Narrowlands #1

If you linked in to this blog to find information about the loud band from Sydney called Narrow Lands – “gentle people who like violent music” – I am sorry, but there’s a chance you might be disappointed. This blog is about the importance and ethereal quality of interdisciplinary research. That you landed here is a weakness in the google algorithm. But stay! I am always keen to expand my dwindling fan base, so if you really are simultaneously as gentle and violent as you say you are, keep reading… maybe we can make interesting music together.

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Keep reading, because those who have been here before know that my go-to rhetorical device is to set up a straw man juxtaposition, then tear it down and preach peace and love to all. You, Narrow Landers, are not my straw men and women. If my eyebrow muscles appear to twitch that’s merely the close proximity of the words “gentle” and “violent” in a sentence; it’s the pedant in me and that pedant is in permanent combat with a curious soul who wants to understand and experience new things… It’s ying and yang, chalk and cheese, Mary Berry and Gordon Ramsey.

Hang around, though, because wouldn’t a Mary Berry-Gordon Ramsey mash up be a thing of potential beauty? For me it might pack more surprises and more of a punch than a mundane pairing of similar phenotypes: Robson and Jerome didn’t surprise us and they may have sold records but I’d argue they created anything novel (they literally only did covers); they are not Serge Gainsborough and Jane Burkin. Admittedly Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s Little Drummer Boy was an off-the-wall matching and not an unqualified success. That’s the thing with interdiscpilinarity: it’s rather hit or miss. But when it hits, it hits far harder than any safer, run-of-the-mill, predictable offering.

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And so back to the real Narrow Lands, the gentle but loud band from Sydney whose eclectic discography includes numbers like Whores Rule, Gifted Children and December Clone. The album was recorded “over one weekend in a shed, on a farm near Barry [the town], NSW”. Some reviews, (which would make the promotions paperwork I’ve been reading recently much more interesting if the assessors adopted the same approach): “Brutal octavers”; “An album with a lot of layers to explore. Currently hogging my turntable”; “as brutal and catchy as your favourite wart!”; and, “Sludge… so much sludge”. You can judge for yourself if you click on the album cover above (this one, I promise, doesn’t lead to an advert for a pregnancy test!) And you too may discover that, although you are a gentle person, you too like violent music… Sadly, I didn’t!

 

Patrick Leman is returning to earth next week… and may even be writing “Narrowlands #2″… which will be a much more acerbic, but much less obscure, look at the state of modern research in psychology and a call for interdsciplinarity. This was just the whimsical warm up!

Double Whammy

Below… the article from The Psychologist of their interview with me on Brexit and science funding…

(There’s a link here for the online version)

Brexit is coming, and with it comes much uncertainty in countless areas of life. There are particular fears for science funding in the aftermath of the exit, with many institutions relying on large EU grants and international collaboration. Psychology may be one of the more vulnerable subject areas.

Between 2007 and 2013 the UK received €8.8 billion from the EU, and contributed €5.4 billion, for research, development and innovation, making it one of the largest recipients of research funding in the union. While the government has announced that EU-funded Horizon 2020 projects that were applied for before the referendum would be underwritten, and budgeted an extra £4.7 billion for science, research and development over four years, many at higher education institutes are concerned for their future.

The uncertainty doesn’t just lie in funding: indeed the House of Commons Education Committee in its recent report on Brexit and higher education said the uncertainty surrounding EU staff and students, regarding issues such as residence and tuition fees, needed to be reduced immediately. Similarly, many have been advocating to remove overseas students from net migration targets to ensure our universities will continue to attract EU students and those outside the continent.

We spoke to Patrick Leman, interim Executive Dean at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN – King’s College London) about the future, the state of science, and how we can make the public at large believe in the importance of research.

The IoPPN is Europe’s largest research centre for mental health research. Professor Leman, who said there is still uncertainty over funding post-Brexit, said: ‘It seems increasingly likely, if we get a hard Brexit, that we won’t remain automatically connected to the raft of EU funding streams that the UK has benefited from. Then, of course, the funding for science inevitably becomes more a matter of parochial UK concerns, which arguably offers less protection to innovation and independence than it had as part of a larger EU budget with 27 nations lobbying for a broader range of scientific and social agendas.’

