Scientists for EU Letter

If you are in the UK, you know about the intense ongoing debate regarding the referendum on whether to leave the EU. Scientists for EU has organised a letter that represents the view of many in the UK scientific community, which you might consider adding your support to:

The core argument being put forth is as follows:

Scientific advance and innovation are critically dependent on collaboration. To remain a world-leading science nation, we must be team players.

The EU leads the world in science output, is beating the US in science growth – and is rapidly increasing investment in research. The EU is a science superpower. Our place in this team has boosted our science networking, access to talent, shared infrastructure and UK science policy impact. The economy of scale streamlines bureaucracy and brings huge added value for all. International collaborations have 40% more impact than domestic-only research.

Strong science is key for our economy and quality of life. It creates a virtuous cycle, leveraging investment from industry, raising productivity and creating high-value jobs for our future. In fact, 20% of UK jobs currently rely on some science knowledge. Science brings better medicines, cleaner energy, public health protections, a safer environment, new technologies and solutions to global challenges.

If we leave the EU, the UK will lose its driving seat in this world-leading team. Free-flow of talent and easy collaboration would likely be replaced by uncertainty, capital flight, market barriers and costly domestic red-tape. This would stifle our science, innovation and jobs.

It is no surprise that a recent survey showed 93% of research scientists and engineers saying the EU is a “major benefit” to UK research. The surprise is that many voters are still unaware that UK science and its benefits would be demoted by a vote to leave.

We, the undersigned, urge you to seriously consider the implications for UK science when you vote in the referendum on UK membership of the EU.


Keeping libel laws out of science

I just came to know about a dispute wherein the British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel, because he wrote about the lack of an evidence-based methodology in certain chiropractic treatments. You can read the full story here:

I encourage you to understand what is at stake here and consider signing this petition, which reads:

The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic for various children’s ailments through an open discussion of the peer reviewed medical literature or through debate in the mainstream media.

Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the “libel capital” of the world.

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.

Turing Apology – Official Response

This morning, I received the following response to the petition mentioned in my previous post:

Prime Minister: 2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

If you would like to help preserve Alan Turing’s memory for future generations, please donate here:

Turing Apology

A colleague sent me this:

The petition reads:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to apologize for the prosecution of Alan Turing that led to his untimely death.

More information on this petition:

Alan Turing was the greatest computer scientist ever born in Britain. He laid the foundations of computing, helped break the Nazi Enigma code and told us how to tell whether a machine could think.

He was also gay. He was prosecuted for being gay, chemically castrated as a ‘cure’, and took his own life, aged 41.

The British Government should apologize to Alan Turing for his treatment and recognize that his work created much of the world we live in and saved us from Nazi Germany. And an apology would recognize the tragic consequences of prejudice that ended this man’s life and career.

If you are in the UK, you might consider supporting it.

Towards “Mission Accomplished”

I have mostly avoided bringing political issues or commentary into this blog because I don’t think I am particularly qualified to offer expert opinion on this topic, and due to my distaste for the sort of off-topic and highly vitriolic things that infest comments sections of such blogs. However, considering the importance of what happens today, I don’t mind writing this.

I have a fairly vivid recollection of a lunch-time conversation from several years back. This was at work, in a technology company in Austin. I was with several colleagues. Most of us had originally come from another country before spending several years in the US for study and/or work – with the exception of one person who was a native Texan. We were discussing the upcoming presidential election (Bush vs. Kerry) and the fact that, for such a diverse and cosmopolitan country, there was literally no diversity in the type of people who hold the highest office. I was surprised to note that the majority of people on that table thought that this was just fine and people unnecessarily complain about this point. The native Texan, who was slightly older than the rest of us, said that the presidential race was an elaborate affair and perhaps non-WASP people were just not up to snuff for that sort of grilling. One of my South American friends wondered if there wasn’t some regulation that prevented non-whites from holding that office! And so on…

I found this whole conversation deeply disturbing. I understand that I am like most academics when it comes to politics in that I have predictably liberal or libertarian views. However, I could not believe how many of my colleagues, highly educated professionals who – in my personal experience – were very decent and kind people, were so apathetic and dismissive on such an important issue. After repeatedly hearing this sort of opinion, I began to buy into the categorization implied by the red state-blue state rhetoric. A couple of months later, when I chanced upon the famous “I have a dream” speech on the web (perhaps on YouTube), I thought that it would be a long time before that proverbial check would get cashed!

In the more recent US presidential election, although I wasn’t eligible to vote (I happen to hold residency in the USA, but not citizenship), I was an Obamaite from relatively early on. But, based on what I described earlier, I began with a deep-seated sense of pessimism about the chances of victory for this campaign. “Those people” would not let it happen, I thought. The first half of this race did nothing to convince me otherwise.

It is a tribute to the idea of America and the steadfast determination of the incoming president and his campaign that the cynicism of people like me has been shown to be more or less unfounded. And even if the check that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refers to in his speech hasn’t yet been fully cashed, it is good to see a first instalment being paid! And it is good to optimistically say “Yes, we can!”

PS: For those of you who have not yet heard Dr. King’s famous speech, follow the link below. This is easily one of the best speeches I have heard in my life so far!