Goodbye Oxford…

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Having taken up my work at the European Parliament, I am closing this Fellowship Blog.

At this occasion, I express my gratitude to those running the EU Fellowship Programme at the European Commission and the European Parliament for granting me this inspiring academic year at the European Studies Centre in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

This European Union Fellowship gave me a great opportunity for pursuing a wide range of activities: studying, reading, doing research, conducting interviews, meeting experts from diverse backgrounds and origins, giving lectures, informally guiding some PhD students, and writing a paper as well as a book proposal. Above all. I got the chance to attend many interesting events and meet academics and other visiting fellows active in a wide variety of disciplines, thus enlarging my network for my work at EPRS. In particular, I expect the links with the Oxford Martin School, the Saïd Business School, and the Reuters’ Institute for Journalism to be beneficial for STOA and the European Parliamentary Research Service.

The last highlight at the European Studies centre was my seminar on bias-awareness in scientific advice and policymaking on the 8th of June, where we had the honour of the presence of Julie Girling, MEP, as the discussant. Professor Kalypso Nicolaïdis, of the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s, chaired this event. Earlier that week, I presented part of my Oxford research outcomes in Brussels at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) ‘FTA2018 conference – Future in the making’, in the form of the discussion on the paper ‘Towards unbiased foresight processes for policy thinking – a framework for responsible scientific advice’. Both events were occasions to get feedback and the follow-up discussions, during and after the events, helped me to connect the last dots.

It may be interesting to mention that my research on the bias of evidence led to conclusions that were quite different from my original expectations: I intended to investigate ways to stimulate politicians to take the time to reflect critically about policy options and about thinkable consequences of policy choices. But what I found was that ‘slow thinking’ is not synonymous with ‘critical thinking’. When people take time for reflection, they might try to find convincing arguments to justify their opinions and actions to others, rather than reflect about alternative options. However, being aware of our usual unconscious biases makes us more open-minded for arguments and evidence which is not in line with our original views. This is an interesting outcome, especially since in policy advice and scientific advice, avoiding unconscious bias is a key issue.

Further, I inevitably saw Brexit having a great impact on the university, Oxford and the UK citizens. What I learned from the many Brexit seminars, reflecting on the future of the United Kingdom and of Europe, is that there are no winners. As our director, Dr Hartmut Mayer, aptly summarized it in the very last seminar of the European Studies Centre for the term, ‘we will have to adjust to the new Europe’. I sincerely hope that for the next Research Framework Programme adequate arrangements can be made for the UK partners.

On the whole, this academic break gave me the opportunity to observe, in these challenging times, how European policy is reflected on by academics from diverse backgrounds, and to recognise that our mutual terminologies are to be considered carefully: we often speak other languages and being aware of this helps get insight into diverse reflections.

As you can see in the compilation of pictures, Oxford also offered other experiences, such as singing in the University Choir and the hard labour of ‘punting’.  While being in Oxford, I missed Belgian food, now I am back in my home place, Leuven, I miss the Choral Evensongs in the charming colleges and the evening walks through the meadows. Though, I am staying in touch with my Oxford colleagues.

Guest in Cambridge

 

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Being in Oxford, I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to speak in ‘the other university’-  an excellent occasion for spending a few days in this lovely place.

An audience of young academics for the Cambridge University, at the Science & Policy Exchange initiative

I had the honour and the pleasure of being invited for a keynote ‘Science and policy exchange: a check-up’ at the very first Cambridge University Science & Policy Exchange initiative (CUSPE).

It was great to speak in this wonderful venue of the Old Divinity School of St John’s College to over 100 students, who spent more than four hours at this event on science and policy.  Amongst the other attendees, there even was the father of one of our former STOA trainees. Unlike St Antony’s College, where most of the colleagues and students are political scientists and historians, the Cambridge audience had mostly natural scientists.

I was introduced by Robert Doubleday, the Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Policy, supporting the event. The seminar was organized by a team of enthusiastic women.

Candidate trainees with a natural science background

The CUSPE president, Dr Karen Stroobants (PhD from Leuven), is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie post-doctoral Fellow at the Chemistry Department in Cambridge. Karen opened the event with some remarkable advice to the students. She calculated that ‘out of 200 PhDs graduating in the UK, seven will become permanent research staff and only one will become a professor.’ I quote her further: ‘…what a PhD teaches you, more than anything, is a method to approach problems, a way of thinking that can be applied much broader. Don’t focus exclusively on a career in academia, explore your options, approach any diversion from the academic career path as a positive decision and remember that it is the rule rather than the exception. We must move away from the myth that leaving academia equals failure. It doesn’t; your skills are valuable in industry, in consultancy, in policy.

