Cold dinosaurs

Back to happier things: here is a great story of fossil-hunting in the Antarctic

And a good role model for budding female scientists too. What could be more fun than dinosaur hunting in the Antarctic?!

Dinosaurs have long been an amateur passion – and Sue and I went to the sensational Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, at the beginning of the hummingbird season. It’s such a great museum. Wonderful and inspiring.

Here is a photo of an amazing Pachycephalosuarus skull in their collection.

Pachycephalosaurus for web

Where now, a time of gifts? EU thoughts part 2.

As a follow-on to my previous EU referendum posts, here is a longer, more general post outlining my thoughts on EU membership and the EU referendum. Over recent days, the opinion polls are showing momentum for Brexit, and so this post may end up on the wrong side of history. If you haven’t seen my other posts, I am strongly supportive of staying in the EU, mostly because of the benefits of social, economic and political alliances among countries. Together, we may sometimes disagree with each other, but together we are always stronger.

There are two crucial underlying themes to the referendum debate. The first is the perceived disconnect between the “woman and man in the street” and the “ruling elites” (be they political, monied, intellectual*, or whatever in nature). I say “perceived”, because I suspect this disconnect is, ironically, also in part a construction of the over-anxious ruling classes, and that in fact many UK citizens do feel engaged with UK politics to some extent. But disillusionment with politics is also rife, I certainly accept that. [*probably not!]

The second is the failure of meaningful debate. To some extent, these two themes are related, but there still has been a woeful neglect of substantive, reasoned debate even amongst the supposed elites. This lack of debate has been to our detriment.

Much could be written about how the campaign over the UK’s EU Referendum has played itself out across the media. For instance, one could explore the reasons why leaving the EU may appeal to some (immigration, sovereignty, globalisation, the sickness of neoliberalism, a disdain for politics-as-usual, and so on). One could also consider how both remainers and leavers have played fast-and-loose with facts, figures and fantasies of fortune and glory – although I think the greater use of flat-out untruths has to lie with the Brexiteers. Please watch Dominic Cummings being closely cross-examined by Andrew Tyrie (a Tory, by the way) to get an insight into supposedly a key player in the Leave camp.

What would be harder to write about would be the way in which thoughtful, intellectually rich discourse has helped shape national opinion, both for and against staying in the EU. As with the Scottish referendum back in 2014, the level of debate has been at times churlish, childish, and often intellectually vacuous. Perhaps worst of all, ideas of “democracy” seem to be conflated with ideas of getting one’s own way, and undercurrents of nationalism – and worse – have never been that far from view.

Crucially, the remainers have failed to articulate clearly what the EU is, how it works, what it does for us, and why together we are stronger. The focus on remaining has – again ironically – all been about leaving. I suspect come 24th June, in or out, the vast majority of UK citizens will still have no idea about the nature and structure of the EU. For a clue, go here.

For the leavers part, they have similarly failed to articulate what the future would look like. They have relied upon nothing other than platitudes about more money for this or that interest group or public service, sweeping gestures on immigration (that no centrist government of any current mainstream party would actually act out), and general notions of sovereignty and the reclamation of democracy.

Outside of the “elites”, it is clear that the immigration issue has much traction, traction that data cannot seem to budge. I will touch on this again below. In terms of democracy, the failure for the remain side to adequately explain how the EU works has left the perceived “democratic deficit” safely in place. And I can sympathise with those who do perceive the deficit, at least until one explores how the EU works. When one does, one sees that there actually is plenty of democracy in the EU structure.

Briefly, there are three branches of EU government that involve directly-elected members. The so-called Council of Ministers is made up of directly elected ministers from member states (i.e. from the UK, these are our government ministers). The European Parliament is more straightforward, made up of directly elected MEPs. Finally, the European Council is made of up the elected heads of government from the member states, who meet during summits. These three democratically elected bodies together chart the path of the EU, and vote on EU legislation. The last branch of the EU – and perhaps the most vilified and least understood (including by me) – is the EU Commission, which is the European civil service, involved in drafting and administering EU legislation.

(Note: the European Court of Human Rights is entirely separate to the EU. The European Court is charged by the Council of Europe with enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights. Forty-seven states comprise the Council of Europe, and we would not be leaving the Council of Europe if we left the EU. But you know all that right? Yeah, thought so…)

So, despite the perceptions of a democratic deficit, which no doubt feedback into the lack of engagement with EU democracy, for instance through low turnout for elections to the European Parliament, the EU is far more democratic than most people think. Unwieldy, unusual in format? Well, maybe. But undemocratic? Not so much. Like many things in politics, it is what we make it.

For me, the strongest arguments for or against leaving the EU have come from (a) left-wing leavers who view the EU as a neoliberal conclave, protecting the interests of the rich elites, and (b) remainers who view the geopolitical consequences of staying or going as the crucial argument. A few lone voices have, of course, put forward more general versions of common sense, Delia Smith among them. (Come on professional politicians – outshone by a TV cook? Shame on you.) But wise words have been hard to come by.

