“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 Studies

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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Do we still need public research funding?

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

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

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

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

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

…but some think that public research funding is unnecessary…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trailblazing in mathematics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Improving access to student service information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Antibiotics: victims of their own success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science Week 2017: Microbes in the Real World

Date: Monday 3 April

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

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

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

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Social justice must be at the heart of a renewed strategy for integration and cohesion

This article was written by Dr Ben Gidley from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies and Prof David Feldman, Director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck

It’s not unusual, when a major government report is published – not least on a contentious topic such as integration and cohesion – that the content of the report bears little relationship to how it is spun by ministers and reported in the media.

In the case of the report earlier this month of the Casey Review into Integration and Opportunity, sensationalist media reportage has amplified the elements of the report which demonise particular – mainly Muslim, migrant and Roma – communities already feeling under pressure in Brexit Britain, promoted a message that integration is somehow the solution to the problem of politically-correct multiculturalism, and highlighted the most gimmicky recommendations.

Civil society activists, academics and the liberal commentariat have understandably focused on the same problematic elements from a critical angle, while also highlighting the unevenness in the use of evidence in the report (heavy on official statistics, thinktank reports, attitudinal surveys and anecdote, light on the use of scholarly literature and in particular on qualitative research on how integration works in practice).

And so, once again, an excellent opportunity for a meaningful national debate on this important topic is slipping out of reach.

The Casey Review makes three major political interventions. The one that has been highlighted in the public debate so far is elaboration of integration as a panacea for the alleged failures of multiculturalism, with a focus on migrants’ and minorities’ responsibility to integrate and sign up to “British values”, tested, for example, through a heavy-handed integration oath on entry. In this sense, the report follows the orthodoxy embraced by New Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments since the 9/11 attacks and milltown riots of 2001.

The other two interventions, however, have received less attention, and deserve more acknowledgement. First is the insistence that, while integration happens locally, it is not enough to devolve all responsibility to it for under-resourced and under-equipped local authorities and their civil society partners. What is needed is a national strategy and national guidance – and nationally ring-fenced funding.

Second, we cannot talk about integration without talking about what Casey generally refers to as inequality of opportunity – the structural iniquities which block the path to integration of some groups. Casey is admirably clear that discrimination and racism (intensified by irresponsible media), alongside class injustice, is one of the primary barriers to integration.

These are points we made in a 2014 report to the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, Integration, Disadvantage and Extremism, based on a thorough review of the evidence.

market-778851_1280There, we showed that many in Britain’s diverse population – including both minority ethnic and majority ethnic citizens – face a range of disadvantages, several of which are shared. These disadvantages give rise to both real and imagined grievances – whether about the war on terror or about rapid demographic change. We showed that social disadvantage and racial injustice, alienation and disempowerment, generate divisive social relations and political movements that feed on hate.

We concluded therefore that integration policy must be aligned with the realities of disadvantage: rather than tackle intolerance and extremism in isolation, the debate about achieving racial equality, social mobility and social justice must be at the heart of a renewed strategy for integration and cohesion.

By reviewing the evidence of what has worked at a local and national level, we concluded that the continued national abdication of responsibility for integration strategy is untenable. Crucially, a national strategy requires national guidelines for its implementation. It should set out detailed, concrete, substantive actions and a coherent methodology for measuring progress, based on robust data: such a “smart” approach is the only cost-effective approach to doing social policy in a time of austerity.

The urgency of these tasks has been amplified by the evidence presented in the Casey Review. But they will fail if the debate continues to be dominated by the shrill voices of panic and isolationism, if a rigorous analysis of disadvantage continues to be obscured by a mantra that equates the working class with whiteness and sees the white working class as some kind of ethnic group, and if the evidence required for smart interventions is dismissed in the Brexit age’s retreat from expertise.

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Trump trolls, Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement: The internet meets politics

This article was written by Andrea Ballatore, Lecturer in Geographic Information Science, and Simone Natale, Loughborough University. It was originally published on The Conversation

We blame the internet for a lot of things, and now the list has grown to include our politics. In a turbulent year marked by the U.K.‘s decision to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump, some have started to wonder to what extent the recent events have to do with the technology that most defines our age.