The animated discussions after the event, followed by the mails and the LinkedIn contacts in the days and weeks after the event, have made me assume that we might have quite some candidates with a natural science for the European Parliament Robert Schuman traineeships.

Altogether, it was a pleasant experience, being accommodated in Christ College.

Other visits in Cambridge and London: enjoy the links to the talks!

On this occasion, I not only had meetings with the organizers and attendees of the CUSPE event but I also met other Cambridge experts who were ‘in my bucket list’ in the area of scientific advice:

  • Professor William Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology and intrigued by understanding how decisions are made (one of his talks on YouTube),
  • Dr Alexandra Freeman, Executive Director, Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, and
  • Sir Professor David Spiegelhalter, President of the Royal Statistical Society. I also attended his lecture in London, ‘Statistics, risk and the media‘, which was organized by the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO).  You can enjoy one of his great talks on YouTube; you will understand why the room was fully booked.

Two visits by MEPs in Oxford, Dr Paul Rübig and Ms Julie Girling

Paul Rübig, First Vice-Chair of the STOA Panel, visited Oxford

Two weeks ago, it was a pleasure welcoming Dr Paul Rübig, our first Vice-Chair of the STOA panel, in Oxford. Maundy Thursday was a terrible rainy day, with unrelenting rain.

We met Dr Lucas Graves from the Oxford Reuters Institute for the study of journalism. It was an stimulating exchange of views on fact checking in journalism. Fact checking is a key issue for the European Science Media Hub, as can be read on the STOA website . The European Science Media Hub (ESMH) is a new platform to promote networking, training and knowledge sharing between the European Parliament, the scientific community and the media. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is a globally focused research center at the University of Oxford. It tracks world media, its trends, developments and forecasts by connecting relevant and engaging academic research with journalistic practice, linking rigorous analysis with practical experience.

Lucas Graves is a Senior Research Fellow studying how news and news organizations are changing in the contemporary media ecosystem. As an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has written on the economic, professional, and technological currents shaping news production today, and on new journalistic voices such as bloggers and fact-checkers. Lucas has been at the forefront of research on the fact-checking movement in the United States and all around the world, and authored a book ‘Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism’. It goes without saying that this was an interesting meeting in the light of the European Science Media Hub. We learned about the fact checking movement and machine based fact checking.

For those of you interested, you could find quite impressive reports related to Dr Graves’work on the Reuters Institute website: The Rise of Fact-Checking Sites in Europe, a report on automation of fact-checking, and for those with high interest in the global fact checking movement, here is a huge directory of research on fact-checking and misinformation.

Combined with a smell of Oxford’s history…

We combined this interesting meeting with Lucas Graves with a lunch in the High Street. It was then followed by a visit to the nearby college, the Oxford Brasenose College, accompanied by Mrs Rübig. Being an engineer, Paul Rübig was keen on visiting the Museum of the History of Science, which houses an unrivalled collection of historic scientific instruments in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building , next to the Old Ashmolean and opposite the impressive Blackwell’s bookshop. For those who ever want to visit this science museum, I can suggest three ‘curiosities: a Chinese scent watch, a huge pastel painted image of the moon, which took more than 30 years to be completed, and a boat speed meter (knot-counter), on the ground floor, stairways and upper floor respectively. The basement used to be the first dissection room of the university.

Some photos:

 

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Second visit from the European Parliament:
Julie Girling, MEP, guest at the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College of the University of Oxford on 13 April 2018

This Friday, April 13, I had the pleasure to welcome Ms Julie Girling at the European Studies Centre. Her visit was a follow-up of the event ‘Fact Checking Science: Shaping the governance of scientific advice in the EU’ that she had hosted at the European Parliament at the end of January.

I am conducting a series of interviews with key actors in the broad science-policy ecosystem, and Julie Girling is a crucial actor in this area.  So, we had an inspiring talk on scientific evidence and policymaking.

Ms Girling will also be a discussant at the final presentation of my findings during the EU fellowship in Oxford on Friday, 8 June, which is indeed a great honor, for me and the European Studies Centre.

 

‘The Beast from the East’ governing the country

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Earlier this week I discovered that it is not a Belgian monopoly to stop public life for a while, due to a few centimetres of snow. However, meanwhile in the UK this has become more than just a few centimetres…

So, even though it’s March now, this big freeze with its snow dominates the news, as it also does in Brussels, and makes me feel at home. Having been lucky myself to arrive back in Oxford this week at the moment the snowfall started, I am feeling very sorry for all those who are stuck at places which are not their favourite ones to spend the weekend. All the best to all of you in this situation!

