Monday, 24 June 2013

The impact of UK academics on policy: a comment

Phillip Blond, the director of a think tank called ResPublica, stated this month that British academics* have no impact on government policy. This, he claims, is because their research is too "evidence-based" and "value-free", and they fail to provide policy makers with "sweeping systemic and universal accounts".

The first thing that occurred to me when I read Blond's post was how incredibly imperialistic it sounded - particularly his invocation of the need for the UK to produce "universal truths that can apply across different frames and distinct cultures". Most academics would balk at this: first, because they generally think that evidence is a good thing; and second because the top-down, universal generalisations that Blond advocates tend to lead to serious problems for those at the margins of the monolith.

I then recalled a piece of fascinating and extremely relevant research by Keith Tribe, an economic historian at Bristol University. Tribe has studied the changes in the relationship between academic economics and UK public policy over the course of the 20th century. He wrote  a chapter on this in Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe's 2009 book The Road from Mont Pèlerin, and Tribe's conclusions are almost diametrically opposed to Blond's.

Blond references John Maynard Keynes as one British academic who did manage to have an impact on national and international government policy, suggesting that the difference between Keynes and contemporary scholars is the modern failure to produce big and useful political ideas. Interestingly, in his chapter in Mont Pèlerin, Keith Tribe discusses both Keynes' and his academic successors' political influence at length.

John Maynard Keynes was offered a seat in Westminster in 1939.
He turned it down, believing he could have a greater impact on public policy
as an academic.
As anyone working in academia will be entirely unsurprised to hear, Tribe argues that what has changed since the late 1970s (when Keynesian economics fell out of fashion with the political elite) is not the force, strength or value of the ideas of academics, but the fact that politicians no longer want to hear about research that doesn't support their ideological biases.

The 1970s saw the political ascendency of an economic philosophy based around a loose collection of economic, governmental and social ideas that are commonly referred to as "neoliberalism". Neoliberalism essentially advocates the shrinking of the public sector (any state-organised and collectively financed regulation or provision of social, economic or environmental goods), greater use of the price mechanism ("markets") to organise society, and more power and freedom for bankers, businesses and the owners of global corporations.

This philosophy was thought up by (academic) economists and political scientists in the early 20th century (most notably those in the Austrian School of Economics, the London School of Economics and later the University of Chicago). It remained relatively unpopular in the UK until the 1970s. During this era of the 20th century, Keynesianism (which advocates for a strong government role in economic planning) was all the rage both in Whitehall and in universities.

This situation changed with the election of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1979. At this time, the UK government was in some financial difficulty, having never fully recovered from the oil shocks earlier in the decade, and being haunted by the spectre of imminent IMF structural adjustment. Thatcher's Tories saw cost-cutting neoliberalist policies as the answer to these economic woes. Unfortunately, their political opinion was not backed up by the academy.

Neoliberalist thinking was not taken seriously within UK universities, and it made little impact on scholarly journals. Instead, its advocates tended to collect in non-academic think tanks, which produced pamphlets and economic journalism rather than scholarly research. A 'think tank' is an independent organisation set up for the purpose of policy research and advocacy. Many of the members of these 1980s think tanks had no background in scholarship beyond an undergraduate degree - the archetypal example being Nigel Lawson, a journalist with neoliberal tendencies who went on to become Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Perceiving academic commentary on their performance as unsuitably leftist, Thatcher's government cut off prior connections to university research and instead focused on building relationships with non-academic, but ideologically compatible, organisations such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute. Importantly, these think tanks told politicians what they wanted to hear. During the Thatcher years, their political power increased exponentially, and the influence of university research on government policy correspondingly waned.

In 1981, feeling ignored, 364 academic economists were prompted to sign a letter to The Times arguing that the government's actions threatened sharply rising unemployment and would lead to the death of UK manufacturing. They were right, but their temerity in opposing government policy led to an even greater rift between the academy and politicians, and ever more government dependence on independent, non-academic bodies to provide justification for their policies. The number of think tanks, offering both right- and left-wing views to successive tory and labour governments, exploded. It was the creation of a new political class.