Around £36 million of the IoPPN’s research funding came from the EU over the past five years, which is close to 10 per cent of its overall research income in the same period. However, some other institutions receive as much as 91 per cent of research income from EU funding schemes. So while the IoPPN is less dependent on EU funding than others, thanks partly to large-scale funding from UK bodies such as the Medical Research Council, NIHR and UKRI, Leman said there was ‘a general sadness’ due to possible implications for the international diversity of UK science, the sharing of expertise, and our reputation overseas.

Leman said any loss in funding means that impactful and important research doesn’t happen. He said: ‘The percentage figure for IoPPN rather understates the loss to the country because that’s science that’s being done on things like psychosis, depression and dementia. You can do a lot with £36 million of research to solve problems in those areas, and it is the medium- and long-term societal benefit of that research that’s vulnerable after Brexit. Those institutions which have been heavily dependent on EU funding, and that includes many psychology departments, may struggle.’

Psychology received almost 26 per cent of its research income from competitive EU grants between 2006 and 2015. Leman explained that the proportion of EU grants going towards the cognitive- and social-science-focused studies in psychology was much higher in the UK compared with the other big European research nations, France and Germany. ‘British institutions have done particularly well in terms of gaining EU funding for the social sciences and humanities. The knock-on effect we may see depends on what flavour of government we get and what they will prioritise. The mood music so far, as I read it, is they will prioritise health, physical and life sciences, because those are the areas where, arguably, they believe research can make greatest impact. Whether a future government reproduces that proportionately high-level investment in UK social sciences and humanities is questionable.’

The US faces its own science crisis, with Trump proposing cuts to a number of institutes and agencies. Leman said that there was a ‘double whammy’ of concern for academics and scientists in the UK and USA: ‘Like any business you want stability in funding in order to plan and develop, and at present we have uncertainty. But there’s also the undermining of the very basis and legitimacy of a lot of scientific thought. It’s difficult to know how to take on, as an individual, a political context that appears to be moving towards devaluation of the importance of science. This is not a matter of the science community engaging with itself, “virtue signalling” on the benefits of science to like-minded followers on Twitter, but about getting the message across to society through properly impactful research, and communicating and disseminating the importance of science.’

By demonstrating the usefulness of our research, and understanding governments, Leman said we can have impact: ‘Governments want to solve important problems, and all areas of psychology can do so much for that. But we need to convince governments, as well as the people voting for them, that science is important and that psychology, as a science, is important too.’

Katastrophenschutz

For some reason, I really don’t understand why, I have gotten myself onto an email list from the Cabinet Office’s “Emergency Planning College”. I am not complaining, it’s a useful heads up for plans on safety at festivals and sporting venues and major accident hazard COMAH sites in my area, even if Position Paper 6 and Occasional Paper 19 turned out to be a little dry… A quick summary: it’s all about resilience and I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that the thrust of the advice here is, “Don’t panic (unless you need to) because other people will”.

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That opening paragraph alone is probably enough to get me removed from the list and, when I think about it, I am probably on it because of something to do with my current job. In which case: (a) I needn’t have bothered with the stuff about sporting venues and (b) everyone in Denmark Hill can rest assured that I am bookish and sad enough to have read all of the messages and have been rendered so terrified by the threat of a failure in Business Continuity that I have become entirely risk averse. Anyway, King’s were kind enough to give me a very realistic crash course in crisis management by simulating one just as I took up my role as Executive Dean. My own family have been helping in that area too. So we’re covered for most things apart from alien first contact and a volcano. And I am sure those emails are due over the summer.

Katastrophenschutz (literally, “Catastrophe Protection”) is something we’ll need to learn more about in the next few years. At some stage, surely, the incessant stream of virtue signalling that swarms across my social media feeds will have to stop. Please?

Then what? Well, at some stage the liberal left will develop a coherent narrative that appeals to a broad coalition of voters. Surely they must or what’s the alternative? A true horror show, a return to the spectre of an isolated Little Britain where we’re haunted by the returning ghosts of Mary Whitehouse, Enid Blyton’s casual racism, and conductor Jack from “On The Buses“.

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My son has been bed bound for some time, and he’s resorted to any TV channel he can find to relieve the boredom. One day he chanced upon an episode of “On The Buses”. Genuinely, he thought it was hopelessly unfunny and some sort of nightmare from another dimension. It was or rather is… but my advice to all of us is that, “you’d best start believing in ghost stories… you’re in one.”

Time for some Katastrophenschutz. But perhaps, this time, without risk aversion…