, though there are significant gaps; less about Anne and Branwell; relatively little about Emily. This is both a gift and a curse; it leaves wonderful imaginative spaces but at the same time means that speculation is inevitable. All any biographer or dramatist can do is provide their interpretation of the information we have. Dramatising the Brontes brings with it additional demands because they carry such a mystique with the public and their readers, and I think we were all aware that whatever we did, there would be some who would not like it.

Do I like it? I love it. The film does exactly what I wanted it to do when Sally and I first discussed it; it resists the myths, it shows a real – and sometimes dysfunctional – family, and it portrays the significance and development of the writing. I am somewhat baffled by those who complained that it didn’t show enough of this – I could itemise so many scenes which showed, or talked about, the poetry, or the novels, or the juvenilia. It even revealed Branwell as a writer, though clearly nowhere near the stature of his sisters. Writing is not a dramatic act: it is necessarily static and largely internal as a creative process. To show repeated scenes of people writing at tables – or even walking round them – would have been utterly tedious; nor do I think it was imperative to keep reminding the audience that the Brontes wrote. Yes, I have favourite scenes: Emily and Branwell’s nocturnal exchange sitting on the gate, the opening with the children, Emily speaking ‘No Coward Soul’ to Anne, the scene in Smith, Elder & Co. in London, the discovery of Emily’s poetry (and her reaction), the visit of William Allison to Branwell in the Black Bull, and the bailiffs’ scene.

What advice would I give to anyone taking up the job of literary advisor on a similar project? Be flexible and open to ideas, be thorough, respond speedily to queries and requests, love the topic (but) keep the genre of TV and its demands in mind, don’t expect drama to operate as a documentary, accept that your suggestions or advice won’t always be taken, and realise that the writer, director  and producer have the final say.  I had never worked on a project like this before and it was a (sometimes steep) learning curve; but I loved the experience, was delighted with the response, and am very proud of what we achieved.

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