In the aftermath of Trump’s victory, commentators accused Facebook of being indirectly responsible for his election. Specifically, they point to the role of social media in spreading virulent political propaganda and fake news. The internet has been increasingly presented as a possible cause for the post-truth culture that allegedly characterizes contemporary democracies.

These reactions are a reminder that new technologies often stimulate both hopes and fears about their impact on society and culture. The internet has been seen as both the harbinger of political participation and the main culprit for the decline of democracy. The network of networks is now more than a mere vehicle of political communication: It has become a powerful rhetorical symbol people are using to achieve political goals.

This is currently visible in Europe, where movements such as the Pirate Parties and the Italian Five Star Movement, which we have studied, build their political messages around the internet. To them, the internet is a catalyst for radical and democratic change that channels growing dissatisfaction with traditional political parties.

Web utopias and dystopias

The emergence of political enthusiasm for the internet owes much to U.S. culture in the 1990s. Internet connectivity was spreading from universities and corporations to an increasingly large portion of the population. During the Clinton administration, Vice President Al Gore made the “Information Superhighway” a flagship concept. He linked the development of a high-speed digital telecommunication network to a new era of enlightened market democracy.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined volunteer efforts to wire schools to the internet in 1997. AP Photo/Greg Gibson

The enthusiasm for information technology and free-market economics spread from Silicon Valley and was dubbed Californian Ideology. It inspired a generation of digital entrepreneurs, technologists, politicians and activists in Silicon Valley and beyond. The 2000 dot-com crash only temporarily curbed the hype.

In the 2000s, the rise of sharing platforms and social media – often labeled as “Web 2.0” – supported the idea of a new era of increased participation of common citizens in the production of cultural content, software development and even political revolutions against authoritarian regimes.

The promise of the unrestrained flow of information also engendered deep fears. In 1990s, the web was already seen by critics as a vehicle for poor-quality information, hate speech and extreme pornography. We knew then that the Information Superhighway’s dark side was worryingly difficult to regulate.

Paradoxically, the promise of decentralization has resulted in few massive advertising empires like Facebook and Google, employing sophisticated mass surveillance techniques. Web-based companies like Uber and Airbnb bring new efficient services to millions of customers, but are also seen as potential monopolists that threaten local economies and squeeze profits out of impoverished communities.

The public’s views on digital media are rapidly shifting. In less than 10 years, the stories we tell about the internet have moved from praising its democratic potential to imagining it as a dangerous source of extreme politics, polarized echo chambers and a hive of misogynist and racist trolls.

Cyber-optimism in Europe

While cyber-utopian views have lost appeal in the U.S., the idea of the internet as a promise of radical reorganization of society has survived. In fact, it has become a defining element of political movements that thrive in Western Europe.

In Italy, an anti-establishment party know as the Five Star Movement became the second most-voted for party in Italy in the 2013 national elections. According to some polls, it might soon even win general elections in Italy.

The Five Star Movement’s Virginia Raggi, 37, was elected as Rome’s first female and youngest mayor in June. AP Photo/Fabio Frustaci

In our research, we analyzed how the Italian Five Star Movement uses a mythical idea of the internet as a catalyst for its political message. In the party’s rhetoric, declining and corrupt mainstream parties are allied with newspapers and television. By contrast, the movement claims to harness the power of the web to “kill” old politics and bring about direct democracy, efficiency and transparency in governance.

Similarly in Iceland, the Pirate Party is now poised to lead a coalition government. Throughout the few last years, other Pirate Parties have emerged and have been at times quite successful in other European countries, including Germany and Sweden. While they differ in many ways from the Five Star Movement, their leaders also insist that the internet will help enable new forms of democratic participation. Their success was made possible by the powerful vision of a new direct democracy facilitated by online technologies.

