Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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A day in the life of… Dr James Hammond

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr James Hammond from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist.

I get up, usually rudely woken by my little boy and battle the northern line to Birkbeck. When I am in the field I get up early, normally just before sunrise so we can be on the road as soon as it is light. There is always a lot of ground to cover, so maximising daylight hours is key.

My research…focuses on using energy released by earthquakes as a probe to image inside the Earth. Much like a doctor uses x-ray energy to image inside your body, we can do a similar thing using sound waves that are released by earthquakes to understand what the Earth is made of.  I do this on a large scale, trying to image depths of hundreds of kilometres and understand what drives plate tectonics. I am particularly interested in volcanoes and how magma is generated, stored and transported before an eruption. Obviously volcanoes are not a big concern in the UK, so my research involves collaborating with people all over the world to understand what makes volcanoes work.

I teach… geophysics and scientific computing to geology and planetary science students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

My typical day… involves heading in to work and a mixture of research, processing seismic data from beneath some of the areas I am working on (Ethiopia, Eritrea, North Korea, China, Chile), meeting with PhD students to discuss their research or with colleagues to discuss new proposals. If I am teaching I will spend time preparing for that. In the field, there is no such thing as a typical day. In Chile, we were accommodated by a cowboy in the mountains (including dinner at his house, with his horse joining us at the table), off-road driving for eight hours to deploy a station near an active volcano or white-water rafting to access a site for a seismometer deployment.

I became a scientist… mainly due to some inspirational teachers. At school my geography teacher, Ashley Hale instilled a fascination with the physical world. He was also an explorer, heading off to climb mountains in Africa, South America and Asia and updating us as he went. Some of that clearly rubbed off and I have been lucky enough to have a job where I can combine exploration of the world with an exploration of how it works. However, I have to admit that my PhD involved spending six weeks in the Seychelles. A life in science seemed a good idea after that.

My greatest professional achievement to date… has to be leading one of the first ever collaborations between the West and North Korea. This collaboration is focussed on a large volcano (Mt. Paektu) on the border of China and North Korea. We recently published papers showing the first images of the Earth beneath the Korean side of the volcano and also estimated the amount of gases that may have been released (a lot) when it erupted in 946AD.  The work is ongoing despite all the recent political tension and shows that science has the ability to build collaborations during even the most strident political tensions.

My favourite part of the job… is the travel. As well as the Seychelles I have spent time in Mexico, Canada, Montserrat (a small island close to Antigua in the Caribbean), Japan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, North Korea and most recently Chile. The best bit is the chance to work with scientists from all these countries, learning about geology all over the world and learning their culture too. Also, volcanoes are in some of the most interesting and hard to get to parts of the world, so I get to satisfy the explorer part of me too.

After work… it is normally back to my family and a glass of wine or beer to relax.

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A day in the life of…Dr Emma Meaburn

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Emma Meaburn from the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up at …  6am (or 6.30 am, if I am lucky), when I am woken by my children. The next two hours are a whirl of breakfast, loudness, finding lost shoes, cajoling, cuddles and probably some light bribery before I leave the house at 8.15am. I drop the youngest child off at nursery on my way to the train station, and typically arrive at Birkbeck by about 9.30am.

My research … looks at the genetic contributions to individual differences in psychological traits and disorders. We all differ, and I am interested in how these differences are influenced by differences in our DNA and how the information stored in our DNA is used.

I teach on … the BSc Psychology degree program, where I co-convene and co-teach a large first year ‘Research Methods’ module that provides psychology students with a basic grounding in the principles of experimental design and statistics. Undergraduate students can sometimes be surprised that research methods form a core element of the program, and we work hard to make it accessible and relevant to the students’ current knowledge and career aspirations. I also teach on the final year “Genetics and Psychology” optional module. This is always enjoyable as I get to talk about my own research findings and that of my colleagues, and expose the students to the newest methods and insights from the field of behavior genetics.

