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
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.
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’.
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…
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…
Lecture at St Antony’s: misuse of media, fear about new media and media addiction are not new…
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…
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 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.
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.
Sir 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.
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.
First visit from Brussels
I was pleasantly surprised at getting an invitation from Elke Ballon to an Oxford tea (for the non-EPRS followers: Elke is Head of Unit of the On-site and Online Library Services Unit in our European parliamentary Research Service). As Elke did part of her studies in Oxford, she could guide me around some of the university buildings and explain to me some of the typical Oxford University customs and rituals.
Who’s next? 😉
Public holidays in the UK?
Meanwhile, I’m beginning to understand why Belgium is often depicted as the ‘holiday paradise’. In November, in the European institutions the 1st and 2nd of November are public holidays. The Belgians have 1st and 11th November. None of these three exist in the UK!
The next public holidays, or ‘Bank Holidays’ as they are known here, that are coming up in the UK are Christmas Day (25th Dec) and Boxing Day (26th Dec).
And what’s more, the Christmas season here starts very early — at least in the shops. At the beginning of October some shop windows in Oxford were already displaying Christmas items!
Short but intensive terms for the students at this top university
The terms here for the students are very short (only eight weeks) but very intensive: high pressure due to short deadlines. Some of the individual College libraries are accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Even during the weekends the reading rooms are quite well used.
At the EP, we have our jargon. Though this is also the case at Oxford: The academic year at Oxford is divided into three terms: Michaelmas (autumn), Hilary (spring), and Trinity (summer). Michaelmas Term derives its name from the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, which falls on 29 September. Hilary Term is named after the feast day of St Hilary, which falls on 14 January, while Trinity Term comes from Trinity Sunday, which falls eight weeks after Easter.
Personally, I think it is the Oxford system of small group and even individual tutorial learning, together with the high academic level of the tutors, which drives students to work harder. That could be the secret behind the high ranking in the Shanghai ranking (world number 7). Of course I am proud that my own Alma Mater (KULeuven) also appears in the Top 100.
How will technology change our lives in Europe?
During Michaelmas Term (the first trimester of the academic year), the European Studies Centre organises a weekly ‘ESC Core Seminar’ on Tuesdays at 5 pm. On 31st October was my turn. The title was fixed a while ago, based upon my work at the European Parliament: ‘How will technology change our lives in Europe?’
The Centre for Technology and Global Affairs co-hosted this seminar with the European Studies Centre. It was a pleasure having Dr. Lucas Kello as discussant during the seminar entitled ‘How will technology change our lives in Europe?’, where I presented how we are using foresight at the European Parliament for understanding how technology could change our lives. Lucas is senior lecturer in International Relations. He serves as Director of the Centre for Technology and Global Affairs, a major research initiative exploring the impact of modern technology on international relations, government, and society.
The seminar was an excellent occasion for me to frame the purpose of the research I plan during my stay in Oxford.
The majority of the attendees were social scientists. When I spoke, I focused on the different types of impacts of new technologies that one can envision, while explaining the foresight approach we are using at the European Parliament. I emphasised that not only intended & unintended impacts are possible, and highlighted the possible ‘hard & soft impacts‘ of techno-scientific developments.
Discussant Lucas Kello raised several related and complementary elements which fed into the debate: the pressure of policymaking with often a lack of sufficient time for reflection; the link between technical issues and behavioural issues; the volatility of the scale and pace of technological change, which makes it difficult to follow and understand the various stages of technological developments and how to state a claim in cases where there is no causal link between technology and incident. Further, he also shared worries about ‘information security’ in the context of today’s and tomorrow’s cyberspace.
The rich debate following our talks raised many issues which I can integrate into my research regarding dealing with evidence in a policy context.
The participants were colleagues from various colleges and departments, as well as students. And I had the special pleasure of welcoming Jamie Tarlton, former trainee in our Scientific Foresight Service, working towards his PhD degree in Oxford.
And finally, in accordance with the great traditions of the College, the event was followed by a High Table dinner.
Another ESC seminar: ‘European democracy: one project or many?’
The keynote speaker at this seminar was Professor Martin Conway, Professor of Modern European History, Balliol College, one of the oldest colleges in Oxford. The event was chaired by Dr Paola Mattei (European Studies Centre – St Antony’s College). Professor Conway reflected on different forms of democracy and citizenships, diverse social classes, and the ‘marriage’ between democracy and nation/state power. He described democracy in various contexts.