Government must make up its mind on science

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Astronomers must make own case So are we going to fund science or not?

The main thrust of Gordon Brown’s argument on embryology is that if we do not pass controversial legislation, then the UK will be left behind as other countries move ahead. But, at the same time, his government is busy starving primary research in fields which are entirely legal and create no ethical dilemmas.

From the 1940s until the 1970s (or so I’m told, as I wasn’t there), the British attitude to scientific research was that it was a good thing, and the government should back it. Just here in the Midlands we saw the invention of Radar, the microwave, the heart pacemaker and holography. British universities could count on — if not funding royale — the solid support of government. But from the 1980s (remember who was in power?) Britain began to tighten its belt. Research grants suffered. Student loans were brought in as a cheaper alternative to full grants. In the 1990s universities continued to be squeezed, until Blair came in with ‘Education, Education and Education’. However, his vision was not greater depth, but greater breadth. Vastly more people would go to university, but they would pay tuition fees for it. Meanwhile, Britain continued to innovate, and many British inventions were then taken up overseas, for want of British backing.

We can point to a number of successes. Clive Sinclair’s ZX80 home computer and Electric Car. Dyson’s cyclone vacuum cleaner. Trevor Baylis’s amazing clockwork radio. But innovators and inventors consistently claim that Britain does not value them.

Blair’s government did not have a policy on science and technology, and Brown’s does not have one either. It may make complete economic sense to prepare Britain to be the heartland of embryology, but it makes no sense to starve astronomy and other disciplines while doing so. Of course, it can be argued that embryology is a science with a direct economic benefit over the next ten years. Brown may argue that if he wishes, but in advancing that argument he will demonstrate his utter lack of understanding of the nature of scientific research. The programme par excellence which demonstrated the spin-off benefits of ‘irrelevant’ research was NASA’s programme to reach the moon. Nobody has ever found anything on the moon worth bringing back. But everyone acknowledges that the spin-off benefits of NASA’s work have been immense and far-reaching.

It’s all very well telling astronomers that they have to make their own case. But the kinds of people who are good at primary scientific research are not necessarily the people who are good at making the case for funding. This has become more than apparent in other areas, such as the arts, where ability to make ones case is the primary means by which one gains funding. There is a small industry of lottery-award consultants which has grown up around the self-awareness of artists that being good at something and being able to sell it are not the same thing at all.

There is a group of people who are good at making the case for things, and who are paid to have a broad view and a generous understanding of what is important and why. These people are not scientists but politicians. For politicians, through their civil servants and arms-length organisations, to tell scientists they must make their own case is both ironic and dysfunctional. Britain needs a future in the sciences, and investment in primary research is something which has paid our nation dividends for the last four hundred years — from the chronometer to the steam engine, and from calculus to penicillin and on to the discovery of DNA.

Does Britain need the ethically dubious honour of being the easiest country in the West to conduct embryology experiments? That is a matter for debate, and, we have finally agreed, for a free vote in the House of Commons. Does it need a science policy which is more than a starvation diet? Absolutely, and without doubt.

Gordon Brown, get your act together.

MP Conway has not “done the right thing”

BBC NEWS | Politics | Suspension looming for MP Conway Last night on Radio 4’s PM programme we were treated to the spectacle of Ann Morrison, Chair of the local Conservative Party, refusing to answer most questions but saying that Tory MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup Derek Conway was doing the ‘right thing’ by announcing that he was standing down at the next election.


Let us understand exactly what Mr Conway is accused of having done. At a time when the Tories have been merrily demanding the fall of Labour ministers for inaccurately reporting donations for their deputy-leadership campaign – although there is no suggestion that any of these ministers used the money for personal gain, or spent money in a dishonest way – Derek Conway is accused of handing over £13,161 of public money to a son who entirely failed to do anything to justify this. Of course, the police have not as yet investigated this, and the accusation is therefore not legally proven. On the other hand, Derek Conway and the Conservative Party are not denying it.

If an employee of, say, the NHS, or a local councillor, or a policeman were found to have given £13,161 to anyone improperly, they would find themselves immediately suspended and shortly afterwards dismissed. If they had handed over £13,161 to a member of their own family, they would have found themselves in jail shortly after that.