A vision of change

Many politicians all over the world run campaigns on the promise of change, communicating a positive message to potential voters. The rise of forces such as the Five Star Movement and the Pirate Parties in Europe is an example of how the rhetoric of political change and the rhetoric of the digital revolution can interact with each other, merging into a unique, coherent discourse.

In thinking about the impact of the internet in politics, we usually consider how social media, websites and other online resources are used as a vehicle of political communication. Yet, its impact as a symbol and a powerful narrative is equally strong.

The Conversation

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Rebirth and regeneration, or just a Trojan horse for gentrification?

Mark Panton, researcher in the Department of Management, is currently investigating sport as a key agent for urban regeneration. Here, he considers the issues in the context of the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as developments closer to home.

“It’s just a Trojan horse for gentrification” is a phrase I have heard frequently during my PhD research into stadium-led regeneration in Tottenham. With the Olympic Games as a “catalyst”, rebirth and regeneration was the message behind the Opening Ceremony that heralded the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics.  Where does the balance lie?

The estimated total Olympic spend in Rio is US$ 9.75 Billion[1] according to the Plan of Public Policies – Legacy report presented at the 2016 Play the Game international conference. Undoubtedly sporting facilities can have longevity and value – as can improvements in transport infrastructure tied to Olympic projects. However, they are costly and there is growing concern about “Cathedrals in the desert”; abandoned facilities that deliver little value after the event.

Transportation infrastructure is emphasised by Rio as the most substantial Olympic legacy.  Projects have included construction of two substantial museums, revamping of several public spaces and incentivized building construction. There has been urban renewal around the Maracanã stadium, but this has led to communities being evicted from surrounding areas and a public athletics centre closed without warning in 2013. None of the major environmental projects linked to the Olympics were completed before the Games and Mario Moscatelli, a biologist, who has campaigned for decades to clean-up Rio’s water, says he “only sees things getting worse”.

There is also recognition that in property terms, hosting the games creates winners and losers.  With Rio’s Games closely following the Brazil World Cup in 2014 there have been many losers. It is estimated that all over Brazil, families in their several tens of thousands have been moved.  This process has been described as “social cleansing rationalised as instrument of ‘slash and burn’ planning,” (Lawrence & Wishart Blog, 2016). For many who remain in areas of Olympic-linked reconstruction there is the fear of the effects of gentrification such as the displacement of lower-income families and small businesses – as there is in the stadium-led regeneration of Tottenham.

However, there has been an unplanned but similar legacy from these developments in Rio and Tottenham. This is the growth in community networks that have been mobilised, aided by increased access to new technologies. As RioOnWatch points out, this may be scant consolation for many of those whose lives have been harmed by the Olympic dream (or demolitions in Tottenham), but these connections may represent the real regeneration for communities wanting to influence future policy decisions.

[1] This figure used an undervalued exchange rate of US$1 = R$ 4.00.  If the exchange rate used in the dossier of the application of US$ 1.00 = R$ 2.00 had been maintained, the total cost would be US$ 19.5 billion.

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The importance of language

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, spoke during Graduation Week at ceremonies to congratulate the College’s newest graduates.

Here, she explains the importance of the skills graduates from Birkbeck learn in the course of their studies and how it is vital, now more than ever, that the use of language needs to be reasoned to foster democratic debate  

You have all been studying hard to earn the degrees you have received today.  In so doing you have come to appreciate the important of being correct in how you express yourself:  mathematicians will appreciate that a digit out of place; a miscalculation can destroy chapters of effort.

Those of you studying social sciences, history and law will be finely tuned to the need for a precise and consistent pursuit of what is exact.  Those of you graduating in philosophy will have tangled directly with the nature of truth itself and when and how to present a statement – and to refute it.

I hope you excuse my telling you what you already know: because this matter of language is playing an important role in the life of not only our country, but in the world at large.  In two major arenas of public activity – the American election and the Brexit situation – language and how it is used is coming under great strain, not to say misuse and deliberation falsification.

Does it matter? It is only politics after all; it is only election rhetoric.  My case is that it matters very much – and that now, more than ever, the nature of language needs to be safeguarded by those trained in analysis, logic and deduction; that is, people such as yourselves.  I encourage you to welcome and uphold that responsibility.  Here’s why.

