Wednesday, June 29, 2016

We're out of Europe!

No, not a football post, nor even politics really, it's a science one for a change.

While people are debating the options for our departure from the EU over the next few years, British science is already proving itself to be well ahead of the game. We're already being widely excluded from EU grant applications, because no-one sane wants to take the risk of setting up a multi-year collaboration with a UK partner, when this partner may be pulled out at any time (and no-one would fund such a proposal when safer alternatives exist). It's all over twitter so far, and not just 3rd hand rumours of rumours - I actually know Paul who's not far away in Lancaster.

Science is one area where the UK gets a lot out of the EU - more than any other country, and far more money than we put in. Well, up to now, anyway.

We're less than a week past the vote, with no plan, no govt, no opposition, no way out, (and no prospect for any of these in the next few months) and the real impacts have already started. Well done Brexit.

Oh, sorry, it was politics after all.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Catty Cuddles

Obviously, in these troubled times of political, social and cultural meltdown we all need a big hug (as well as lots of cake and chocolate).

So, how about RoseMarie, the ultimate warm cuddly purr machine? She is lying across my arms right now, purring loudly, but ever ready to jump on the keyboard if I dare type anything wrong. She's the 11th rescue cat that has come through our doors in the last 18 months, and is by far the friendliest and most confident.  At 13 years old, she's pretty easy to keep as she doesn't eat (or poo!) that much and all she really seems to need is those cuddles!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Let them eat principles

Oh dear. Just had a lovely week away in the Highlands, for the first time in 20 years. Unfortunately, recent events have rather pushed that out of my mind, but hopefully jules will provide some pictures in the near future.

Before that, however, the referendum. I can't avoid the conclusion that it's a massive problem and many people have made a huge mistake in voting Leave.

Most glaringly, there is no exit plan. That was, of course, fairly obvious before the vote itself, but the full extent of the problem was perhaps not sufficiently clear to all the electorate. Various factions have suggested that we might be able to negotiate some sort of associate membership a la Norway - i.e. still pay a fee and obey the rules including freedom of movement, in exchange for access to the single market. But have no say in the rules. That's clearly a worse option than where we were before last Thursday. Alternatively, we could simply terminate the relationship, and suffer WTO trade tariffs. Like, say, Japan, or the USA, or China. It's hard to see the UK being considered a viable base for international Europe-focussed financial or manufacturing industry under those conditions, as it is presently. Some banks are already planning to move jobs.

The Irish question hasn't been addressed at all, as far as I can tell. It seems near-inevitable that Brexit will rip up the Good Friday Agreement, since that is underpinned by free movement over the border and the primacy of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sinn Feinn are already agitating for reunification, and I can't blame them at all. Even a prominent Unionist politician is openly encouraging Northern Irish to apply for Eire passports (another outcome of the GF agreement) and the Belfast PO quickly ran out of forms. The Good Friday Agreement, which successfully drew a line under 100 years of terrorism and violence in Northern Ireland and the mainland UK, was the one remarkable achievement of an otherwise unremarkable Major administration and it's a great shame to discard it so casually and with so little forethought. I'd think the best outcome we could hope for there would be a relatively straightforward and peaceful reunification process for Ireland as a whole, but there will be a whole lot of unhappy people whatever happens, and the peace there was fairly fragile in the first place.

Scotland has a more straightforward position. If Sturgeon can get pre-agreement on some reasonable EU membership deal (which seems to be on the cards), then the second referendum for independence will be a shoo-in. The pro-EU vote north of the border last week was far stronger than the pro-UK vote was last year, and it's inevitable that a lot of the no voters from last time (when the UK was firmly in the UK, and an independent Scotland would have had no easy route to EU membership) will change sides now.