Perhaps the most powerful response to (a) is that successive UK governments have themselves been key drivers in the spread of neoliberal policies across the EU, with the fate of tariffs on imports of cheap Chinese steel being a recent case-in-point. As such, there is no evidence that leaving the EU would free us from neo-liberal shackles; I strongly suspect that the opposite is in fact the case, and that the EU collectively has been a more powerful break on neoliberal economics than not. It certainly would not be so neoliberal if it wasn’t for us.

This is not to downplay the seriousness of how Europe has interacted with Greece – I personally feel that the way in which Greece has been treated (for all their own contributions to their current economic crisis) has been very damaging to the perception of democratic process across the continent. For a national referendum to be over-turned within a week due to outside forces is a parlous state of affairs, and one that may have all sorts of unwelcome consequences – including left-wing support for a successful leave campaign in the UK.

More generally, though, the UK electorate needs to realise just how much the UK has shaped the EU. Of course, what you view as positive or negative will likely be influenced by your own political stance. This terrific sketch with Patrick Stewart (which deserves to become a classic in its own right) hilariously shows how the UK has had a major impact on human rights across the EU (including, of course, before the EU as we now know it was born; see above for the ECHR). Moreover, think about how English is now the common language across Europe – and we are about to leave the EU…?

To imagine that the UK has been experiencing a one-way street of social, political and cultural “europeanisation” would be absurd (and to portray reality in that way would be deeply misleading). Instead, the truth is that we have been an active architect of how the EU has developed since we joined its forerunner in the 70s. If there are things we dislike about the current EU – including its expansion to include eastern European nations – then we need to look hard at ourselves and the decisions are own politicians have made. For instance, we strongly supported the expansion of the EU.

In terms of (b), you might wonder why we should worry about the bigger geopolitical picture, instead of perhaps all the economic arguments that have been bandied about by both sides. The answer is simple: the geopolitical consequences of how the UK interact with the EU, and indeed with the rest of the world, will determine the economic consequences of staying or going. And that goes for the impact on UK science (and my science) too.

Leaving the EU will not mean the end of trade (although there should be genuine concern over whether the global economy is strong enough to withstand an economic upheaval in Europe, even without a new credit-crunch and any ensuing financial crisis; I wouldn’t bet against it). However, I find it hard to see how leaving a long-established partnership will help us politically, socially or economically, given the huge challenges that we face on a changing planet. These challenges are increasingly global. After all, is there any challenge facing any country that has become increasingly local over recent decades?

Certainly no leaver has made any sort of cogent argument to show how it would be easier for the UK outside of the EU to deal with the global challenges of, say, the causes and consequences of resource-depletion, environmental degradation, demographic changes (including mass migration), international crime, terrorism, and changes in the distribution of global wealth.

To consider just mass migration: it is tempting to think that “closing our borders” solves the problem, but if mass migration across the globe disrupts social and economic structures across continents, then so will our own economic activities will be impacted. And if that disruption is catastrophic (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow), then the English Channel will not save us from what might follow. It is dangerously naive to think otherwise.

All this might seem easy enough for me to argue as a university academic with a salary. The precarious classes, with zero-hours contracts or no contract at all, might not view things the same way. I do appreciate that. For all the wealth of data confirming that immigration to the UK, including EU immigration, has provided net benefits to our economy, financial insecurity understandably leads to a close-focus on day-to-day concerns over jobs, housing, access to health services, and a sense of identity. Indeed, the seriousness of the recent polls for the remain camp appears in part to be due to the failure of traditional Labour voters to support staying in the EU. Immigrants are an easy target for the disaffected.

All of this is why we actually need politicians in the first place – provided they are of a suitable calibre of course. They need to have both (a) the bigger vision that individual citizens cannot necessarily afford to have, in this case to see how our role in the world influences the day-to-day well-being of all in our society. They also need (b) the ability to make the case, on the ground, face-to-face, for that bigger vision. Modern politicians, of all political stripes, have struggled to do the latter, and it is not clear if many of them have the former.

As an outsider, it is not clear why this disconnect has happened. The “Westminster bubble” and the echo-chamber of much political discourse in the UK is no doubt in part to blame. However, and more importantly perhaps, economic policies since the 1980s have failed to adequately address the welfare of everyone (look at the data if you don’t believe me – even the IMF are looking at the data!). In other words, the political visions on offer, post-Thatcher, are divorced from the realities of too many people.

Can this disconnect lead to the UK leaving the EU? Undoubtedly, but I passionately hope not. If we leave, we will not be making the world or ourselves safer or more secure. There are serious problems we need to solve in the UK, from poverty and the inexorable growth in inequality, through to feeding ourselves on a warming planet. These are not our problems alone though. If we want to change the EU – its policies, its structures, its rules – because we think a changed EU will help solve these problems, then campaign to do that. All power to you. But leaving is something else. Leaving is believing that we can solve problems with less cooperation, less collaboration, and less openness. I think history will show that those beliefs are mistaken, but let’s hope history does not get the chance.

