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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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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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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