Not all Brexiteers are ignorant racist bigots, of course. But their votes have provided support to ignorant racist bigots who are already demonstrating in cities with hate slogans and chants, and distributing hate literature (not just according to the Guardian, but the Indy too). The intelligent, informed Leave voters (they do exist, we've met a few) seem convinced that "sovereignty" is the answer to just about everything. I'll be ok of course, I've not got a job to lose and will still be able to afford Booths artisanal sausages for tea. But a whole lot of people are going to find that sovereignty neither pays the rent nor puts food on the table. The economy will probably recover over time, and there is more to life than money anyway. More sadly, future generations may find that they are unable to enjoy the freedoms that we took for granted, such as the ability to hop over to France on a whim to work a season in a ski chalet, for example. Scientists are uniquely fortunate in being able to work pretty much where they please (visa requirements are usually quite easy for us to satisfy) and living and working aboard is in principle a very worthwhile and positive experience that I'd recommend to all. It would be a shame to make it the preserve of the privileged few. All the other stuff like environmental protection, workers rights and conditions (e.g. the contract stuff - which is just one minor case study), safety standards, and the rest are unlikely to be stronger out than in. The typical business lobby's whine "it will make us uncompetitive" has much more validity if we can only impose regulations unilaterally, rather than simultaneously with our largest trading partners. I should also mention the Calais border moving to Dover, the million pensioners in Spain who will need to come back for their free healthcare (a great swap for a couple of million young EU workers)...the list really is endless. 40 years of ever-closer collaboration will not be easily unpicked.

I'd really be interested to hear if Brexiteers think that the outcome has been good so far, or if they expect it to be good in the foreseeable future. Having both major parties in total disarray is great political theatre but is perhaps not the best background from which to enter 2 years of critical negotiations and push a lot of detailed legislation through parliament. Did anyone actually vote for this? It's amazing to see the string of idiots who are regretful that they won.

A few days before the referendum Nick Barnes predicted on farcebook that Cameron would immediately invoke Article 50 if he lost, but that always seemed improbable to me - so much so, that I bet him 10 quid (Nick's limit, not mine!) that it wouldn't happen within a week. All three options remain possible as I write (i.e., either he does, or does not, or something obscure and legalistic happens that makes it impossible to judge the outcome fairly) but Cameron's clearly stated intention is not to trigger it, but leave it to his successor. Which always seemed obvious to me - he can't now avoid going down in history as the twat that loaded the gun but he can at least avoid being the twat that pulled the trigger. Boris Johnson has already stated he is in no hurry either, but wants to make progress on negotiations first. This is patently ridiculous, as the rest of the EU has no reason to negotiate anything until A50 has been invoked. It is possible that the EU will lose patience and find a way to unilaterally start the process (as has already been threatened). Or else the forthcoming Tory leader will wake up in time and smell the coffee and realise that it's a completely unwinnable proposition. BoJo clearly never wanted to win the referendum in the first place and has no strategy, no goals, and no policy for the situation that he's landed us in. So much for his political instincts. He even spent yesterday playing cricket.

I can't help but conclude that the best outcome would be for the new Govt to reject the referendum result (and fight an election on that basis). There is no good exit plan or outcome that I can see. Of course it would inevitably destroy a few political careers and we'd have a bit of rioting, but that's better than the alternatives.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

What did the EU ever do for us?

Ok, I said I wasn't going to do the referendum, but there's nothing else to talk about and I think this is worth mentioning.

Way back in the mists of time when I was starting out in the workplace, it was commonplace for new employees, especially junior researchers and academics, to be employed on the basis of short contracts. Open ended positions still existed however, and different institutes had different attitudes towards moving contract staff to open-ended positions. My first employer did it by creating an entirely new open-ended position, which was widely advertised. This was of course pretty stressful for the internal candidate having to fight for “their” job, although in practice it was just a huge waste of time for the external candidates who were never really in with a shout for a job which was designed for someone else. Not to mention being pretty awkward for staff like me having to talk to and show around these candidates without letting on that the job was really meant for the guy in the adjacent office who happened to be away that day. My next employer had more of an internal review process, similar to but far less formal than the US university tenure review system. My internal review was the day after I'd just got my job offer from Japan, which made it more fun than it might otherwise have been :-)

