University of Bath, Institute of Policy Research.
A day at my alma mater.

A personal viewpoint by Les Higgins, 14 May 2013

Today, I invested an afternoon of my time to attend the launch event of the subject institute, and I’d like to share a few thoughts that emerged.

First, I should declare that I had a dual interest. I graduated from the University of Bath (far too many moons ago) in electrical and electronic engineering – so it is my alma mater. After graduation, I followed a 15+ year career in engineering. But then, aged almost 40, I defected to the “soft side” – as our company’s logo strap-line says “it’s all about people”. So I have, for almost a quarter century, had an active interest in things like “policy-making”.

Cultural Dynamics has worked with numerous “policy think-tanks” of all political persuasions over many years. I was intrigued to find out if this new IPR had, in fact, anything new to offer.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first! I estimated that something like 90% of attendees were from the university itself. It’s obviously laudable that this venture should receive such support from within – but it obfusticated any sound judgement of external support. Also, the audience was marked by the absence of any (vocal) “opposition” to what was being put forward in the presentations. This is an age old problem – conferences where the converted preach to the converted.

That said, the event was not a total loss and, indeed, had a number of highlights.

Professor Paul Gregg’s “The Labour Market in Winter: Unemployment and its Legacy” - despite the constant use of the word “space” to represent (apparently) “area of concern or study” – made an insightful and evidence-based analysis of the long-term likely impact of “austerity” on today’s young people, wrought through the current labour market.

I was particularly struck by the numbers relating to long term “scarring”, where young people who experience unemployment/non-employment in their earliest years continue to experience employment difficulties extending decades further in their lives.

Whether I agree with Prof. Gregg’s proposed solutions or not is neither here nor there at present. His analysis – the data – is sound. The policy of austerity HAS chosen to sacrifice the hopes and prospects of the youngest to pay for the witting or unwitting excesses of their elders (obviously, as Mr Osbourne would tell us, “in the interests of the greater good, because we’re all in this together”).

Perhaps the most stunning analysis of the day was provided by Professor Anna Gilmore’s “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Corporate Subversion of Public Health”. (Very topical!)

Thanks to a US court ruling, tobacco companies were forced, a few years ago, to make public a host of internal documentation (memos, emails, etc.) and Prof. Gilmore and her associates have analysed these in great detail.

What they found was a staggering institutionalised and deliberate attempt to subvert (I would suggest, on the strength of their evidence, pervert) not just policy but the mechanisms for the development and evaluation of government policy across the globe.

I’m pretty sure the one thing, above all, that got people’s attention was the documentary evidence that tobacco companies were explicitly involved in tobacco smuggling in order to increase sales and revenues (while implicitly depriving governments of tax revenues).

That’s just the tabloid headline stuff. The fact that the product is directly responsible for the premature death of 1 in 2 of its long-term users, and that the documentation explicitly states that these companies must target under-16’s to “sustain” the market, simply beggars belief that there is any kind of “moral compass” at work in the tobacco business.

The conference was quick to note the parallels between the policy subversion by the tobacco companies and that by the big energy companies with respect to climate change.

There was a panel discussion, chaired by Professor Iain Stewart from Plymouth University. He may not be a name you’d immediately recognise, but you could certainly not mistake his dulcet Scottish tones and his face from a number of excellent documentaries (if that’s your bag) – perhaps notably, “How to Grow a Planet” (2012).

There were some very interesting questions posed to the panel. For my part, I would have liked to have heard much more response and opinion from Prof. Stewart himself. I had the feeling he had a lot to say that he felt his position as “chairman” (is that still allowable?) did not leave him free to say.

The laurels of the day, however, must go to the external guest speaker, Professor Will Hutton.

It was obvious, towards the end of the day, that the conference organisers were “stretching” things – and everyone was wondering whether Prof. Hutton had backed out. Eventually, the truth emerged – Will was stuck “in the toll bridge” (?)

The conference unanimously voted to go sup wine and partake of nibbles until Prof. Hutton eventually turned up, or the wine and nibbles ran out – whichever came the sooner. As it happened, I counted at least eight bottles of wine left when the Prof. arrived (not many nibbles though – just a few green leaves).

I happened to earwig the discussion of what to do next. Shall we get everyone back into the lecture theatre for Will’s talk? The Prof. responded with an almost majesterial display of “chutzpah”.

In the style of a Caesar, he ascended a few steps of a staircase and called his citizens to gather around him. He clutched and shook his spectacles as he spoke, in much the same way as Caesar might have held the lapel (?) of his toga as he spoke.

In awe, we listened to him speak about the unedifiying squabble between the conflicting ideologies of, as he put it, the "austeritists" and the "bastard Keynesians" that has so effectively rendered our world economies inert (at best). He exhorted the IPR to “go and reclaim the enlightenment!”

His half hour presentation was given to us (without any audio-visual aids – i.e. by rhetorical skill alone) in the space of ten minutes. Fortunately (for the Prof. especially, but for all of us, I guess) no-one appeared suddenly with a dagger drawn. Possibly that’s because it was (roughly) the Ides of MAY!

In summary, here are my thoughts about the University of Bath IPR.

I heard enough to believe that they intend to try to “make a difference”. They demonstrated that they want to do this by being “evidence-based”.

To the degree that they seem to understand (or not) their own values-based perspective (versus the perspective of the population in general), they demonstrated that they want to be “objective”.

They certainly want to break out of the “silos” that they see as constraining their thinking.

I am less sure that they understand what the silos are, outside of their own organisational framework (i.e. the established departments of the university, like physics, engineering, management, sociology, psychology, etc. etc.), or government departments / agencies.

There seemed to be some reluctance (reflected by a variety of comments from the audience) to accept the notion that there is much to be gained by influencing the “individual”. My feeling was that this was a “step too far”.

I guess I’m just shaped by a CEO’s comment I heard many years ago, comparing hard business “facts” with the touchy-feely, “soft” people “thing” in business. In the order stated – there’s the “hard” stuff, and there’s the “harder” stuff.

More fundamentally, I was less than convinced that they were prepared to step beyond the “speaking to the converted” trap, on which so much policy-making advice has foundered.

There can be absolutely no doubt about the sincerity being put on the table. All I can say is that I wish them all success in what they have set out to do. I would personally be happy to try to help them through what we have learned through our decades of research and consultation.

Will they achieve their dream? I don’t know. History – particularly recent history – is littered with dreams shattered. I hope this does not happen here.

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