We must understand that the accusation against Derek Conway is completely different from the accusation against Peter Hain. Hain’s alleged ‘crime’ is that money given for the political activities of the Labour party is said to have been used for political activities of the Labour party which are not quite the same as the political activities of the Labour party for which it was given. This is reprehensible, because anyone in public life should be entirely transparent in regard to their finances and donations. But it is a technical violation, and as much an artefact of our tortuous regulations as anything else.

My Conway’s “administrative shortcomings and … misjudgements” (his words) are that he took taxpayer’s money and used it to increase the fortunes of his own family without giving the taxpayer any benefit whatsoever.

This is a clear abuse of his position, one based on the trust of the electorate, and is sleaze on the level of Cash for Questions under the last Tory administration.

What sanction has David Cameron imposed? Initially nothing, then, after twenty-four hours in which it became clear that the Conservative party (ie, his own personal reputation) was being tarnished, he withdrew the whip, in other words, saying “this man is no longer a Conservative”. But, Mr Cameron, this man was a Conservative when he was doing the deed. It is now that he is contrite and repentant that he is no longer a Conservative. And yet, David Cameron refused to rule out Mr Conway regaining the whip at a later stage.

Mr Conway has said that he will not stand at the next election. This would be like a shop-assistant caught with their fingers in the till saying “I’m sorry I was caught, and I’ll look at getting another job in a couple of years.” But his majority was in any case only 3,345 – far too slim a majority to defend when questions of sleaze are on the table. Aged 55 now, he will probably by 57 then, so if he stood for that seat again and lost it (as he certainly would), it would probably not be until the age of 62 that he would be able to stand for another seat at a General Election: a little old to be restarting his parliamentary career.

In other words, Derek Conway has promised to do nothing more than bow to the inevitable. He has not “done the right thing” – which in this case would be to resign his seat straight away and trigger a bye-election – and David Cameron has not “done the right thing” by withdrawing the whip. Cameron should have let him keep the whip and instructed him to resign immediately, and then faced the electorate in a bye-election straight away. Of course, the last thing that Cameron wants is a bye-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup, now or ever. All he has done is try to limit the damage to himself, at the very time that he is trying to embarrass Gordon Brown in regard to the far more minor misdoings of Labour politicians.

It is time to clean up politics. Brown does not show much inclination to do so. Cameron postured about it, but has now shown that he has absolutely no interest in moral politics, and is merely engaged in looking for advantage where he can get it.

It is time for the electorate to look elsewhere.

Toy weapons: why the government is (surprisingly) right and the NUT is wrong

BBC NEWS | Education | Toy weapons help boys to learnA new government report urging teachers not to stop boys playing with toy weapons has been sharply criticised by the NUT and the NASUWT. NUT General Secretary Steve Sinnott said that the problem was that toy weapons “symbolised aggression”. Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT decided to play it safe by deliberately misconstruing the advice: “I do not think schools should be encouraging boys to play with toy weapons.” — the government advice is ‘not to stop them’ — which is hardly the same thing.

I have to declare an interest at this point (actually, two interests). As the West Midlands fencing captain, I’m clearly not one of those people who believes that playing with weapons creates aggression. Actually, one of the most common faults in a particular kind of beginning fencer is that they have far too much aggression, and have to learn to focus on control. The other is a story from my childhood. As good Guardian-reading left-of-centre intellectuals, my parents decided that I should not be given a toy gun (my mother tells this story repeatedly to strangers, so I have no qualms about sharing it here). All went well up until the age of two, when the girl across the yard (we were living in Todmorden, West Yorkshire) asked me what I wanted for my birthday. “A gun”, I replied without any hesitation. As of that birthday, our house was never without a toy gun, although my life took a significant upturn when I made a wooden sword for a Sunday School play at the age of five. The sword was immediately taken off me when I arrived for the rehearsal – apparently the instruction that all the players should make and bring their own swords was countermanded by a higher authority – and I was given a cardboard sword with gold paper on it. However, the wooden sword was returned to me, and, when we moved to Stechford the following year, enabled myself and my sister to gain a place in the Rosemary Road cul-de-sac gang of under 10s when we fought off the other children in the street on our first day, all of whom had plastic swords. I digress, though.