Everyone speaks about ‘the Beast from the East’, when talking about the cold front. On Wikipedia I found that this cold spell is nicknamed “the Beast from the East” because “it has been caused by a large arctic airmass with anticyclonic structure, stretching from the Russian Far East to the British Isles and thus covering large parts of Asia and almost all of Europe.”
This ‘Beast from the East’ really governs is governing daily life at the moment, also at the university.  Classes, seminars and parties are being cancelled…

Although Theresa May gave an important speech today, even in the Guardian this major news is diverted by a snow cartoon

As I wrote in a previous blog post, the Oxford Martin School is a leading institute in, amongst other topics, climate change. The Webcam on their impressive building allows us to follow the situation closely… By the time you read this post, it might be sunny or rainy Spring, I insert a screenshot with the new snowfall.

Hoping the weather soon turns into the ‘usual British’ weather as described in this fun  song

If you are not going outside to sculpture snowmen, snowwomen, snowchildren and snowpets: stay warm, stay safe and… look after each other well!
And don’t forget: wrap up warm!

Oxford covered by snow by night: an impression

Continue reading “‘The Beast from the East’ governing the country”

The Bayeux Tapestry

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An important milestone in the history of the United Kingdom – to be known about, in order to become a UK resident!

It is now about three weeks ago that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced that he expected to give the Bayeux Tapestry on loan to Britain. Here in Oxford, this was the topic of conversation for several days on the streets, in the corner shop, on BBC Radio 4 and at the University. On Radio 4, I even heard the suggestion that the UK might consider offering The Rosetta Stone (British Museum) in return.  I thought this was a joke, however, it was also the topic of an article in The Telegraph: Emmanuel Macron’s decision to let Britain borrow Bayeux Tapestry prompts calls for UK to loan Rosetta Stone to France’.

A historically crucial battle for the UK is commemorated in the Bayeux Tapestry, which can be seen in Bayeux today. An impressive piece of art: 68.80 meters long and 50 centimetres high, in Euro-speech. In UK-speech this means about 231 feet long, by 20 inches high. An impressive piece of art, which weighs close to 350 kilograms.  As it is a very delicate piece of cloth and lining, investigation is required to find out if and how it can be transported.

There is no consensus as to where the tapestry was made: was it in Canterbury, Kent, where there was a famous school of tapestry which used a style of work very similar to that found on the tapestry itself? Or was it in the French Norman monastery of St. Florent of Saumur? There seems evidence that this was the place it was produced, between 1070 and 1083.

So, it is not a surprise that the Bayeux Tapestry features on UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’.

I vividly remember having queued once, about 20 years ago in Bayeux in France, to see this tapestry. In the end we went home with a smaller paper version of it.

As it was amazing how many people here were so excited by Macron’s proposal to investigate loaning the Bayeux Tapestry to the British Museum, I really started to understand how the battle of Hastings was a key milestone in British history. Almost everyone in the UK knows the date 1066, when the Norman French conquered Britain. It’s without doubt the most famous date in British history.

Now, a few weeks later, I’m reading the ‘Guide for New Residents’, called ‘Life in the United Kingdom’.  I’ve seen some stressed colleagues at the university who are in the process of applying for UK citizenship.  And yes, even some prominent Oxford lecturers suffer exam stress!

To gain UK citizenship, it is assumed that the candidate’s knowledge covers the early history of the UK, including the attacks by the Vikings and the Norman Conquest, and this is where the Bayeux Tapestry comes in. It depicts the Battle of Hastings (1066), where William, the Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold of England, after which William became King of England. He is still known as William the Conqueror.

The ‘exam’ questions cover much more than only UK history: also British customs and traditions, including the Christmas meal and decoration habits, Pancake Day before Lent, and until what time you may fool on April Fool’s Day…

So, I am showing solidarity with my colleagues at the European Studies Centre and St Antony’s College, and am reading the same preparatory material.

Christmas in Oxford

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At the European Studies Centre we celebrated the end of the term with a party. Our colleague Sarah is great in organising social events, and she managed to bring a safety-regulation-proof real fire into our seminar room: a video of a log fire, displayed on our screen.  (Sarah definitely can compete with Rita!)

The relaxed Christmas High Table was very British, including Christmas crackers and paper crowns.   In addition we also were – by surprise – spoiled with a Christmas lunch (also with crackers and crowns) in the college cantine. This was a very traditional one, with roast turkey and all the trimmings, and a Christmas pudding for desert.  I strongly can recommend this type of British food! Even for pulling Christmas crackers, rituals are respected!

