Friday, 30 June 2017

There is a magic money tree. But only for the Queen and the DUP

Owen Jones in The Guardian

There is no magic money tree, say the Tories: unless it’s to bribe extremists to keep them in power, or to renovate the palaces of multimillionaire monarchs. Today nurses take to the streets to demand an end to a pay freeze that has slashed the living standards of these life-saving, care-giving national heroes. One such nurse confronted Theresa May – whose lack of emotional intelligence is only matched by her lack of authority – on national television before the election. There was no magic money tree, was May’s robotic response. If the nurse had been met with a middle finger, it would scarcely have been less insulting.

Let’s be absolutely clear. The Tories’ programme of cuts – austerity, whatever you want to call it – is a con, a lie, an ideologically driven act of sadism that has caused immeasurable and unnecessary hurt and pain. The Tories are keen to portray Labour as shambolic and wasteful spendthrifts. In this they are aided and abetted by the party’s post-crash failure to defend its own spending record. Then the Tories lost their majority, and lo! They did conjure up the magic money tree to shower gifts on their homophobic, anti-choice, climate change-denying, sectarian friends.

While nurses are driven to food banks in one of the richest societies that has ever existed, the Tories have almost doubled the Queen’s income. We live in a country that cannot provide affordable, comfortable and safe homes for millions of its own citizens, but the Tories can suddenly find tens of millions more each year to help renovate Buckingham Palace. There is a magic money tree for palaces, but not people.

The money soon to be showered on Northern Ireland will undoubtedly help the Six Counties

The cost of the Tories’ calamitous failure will be significantly more than £1bn, of course. As Nick Macpherson – a former Treasury official, puts it – this is just a “downpayment. DUP will back for more ... again and again.” And neither can they be trusted with taxpayers’ dosh, having wasted nearly half a billion on a failed energy scheme.

But do you know what? The money soon to be showered on Northern Ireland will undoubtedly help the six counties. It will improve public services, education, the health services and infrastructure. It will undoubtedly lift living standards and fuel economic growth. That is what public investment – so mercilessly slashed by the Tories – achieves.

And if it’s good enough for Northern Ireland, it’s good enough for the rest of us. We can ask the most well off, for whom the crash was only ever something they read about in newspapers, to pay a bit more money; the same with booming big business. The billions are there: for housing, education, infrastructure, police – and, yes, to pay our nurses a decent wage.

The Tories are nothing more than a racket for their wealthy backers, a crude political instrument to defend the interests of Britain’s shameless vested interests. They will happily locate a magic money tree if it’s their own political survival that’s at risk. But what is good for the partisan interests of the Conservative party is not good for the nation.

The Tories’ Ulster spending spree should embolden all of us who always believed austerity was an ideologically driven con. On Saturday, thousands will march with the People’s Assembly to demand the end of the failed Tory experiment. The Tories have legitimised their arguments. Austerity is over for Northern Ireland, it’s over for the Queen, and now it must end for everybody else too.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

Stephen Buranyi in The Guardian

In 2011, Claudio Aspesi, a senior investment analyst at Bernstein Research in London, made a bet that the dominant firm in one of the most lucrative industries in the world was headed for a crash. Reed-Elsevier, a multinational publishing giant with annual revenues exceeding £6bn, was an investor’s darling. It was one of the few publishers that had successfully managed the transition to the internet, and a recent company report was predicting yet another year of growth. Aspesi, though, had reason to believe that that prediction – along with those of every other major financial analyst – was wrong.

The core of Elsevier’s operation is in scientific journals, the weekly or monthly publications in which scientists share their results. Despite the narrow audience, scientific publishing is a remarkably big business. With total global revenues of more than £19bn, it weighs in somewhere between the recording and the film industries in size, but it is far more profitable. In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in revenue. It was a 36% margin – higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year.

But Elsevier’s business model seemed a truly puzzling thing. In order to make money, a traditional publisher – say, a magazine – first has to cover a multitude of costs: it pays writers for the articles; it employs editors to commission, shape and check the articles; and it pays to distribute the finished product to subscribers and retailers. All of this is expensive, and successful magazines typically make profits of around 12-15%.