Since 1979, neoliberalism has continued to be a dominant economic philosophy in the UK, with aspects of it (such as deregulation of banking) persisting throughout the "left wing" Labour years of 1997-2010. Under the current David Cameron administration, political neoliberalism has accelerated. Privatisation and state cutbacks are being implemented at breakneck speed, despite the questionable political mandate of a coalition government that had no pre-election manifesto.

Many academics have unequivocally stated their opinion on current government policies. In 2011, the Royal College of Nursing announced a vote of no confidence in government health policies, and Oxford University - perhaps the most 'establishment' of all UK higher education bodies - announced an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the coalition's "reckless, incoherent and incompetent" higher education policy. Other professional bodies have spoken too: head teachers passed a vote of no confidence in schools policy, and it was announced only today that another vote of no confidence (directed at health minister Jeremy Hunt) has been passed by the British Medical Association.

UK academics continue to produce a large body of work that is directly relevant to government policy. Unfortunately, much of this is ignored because it doesn't fit in with the government's economic orthodoxy. A random tranche of examples: social studies showing investment in early years social care and speech and language provision is important for preventing criminality in later life, and saves public money in the long term - yet funding for both these interventions has been cut by the coalition government; the finding that hospital cost-cutting is a key cause of patient neglect - yet £20 billion is still to be 'saved' from the NHS in England by 2015; analysis suggesting that welfare cuts, rather than creating incentives for "shirkers" to get a job, are retrogressive and disproportionately impact the working poor - yet welfare is cut by £10 billion a year; a study showing that rail privatisation has been grossly inefficient - yet we continue to sell off essential services. The list goes on.

Is the rift between government and the academy really the fault of academics? When it comes to Blond's piece, it seems that he may have taken his own advice and produced a big, value-laden idea that has little evidence to back it up. If UK academics really want to be listened to, perhaps they have to start ignoring the results of their research and instead become sycophants for the coalition's disastrous economic and social policies. Or maybe the disconnect between academia and policy shouldn't be solved by changing the way the academy works, but by changing the people in our government.

*it seems he either a) has no problem with universities in Northern Ireland, or b) thinks they're irrelevant.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Science, oil and adventure: the story of Rockall

ICES have recommended that five new sites around Rockall are closed to bottom fisheries (which is fishing that interacts with the seabed, such as bottom trawling and dredging) after discoveries of new ecosystems and species by Scotia, the Marine Scotland research vessel. 

The Scotia, built in 1998, is equipped both as a hydrographic research vessel and a trawler, and fishes for scientific samples around the North Sea and North East Atlantic. In 2012, the Scotia's crew found some interesting marine habitats around Rockall, a rocky Atlantic outcrop west of Scotland. These included areas of coral reef, a plethora of sponges and sea fans, and a locally unique cold-seep ecosystem (where gas is released into the ocean from beneath the sea bed, creating unique marine living conditions) that is home to two previously unrecorded species of clams. The Scotia also caught a frilled shark, a prehistoric 'living fossil' dating back at least ninety million years and rarely found in northern latitudes. The Guardian spoke to Marine Scotland scientist Francis Neat about the survey. He emphasised how important the Rockall basin is to marine science, because it's "the only major outcrop of subsea peaks west of the UK". He went on to describe Rockall as "really quite special, having a lot of species we wouldn't normally find that far offshore. It provides a shallow water habitat in what is otherwise a deep water environment."

Rockall, Middle of Nowhere, North Atlantic.

Britain Claiming Rockall, 1955.
I recently did some research on the geopolitics of Rockall for a paper on property regimes in the North East Atlantic, which I presented at the Cornell Land Institute's Summer Workshop on Contested Landscapes. It's really fascinating stuff.
1955, Rockall.

Rockall is currently the centre of an international territorial dispute between the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Iceland, enacted through a variety of legal measures and (silly) symbolic stunts. In 1955, the British navy placed a brass plaque (content summary: "this is ours") and Union Flag on the rock. They weren't the only ones - during the 1980s, fisheries protection offers were required as part of their jobs by the Scottish Department for Agriculture and Fisheries (DAFS) to go onto Rockall and remove any plaques that had been mounted there by other nations. In 1985 Tom McClean, a former SAS soldier, even lived on Rockall for over a month in an effort to affirm the UK's claim to the islet and its surrounding mineral resources.

