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:




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


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.


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.

The Oxford Martin School, a ‘Foresight College’?

The Oxford Martin School is a rather young institute in Oxford, founded only in 2005. Their main intent is ‘envisioning solutions, not listing problems’.  Central to the mission of the Oxford Martin School is the idea that their research should have an impact beyond academia, going further by working with policymakers, practitioners and business leaders to explore and address the most pressing challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.  Therefore, I think we could consider them as a ‘Foresight College’.  It is a community of more than 200 researchers, from Oxford and beyond — even including some of ‘the other university’ (read: ‘Cambridge’) — working to address the most pressing global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. So, it is relevant following their activities for STOA and other parliamentary research services.

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I attended a couple of Oxford Martin School events the past weeks: a two-days conference on circular economy and combatting climate change and some one-hour lectures.

‘Strategic materials for a low-carbon future – From scarcity to availability’

Conference towards circular economy

2 and 3 November, a conference was organized by the Oxford Martin School, focused on circular economy and climate change. As such it was also nicely linked to one of our recently published STOA studies (Circular economy and waste management), I share some impressions and links.

The aim of the conference, which was extremely well attended by prominent academics and politicians and a diverse set of stakeholders from all over the globe, was indeed envisioning solutions, rather than listing the problem. Highlights were the introductory keynote by Sir John Beddington, setting the scene with four assumptions for the next decade: 1. No change in demographic evolution, 2. Overall more prosperity, 3. Growing urbanisation, 4. No change in climate change.

Schermafbeelding 2017-11-13 om 13.41.57Sir John is Senior Adviser, Oxford Martin School. In 2011 we had the honour, at the European Parliament, of having a STOA Lecture by Sir John Beddington, presenting the main findings of the report ‘The Future of Food and Farming (2011)’, issued by the Government Office for Science, London.


Conference highlight: Lecture by Lord Stern

Another Oxford highlight, linked to this conference, was a hugely popular Lecture by Lord Stern: standing-room only in the completely packed enormous University Examination Schools hall.

Lord Stern announcement

He gave an encouragingly optimistic view on combatting climate change. Funny question from the audience during the Q&A session: a student told he had the terrible choice to make between attending this great Lecture and completing an essay the same evening on a climate change issue Lord Stern might help him with, so he asked him the quite technical question.  At the end, the audience reminded Lord Stern he answered all questions except the student’s one, after which Lord Stern made some jokes, but eventually he put the student on the right track!

Looking for solutions towards a sustainable future, involving academics, policymakers, industry, NGOs, …

On Day Two, some industry representatives were raising doubts about the speed of the systemic transition required for a 100% circular economy.  Challenges towards a full circular economy were discussed.  For instance: more waste could be recycled – especially waste water – however, for some products 100% recycling is not environmentally friendly (it is crucial to know the optimal percentage); when rare materials become cheaper from recycling rather than mining, recycling will take over; designers should take into account the ‘end-of-life’ of their products; policy measures might be a stimulating factor towards a circular economy; the ‘nudges’ ideas developed by Nobel Prize Winner Richard Thaler (for his work on behavioural economy) were elaborated on their usefulness for recycling more batteries and so on.

The audience, with a good mix of stakeholders, was indeed more focused on solutions towards a sustainable future than on listing problems…

Oxford Martin School Lecture Series ‘Great Transitions: navigating 21st century challenges’

This lecture series is very popular and so well-attended that the Lecture Theatre of the impressive Oxford Martin School building is too small.  Those who cannot find a place to sit or stand can follow the sessions on a screen in another room, and for those you cannot physically attend, other channels are available: you can watch the one-hour seminar ‘Tipping points to the post-carbon society’, with Prof Doyne Farmer (Director of Complexity Economics – photo at the right) & Prof Cameron Hepburn (photo left), on Youtube.

Professor Cameron Hepburn, an economist with expertise in energy, resources and the environment, is Director of Economics of Sustainability and linked to the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School.

Cooperation with former European Union Fellow, Peter Vis

Cameron Hepburn also used to work together with a former EU Fellow here, Peter Vis (European Commission). During his stay at the European Studies Centre of St Antony’s College, Peter Vis co-authored with Jos Delbeke, Director-general of DG CLIMA at the European Commission, the book ‘EU Climate Policy Explained’. This book had been presented at the European University Institute in Florence two years ago.