The way to make money from a scientific article looks very similar, except that scientific publishers manage to duck most of the actual costs. Scientists create work under their own direction – funded largely by governments – and give it to publishers for free; the publisher pays scientific editors who judge whether the work is worth publishing and check its grammar, but the bulk of the editorial burden – checking the scientific validity and evaluating the experiments, a process known as peer review – is done by working scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to be read by scientists – who, in a collective sense, created the product in the first place.

It is as if the New Yorker or the Economist demanded that journalists write and edit each other’s work for free, and asked the government to foot the bill. Outside observers tend to fall into a sort of stunned disbelief when describing this setup. A 2004 parliamentary science and technology committee report on the industry drily observed that “in a traditional market suppliers are paid for the goods they provide”. A 2005 Deutsche Bank report referred to it as a “bizarre” “triple-pay” system, in which “the state funds most research, pays the salaries of most of those checking the quality of research, and then buys most of the published product”.

Scientists are well aware that they seem to be getting a bad deal. The publishing business is “perverse and needless”, the Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen wrote in a 2003 article for the Guardian, declaring that it “should be a public scandal”. Adrian Sutton, a physicist at Imperial College, told me that scientists “are all slaves to publishers. What other industry receives its raw materials from its customers, gets those same customers to carry out the quality control of those materials, and then sells the same materials back to the customers at a vastly inflated price?” (A representative of RELX Group, the official name of Elsevier since 2015, told me that it and other publishers “serve the research community by doing things that they need that they either cannot, or do not do on their own, and charge a fair price for that service”.)

Many scientists also believe that the publishing industry exerts too much influence over what scientists choose to study, which is ultimately bad for science itself. Journals prize new and spectacular results – after all, they are in the business of selling subscriptions – and scientists, knowing exactly what kind of work gets published, align their submissions accordingly. This produces a steady stream of papers, the importance of which is immediately apparent. But it also means that scientists do not have an accurate map of their field of inquiry. Researchers may end up inadvertently exploring dead ends that their fellow scientists have already run up against, solely because the information about previous failures has never been given space in the pages of the relevant scientific publications. A 2013 study, for example, reported that half of all clinical trials in the US are never published in a journal.

According to critics, the journal system actually holds back scientific progress. In a 2008 essay, Dr Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds and conducts medical research for the US government, argued that, given the importance of scientific innovation to society, “there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated”.

Aspesi, after talking to a network of more than 25 prominent scientists and activists, had come to believe the tide was about to turn against the industry that Elsevier led. More and more research libraries, which purchase journals for universities, were claiming that their budgets were exhausted by decades of price increases, and were threatening to cancel their multi-million-pound subscription packages unless Elsevier dropped its prices. State organisations such as the American NIH and the German Research Foundation (DFG) had recently committed to making their research available through free online journals, and Aspesi believed that governments might step in and ensure that all publicly funded research would be available for free, to anyone. Elsevier and its competitors would be caught in a perfect storm, with their customers revolting from below, and government regulation looming above.

In March 2011, Aspesi published a report recommending that his clients sell Elsevier stock. A few months later, in a conference call between Elsevier management and investment firms, he pressed the CEO of Elsevier, Erik Engstrom, about the deteriorating relationship with the libraries. He asked what was wrong with the business if “your customers are so desperate”. Engstrom dodged the question. Over the next two weeks, Elsevier stock tumbled by more than 20%, losing £1bn in value. The problems Aspesi saw were deep and structural, and he believed they would play out over the next half-decade – but things already seemed to be moving in the direction he had predicted.

Over the next year, however, most libraries backed down and committed to Elsevier’s contracts, and governments largely failed to push an alternative model for disseminating research. In 2012 and 2013, Elsevier posted profit margins of more than 40%. The following year, Aspesi reversed his recommendation to sell. “He listened to us too closely, and he got a bit burned,” David Prosser, the head of Research Libraries UK, and a prominent voice for reforming the publishing industry, told me recently. Elsevier was here to stay.

Illustration: Dom McKenzie

Aspesi was not the first person to incorrectly predict the end of the scientific publishing boom, and he is unlikely to be the last. It is hard to believe that what is essentially a for-profit oligopoly functioning within an otherwise heavily regulated, government-funded enterprise can avoid extinction in the long run. But publishing has been deeply enmeshed in the science profession for decades. Today, every scientist knows that their career depends on being published, and professional success is especially determined by getting work into the most prestigious journals. The long, slow, nearly directionless work pursued by some of the most influential scientists of the 20th century is no longer a viable career option. Under today’s system, the father of genetic sequencing, Fred Sanger, who published very little in the two decades between his 1958 and 1980 Nobel prizes, may well have found himself out of a job.