During the weekend I attended a lecture on Christmas customs: a new piece of information that I gleaned was that the reason Santa Claus often is pictured with flying reindeers is due to the fact that these reindeers are eating the ‘fly agaric’ mushroom, which was said to be hallucinogenic… (called ‘magic mushrooms’ in the UK). We also were told about the mistletoe Christmas kissing.

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Christmas concerts have been going on since mid-November.  On the 17th I attended the first Carols by Candle-light in Hertfort College quad. Last week we performed Rutter’s Magnificat with the Oxford University Choir, in the Sheldonian Theatre, architect Christopher Wren’s 17th Century masterpiece, described as ‘one of the architectural jewels of Oxford’.

 

Times flies…

Inspiring place

Meanwhile, I have been working in Oxford for the past nine weeks: time flies!
Between the official eight-week terms, in which many interesting seminars and debates take place at the various colleges and schools, I’m enjoying the luxury of having extra time to concentrate fully on my research into evidence & bias. So far, I’ve found a great deal of interest by scientists in various Oxford colleges, schools and department, and I am pleasantly surprised by how accomodating Oxford Academics are in offering their time for inspiring discussions and exchanging views. My research work is getting at cruising speed and I am surrounded by piles of books suggested by academics from many disciplines.

Walking or biking?

For walking between the different colleges and libraries, I have the choice of crossing the city or the park.  So far, I didn’t dare to bike here.  First of all, I feel safer on the footpath, for a simple reason: why do the British drive on the left? In addition, cycle theft is the most prevalent crime across the University. The City Council strongly advises locking your bike with a D-Lock to ‘something strong and securely anchored’.  However, the biggest challenge is finding something strong and well anchored to which you are allowed doing so…

 

Weather in Oxford: not always drizzling

Although we have more rain in all forms than I am used to in Brussels, we are now enjoying rather mild weather.  Having clear weather one afternoon gave me a great sunset view from my office in the college.

Squirrels are not yet hibernating, and some pigeons around St Antony’s library reading room are brooding young nestlings. I’m curious as to whether these will survive! During a walk between university buildings, I even saw what looked to me like some early blossom…

Lectures at the European Studies Centre, ever inspiring…

Lecture at St Antony’s: misuse of media, fear about new media and media addiction are not new…

Ulricke Weckel - Lecture

As we are surrounded by a diverse range of social scientists, we have at least a weekly opportunity to attend a seminar on a colleague’s work.  One of our colleagues, Ulrike Weckel, Professor in Media and History, is Richard von Weizsacker Visiting Fellow at the European Studies Centre. Being a historian, she analysed how ‘new media’ in the previous centuries influenced society.  She covered amongst other media, paintings and illustrations of the 17th Century as ‘new media’.  Her talk comprised reflections regarding manipulation and addiction, and also gender issues.  I learned that fear of addiction is not something new, related to the digital age: it has occurred with every type ‘new’ media throughout history. As Ulrike’s fields of research also include the gender history of sociability in the 19th century, she explained that women becoming addicted to reading had been a worry in the past: what about their tasks in the household? What’s more, I was surprised to see 50-year-old TV footage, making clear that addiction was already a pronounced fear with the introduction of radio and television, not so long ago, although people wanted to be ‘updated’ to be prepared for what everybody would be talking about the next day.  Ulrike – being a historian – did not talk about the 21th Century, but is it clear that history is repeating itself: what we are calling today ‘social’ or ‘new’ media has a similar impact, although the pace and impact are much more significant.
The same issues have always been prevalent regarding fear of misuse of media for propaganda, and of a kind of literacy-divide in society. The use of media to manage emotions, and to mislead society, and for propaganda purposes are not new either, no more than media also focusing on sensation and profit.  New media also could be ‘threatening’, such as with the first ‘moving images’, where people became afraid of becoming part of the scene on the screen.  A nice example of this you can see in the first video in history, and people’s reaction to it.

Statistical cartography: appealing visualisation techniques…

Jan Zielonka - Lecture

Another interesting talk was given by Professor Jan Zielonka. He presented to us the ideas he is putting together in a new book.  He compared the Europe of states to many other concepts, such as a Europe of resources, a Europe of infrastructure.  His slides, which are not yet publicly available, used interesting data cartography tools, produced based upon statistical data, here at the University of Oxford.  As soon as the maps are public, I’ll share them for inspiration with the EPRS colleagues dealing with graphical issues and animated infographics.