Incidentally, “permanent” is not a great term to use for these positions. No jobs are permanent in the UK, it is not uncommon to make people (or to be precise, their positions) redundant, as the chemistry department at Exeter Uni learnt to their cost. But making positions redundant costs money and takes time: much easier, management thought, to just allow contracts to end efficiently and painlessly (for them). This was also in line with the long term trend for research councils to be more "responsive", ie quicker to follow new fashions and not be tied down with things like staff or institutes or facilities to support, or long-term strategies to think about and follow through on. But I digress.

Some people were stuck indefinitely on a succession of short contracts, with no guarantee of renewal. I think one of the Reading people who visited us in Japan had been on 1-year contracts for something like a decade. Of course, a succession of short contracts, even if there's some sort of likelihood of renewal, are no basis for buying a house, raising a family, or even building a career.

Along came the interfering bureaucratic EU, who observed that this was not really a fair or sustainable state of affairs. And at a stroke, in the admirably brief and readable Council Directive 1999/70/EC, they put an end to it. Short contracts are still allowed for a finite duration, or where they can be objectively justified. But the directive underlines that the normal form of employment contract is one of indefinite duration. In practice, the research institutes and universities have pretty much abandoned short contracts, employees may get one on initial employment or for a particular project, but this no longer carries on indefinitely.

Incidentally, Japan is still struggling with this issue two decades later, in its own inimitable manner. Around the time we left, a law was coming in to limit contract employment to 5 years of continuous work, following which it would be regarded as open-ended. Prior to this new law, there was some sort of established precedent that after 9 years in the same job, you could claim open-ended status, but JAMSTEC had been careful to set up enough loopholes in our employment that there's no way jules and I were going to trust the legal system to actually enforce this in our favour. JAMSTEC's initial response to this new law was to state that all future contract employment would be on the basis of 5 years work and then a 6 month “break” (ie unemployment) followed by another 5 years work etc. I'm pleased to say that when my manager explained this to me, I laughed in his face and told him that he, and the institute directors, were all idiots if they thought that was going to work. Eventually they came up with a saner tenure review plan but excluded us from it, as I have probably mentioned here before.

So, the tl;dr version is that at a stroke, the EU abolished an unsustainable, abusive and unfair system of short-term employment, and this move has also had the benefit of making management think a little more carefully about the long-term sustainability of their institutes. The widespread RCUK fellowships (5 years of research which converts to an open-ended lecturer position) were one obvious response to the change in the law. Younger scientists probably don't even realise this, as the short contract era will have ended before they started work. But it has certainly made a big difference to scientific careers in the UK, and no UK govt had shown any inclination to do anything about it.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

[jules' pics] Let's Topiary

Levels Hall Topiary Garden

Working from home, one no longer has to sit in front of the computer waiting for the end of the day. The disadvantage is neglecting to play with photos, including neglecting to blog them. But the advantage is that instead one can go cycling, or swimming, or shopping, or do some gardening, or even watch other people doing gardening. When it is not raining in these parts, it is important to seize  the moments. Two days ago we visited the famous topiary gardens at Levens Hall on the way to doing a LaneQuest in the south Lake District. Must have done something right as we accidentally won (well, joint 1st) the teams category. This is worth remarking upon as we very rarely come 1st in anything.

Posted By Blogger to jules' pics at 6/09/2016 11:28:00 AM

Friday, June 03, 2016

EU referendum

This isn't a political blog and I don't intend to say much about the referendum. But I do think it would be far preferable to have a result which was decided by a large proportion of the electorate, rather than a small and unrepresentative rump of extremists. So I hope all eligible readers will make sure they are registered by the deadline of 7th June. And then go on to actually use their vote on the day itself. (If you don't know which way to vote, toss a coin to decide and then see if you are relieved/disappointed at which way it landed!)