EU and environmental protection

The environment is obviously a big concern for biologists like me. How we manage human-impacted landscapes and protect the natural world is very important if one believes in and respects the rights of other organisms to live and flourish on this planet alongside us.

As a follow-on to my last post, the EU referendum also raises issues of future environmental protection in the UK, whether we remain or leave. Organisations are – of course – very wary of telling people how to vote, and have to be wary of being on the “losing” side. However, the RSPB have presented their take on whether nature would do better or worse with the UK in or out of the EU, and they have decided that the UK would do worse it we were to leave.

Independent advice and facts can seem hard to come by, but please see below for a very useful summary table of the consequences of staying or going for UK environmental/wildlife legislation. The table is taken from a report jointly commissioned last year by the RSPB, WWF and the Wildlife Trusts by the Institute for European Environmental Policy. The full report can be found here, and a discussion of the report – complete with the table – can be found here on Martin Harper’s blog.

EU and environmental legislation IEEP report

Why the EU is good for your science, my science, and our society

As a regular collaborator with colleagues – and friends – outside of the UK, I wanted to post some thoughts on the up-coming EU referendum. For now, I will focus on science, but will add a longer post on the EU and the UK more generally if time allows over next day or two.

The EU referendum is a big decision, and I hope all my fellow academics, in St Andrews and across the UK, make themselves heard, one way or the other.

Why UK science – and my science – benefits from the EU

As a biologist, there are two clear reasons for staying in the EU. First, EU-wide science funding initiatives (such as the ERC and Horizon 2020) are of great benefit to the UK. This benefit comes not only from the funding that UK scientists successfully apply for. It also comes from the European collaborations and networks that such funding encourages and develops. These collaborations feed back into more science being done, with or without follow-on grant funding.

UK scientists have been very successful in terms of winning EU science funding, both individually and as part of Europe-wide collaborations. There is therefore a clear self-interest for UK scientists in staying in the EU, in terms of access to this grant funding. Of course, leavers could argue that such (cynical?) financial self-interest should cut little ice outside of academe.

However, if the case for the benefits to society of scientific activity is accepted, then someone has to pay for that science. I suspect that few of those who have given much thought to the role of science in modern life would argue against the social and economic value of the knowledge and technological advances that science brings (even if one does not always like what that knowledge is – for instance, we actually are causing the world to warm-up).

Out of the EU, UK science funding could be boosted by whatever financial and economic benefits would accrue from leaving – if, of course, there are any. We do not know this for sure though, either in terms of the benefits of leaving the EU or how any benefits would be parcelled out between the NHS, farmers, schools, and so on.

Leavers may also argue that we would still be able to apply for EU-wide funding, when all of the negotiations are done-and-dusted, but again there has to be much uncertainty about whether that would indeed be the case.

The second reason for staying in the EU is of much broader scope. It is to do with the benefits to science, and then to all of society, of being part of an international community. The EU, for any of its supposed faults, plays a major role in building Europe-wide communities of scientists, thinkers, and artists. These communities enrich all our cultures and all our lives. We should be aware of the risks of damaging them.

And leaving would damage them. We would now be representatives of a country that seeks to exclude, to look inward, and to diminish contacts with others. It is not good enough to say that things will carry on as before, as if nothing had happened. Something would have happened, and our continental partners would be fully aware of that, and be right to feel at least mixed emotions about our future engagement with them. Collaborations are two-way streets, and leaving the EU would change the dynamics of how we interact. Far beyond issues of funding, how we move between laboratories, how we engage with the best minds amongst our neighbours, and how we influence the pressing decisions facing our planet, would all be changed by leaving the EU.

Famously, science has always acted across borders, bringing like-minded people together, come what may. As such, leavers may argue that concerns over trans-national collaborations are insubstantial at best, irrelevant at worst.

Like it or not though, there is strong empirical evidence that geography does matter to science. It influences how we collaborate and how we exchange ideas. For all the effects of globalisation and the worldwide web, we have not yet reached the “end of geography” any more than we have reached the end of history.

As a country, closing our borders, and closing our minds, to our closest intellectual partners would be a mistake. Whilst it would not be the “end of science” either, it would set UK science on a lonelier and a more difficult path – it is not a path that we should take lightly.

The female of the species – for taxonomy

Here’s a report of a study arguing for the greater use of females, and female characteristics, in taxonomy – using praying mantids as exemplars.

Importantly, paying more attention to female genitalia allowed the researchers – Sydney Brannoch and Gavin Svenson – to correct previous errors.

“As a feminist biologist, I often questioned why female specimens weren’t used to diagnose most species,” said Brannoch, a Ph.D. student. Her research with Svenson examined 30 praying mantis specimens and demonstrated that it was possible to accurately classify them by species using the female-specific characteristics.

Thanks to Becky for passing this along.