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Making eye contact with strangers

If you're looking for a New Year's resolution how about this one: make more eye contact with strangers.

I was reading this powerful little list of Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century by some Professor of History. One idea that struck me is a very simple one:

11: Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.

In a large city like the one I live in, eye contact and small talk are rare. They're even rarer thanks to smartphones, of course - although, twenty years ago, Londoners were still avoiding each other, but using newspapers, novels and Gameboys instead. Anyway I do think smartphones create a mode of interaction which reduces incidental eye contact etc.

So I decided to take the advice. Over the past month or so I took those little opportunities - at the bus stop, at the pedestrian crossing, at the supermarket. A bit of eye contact, a few words about the traffic or whatever. I was surprised how many opportunities for effortless (and not awkward!) tiny bits of smalltalk there were and how worthwhile it was to take them. After the year we've had, this is a little tweak you can try, and who knows, it might help.

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Govt report on implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report into the implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research. The report is accompanied by a set of conclusions and recommendations.

By the way: the implications of Brexit (if indeed the UK ends up going through with it! So much is uncertain, even now) are massive and widespread. Science and engineering are only one of the many big issues that need to be considered. But as a UK sci/eng researcher I have good reasons to pay attention to this side of things! It's not about how much money I get. It's about whether the UK will be maintaining its attractive leading edge in research, as I said before the vote.

There are some really sound recommendations in there. Recommendation #4 is good: the Government should articulate a "genuinely comprehensive strategy for communicating its messages of ongoing support for science and research in the context of its plans for leaving the EU and the negotiations to follow." Why is this important? Because the Brexit vote itself send a message round the world about what kind of place Britain was, to existing and potential researchers. On top of that, really unfortunate messages were sent when certain government ministers talked casually about whether or not EU nationals would be allowed to stay in the country. So the Government has some work to do, to make sure the researchers of the future - currently planning to apply for PhDs, choosing courses/locations, and looking at global politics with eyebrows raised - understand that we want to work with them and we plan to treat them honourably.

This goes hand-in-hand with recommendation #6 and #7: mobility is crucial for research, and it'd be shooting ourselves in the foot to forget that. The Government's choice of negotiating position is going to make a massive difference here: how will they balance freedom-of-movement (though it's not my own wish to reduce it, a Brexit would be rather hollow if it didn't do so) against the access to market/finance which they seem to be expending the most energy worrying about? But in order for UK research to flourish, researchers from other countries - both present and future - need to know that they're welcome here and not threatened by uncertainty.

Frankly, though, I'm still left with the feeling "Why the hell are we still going through with this stupid idea?" I respect the outcome of the referendum but it expressed the nation's preferences, not any actual plan - and the elephant in the room is that any actual specific choice of Brexit is going to be one that the majority of people think is stupid and unjust - both the ones who voted for it as well as the ones who voted against it.

Read the recommendations in full - they are sensible.

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Remembering the run-up to the Iraq War

The LRB has an excellent article by Philippe Sands about the Chilcot Report and the Iraq War.

The UK had a key role in the Iraq War, and even before it happened there were millions of us on the streets marching against it: we said in advance that it was unjustified and would escalate terrorism in the region. (There's a video going round at the moment of Jeremy Corbyn back in the day, saying exactly that.) Now, looking back from a 2016 in which we have Isis/Da'esh and waves of refugees, there's no pleasure in the confirmation that we were right. The consequences reverberated not just through the region, but through to the EU and the UK too. Millions of us ignored, and so many killed (not least, directly killed in the war), because Tony Blair had pledged to Bush: "I'm with you, whatever".

Some quotes from the article:

"[The inquiry said] 'we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council's authority.'"

The inquiry received 37 legal responses regarding the war's legality, "reflecting the views of 57 expert individuals and six organisations. Just one of them supported the claim that the war was lawful."

"On 31 January [2003], Blair met Bush and offered a commitment that contradicted the legal advice given to him by Goldsmith the previous day."

"[Goldsmith's] formal advice - the 7 March document permeated with an understanding of the uncertainty and risk involved in going to war - was deliberately withheld from cabinet."

Our government (and related organisations such as the UN Security Council) are built with checks and balances, so that things such as ill-advised wars on the basis of misconstrued information should be less likely.

The article is well worth a read.

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Brexit vs the science around me: the first month

Just before the Brexit referendum I was wondering how Brexit would affect the kind of people coming to work with us. That's a long-term effect and very hard to measure. But really, like most of the country I hadn't really thought deeply about the direct practical consequences of an Exit vote, in this case the consequences for research that would show themselves within the first month.

The effect is on EU funding in particular. Since the UK hasn't actually left the EU, you might think that things carry on "as normal" until that point - existing projects continue, and you can even apply for new projects. (In fact, that's essentially the official guidance so far.) The problem is that collaborative EU grants are the lifeblood of a lot of research, and they're also very competitive. I know of at least one colleague who's been taken off a grant proposal (which is being organised by someone in another EU country), because a UK partner now means a risk factor that could easily cause a reviewer or a programme administrator to mark the proposal down.