I am also responsible for … quite a few things!  Broadly, my job falls into three categories; research, teaching and service.  As part of my research activities I am responsible for running a lab and the admin that comes with it; writing ethics applications; PhD student supervision, training and mentorship; securing funding (writing and revising grant applications); dissemination of my research via conference attendance, giving invited talks, publishing my work in peer reviewed articles and public engagement activities. Behavior genetics is a fast-paced field, and I stay informed about new developments and methods as best I can by reading the literature, speaking to colleagues and collaborators, organizing and attending conferences and (occasionally) training workshops.

When I’m teaching, I will be lecturing (typically on two evenings per week); developing or updating content for modules (slides, worksheets and notes); marking assessed work; writing exam papers; writing model answers; supervising teaching assistants; answering student emails; writing letters of recommendation; designing lab experiments; acting as a personal tutor for undergraduates (roughly 10-15 students); attending exam board and module convener meetings; and being assessed on my teaching.

I also peer review grants and manuscripts; supervise undergraduate (about four per year) and graduate student research projects (about two per year); sit on the academic advisory board and postgraduate research committee, and I am a member of the management committee of the University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which provides a unified research environment for translational neuroscience.

…or I do none of the above because nursery have called and my child has a temperature, and I have to go and collect him (three out of five days last week!)

My typical day … doesn’t really exist! One of the best aspects of academic life is that each day is different.

If I am teaching in the evening, typically I will meet with my PhD students (or project students) in the morning where we discuss the past week’s progress, go over new results and edits of conference abstracts and manuscript drafts. Then there is at least an hour of email and admin tasks such as paying invoices, tracking lost lab orders, or hurriedly writing a PhD application, before heading to the gym for an hour of ‘me’ time. I’ll then undo all my hard work by grabbing a hearty lunch from one of the many fantastic food places around Birkbeck, before attending a departmental seminar or journal club. That leaves me with a couple more hours to squeeze in research and research admin before preparing for the evening’s class. Once the class is over (at about 8.30pm), I head back to my office for 30 minutes of emails before catching the tube home. All being well, I’ll get home around 9.30/10pm, check on my (mostly) sleeping family, and do 30 minutes of life chores before collapsing into bed.

I became a scientist… because I had always loved science and by my late teens I had developed a keen interest in what was then known as the “Nature Versus Nurture’ debate. I think this interest was sparked by my own experiences and reflections as a fostered child (I was separated from my biological parents at six months of age), and when I finally studied genetics as an undergraduate student in human biology at King’s College London, my mind was made up – I was going to be a geneticist!

My greatest professional achievement… has been establishing myself as a research active academic and developing my own research program, in a field where academic positions at renowned institutions like Birkbeck are few and far between and competition is fierce. I get to work in a research field that is dynamic, challenging and interesting, and in a supportive, autonomous and friendly environment.

 

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A day in the life of…. Dr Anthony Roberts

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Anthony Roberts from the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up… bright and early with our son. He’s two, and has yet to learn the art of the lie in. Depending on whether I am doing the nursery drop-off, and on the temperament of the Victoria Line, I usually arrive at Birkbeck between 8.00 and 9.00am. The first thing I do is switch on the lights in the laboratory, and think about what experiments the day will hold.

My research investigates… walking proteins. These molecules have legs one hundred million time smaller than ours, and walk along filaments inside the individual cells that make up our body. It has emerged that they are important for human health: their dysfunction is associated with a number of currently untreatable diseases, such as neurodegeneration. The ability of these proteins to walk correctly is vital, because they transport key materials in the cell to the right place at the right time. We want to know how this works at the molecular level.

I teach… mainly to students doing research projects in the laboratory. This is exciting, because it is teaching while attempting to discover something new at the same time. I also lecture to MRes and PhD students on the main techniques we use in our research, particularly microscopes that enable one to view individual molecules.

My typical day… has no predictable pattern, and this variety is one of my favourite parts of my job. Some days will be spent mostly in the laboratory, for example purifying the proteins that we study. This work has a pace not dissimilar to cooking, with multiple stages and incubations – although alas less delicious smells! Others will be on the microscopes, or analysing data. As the lab grows, I spend less time doing experiments myself, and more time talking to others about their data, and preparing grants, research papers, and seminars. The data we obtain from our research is very visual: thinking about ways to extract and present the important insights is a nice balance to these literary tasks.