Even scientists who are fighting for reform are often not aware of the roots of the system: how, in the boom years after the second world war, entrepreneurs built fortunes by taking publishing out of the hands of scientists and expanding the business on a previously unimaginable scale. And no one was more transformative and ingenious than Robert Maxwell, who turned scientific journals into a spectacular money-making machine that bankrolled his rise in British society. Maxwell would go on to become an MP, a press baron who challenged Rupert Murdoch, and one of the most notorious figures in British life. But his true importance was far larger than most of us realise. Improbable as it might sound, few people in the last century have done more to shape the way science is conducted today than Maxwell.

In 1946, the 23-year-old Robert Maxwell was working in Berlin and already had a significant reputation. Although he had grown up in a poor Czech village, he had fought for the British army during the war as part of a contingent of European exiles, winning a Military Cross and British citizenship in the process. After the war, he served as an intelligence officer in Berlin, using his nine languages to interrogate prisoners. Maxwell was tall, brash, and not at all content with his already considerable success – an acquaintance at the time recalled him confessing his greatest desire: “to be a millionaire”.

At the same time, the British government was preparing an unlikely project that would allow him to do just that. Top British scientists – from Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, to the physicist Charles Galton Darwin, grandson of Charles Darwin – were concerned that while British science was world-class, its publishing arm was dismal. Science publishers were mainly known for being inefficient and constantly broke. Journals, which often appeared on cheap, thin paper, were produced almost as an afterthought by scientific societies. The British Chemical Society had a months-long backlog of articles for publication, and relied on cash handouts from the Royal Society to run its printing operations.

The government’s solution was to pair the venerable British publishing house Butterworths (now owned by Elsevier) with the renowned German publisher Springer, to draw on the latter’s expertise. Butterworths would learn to turn a profit on journals, and British science would get its work out at a faster pace. Maxwell had already established his own business helping Springer ship scientific articles to Britain. The Butterworths directors, being ex-British intelligence themselves, hired the young Maxwell to help manage the company, and another ex-spook, Paul Rosbaud, a metallurgist who spent the war passing Nazi nuclear secrets to the British through the French and Dutch resistance, as scientific editor.

They couldn’t have begun at a better time. Science was about to enter a period of unprecedented growth, having gone from being a scattered, amateur pursuit of wealthy gentleman to a respected profession. In the postwar years, it would become a byword for progress. “Science has been in the wings. It should be brought to the centre of the stage – for in it lies much of our hope for the future,” wrote the American engineer and Manhattan Project administrator Vannevar Bush, in a 1945 report to President Harry S Truman. After the war, government emerged for the first time as the major patron of scientific endeavour, not just in the military, but through newly created agencies such as the US National Science Foundation, and the rapidly expanding university system.

When Butterworths decided to abandon the fledgling project in 1951, Maxwell offered £13,000 (about £420,000 today) for both Butterworth’s and Springer’s shares, giving him control of the company. Rosbaud stayed on as scientific director, and named the new venture Pergamon Press, after a coin from the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, featuring Athena, goddess of wisdom, which they adapted for the company’s logo – a simple line drawing appropriately representing both knowledge and money.

In an environment newly flush with cash and optimism, it was Rosbaud who pioneered the method that would drive Pergamon’s success. As science expanded, he realised that it would need new journals to cover new areas of study. The scientific societies that had traditionally created journals were unwieldy institutions that tended to move slowly, hampered by internal debates between members about the boundaries of their field. Rosbaud had none of these constraints. All he needed to do was to convince a prominent academic that their particular field required a new journal to showcase it properly, and install that person at the helm of it. Pergamon would then begin selling subscriptions to university libraries, which suddenly had a lot of government money to spend.

Maxwell was a quick study. In 1955, he and Rosbaud attended the Geneva Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. Maxwell rented an office near the conference and wandered into seminars and official functions offering to publish any papers the scientists had come to present, and asking them to sign exclusive contracts to edit Pergamon journals. Other publishers were shocked by his brash style. Daan Frank, of North Holland Publishing (now owned by Elsevier) would later complain that Maxwell was “dishonest” for scooping up scientists without regard for specific content.

