Archive for July 2011

A world in isolation, or a world networked?

July 31, 2011

While waiting in Newark airport for my flight back to Europe, I got into conversation with two academics from Europe (one from Germany, the other from England) who had both attended a conference in New York. It was part of a regular series of conferences in their subject area, and they usually take place in the United States. Until about five years ago roughly a third of those attending would be from outside America.

This year, they told me, the non-US attendance was less than 10 per cent, and they themselves were unlikely to come again. This, they explained, was not because the conference had no value, but because it was becoming unaffordable, because they were under pressure not to increase their carbon footprint, and because informal access to people was now so easy online that a physical presence at a conference was seen by some of those holding travel budgets to be superfluous.

Is this a trend we should want to encourage? Is the era of scholarly networking in each other’s presence now at an end? Does it matter, in the new online world?

For myself, I am an enthusiast for the advantages of the internet, but I shall be very disappointed if the concept of the international academic encounter is now a thing of the past. I think something would be lost.

Not having a party

July 31, 2011

It’s nearly three years since Barack Obama won the US presidential election. To many people outside America, this marked what people assumed would be the return of ‘normal’ politics to America. For non-Americans it had been almost impossible to understand George W. Bush and his retinue; they seemed to be driven by various impulses that, for them, signified US influence and leadership, but which to the rest of the world appeared to be somewhere between zany and dangerous. The Bush administration took on almost unimaginable costs, ranging from the various wars to massive (and unfunded) tax cuts.

Oddly enough, right now US politics are convulsed by two outputs from the Bush era: the amazing deficit that his policies bequeathed the American people, and the ‘Tea Party‘ movement that is a spin-off of sorts from his ideological positions. This dual legacy is so odd in part because the Tea Party are treating the deficit as an Obama creation, which it actually is not. As the graph in this article shows, overwhelmingly the over-spending is a creature of the Bush government, whereas Obama has been relatively frugal; indeed Obama’s main expenditure relates to issues (or wars) that were put in play by Bush.

If you visit America, as I have been doing these past few days, you get a very direct sense of how US politics are now anything but normal. The debate here about raising the debt ceiling is so totally irrational as to have mind-bending attributes. A solution to the by now somewhat real threat that America could default on its financial obligations (though probably not its loans) is held in abeyance by driven ideologues who, when you listen to them being interviewed, clearly do not have an even basic understanding of the economic issues involved. They share the Republican Party with an established leadership that is increasingly aghast at their antics. On the other side is a president who may not be acting as decisively as the situation requires. As the outcome of this drama will affect us all, it has rather chilling properties.

The United States is, and notwithstanding occasional exaggerated predictions about the growth of the BRIC countries will continue to be, the leader and trend-setter of the global economy. This makes it rather important that its economic policies are the subject of rational debate and decision-making, guided by informed analysis. The current battles being fought on Capitol Hill won’t do. It is time to stop humouring the Tea Party ideologues, and to stop pretending that their arguments merit real debate. There are perfectly legitimate differing positions on the economic crisis, but they need to be based on an understanding of the issues. It is time for America to end the ‘tea party’ and to let the adults take over.

Online worlds

July 30, 2011

I recently attend a dinner party at which there was a lively debate about the online experience offered by social networking sites. The overwhelming majority view of those present (average age probably around 58) was that the internet was destroying the traditional concept of a ‘community’ by persuading social networkers that what they were experiencing represented genuine social interaction. It was however not, one person present suggested, a real experience st all: virtual networking was at best a fantasy. A real network needed real human interaction, real meetings, the touch of another human, and people looking into each others’ eyes.

Well, yesterday and today I have been in Los Angeles attending Vidcon, which describes itself as a ‘yearly conference for people who like video’. In fairness, that doesn’t describe it at all. It is a conference for those who reach out to the world on youtube, who broadcast themselves or who ‘follow’ others who do so. There are probably some 4,000 or so people attending the event. I am here to accompany my son, who is an enthusiastic fan of several youtube broadcasters.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I have found can best be described as a very lively and very real community. Many of these people have never met ‘in the flesh’ before, but they relate to each other instantly and know each other almost intimately. The opportunity to meet probably adds something, but it isn’t what has established the spirit of community: that derives specifically from the online element.

Maybe we just need to reconsider what constitutes ‘community’. In fact, through email and the web and social networking I know people all over the world, and often feel that they are part of that more intimate circle we regard as genuine friends. So on the whole it is my view that the internet, far from destroying the concept of a community, has enhanced it. If it shut down tomorrow, I would feel a great sense of personal loss.

So I feel that we should stop worrying about all the nasty things we fear the internet is doing socially; instead we should embrace it.

Science not yet ready for women?