Similarly, at least two colleagues who have been leading on EU grant proposals, they're now in a difficult situation. After having put a lot of work into preparing a proposal, do they submit and risk getting marked down as a risk factor? Do they rewrite the proposal with Brexit backup strategies? Do they stop and wait to see what happens?

(I'm not writing this down to change anyone's mind about Brexit, by the way. Just documenting.)

Less concrete, but in my own first-hand experience: we were intending to invite a good researcher to come and work with us under the Marie Sklodowska Curie scheme (which funds researchers to spend time in another country), but I'm not sure how we can do that now. The funding is still there, but apart from the "risk factor" effect mentioned above, the potential researchers would obviously need to know how it affects their right to work in the UK (will they need a visa?) and what career options might follow on afterwards; and there's pretty much nothing we can say in answer to such questions.

This Guardian article, "UK scientists dropped from EU projects because of post-Brexit funding fears" puts the same phenomena in a wider context. This quote, for example:

Joe Gorman, a senior scientist at Sintef, Norway's leading research institute, said he believed UK industry and universities would see "a fairly drastic and immediate reduction in the number of invitations to join consortiums. [...] I strongly suspect that UK politicians simply don’t understand this, and think it is 'business as usual', at least until negotiations have been completed. They are wrong, the problems start right now."

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Remainers, referendums, parliament

Many "Remainers" are writing to their MPs, emphasising the referendum was "advisory" and sometimes demanding a second referendum. I think both of those are damaging and alienating ideas to cling to, they won't help to fix our politics.

The ideal way forward is for the next PM to get some informal outline, the likely shape of a UK/EU deal, and put it to Parliament at the same time as a bill authorising them to trigger Article 50. We know that the Leave campaign's fairytale deal is not going to be on the table. So, armed with better information, Parliament could then choose to enable or refuse the triggering of Article 50. I don't know what the outcome would be; but it would be the right way for our democracy to work, and it leaves open a route "back into the EU" now that some of the referendum's consequences (not least, for the future of the UK as a union) are crystal clear.

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Brexit vs the science in my office

So, fine, there's a letter in The Times signed by over 5500 scientists arguing that UK science would suffer in the event of Brexit. They talk about funding, and collaboration, and shared infrastructure. There are cited sources for their evidence. I agree with the letter. I even signed it. But it's so boring and abstract. And all this stuff about financial stuff just disappears into the mist of the general economic to-and-fro.

Then the other day it hit me:

In our research group, in the exact office I work in every day, we have researchers from all sorts of countries, but mostly from the EU. Would they all be here if the UK had divorced itself from the EU? I don't think so. Have you seen the bureaucracy that an American has to go through to work or study in the UK? (I say "American" (meaning USA) to emphasise that the burden is there even for the richer countries.) I don't know how they maintain the energy to go through that!

So if it was much more hassle to study here than in Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, it's clear to me that we'd lose some proportion of those scientific minds coming over to collaborate or to study. I'm not even talking about the people who are directly funded by the EU, and nor am I assuming some massive limitation on free movement. We'd lose out from the multiple little frictions of no longer being part of the big club that makes so easy the sharing of people who have good ideas.

Some people would counter this with suggestions about collaborating with other countries instead: the Commonwealth, China, India. Well guess what? We already do plenty of that too. It's not a zero-sum game.

So yes, our excellent science definitely benefits from the free movement of people in the EU. But if I say it like that, it sounds so abstract again. - The great people I've encountered in my research career, the great ideas they've come up with and developed together, which of them would not be there?

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The Tower Hamlets Local Plan

If you live or work in Tower Hamlets then please give them feedback on the "Local Plan" they're developing. It's a plan for the next 10-15 years of development in the borough.

So... what's the point of a Local Plan? In practice, it's a document which ...

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Poverty: demolish sink estates or not?

David Cameron wrote an article today saying that knocking down poor people's homes is how to make their lives better. ("David Cameron vows to 'blitz' poverty by demolishing UK's worst sink estates").

There's a short version of my response to this: go and read Anne Power who ...

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Carpenters Estate - Is it viable or not?

Newham Council has handled the current Carpenters Estate protest shockingly badly. Issuing a press release describing the protesting mothers as "agitators and hangers-on" is just idiotically bad handling.

BUT they have also described Carpenters Estate as not "viable", and many commentators (such as Zoe Williams, Russell Brand) have lampooned them ...

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Carpenters Estate, Stratford - some background

"A group of local mothers are squatting next to London’s Olympic Park to tell the government we need social housing, not social cleansing" as featured in the Guardian and on Russell Brand's Youtube channel. The estate is Carpenters Estate, Stratford.

"Carpenters Estate," I thought to myself, "that rings ...

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