I became a scientist… in a somewhat roundabout way. As a child, I wanted to be an artist. This interest in the visual remains a strong part of who I am. Later, I became curious about biology, and enjoyed the hard answers that maths and chemistry could provide. I did an undergraduate course in Biochemistry, really engaging with it as it transitioned from memorising facts to solving problems. In hindsight, it makes sense that I gravitated to what I work on now, as it combines all of these elements, but a number of fortuitous events made it happen. Chief among them were training with terrific mentors during my PhD and postdoctoral studies: Stan Burgess, Peter Knight and Samara Reck-Peterson.

My greatest professional achievement to date has been… obtaining the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society, which enabled me to start the laboratory at Birkbeck. The scale and flexibility of its support are a great help towards realising research ideas.

After work… it is nice to do something completely different. We like finding new places to eat and drink around where we live in east London, cooking, music, art and design, and relaxing.

My favourite part of my job is… the first glimpse of a new discovery, to be shared with lab members, students, and other scientists.

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An early modern treasure trove

Michael Willis is a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. He reflects on his internship at Shakespeare’s Globe

globe-theatre_michael-willis-blogEvery Tuesday began with a wintery riverside walk from Embankment to Bankside to work with an early modern treasure trove of books and archival material at Shakespeare’s Globe. The vast spectrum of material that I was exposed to fed my intellectual curiosity as an early modern theatre enthusiast!

Each week would be completely different. One week I’d analyse stage movements in Outside In performances, where a production originally performed on outdoor stage at the Globe was performed inside at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. Another week, I’d be researching costume designs, and in another I’d research early modern lighting. Working on the winter season, Wonder Noir, at the Sam Wannamaker I worked quite heavily on Webster’s challenging The White Devil. When it was originally performed in 1612, it was not received well and Webster blamed the ignorance of the audience and the wintery lighting for its poor reception.

Analysing the idea of voyeurism in the play, I traced the sordid and blackened world of a distorted Jacobean reality and wrote press tweets and researched for synopses of the play. One of my projects was to produce a Christmas blog. Working to a set deadline and with a range of archival material, I focused upon the cancellation of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century. The blog proved to be popular through its many re-tweets and re-posts upon social media most likely because it presented a world that is quite the antithesis to modern day Christmas time. I mean, can you imagine being thrown into prison for having a festive tipple whilst putting Christmas decorations up?

The internship allowed – and demanded, in a way – an investigation of very different materials. Whether that would be stage production documents or prop illustrations, each week required that I work to a tight deadline: a challenge but a motivation. I have developed a range of skills that will only serve to steer and inspire my research in my current MA, and as I embark upon a PhD later this year.

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“Lightes lightes now ginnes our play”: Illuminating the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This article was contributed by Rebecca Clossick, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance StudiesAll Posts

This season research at the Globe focused primarily on the experimental platform that is the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; the indoor Jacobean theatre archetype.  The first few years of productions have provided enormous research potential for the study of early modern indoor theatre practices and audience reception, and the Education department is now collating and analysing the findings.  As a research intern at this exciting time, many tasks related to gathering evidence for the Indoor Performance Practice project, coordinated by Dr Will Tosh, for the forthcoming publication Playing Indoors: Staging Early Modern Drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare).

Identifying the strategic way in which the Globe promoted the four major tragedies of the opening season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – drawing on ideas of Jacobean sensationalism and how extensively candlelight was central to sensual appeal – provided insight into how a modern theatre venue specialises in observing historic practice and attempts to imaginatively recreate experiences of past audiences.  Indeed, the candlelit interior is celebrated as its most appealing feature.

