From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Wish fulfilment’?

November 18th

There are many reasons for those of us who have retired from the business of university management to be grateful no longer to have to worry about how best to steer our universities through whatever rough seas the shifting winds of politics and economics put in their way.   As I’ve said in previous entries, I don’t envy today’s Vice Chancellors having to contend with the current pandemic and its future repercussions on top of the perennial problem of transient cabinet ministers intent on to leaving their mark on the system before they move on to a more significant portfolio.   But recent events have made me particularly pleased no longer to be implicated in any way in a global academic research system which is, in one aspect at least, unforgivably wasteful and exploitative, and is arguably profoundly immoral.   

Where the UK is concerned, we still have one of the most productive and highly regarded university systems in the world, although there is no question that Brexit is bound to wreak very serious, and possibly irreparable, damage on it.  An impressive array of outstanding research, disproportionate to the size our system, still comes out of our universities, but it does so at incalculable cost.  Most of that cost is entirely hidden, both at the national and individual institutional levels.   The figures for the monies distributed by the six UK Research Councils (see the table from the THES above) amounted in 2017-18 to rather under £1.2bn; a roughly equivalent amount will have been distributed to Higher Education on the basis of the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF).   That is the visible cost where the Research Councils are concerned.   Some idea of the invisible cost, literally invisible, is arrived at by the simple expedient of subtracting the number of successful grants, 1,793, from the number of applications, 6,959.   So 5,226 bids that will each have taken literally hundreds of hours to put together, and will have carried the hopes, and sometimes the livelihoods, of their authors with them, have all been an abject waste of time and talent.   ‘Livelihoods’ because far too many researchers around the world are obliged to live a frighteningly precarious existence from one successful funding grant to the next.   Much of the cost is unquantifiable as it relates to mental health, wellbeing and general quality of life.

That, if course, is only half of the problem where government funding of universities in UK is concerned.    The other half lies with the countless more hours that have to be spent preparing for the regular cycle of REF evaluations; hours spent administering and writing about research rather than doing it.  And then there are all the other non-governmental funding bodies that, to their great credit, fund academic research, but in the process compound the problem where the wholly unproductive time and energy expended on unsuccessful funding bids is concerned.   This is often time and energy expended by many of the ablest men and women in the country that could have been spent far more productively.

Why write about this right now?  Because over the past nine months I have spent a significant amount of time painstakingly proofreading and commenting on an excellent collaborative research bid being produced by a group of researchers from, among others, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose principal investigator was from the University of Cape Town.  The proposal to one of the major medical research funding bodies in the United States was for the funding of the evaluation of a potentially really important behavioural intervention designed to try to address the significant number of young men in the Western Cape (and, ultimately, elsewhere) who test positive for HIV but don’t then move to treatment.   The intervention involves a short video to be used when they are being counselled on first receipt of their HIV-positive result.  The video, whose production was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, features brief interviews with HIV positive men on antiretroviral treatment trying to address stigma and fears about antiretrovirals by talking about the normality of the lives they are able to lead.  

The bid was not funded at initial submission, but the reviews were largely very positive, detailed comments were received from the reviewers, and the researchers were invited to resubmit.  A huge amount of work went into making sure all the comments were addressed and the bid was duly resubmitted. The devastating news came through on Tuesday that the resubmission had been rejected without further review.  No reasons given; apparently no appeal possible; literally hundreds and hundreds of hours wasted, not just the time of those preparing the bid but also that of the initial reviewers.   The funding body would have been perfectly within its rights to change its funding policies in the interim to focus, for example, on Coronavirus instead of HIV/AIDS, but if that is what has happened it is wholly indefensible for them not to have communicated that to researchers whom they had invited to resubmit a bid on HIV.

A better way needs to be found globally for funding academic research, some way that does not result in the livelihoods and wellbeing of academic researchers becoming collateral damage, and so much of the time and energy of some of our ablest minds being  entirely wasted.