Fisheries officer removing a plaque
During this period, the UK claimed a 200nm exclusive economic zone (an area with exclusive rights over fishing and undersea mining) around Rockall (see the red line on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee map, below). However, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets the international law of marine property rights, states that exclusive fishing rights cannot be claimed around rocks that are incapable of sustaining human habitation (which Rockall clearly is, despite Tom McClean's best efforts to prove otherwise). This meant that in 1997, when the UK ratified UNCLOS, the country's EEZ had to be reduced to represent Rockall's non-island status. A new EEZ, based on the (uninhabited, but inhabitable) St Kilda, was created (the shaded blue area on the map). This is the only time in history that an island has been downgraded and maritime limits resultantly reduced. The islet of Rockall still falls within the UK EEZ area, but the surrounding seamounts and continental shelf - including the areas surveyed by Scotia - do not.

1904 Norwegian news illustration.
I remember discussing the downgrading of Rockall with Scottish fishermen a few years ago, and there was much consternation about the loss of the area, and specifically the resulting overfishing ("now it's in international waters, so anyone can catch as much as they want. They've ruined it!"). Much of this was blamed on Russian trawlers. A number of fishermen I spoke to during this period expressed concerns about the amount of fishing going on to the west of Rockall, and many blamed this on the border change. Incidentally, a number of fisheries managers' offices I have visited in the last few years still have large wall maps showing the old, larger boundaries, although I put this down to lackadaisical redecoration practices rather than obduracy!

Joint Nature Conservation Committee: fisheries with shifting borders

The map above, which was of course made by a British organisation, is pointedly casual in its labelling of the Rockall surrounds as the "UK Continental Shelf Area". Not everyone would agree with this, however. Ireland, Denmark and Iceland all also claim the tiny, barren rock and its undersea surrounds as their rightful national property, and a natural extension of their respective continental shelves.

The Irish government have pointed out that Ireland is the landmass that is actually closest to Rockall, being around 20 miles nearer to the island than Invernesshire. Not to be beaten by the UK's various plaque-placing publicity stunts, Irish Rockallites have dispatched navy vessels to 'protect' the island, and one Irish politician even changed his middle name to "Rockall". Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, the UK's SAS Rockall survival hero McClean was actually born in Ireland.

According to Denmark, Rockall is a part of a range of islands that make up a natural system that is "the Faroes Rockall plateau". And if we are to believe Iceland, Rockall isn't an island at all, and has no geopolitical significance - but the seabed around it is a natural extension of the Icelandic continental shelf.

One of the principal reasons for these national claims and counter-claims is the rich hydrocarbon resources that run underneath the ocean in this area, which offer the 'owning' state millions of pounds worth of valuable oil and gas revenues. The UN is currently overseeing the less flashy and more legal aspects to these disputes, and each state must be now waiting with bated breath to see in whose hands the islet and its resources will land.

Although these geopolitics may not be the explicit reasoning behind scientific studies and adventurous occupations,  such as that of Marine Scotland and Nick Hancock, they all certainly play a part in these tussles over ownership. Much like a disputed area of suburban car parking, 'use' of something makes a valuable addition to claims of property.

The Marine Scotland scientists of Scotia, and the Greenpeace Activists who 'colonised' Rockall in 1997 as part of an anti-oil exploration protest, have spoken out voraciously against hydrocarbon exploration in the Rockall basin. I can't help wondering if, despite their protests, their activity in this area is seen as a useful tool for the UK's claim to the region, which is based on a geopolitical desire for the oil beneath the waves.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Trawling for facts about the Common Fisheries Policy

Will Hutton wrote this piece for the Guardian a few days ago expressing his frustration with the UK government's failure to recognise the conservation potential of European Union fisheries policies. He argued that as fish do not recognise borders, states cannot work alone to manage stocks, so EU management was the best option for UK fisheries. He then went on to criticise British scepticism of the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and claimed this was based solely on knee-jerk anti-European sentiment within UK politics. I've listened to a lot of British fishermen on this topic, and spent a number of years poring over historical policy documents to try and understand how the CFP works, and I have to say that I disagree with a number of points Hutton makes in this article.