Rosbaud, too, was reportedly put off by Maxwell’s hunger for profit. Unlike the humble former scientist, Maxwell favoured expensive suits and slicked-back hair. Having rounded his Czech accent into a formidably posh, newsreader basso, he looked and sounded precisely like the tycoon he wished to be. In 1955, Rosbaud told the Nobel prize-winning physicist Nevill Mott that the journals were his beloved little “ewe lambs”, and Maxwell was the biblical King David, who would butcher and sell them for profit. In 1956, the pair had a falling out, and Rosbaud left the company.

By then, Maxwell had taken Rosbaud’s business model and turned it into something all his own. Scientific conferences tended to be drab, low-ceilinged affairs, but when Maxwell returned to the Geneva conference that year, he rented a house in nearby Collonge-Bellerive, a picturesque town on the lakeshore, where he entertained guests at parties with booze, cigars and sailboat trips. Scientists had never seen anything like him. “He always said we don’t compete on sales, we compete on authors,” Albert Henderson, a former deputy director at Pergamon, told me. “We would attend conferences specifically looking to recruit editors for new journals.” There are tales of parties on the roof of the Athens Hilton, of gifts of Concorde flights, of scientists being put on a chartered boat tour of the Greek islands to plan their new journal.

By 1959, Pergamon was publishing 40 journals; six years later it would publish 150. This put Maxwell well ahead of the competition. (In 1959, Pergamon’s rival, Elsevier, had just 10 English-language journals, and it would take the company another decade to reach 50.) By 1960, Maxwell had taken to being driven in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, and moved his home and the Pergamon operation from London to the palatial Headington Hill Hall estate in Oxford, which was also home to the British book publishing house Blackwell’s.

Scientific societies, such as the British Society of Rheology, seeing the writing on the wall, even began letting Pergamon take over their journals for a small regular fee. Leslie Iversen, former editor at the Journal of Neurochemistry, recalls being wooed with lavish dinners at Maxwell’s estate. “He was very impressive, this big entrepreneur,” said Iversen. “We would get dinner and fine wine, and at the end he would present us a cheque – a few thousand pounds for the society. It was more money than us poor scientists had ever seen.”

Maxwell insisted on grand titles – “International Journal of” was a favourite prefix. Peter Ashby, a former vice president at Pergamon, described this to me as a “PR trick”, but it also reflected a deep understanding of how science, and society’s attitude to science, had changed. Collaborating and getting your work seen on the international stage was becoming a new form of prestige for researchers, and in many cases Maxwell had the market cornered before anyone else realised it existed. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, in 1959, western scientists scrambled to catch up on Russian space research, and were surprised to learn that Maxwell had already negotiated an exclusive English-language deal to publish the Russian Academy of Sciences’ journals earlier in the decade.

“He had interests in all of these places. I went to Japan, he had an American man running an office there by himself. I went to India, there was someone there,” said Ashby. And the international markets could be extremely lucrative. Ronald Suleski, who ran Pergamon’s Japanese office in the 1970s, told me that the Japanese scientific societies, desperate to get their work published in English, gave Maxwell the rights to their members’ results for free.

In a letter celebrating Pergamon’s 40th anniversary, Eiichi Kobayashi, director of Maruzen, Pergamon’s longtime Japanese distributor, recalled of Maxwell that “each time I have the pleasure of meeting him, I am reminded of F Scott Fitzgerald’s words that a millionaire is no ordinary man”.

The scientific article has essentially become the only way science is systematically represented in the world. (As Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the library of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second-biggest private funder of biomedical research, puts it: “We spend a billion pounds a year, and we get back articles.”) It is the primary resource of our most respected realm of expertise. “Publishing is the expression of our work. A good idea, a conversation or correspondence, even from the most brilliant person in the world … doesn’t count for anything unless you have it published,” says Neal Young of the NIH. If you control access to the scientific literature, it is, to all intents and purposes, like controlling science.

Maxwell’s success was built on an insight into the nature of scientific journals that would take others years to understand and replicate. While his competitors groused about him diluting the market, Maxwell knew that there was, in fact, no limit to the market. Creating The Journal of Nuclear Energy didn’t take business away from rival publisher North Holland’s journal Nuclear Physics. Scientific articles are about unique discoveries: one article cannot substitute for another. If a serious new journal appeared, scientists would simply request that their university library subscribe to that one as well. If Maxwell was creating three times as many journals as his competition, he would make three times more money.

