Science publishing, Afghan drug trade and others

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Scientists should not have to pay for publishing their research

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Scientists should not have to pay for publishing their research

Sir: In its recent report ("MPs call for biennial review of profits from science journals", 20 July) the Science and Technology Committee seems to be confusing two quite separate issues: whether commercial publishers make excessive profit from scientific publishing, and whether or not, if the current publishing model in which "reader pays" were replaced by one in which "author pays", research results would be more widely available.

If commercial publishers are making excessive profits under the present model there is no reason to suppose that, without other changes, they would not also do so under any new model. In any case there is already legislation in place for dealing with the abuse of market power if it exists.

As a charitable organisation, the Institution of Electrical Engineers is here to serve the engineering community by promoting research and disseminating information for the wider benefit of society. We are happy to adopt any publishing model which better enables us to achieve that objective. However, we believe that there are three fundamental problems with the "author pays" model which would need very careful consideration. Firstly, such a model inevitably increases the pressure to publish, as the more that is published the greater the revenue. There is therefore a risk of undermining the peer review process leading to a reduction in quality. This is not inevitable but it is a risk.

Second, the charge to authors will be substantial, making it less likely that outstanding work from poorer countries will be published.

Third, large commercial organisations with substantial research activities publish relatively little (for obvious commercial reasons) but are major purchasers of published material. Under the present model, they pay a fair price for this. Under the "author pays" model they will have free access. This will remove income from the system and inevitably increase the charge to authors. We do not see this as fair. The beneficiary should pay, not the benefactor.

Chief Executive, Institution of Electrical Engineers
London WC2

We sowed the seeds of the Afghan drug trade

Sir: I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful country of Afghanistan in the mid-1970s when the "hippy trail" wound its way through from Herat to the Khyber Pass. This was after the King had been deposed and a new (Russian-backed) government was trying to bring some order and basic services to the country, building schools, hospitals, roads, and attempting to eliminate drug production.

Those who were most threatened were the local war lords and their traditional way of life, which included small-scale drug cultivation. As central government lost what little control it had in the countryside they eventually called for the Russians to intervene "officially". In reaction to this "invasion" we took to supporting the war lords and turned a blind eye to opium production, which quickly changed to far more profitable heroin refining.

Acting on the "better dead than red" principle the war lords and the CIA threw out the Russians, and the Afghans were left to fend for themselves, making money where they could, including by poppy cultivation and heroin refining. Into this vacuum stepped the Taliban. For all their imperfections, they did at least restore a form of order; in fact it could be argued that only such a severe, ideologically motivated force had any hope of enforcing any sort of order in such a severely traumatised area.

Bin Laden (or was it an oil and gas pipeline?) meant that that regime was no longer acceptable to us, so again we supported the war lords, turned a blind eye to poppy production, smashed central power which was starting to impose its authority throughout the country and left the Afghans to fend for themselves.

Now the UK is being flooded with cheap heroin produced by our old allies, the war lords ("Opium trade booms in 'basket-case' Afghanistan", 23 July). Ironic that we felt we had a right to destroy a country and tens of thousands of its people to stop the threat of "communism" and then of "religious fanaticism" and it leads to a situation where all they can produce is drugs which destroy thousands of our loved ones.

London W13

Sir: It is not only Nato that needs to persuade Afghan farmers "to switch back to wheat and cereal" - governments urgently need to address the policy of powerful supermarkets ruthlessly paring the prices of raw materials to a level where it is totally uneconomic for prime producers not just to flourish but in many cases to exist.

Salisbury, Wiltshire

Sir: I very much enjoyed Johann Hari's article on the "war on drugs" ("When Kerry is more hawkish than Bush", 28 July); an issue, as your coverage of the opium trade in Afghanistan made clear, which is perhaps as important as, and undoubtedly more tangible than, our "war on terror".

The implicit conclusion of Johann's article would seem to be that the legalisation of the entire drugs trade is the only way to fight the powerful drug-growing and smuggling gangs, something he concedes public opinion "is obviously not ready for". This is surely not only a matter of public opinion - rather, the continued criminalisation of drugs such as cocaine and heroin is a measure designed to protect both the individual and society.

A better solution to the problem in drug-producing countries, such as Colombia and Afghanistan, would be for the government to deal directly with the growers by purchasing poppies and coca at a set price, making itself and not the criminal gangs the farmers' paymaster. This would perhaps lead to the creation of "drug mountains", reminiscent of the butter mountains across Europe, which could then be destroyed. Such direct contact between grower and government would also then allow the growing of drugs to be replaced by the growing of crops beneficial to both the farmers' society and, by stemming the flow of drugs, to our own too.


Sir: Johann Hari is right - the war on drugs will never be won. But would legalisation really bring any improvement? If one country did it unilaterally that would attract drugs tourists, along with more organised crime and make things worse. So it would have to be agreed internationally, no easy task.

But if the drugs trade were handed over to legitimate companies, these companies would face the odium of virtually everyone of a "progressive" persuasion. Left-leaning lawyers would queue up to bring six-figure claims on behalf of people who had psychosis after taking ecstasy. As with tobacco, a powerful lobby would demand endless regulation and a huge penal tax. The professional criminals would not all decide to become good citizens. Black-market drugs would undercut heavily taxed legal supplies. Why would all the people happy to break the law now want to pay more?