Fishermen deploying the nets of a North Sea midwater trawler

Firstly, fish may not "respect borders", but this has not prevented Norway (who shares an oceanic 'border' with the EU) from protecting its own nationally managed fish stocks as Europe's have dwindled. Further, if UK fisheries were not to be managed by Europe, that would not mean Britain would be acting unilaterally on conservation measures, as Hutton insinuates. Norway does not work alone to protect its stocks, but collaborates with other seafaring nations to establish the catch limits it wants, without giving up control over conservation of its fisheries. Many such regional fisheries management agreements are in place to help neighbouring states co-manage straddling stocks. Using these, Norwegians have cooperatively manage their fisheries, as have other non-CFP European states, such as  Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Hutton then states that "the danger for any one country acting unilaterally to husband fish stocks and ban the practice of discarding dead fish is that if others do not follow suit it will be the sucker". He goes on to claim that this problem can only be solved by European states working together under the CFP. Again, I would respectfully disagree with this assertion. In Norway, where ministers declined to join the EU because they did not want to lose control over their fisheries, a 'unilateral' discard ban has been in place since 1987. Discarding has also been banned in Iceland since 1989, and Greenland and the Faroes have similar rules. Moving beyond Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Namibia - all of which have managed their fish stocks nationally, and comparatively successfully - have all banned certain discarding practices. These countries have been celebrated worldwide for their successes in stock management, and none has become "the sucker".

Hutton claims that the biggest problem in fisheries is "huge factory ships" that "hoover up everything in their wake". Regardless of the environmental arguments about small- versus large-scale fishing, European CFP management fundamentally favours bigger boats. Firstly, and most simply, this is because smaller boats don't travel as far, so extended access to the 'common pond' of European waters primarily benefits larger boats. Small boats would lose very little if a 200nm limit was imposed.

This was clear to the delegates negotiating Britain's accession to the EU in the 1970s. They were torn between protecting the rights of small-scale fishers (by limiting the access of large-scale foreign distant-water fleets to UK inshore waters) and extending the rights of our own distant-water fleet, who had just been pushed out of Iceland by their claim of a 200nm exclusive fishing zone. In the end, the delegates decided that access to the waters of Greenland, Norway and the Faroe Islands (all of which were also in the process of becoming part of the EU) would make up, economically, for any local losses. Unfortunately, those states all made the opposite decision, and declined to extend access to their waters to other EU member states. To protect small-scale fishers, a temporary protection of 6nm from the coast was agreed, but it is written into the CFP that this protection is only temporary and can be revoked.

The EU has also spent a lot of money 'modernising' the fleet by building bigger, more efficient fishing boats. In the words of Swedish Green Party MEP Isabella Lövin, the key problem with EU fisheries policy is that it was “modeled after agricultural policy. You provide fertilizer and farming equipment, you get more vegetables. So they used the same model in fishing — you increase the number of boats, you get more fish. But it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “You end up with less fish.” A recent investigation by the ICIJ found that the EU subsidised large-scale fishing vessels in Spain even after they had been caught fishing illegally. Between 1996 and 2010, the EU and Spain paid "pirate" trawler magnate Vidal Armadores - who has been convicted of numerous counts of illegal fishing - at least €8.2 million in subsidies.

Although this funding for modernisation has been reduced in recent years, it is still significant. A 2011 Greenpeace report looked at EU subsidies to three of largest factory ship companies in Europe (processing oily fish like herring and mackerel) and found that they received between €50 and €100 million in direct and indirect EU subsidies annually. This figure includes the EU spending tax payers' money on morally and ecologically dubious 'access agreements' that allow factory ships to fish in the waters of poor African states.