Frontispiece to The Wits, or Sport upon Sport, being a curious collection of several drols and farces, etc. (Written by ... Shake-spear, Fletcher, Johnson, Shirley, and others.) (pt. I.), (London: Francis Kirkman, 1673) The British Library, [accessed 05 March 2017]

Frontispiece to The Wits, or Sport upon Sport, being a curious collection of several drols and farces, etc. (Written by … Shake-spear, Fletcher, Johnson, Shirley, and others.) (pt. I.), (London: Francis Kirkman, 1673) The British Library [accessed 05 March 2017]

An indoor Jacobean theatre would have glittered by candlelight, although since critics rarely commented on lighting, there is little contemporary evidence on which to base interpretations of the early modern experience.  Seeking to emulate early modern indoor playing conditions, the Sam Wanamaker productions incorporate live flame emitted from handheld candlesticks, chandeliers suspended from above the stage, and wall brackets housing individual candles.  Investigating the significance of lighting changes on the indoor playhouse experience proved fascinating.  Concentrating focus on one tiny aspect of performance illuminated the potential for new research into the text and reception, as well as the space.

 George Wither, 105, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne : Quickened with metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation (London: 1635), Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

George Wither, 105, A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne : Quickened with metricall illustrations, both Morall and divine: And disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation (London: 1635), Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The various forms of artificial lighting used at the Sam Wanamaker – such as lanterns, candelabras, torches, window shutters controlling exterior light, under seat electric house lights – and their choreography was gathered from DVD recordings of performances, and from directors’ prompt books and stage management notes held in the Globe’s archive – some of which contained their own chandelier and candle plot, indicative perhaps of the pivotal efficacy of varied light.  The unanticipated discovery that each director has a vastly different management style, as evidenced in the highly-detailed prompt books for each production, also emphasises the continued creative attempts to interpret and re-enact the practical aspects of early modern theatre, while simultaneously crafting a unique and unforgettable experience for modern audiences.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 037_ pgs 072-073, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 56, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 037_ pgs 072-073, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 56, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The Sam Wanamaker production of John Webster’s macabre tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, was the opening show in the space and the first to experiment extensively with lighting changes.  Contrary to what may be perceived as merely ostentatious means of illuminating performance, the nuanced use of candlelight contributed to intricacies within the plot relating to elements such as suspense and character development.  Scenes were shaped by changes in lighting ranging from actors blocking the only source of onstage candlelight, casting shadows about, to the raising and lowering of candelabra, and at one point total darkness descended upon the entire theatre as all light was extinguished.  As research progressed, the function of candlelight proved increasingly to be one of the most significant elements contributing to the psychological intimacy of the play.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 035_ pgs 068-069, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 53, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Francis Quarles, Quarles Emblemes 035_ pgs 068-069, Emblems, divine and moral, together with Hieroglyphicks of the life of man (London: 1635), Sig. 53, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Indeed, R. B. Graves suggests that indoor artificial stage lights were in fact used ‘to indicate darkness, not to increase the sense of brightness in the play or the theater’.[6]  Modern practitioners have often interpreted this with actors entering holding up lanterns on an otherwise unlit stage, signifying attempts to light their way through the black of night.  Certainly, for Jacobean tragedy, the stark contrast between small, flickering flame and the blackness beyond heighten the sense of isolation, vulnerability, and physical and psychological torment.

ete Le May, Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2014), photograph, The Globe Theatre, London.

Copyright: Pete Le May, Interior of Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2014), photograph, The Globe Theatre, London.

 

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is an ongoing project that attempts to recreate the early modern indoor playhouse, such as the Blackfriars model, developing theatre practices around it.  Watching a production at the indoor theatre is a thrilling experience, not only due to the early modern design features and elaborate interior around which it was conceived, but also to the splendid artistic effects employed within performance.  As a supporter of the endeavour since its inception, and observing the marvellous production runs rouse many a curious onlooker, it was an honour and a pleasure to be afforded the opportunity to work in the treasure trove that is the Globe’s library and archive, researching the appeal of indoor playing both today and four hundred years ago.  The research internship concluded as the playhouse prepared to run its first indoor production of one of the most complex and sophisticated of revenge dramas, Webster’s The White Devil, a tale of corruption and hypocrisy, where the lighting configuration will undoubtedly complement the sinister plot.

 

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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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