The only potential limit was a slow-down in government funding, but there was little sign of that happening. In the 1960s, Kennedy bankrolled the space programme, and at the outset of the 1970s Nixon declared a “war on cancer”, while at the same time the British government developed its own nuclear programme with American aid. No matter the political climate, science was buoyed by great swells of government money.

  Robert Maxwell in 1985. Photograph: Terry O'Neill/Hulton/Getty

In its early days, Pergamon had been at the centre of fierce debates about the ethics of allowing commercial interests into the supposedly disinterested and profit-shunning world of science. In a 1988 letter commemorating the 40th anniversary of Pergamon, John Coales of Cambridge University noted that initially many of his friends “considered [Maxwell] the greatest villain yet unhung”.

But by the end of the 1960s, commercial publishing was considered the status quo, and publishers were seen as a necessary partner in the advancement of science. Pergamon helped turbocharge the field’s great expansion by speeding up the publication process and presenting it in a more stylish package. Scientists’ concerns about signing away their copyright were overwhelmed by the convenience of dealing with Pergamon, the shine it gave their work, and the force of Maxwell’s personality. Scientists, it seemed, were largely happy with the wolf they had let in the door.

“He was a bully, but I quite liked him,” says Denis Noble, a physiologist at Oxford University and the editor of the journal Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology. Occasionally, Maxwell would call Noble to his house for a meeting. “Often there would be a party going on, a nice musical ensemble, there was no barrier between his work and personal life,” Noble says. Maxwell would then proceed to alternately browbeat and charm him into splitting the biannual journal into a monthly or bimonthly publication, which would lead to an attendant increase in subscription payments.

In the end, though, Maxwell would nearly always defer to the scientists’ wishes, and scientists came to appreciate his patronly persona. “I have to confess that, quickly realising his predatory and entrepreneurial ambitions, I nevertheless took a great liking to him,” Arthur Barrett, then editor of the journal Vacuum, wrote in a 1988 piece about the publication’s early years. And the feeling was mutual. Maxwell doted on his relationships with famous scientists, who were treated with uncharacteristic deference. “He realised early on that the scientists were vitally important. He would do whatever they wanted. It drove the rest of the staff crazy,” Richard Coleman, who worked in journal production at Pergamon in the late 1960s, told me. When Pergamon was the target of a hostile takeover attempt, a 1973 Guardian article reported that journal editors threatened “to desert” rather than work for another chairman.

Maxwell had transformed the business of publishing, but the day-to-day work of science remained unchanged. Scientists still largely took their work to whichever journal was the best fit for their research area – and Maxwell was happy to publish any and all research that his editors deemed sufficiently rigorous. In the mid-1970s, though, publishers began to meddle with the practice of science itself, starting down a path that would lock scientists’ careers into the publishing system, and impose the business’s own standards on the direction of research. One journal became the symbol of this transformation.

“At the start of my career, nobody took much notice of where you published, and then everything changed in 1974 with Cell,” Randy Schekman, the Berkeley molecular biologist and Nobel prize winner, told me. Cell (now owned by Elsevier) was a journal started by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to showcase the newly ascendant field of molecular biology. It was edited a young biologist named Ben Lewin, who approached his work with an intense, almost literary bent. Lewin prized long, rigorous papers that answered big questions – often representing years of research that would have yielded multiple papers in other venues – and, breaking with the idea that journals were passive instruments to communicate science, he rejected far more papers than he published.

What he created was a venue for scientific blockbusters, and scientists began shaping their work on his terms. “Lewin was clever. He realised scientists are very vain, and wanted to be part of this selective members club; Cell was ‘it’, and you had to get your paper in there,” Schekman said. “I was subject to this kind of pressure, too.” He ended up publishing some of his Nobel-cited work in Cell.