In this round of CFP reform, the European Commission proposed implementing a Europe-wide "ITQ" market for fishing rights. One of the best documented impacts of using this method to manage fisheries ("individual transferable quotas", or ITQs, allow the right to catch fish to be bought and sold) is that the fishery is concentrated into the hands of a small number of very large boats. The Commission wanted to implement just such a system for the whole of Europe, but their proposal was rejected by national governments.

Hutton then goes on to praise aspects of the new CFP. He celebrated the upcoming shift to setting quota based on maximum sustainable yield (MSY) and the implementation of a discard ban. However, these management measures can only be properly effective if quotas are set at a level that very accurately reflects local conditions - something that is very hard to do inside a bureaucratic, centrally managed and extremely top-down system - all of which the CFP is. Fisheries are inherently unstable and difficult to predict, and iterative, sensitive and locally based management is the best way to deal with this. Unfortunately, this is not something that the CFP allows. If, for example, a group of local fishers become concerned about the size of cod on certain fishing grounds, they could collectively decide to place a temporary moratorium on fishing in that area, and even go to their national governments to have this ban formalised. However, these rules will only apply to national boats, and there is nothing that managers can do to stop other European vessels steaming in and scooping up all the smaller fish. As one frustrated fishermen remarked "we realised after that its better to just not bother." This means it is hard to create marine conservation zones (MCZs) outside of the 6nm inshore seas, where other European boats are also fishing, so MCZs often end up disproportionally impacting small-scale fishing.

To sum up, I believe that it is a misrepresentation on the part of Will Hutton to paint fishing industry concerns about the CFP as nothing more than anti-European rhetoric. There are numerous ways in which EU management is problematic for UK fisheries, and fisher antipathy to the policy should not be so cursorily dismissed. Even if you have little faith in the opinions of fishers (as appears to be the case with most media commentators), the fact remains that if we look at the countries with Europe's healthiest fish stocks (Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands), none are party to the CFP. As a young, left leaning (and hopefully at least a little cosmopolitan) person, I'm aware of the political implications of stating an anti-European opinion. However, I would balk at ever calling the CFP a successful environmental policy. There are considerable successes in European environmental governance,  such as EU regulations on trans-boundary air-pollution, and the strict recycling directives. The CFP is definitely not one of these. Sceptic that I am, I can't help thinking that the current reform will not change this, though I'd love to be proven wrong.

Thursday, 6 June 2013


I've been farm-sitting this past week, looking after a herd of sixty cows and their calves, six bulls, a flock of chickens, two horses and two shetland ponies. It's been a lot easier than it sounds, as at this time of year most of the animals are contentedly out to grass. Staying on the farm reminded me of this amazing yet terrifying British public information film from the 1970s, which warns children about the dangers of farmyards through a series of grisly deaths, about which the adults are eerily unperturbed.

Made in 1977, Apaches shows us a group of children who, Final Destination style, meet their unique and untimely ends in different configurations of farm machinery. Perhaps unsurprisingly, agriculture has one of the worst safety records of all occupations in the UK. Although fewer than 1.5% of the UK population are employed in agriculture, a huge 15-20% of all fatal workplace accidents occur in farming - making it the the sector with the highest fatal incident rate. On average, one person dies in the UK from injuries sustained in the agricultural sector every week. Of these, around 5% are children.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, last year the main causes of death on farms was:
  • transport (being run over or vehicle overturns) - accounting for 26% of fatalities
  • falling from a height (through fragile roofs, trees etc) - 16%
  • struck by moving or falling objects (bales, trees etc) - 16%
  • asphyxiation/drowning - 10%
  • livestock-related fatalities - 10%
  • contact with machinery - 8%
  • trapped by something collapsing or overturning - 6%
  • contact with electricity - 3%
In 2011-2012, 41 agricultural deaths were reported to the HSE - none of which were children. That's not the highest number of injuries overall (that dubious honor goes to construction) but it's the highest incidence rate (meaning that the number of people working in the sector are taken into consideration). Six of these deaths were members of the public, and 35 farm workers. You can read the reports of their deaths on the HSE link above. It's sombre stuff, and a reminder that the Apaches scenarios - apart from the uncaring parents - are not particularly out of the ordinary.