Letters: Academics and government

Academia and politics, the worst of both worlds

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Mary Dejevsky is right to point out that Britain has relatively few academics roaming the corridors of power compared with the US (Comment, 28 April). But the reasons for this are more deep-seated than a lack of power-point skills on their part or a simple failure to listen to them by government ministers.

Our political class still has a profound distrust of intellectuals, a distrust often returned. It would be unimaginable for Britain to have a prime minister who was a university professor, even a media-savvy one; first because few academics enter politics, and second because a large section of the UK electorate would be put off by the very idea. So although intellectual gurus and mentors are allowed their role, influence has to remain strictly behind the scenes.

As for academic expertise, the present vogue for evidence-based policy-making encourages its use, but only to lend an aura of consensus to what are often controversial and always political decisions, by making it appear that they are the outcome of the best non-partisan advice.

Of course, experts rarely speak with one voice, so the Government selects the advice it wants, and, under New Labour, submits its preferred options to the instant plebiscite of the focus group before making any move. In universities, academics are put under pressure to limit their research interests to those of "policy relevance", to undertake "knowledge transfer" and consultancy work, and to abandon the kind of critical perspectives that would result in asking awkward questions of those in power.

As a result, we have the worst of both worlds. We produce too many experts who are denied a hands-on role in policy-making, and too few intellectuals who might produce and communicate radical new ideas.

Professor Phil Cohen

London N19

Pig flu a symptom of a sick society

Caroline Lucas hits the nail on the head (letter, 30 April) when she pinpoints the likely origin of the swine fever epidemic, shortly to become pandemic. Every illness has its messages and this one is saying three things.

First, that keeping large numbers of animals cooped up in as small a space as possible is bad for human as well as animal health. Legislation could consign such dangerous factory farming to the past, and would produce better-quality meat for those daft enough to eat it, as well as more employment in that sector. Better still to eat a vegetarian diet, which avoids all of the many pitfalls of eating "modern" meat.

Second, that international travel has downsides, and the almost instantaneous spread of infectious disease is one of them. It would not be unreasonable to expect the travelling public to have to pay for this integral aspect of the global tourist experience, and if that meant less travel, then that would be a good thing for the planet, and indeed for humanity.

Finally, that the concept of a real global community remains a myth. Yesterday, 3,000 people, most under five, died of malaria, a preventable and treatable disease which hardly ever features as an item worthy of news.

The spectre of bored Westerners going to Mexico to look at the views and what's left of its culture, while desperate Mexicans work in awful pork factories to export food to the West could be seen as a bizarre manifestation of all that's wrong with the way we do things at present. The future is local.

Dr Colin Bannon

Stokehill Lane, Devon

It would appear there is to be no let-up in the scaremongering from certain quarters in their determined effort to link the present flu outbreak to modern livestock production.

These people, Johann Hari among them ("Life-threatening disease is the price we pay for cheap meat", 1 May), making as yet unproven links between pig-farming and the flu virus at the centre of the present outbreak, put the livelihoods of UK livestock farmers in serious jeopardy.

Farmers in this country operate to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards, and are, quite rightly, tightly monitored.

Humans have always caught diseases from animals. What has changed is the number of humans on the planet, a figure which continues to rise inexorably, increasing the need for healthy, affordable food. A range of production systems are in place in this country to produce that food and all are regulated.

Just for the record, the present flu outbreak is being perpetuated by human-to-human contact, and has nothing to do with pigs, or pigmeat, in the UK. Consumers can be assured that buying pigmeat produced to assured farm standards – as certified by the Red Tractor logo – is safe, and no amount of scaremongering to the contrary will change that.

Liz Falkingham

Director of Communications, National farmers Union

Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire

I hope they've remembered to stockpile the tissues as well as the medicine.

Clare Lines


Books? Not for today's students

The article by Robert Fisk about our seemingly post-literate society (25 April) struck a chord with me, having recently, and for the first time, visited the campus of a reputable West Country university. As I had time to spare before a meeting, I discovered, to my amazement, that the university bookshop had recently closed.

Apparently, students just order set books via Amazon etc and download material from the internet. The idea of browsing, of reading outside of your prescribed texts, or perhaps reading at all outside of easily digestible Wikipedia-type gobbets of information, would appear to be alien to many contemporary students.

Roll over Gutenberg.

John Whitton


Robert Fisk complains about a loss of deep reading due to an over-reliance upon technological gadgets, but spends a significant amount of time in the same article also complaining about writing that is apparently too deep. All the terms he then pejoratively quotes are terms that are actually more concise than his own description of them as "pseudo-anthropological jargon".

Just because some words are not be contained within a newspaper's style guidelines, does not mean they are not valid tools with which to express innately complex concepts. I share with Mr Fisk a concern for the increasingly shallow and dumbed-down nature of contemporary discourse, but unlike Mr Fisk, I would also add for consideration the largely unacknowledged role of closet philistines moonlighting as "commonsense" journalists.