Suddenly, where you published became immensely important. Other editors took a similarly activist approach in the hopes of replicating Cell’s success. Publishers also adopted a metric called “impact factor,” invented in the 1960s by Eugene Garfield, a librarian and linguist, as a rough calculation of how often papers in a given journal are cited in other papers. For publishers, it became a way to rank and advertise the scientific reach of their products. The new-look journals, with their emphasis on big results, shot to the top of these new rankings, and scientists who published in “high-impact” journals were rewarded with jobs and funding. Almost overnight, a new currency of prestige had been created in the scientific world. (Garfield later referred to his creation as “like nuclear energy … a mixed blessing”.)

It is difficult to overstate how much power a journal editor now had to shape a scientist’s career and the direction of science itself. “Young people tell me all the time, ‘If I don’t publish in CNS [a common acronym for Cell/Nature/Science, the most prestigious journals in biology], I won’t get a job,” says Schekman. He compared the pursuit of high-impact publications to an incentive system as rotten as banking bonuses. “They have a very big influence on where science goes,” he said.

And so science became a strange co-production between scientists and journal editors, with the former increasingly pursuing discoveries that would impress the latter. These days, given a choice of projects, a scientist will almost always reject both the prosaic work of confirming or disproving past studies, and the decades-long pursuit of a risky “moonshot”, in favour of a middle ground: a topic that is popular with editors and likely to yield regular publications. “Academics are incentivised to produce research that caters to these demands,” said the biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner in a 2014 interview, calling the system “corrupt.”

Maxwell understood the way journals were now the kingmakers of science. But his main concern was still expansion, and he still had a keen vision of where science was heading, and which new fields of study he could colonise. Richard Charkin, the former CEO of the British publisher Macmillan, who was an editor at Pergamon in 1974, recalls Maxwell waving Watson and Crick’s one-page report on the structure of DNA at an editorial meeting and declaring that the future was in life science and its multitude of tiny questions, each of which could have its own publication. “I think we launched a hundred journals that year,” Charkin said. “I mean, Jesus wept.”

Pergamon also branched into social sciences and psychology. A series of journals prefixed “Computers and” suggest that Maxwell spotted the growing importance of digital technology. “It was endless,” Peter Ashby told me. “Oxford Polytechnic [now Oxford Brookes University] started a department of hospitality with a chef. We had to go find out who the head of the department was, make him start a journal. And boom – International Journal of Hospitality Management.”

By the late 1970s, Maxwell was also dealing with a more crowded market. “I was at Oxford University Press at that time,” Charkin told me. “We sat up and said, ‘Hell, these journals make a lot of money!” Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Elsevier had begun expanding its English-language journals, absorbing the domestic competition in a series of acquisitions and growing at a rate of 35 titles a year.

As Maxwell had predicted, competition didn’t drive down prices. Between 1975 and 1985, the average price of a journal doubled. The New York Times reported that in 1984 it cost $2,500 to subscribe to the journal Brain Research; in 1988, it cost more than $5,000. That same year, Harvard Library overran its research journal budget by half a million dollars.

Scientists occasionally questioned the fairness of this hugely profitable business to which they supplied their work for free, but it was university librarians who first realised the trap in the market Maxwell had created. The librarians used university funds to buy journals on behalf of scientists. Maxwell was well aware of this. “Scientists are not as price-conscious as other professionals, mainly because they are not spending their own money,” he told his publication Global Business in a 1988 interview. And since there was no way to swap one journal for another, cheaper one, the result was, Maxwell continued, “a perpetual financing machine”. Librarians were locked into a series of thousands of tiny monopolies. There were now more than a million scientific articles being published a year, and they had to buy all of them at whatever price the publishers wanted.

From a business perspective, it was a total victory for Maxwell. Libraries were a captive market, and journals had improbably installed themselves as the gatekeepers of scientific prestige – meaning that scientists couldn’t simply abandon them if a new method of sharing results came along. “Were we not so naive, we would long ago have recognised our true position: that we are sitting on top of fat piles of money which clever people on all sides are trying to transfer on to their piles,” wrote the University of Michigan librarian Robert Houbeck in a trade journal in 1988. Three years earlier, despite scientific funding suffering its first multi-year dip in decades, Pergamon had reported a 47% profit margin.

Maxwell wouldn’t be around to tend his victorious empire. The acquisitive nature that drove Pergamon’s success also led him to make a surfeit of flashy but questionable investments, including the football teams Oxford United and Derby County FC, television stations around the world, and, in 1984, the UK’s Mirror newspaper group, where he began to spend more and more of his time. In 1991, to finance his impending purchase of the New York Daily News, Maxwell sold Pergamon to its quiet Dutch competitor Elsevier for £440m (£919m today).