Esher, Surrey

Sir: What more do we need to hear to confirm that we have made the most awful policy blunder in slavishly siding with the Bush administration in its so called war on terror? The review you are giving to the dreadful conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, culminating in the withdrawal of Médecins sans Frontières, shows up the nonsense Blair and Bush spout about improved safety and security, and brings home in stark detail why so many people and Muslims in particular are learning to hate and despise us.

Furthermore, the words of the French, Germans and Russians resisting the aggression Bush was determined to unleash now seem to be real words of wisdom - why did we not heed our fellow Europeans? Instead our benighted PM believed he could somehow control the war-monger in the White House.

I urge ordinary decent British people to call for a suspension of the special relationship with the US and for the withdrawal of our troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq, along with a renunciation of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and the right to interfere in other countries' affairs.

Oadby, Leicestershire

Sir: The blurring of lines between military and humanitarian operations ("A frontier too far", 29 July), and the threat this poses to the lives of aid workers, is not the only worrying outcome of the war on terror. There is now a very real danger posed to the independence of aid. In both the US and EU we are seeing the subordination of development programmes to security and foreign policy objectives.

A central factor in the aid decision-making process is increasingly the recipient's usefulness and importance in this new cold war, rather than their level of need. In this environment it is the poorest and the socially excluded, particularly women and children, who lose out.

Head, Emergencies Unit
ActionAid International
London N19

Knock 'em down

Sir: Janet Street Porter's comments ("Don't save buildings - destroy them", 22 July) are excellent. I also saw the Griff Rhys-Jones Restoration programme. The workhouse she refers to is in Llanfyllin (population 1,000), which is in a remote part of Wales, near Lake Vyrnwy. The pattern is a familiar one. Make it into a museum (sort of), and add on a small business complex to help make it pay. It hasn't a cat's chance. Wales is already plastered with heritage centres, tourist attractions and museums appealing to the same limited car-driving family market and there is no local population to benefit from a business development. What few of this brigade ask is: what's the opportunity cost?

What particularly annoyed me was a remark that a renovated Cardigan Castle would bring culture to Cardigan. It's already got a theatre/cinema/multimedia complex which is thriving (where you can see Fellini or Almodovar). What will go on in the castle - jousting tournaments?

London SW6

Museum funding

Sir: It's all very well for MPs to say that museums must be more businesslike ("Museum fund-raising must be more businesslike, warn MPs", 20 July), but if they are not allowed to charge their customers, it is difficult to see how businesslike they could possibly become.

When museums, theatres or other institutions are dependent on attracting paying customers through the door, they have to focus very sharply on the needs of those customers - to be keenly aware of what those customers want, and to reach out to attract new ones. If they are dependent on public subsidy, by contrast, they naturally focus more on how to keep the funding quangos happy and how to bring in more public grants.

If MPs got out of the hair of museums and let them live by their own business decisions, they would rekindle much of the entrepreneurship and vigour they want to see.

Director, Adam Smith Institute
London SW1

The price of custody

Sir: In all this debate of 50/50 parenting (letters, 26 July), has anybody considered how children feel living between two homes, sometimes miles apart. I remember my mother smiling as she told my brother and me that we now had three homes: my father's home, where we spent most time as he had custody of us, my grandparents' home, and her home. I tried to smile convincingly back but my heart ached for one home with mum and dad together. I grew to hate the sight of that blue holdall which was packed for us as we were sent between our three "homes".

To all potential parents, please ask yourselves honestly if you could spend the rest of your life with your partner. Any niggling doubts? Please don't do it.

Welton Le Marsh, Lincolnshire

In brief...

Another world

Sir: MEPs are small businesses, are they (letters, 27 July)? I wish my small business could compete once every few years for a guaranteed multi-year income, with all expenses paid. I bow to no one in my dislike for Ukip, but if ever they wanted an example of how disconnected MEPs are from the real world, Diana Wallis's letter is a belter.

London SW10

Chemical goodness

Sir: Your report (28 July) that traces of pesticides are found in 43 per cent of fruit and vegetables gives me an added incentive to keep up my intake of these healthy foods. Apart from the clear benefits of eating copious fruit and vegetables, I also have the benefit of the traces of pesticides that stimulate my innate (non-specific) immune system thus affording me better protection against infections. I avoid so-called "organic produce" for the opposite reason.

Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire

Squirrelling away

Sir: Perhaps squirrels' longevity, and mine, would be enhanced if their ultrasonic warning mechanism ("The squirrel's secret", 29 July) could be complemented by improved risk assessment. As I ride my bike all over the hills of Exmoor, I despair as multiple squirrels freeze, turn left, then right, then often left again before finally choosing the most perilous route in front of my front wheel. I reassure myself this must be survival of the fittest.

Porlock, Somerset

Named and shamed

Sir: Your piece on chalk streams (29 July) broke with normal newspaper practice by presenting the scientific names of species correctly. However, the picture labelled Ephemera danica is certainly not that species; it looks more like Baetis rhodani. At least the latter belongs to the same taxonomic order: the shot labelled Gammarus pulex is of a decapod, not an amphipod, and almost certainly marine. The error is akin to passing off a dolphin as a water vole (or a rabbit as Sven Goran Eriksson).

University of Wales, Aberystwyth