The house I live in now contains two epees, six foils, one sabre, and a collection of broken blades which I haven’t yet got rid of. Strangely, neither the gun at the age of two, nor the wooden sword at age five, nor the fencing weapons that lurk in our hallway and odd corners of the house, nor any other toy or sport weapons before or since have ever led me into becoming an aggressive or bloodthirsty person. Competitive, yes. But you can be competitive playing chess, draughts, noughts and crosses or even (as experienced this Christmas) Uno.

The government’s report is actually no more than the common sense which (I can’t believe I’m writing this) readers of the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have been urging on us for years. It’s in the same train of thought as last Christmas’s big hit: The Dangerous Book for Boys. “Boys will be boys”, as the saying goes, and there is a level at which they need to be allowed to be.

Don’t get me wrong on this. I’m not going right wing, and I certainly have no intention of taking out a subscription to the Daily Telegraph. But there is a point at which, as liberals and democrats, we need to look again at the politically correct consensus which (perhaps) we ourselves have contributed to: weapons do symbolise aggression. But do they make boys more aggressive, or merely symbolise an innate or natural aggression? The NASUWT suggests that letting boys play with guns is gender stereotyping. Well, perhaps. But it certainly wasn’t for me, as I had no access to the kind of gender stereotypes that promoted guns. There were no guns in the house, no picture books of guns, we didn’t have a television (it was 1968), and I’d never even heard of the cinema.

At the end of the school day, boys slip further behind girls in the UK, and have been doing so year on year for more than a decade. It’s particularly apparent in deprived communities.

On the precautionary principle, perhaps we just need to stop doing the things that stop boys being boys. Or, at least, in a liberal and democratic way, be open to the possibilities.

Banning prostitution is not the answer — but fining the clients might be

BBC NEWS | Politics | UK should outlaw paying for sex

After endless amounts of backwards and forwards discussion, Harriet Harman is considering “banning” prostitution. Her reasons are something I applaud – to reduce the sex market, thereby decreasing the profits of sex-trafficking, and moving towards eliminating the modern slave-trade.

Actually, though, ‘banning’ is something that patently does not work as far as what is generally referred to as ‘vice’ is concerned. The American experiment with Prohibition of Alcohol is invariably cited as the case in point. On the other hand, the solution recommended by the English Collective of Prostitutes – to legalise building-based prostitution, as has been done in New Zealand – has also been proven not to work. In Amsterdam and across Belgium, building-based prostitution has been shown as the best of all worlds for people-traffickers. Their victims are out of sight, easy to control.

This sounds like the counsel of despair. If banning doesn’t work, and if legalisation doesn’t work, we are almost at the point of saying that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – and what a terrible world that is.

Some solutions, have yet to be tried. It has been hinted at in radio interviews, but the best solution is to target the clients. Any kind of restrictions on sex-workers invariably results in more pressure by pimps and traffickers on illegal immigrants. The threat of law is used against the victims. What’s more, those involved in semi-consensual sex, which is most prostitutes, can only pay the fines that are currently dished out to them in magistrates’ courts by engaging in more prostitution. Targeting the clients, on the other hand, goes (as the Inland Revenue say) ‘where the money is’. There are at least three kinds of prostitutes: trafficked women, semi-consensual prostitutes, and (most often heard on the radio) prostitutes who choose to do what they do. There is only one kind of client: men who want sex, and are prepared to pay for it. The experience of research in Belgium is that men are unwilling to distinguish between the three kinds. Target the clients, and the market reduces.

However, this approach can only be pursued if routes are created out of prostitution for those who want to exit the trade. This is not only for trafficked women. There are plenty of semi-consensual prostitutes, working to pay for drug-habits, or because their economic situation is one for which they cannot find another solution. We don’t (as yet) have sufficiently integrated paths out of drug-use. Any way out needs to be carefully constructed at a local level to provide drug rehabilitation, dental treatment (almost always essential for drug users), training for employment, social housing, and more. This can only happen if we commit to it as a society: far too often initiatives of this kind are held back because ‘ordinary’ people (or their local political representatives) say that they don’t want public money to go on helping people out of their own bad choices to this extent. It’s the same argument that says that teenage girls get pregnant in order to get housing benefit. True, or not? Hard to say. But irrelevant. In a civilised society, we need to invest in people’s lives to bring them back into mainstream society, no matter how they fell out of it. If we are not willing to pay the price, then we must accept that we will never approach an answer to human trafficking.

Which makes all of us guilty.

Back to Top