Dr Paul A Taylor

Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory,

University of Leeds

Sorry, it really is greenhouse gases

David Whitehouse over-states the importance of the sun on Earth's climate ("The missing sunspots: Is this the big chill?", 27 April). He claims that over the increasing part of the solar cycle the Sun has the same climate-warming effect as increasing greenhouse gases. In fact the influence on climate from this change is 0.17 watts per square metre. This is much smaller than that claimed by Mr Whitehouse, and smaller than the 2.6 watts per square metre effect from the increase in greenhouse gases since pre-industrial times.

He says, "The sun became increasingly active at the same time that the Earth warmed", but measures of solar activity over the past 30 years have not shown an increase, at the same time that temperatures on Earth have increased by about 0.5 Celsius. Natural climate variability can produce more or less warming over a 10-year period than the underlying climate change, explaining the lack of rapid warming since 1998. Even so, the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997.

Over-stating the impact of the sun on climate distracts attention from the dominant influence of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions on global warming and the important science being done to better understand what may happen in the future.

Dr Gareth S Jones

Dr Peter A Stott

Met Office Hadley Centre


In memory of our war dead

Was the reason Tony Blair was not at the ceremony in Basra because he was too busy as the Middle East peace envoy?

David Morgan

Wistow, Cambridgeshire

Am I the only one to have felt slightly sickened and ashamed at the apparent class divide in the reciting of the names of the dead in Basra? Officers were identified by rank, initials, and surname. The rest just got rank and surname.

Conrad Cork


So, at last our troops are returning to Blighty, and a world fit for bankers.

Peter Day


Dangerous move for family courts

I strongly believe that the decision to allow the press into family courts is setting a dangerous precedent (report, 29 April). In some rare child-protection cases the public interest outweighs the privacy of the family, but in most cases there is no merit in allowing the media to pick through the remains of broken relationships, especially where children are concerned.

This decision will serve only to further invade the privacy afforded by our family court system and fuel the fire of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Should we not be more concerned about the long-term effect of allowing the press into the courts on those children who survive the painful repercussions of divorce? Whatever will be next?

John Randle

Partner, Lester Aldridge LLP

London EC4

Cringe-making pictures of MPs

On the front of my evening paper was a ludicrous picture of the Chancellor and his wife having breakfast before he was off to the Commons to break the bad news to the nation in his Budget speech. And a stiffer, less natural-looking couple you could not hope to find.

The picture had "PR man's idea" all over it. Back in the real world, the rest of us simply giggle or sigh when we see another shot of the PM break-dancing or donning biker's leathers or some such nonsense in the mistaken and futile, belief that this is how "to connect with the young".

Why do ordinary people apparently take leave of their senses when elected to Parliament and indulge in such cringe-making antics? Surely they must know that we simply laugh at it all.

Patrick Powell

St Breward, Cornwall

Write on

You report "Controversy as basics are downgraded to boost ... talking" ("School to start at four with new timetable to 'restore creativity' ", 1 May). In what Kafka-sque, Pythonesque, or perhaps Ballsesque world can the ability to speak the language be considered less basic to learning than the ability to write it?

John Dougherty

Stroud, Gloucestershire

Poly puts its mettle on

The gap between old and new universities is indeed closing (Education, 30 April) but there are four rather than three ex-polytechnics in the top half of your league table. The fourth is Bournemouth. Bournemouth has achieved its position through its unwavering commitment to academic excellence, which has resulted in increased applications, more of its graduates in employment, record levels of research and enterprise activity and several other indicators of progress.

Professor Paul Curran

Vice-Chancellor, Bournemouth University, Poole, Dorset

Changing the bard

Re your Big Question on Poet Laureates (or perhaps it should be Poets Laureate?): Surely Southey can hardly be said to be "forgotten now"; shouldn't his "It was a famous victory" from "After Blen-heim" be included in the list of "most memorable lines"? And Walter Scott, although an established poet, was not yet "the romantic novelist" when Pye died in 1813. The first of his novels, Waverley, although he had been working on it for some time, was not published until the following year.



He's a what?

Mike Perry (letters, 29 April) claims that St George was "half-Palestinian, half-Turkish". At the time, the former was not an ethnic, as opposed to a geographic, term and the latter is impossible since the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until centuries after his death. A more accurate description might be Cappadocian.

Martin D Stern

Salford, Greater Manchester

Year to dismember

Let's stop messing about with "the name of the year" (letters, 28 April). We went wrong after nineteen-ninety-nine when we entered twenty-hundred, not two thousand. Next followed twenty-oh-one and now we are in the year of twenty-oh-nine. Of course, next year will be twenty-ten.

Barrie Spooner


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