We have lived through an American election that insults the reputation of that great country and the foresight and shrewdness of its founding fathers.  When one candidate can insult and distort the role of the other with such impunity – speaking of Hillary Clinton as a criminal, deserving of prison, even a possibly target for direct violence – then civilised language has reached its limit.

When there is nowhere else to go with language then strong feeling gets expressed in action – often violent action. What is significant is that the strong statement itself – eye-catching  but wrong and  taken up by the media – is unyielding to correction.

It is no good to say, ‘she isn’t a criminal’, or more challengingly ask, ‘where’s the evidence?’ Damage has already been done.  Damage in public life is what we seek to avoid.  Damage – harm to our civil life and to our political institutions – can be long term and permanently undermining. That is why respect for language and the delicacy which it can express subtle ideas needs to be part of all our – of all your – lives.

The situation with Brexit is equally alarming.  It is one of the most serious changes to our constitution in more than 50 years. Unfortunately it has been  subjected to what many of us recognised as extravagant exaggeration: quite  separate from the very important issues that deserve thoughtful  assessment and judgement.  “Come out of the EU and the NHS can get the millions saved”; “Turkey is joining the EU so soon millions of Turks will be coming to Britain” – these  widely publicized slogans were to distort the very sound case to be made for leaving the EU and damage the reputation of  leading politicians  for the foreseeable future.

Well, OK, they’re politicians and they can be expected to be casual with language. Then last week a national newspaper accused three High Court judges, ruling on the rights of Parliament to discuss Brexit or not of being ‘enemies of the people’. Historically enemies of the people have been subject to charges of treason, to Star Chamber trials, to torture and execution.  It is a use of language that is well beyond any civilised exchange of opinions. It is of course, quite correct to challenge judgements made by the courts – there are checks and balances that allow us to do so – and such a challenge will indeed take place.

My point is that the use of such emotive and irrational language drives out the more subtle arguments that are the nature of democratic exchange and leads to a gross distortion of what is actually the intended case.

While we all digest the prospect of Brexit let me address some of the crucial issues close to the heart of Birkbeck.  We are an open society:  look around at the diversity by age, gender, ethnicity and faith of those around you.  This is society as we want it to be.  We at Birkbeck know it works:  it brings happiness and fulfilment into many lives. It promotes discourse, harmony, tolerance and civic responsibility among those who come here.

We rejoice that you too have been and I hope will remain part of such a society and take into your homes, your jobs and your communities the values we all share.  Do not let false and damaged language persuade you otherwise. The society of learning is global, interconnected and mutually respectful:  you are all welcome to its ranks.

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Armistice Day: Remembering Birkbeck’s war poet

A self-portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, who as painted as well as writing poetry

A self-portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, who painted as well as writing poetry

An evening celebrating the life and work of Isaac Rosenberg is taking place on Sunday, 27th November between 6pm and 8pm in Senate House, Bloomsbury.

Featuring actress Miriam Margolyes, Alexander Knox, Simon Haynes, Philip Bell, Elaine Feinstein and Vivi Lachs and her band, this evening of words, music and images has been written and devised by Rosenberg’s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

The event is being hosted by the Jewish East End Celebration Society to raise funds for a statue of Rosenberg in Torrington Square, outside Birkbeck’s main Malet Street building.

The First World War inspired a huge amount of poetry, by both soldiers and civilians. One of the most well-known poets, Isaac Rosenberg, studied in the evenings at the Art School at Birkbeck from 1907-1908, while spending his day as an apprentice graver. Rosenberg won several prizes during his time at the College and exhibited his work in the Art School’s annual exhibition after leaving. Rosenberg was killed while fighting in the Battle of the Somme in the spring of 1918. Today, we publish one of his most famous poems to mark Armistice Day.

In 2000, Professor Steven Connor  gave a lecture at Birkbeck about Rosenberg’s life and works. Read the lecture.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens ?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.

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