July 29, 2011

In early 2010 the Royal Institution, the body that raises awareness of science and promotes its research in the United Kingdom, decided to make its director redundant, almost without giving her any notice. The director in question was Susan Greenfield (Baroness Greenfield), and when the decision was announced the suspicion in many people’s minds was that the move may have been connected with her gender and the public profile she had (to the great benefit of science, it would have to be said) managed to acquire.

The general suspicion that science is not quite ready for women continues. Research undertaken by the UK Resource Centre for women in science, engineering and technology (UKRC) has suggested that women are put off science, and that the image of those women who do make it there tends to be heavily influenced by stereotypical assumptions and prejudices.

A modern society cannot afford to harbour such views and prejudices. It is time to ensure that woman have an equal role and place in the world of science.

Graduate studies, economic revival and doing the wrong thing

July 29, 2011

This blog post is coming to you from California. This is a state that has a good few problems, including serious public funding issues. However, there is a widespread consensus that universities will need to continue to build up their programmes of postgraduate studies, both taught and by research. Silicon Valley in particular mops up people with postgraduate qualifications, and economic problems notwithstanding, demand is increasing.

In Britain on the other hand the various postgraduate funding bodies are, according to information obtained by the Labour Party, dramatically cutting funded numbers doing both Masters and PhD programmes, in some cases by 30 per cent and more. Given the needs of the economy and society more generally, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is in fact likely that over the coming decade or two universities in developed countries will tend to re-balance their portfolios somewhat in favour of postgraduate courses and research, a trend that Britain may not be able to follow to the extent that it should.

This development will probably reinforce the concern felt by some that the UK government does not have a fully worked out strategy on higher education, and that too many measures appear to have budgetary rather than educational reasons. As industrial investment and new start-ups are increasingly knowledge-intensive in nature, this must be reflected in the strategic development of higher education. That link is not sufficiently in evidence right now.

In Ireland there may also be a problem regarding graduate research funding, and here too it will be vital that postgraduate studies continue to grow, and that the major research centres are able to fund PhD students.

Turning music into pulp

July 28, 2011

I really love music. Truly. I swear. Yet these days when I hear music, and almost any music, I often want to scream. Music is everywhere, coming from loudspeakers in the department store, in the hotel lobby, in the restaurant, on the street, in airplanes, in lifts (elevators). And you cannot hope to go to any kind of more upmarket reception without finding a string quartet, or harpist, or someone with an acoustic guitar.

What is wrong with this? What is wrong is that this is not music for anyone’s enjoyment. Nobody stops to listen. It is pure background noise. The composer and the performer are not celebrated, they are humiliated. The harpist plays, but has no hope of being heard above the noise of conversation. The PA system belts out a song by some 1970s band but if you asked a passer-by whether they had even noticed it was being played, the answer would probably be no.

Music needs to be appreciated, enjoyed, understood, celebrated. Instead it is destroyed. So let us have it where it is listened to, and for heaven’s sake turn it off where it is just there to cover up the silence – the silence we appear to fear so much.

Assessing the value of education

July 27, 2011

Recently I had an interesting conversation with a young student currently studying at an English university. Two years away from completing his undergraduate studies, he told me that he intended to travel the world and then settle down to a job that would have to pay less than £21,000 – permanently. He did not wish ever to cross the salary threshold at which he would have to repay his student loans. And why? Because once he allowed himself to be sucked into the game ‘in which my salary would have to chase my debts’ he would be in ‘negative educational equity’. He had no intention of going there.

While there may not be too many people planning their careers quite like this, the student’s assessment is not wholly out of line with what some commentators are saying, particularly in the United States. In a recent blog post Professor Mark J. Perry of the University of Michigan looked at the relative rates of inflation of property prices, consumer prices and higher education tuition fees in the United States. He found that since 1980 tuition fees had risen more than twice as fast as house prices. And yet, the inflation in real estate, as we know, created the property bubble and its horrendous economic effects. The question  he asks is whether the ‘education bubble’ is also about to hurst, creating a fresh set of very serious problems. This could happen where those in the education system are no longer convinced that the debts they take on in order to acquire a degree are greater than the financial benefits of being a graduate.

There are of course differences between the funding and costs of a university education in America and one on this side of the Atlantic; indeed in these islands the position varies between different countries. But as the costs rise – whether these are borne by the taxpayer or by the student or in some other way – some may ask whether there is an adequate repayment for the investment. Where this is asked more generally by society it can be answered in terms of the capacity of higher education to provide relevant skills and a civilising influence; where it is asked by individual fee-payers the answer sought is about the return on investment in terms of career development and salary.

If we slip into a situation where students walk away from higher education opportunities because they are not convinced they will provide an adequate return, then as a society we will be in trouble. If there is even a hint of a risk of this we need to look closely at our higher education strategy. The time to do that is now.


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