Many former Pergamon employees separately told me that they knew it was all over for Maxwell when he made the Elsevier deal, because Pergamon was the company he truly loved. Later that year, he became mired in a series of scandals over his mounting debts, shady accounting practices, and an explosive accusation by the American journalist Seymour Hersh that he was an Israeli spy with links to arms traders. On 5 November 1991, Maxwell was found drowned off his yacht in the Canary Islands. The world was stunned, and by the next day the Mirror’s tabloid rival Sun was posing the question on everyone’s mind: “DID HE FALL … DID HE JUMP?”, its headline blared. (A third explanation, that he was pushed, would also come up.)

The story dominated the British press for months, with suspicion growing that Maxwell had committed suicide, after an investigation revealed that he had stolen more than £400m from the Mirror pension fund to service his debts. (In December 1991, a Spanish coroner’s report ruled the death accidental.) The speculation was endless: in 2003, the journalists Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon published a book alleging that Maxwell was assassinated by Mossad to hide his spying activities. By that time, Maxwell was long gone, but the business he had started continued to thrive in new hands, reaching new levels of profit and global power over the coming decades.

If Maxwell’s genius was in expansion, Elsevier’s was in consolidation. With the purchase of Pergamon’s 400-strong catalogue, Elsevier now controlled more than 1,000 scientific journals, making it by far the largest scientific publisher in the world.

At the time of the merger, Charkin, the former Macmillan CEO, recalls advising Pierre Vinken, the CEO of Elsevier, that Pergamon was a mature business, and that Elsevier had overpaid for it. But Vinken had no doubts, Charkin recalled: “He said, ‘You have no idea how profitable these journals are once you stop doing anything. When you’re building a journal, you spend time getting good editorial boards, you treat them well, you give them dinners. Then you market the thing and your salespeople go out there to sell subscriptions, which is slow and tough, and you try to make the journal as good as possible. That’s what happened at Pergamon. And then we buy it and we stop doing all that stuff and then the cash just pours out and you wouldn’t believe how wonderful it is.’ He was right and I was wrong.”

By 1994, three years after acquiring Pergamon, Elsevier had raised its prices by 50%. Universities complained that their budgets were stretched to breaking point – the US-based Publishers Weekly reported librarians referring to a “doomsday machine” in their industry – and, for the first time, they began cancelling subscriptions to less popular journals.

Illustration: Dom McKenzie

At the time, Elsevier’s behaviour seemed suicidal. It was angering its customers just as the internet was arriving to offer them a free alternative. A 1995 Forbes article described scientists sharing results over early web servers, and asked if Elsevier was to be “The Internet’s First Victim”. But, as always, the publishers understood the market better than the academics.

In 1998, Elsevier rolled out its plan for the internet age, which would come to be called “The Big Deal”. It offered electronic access to bundles of hundreds of journals at a time: a university would pay a set fee each year – according to a report based on freedom of information requests, Cornell University’s 2009 tab was just short of $2m – and any student or professor could download any journal they wanted through Elsevier’s website. Universities signed up en masse.

Those predicting Elsevier’s downfall had assumed scientists experimenting with sharing their work for free online could slowly outcompete Elsevier’s titles by replacing them one at a time. In response, Elsevier created a switch that fused Maxwell’s thousands of tiny monopolies into one so large that, like a basic resource – say water, or power – it was impossible for universities to do without. Pay, and the scientific lights stayed on, but refuse, and up to a quarter of the scientific literature would go dark at any one institution. It concentrated immense power in the hands of the largest publishers, and Elsevier’s profits began another steep rise that would lead them into the billions by the 2010s. In 2015, a Financial Times article anointed Elsevier “the business the internet could not kill”.

Publishers are now wound so tightly around the various organs of the scientific body that no single effort has been able to dislodge them. In a 2015 report, an information scientist from the University of Montreal, Vincent Larivière, showed that Elsevier owned 24% of the scientific journal market, while Maxwell’s old partners Springer, and his crosstown rivals Wiley-Blackwell, controlled about another 12% each. These three companies accounted for half the market. (An Elsevier representative familiar with the report told me that by their own estimate they publish only 16% of the scientific literature.)

“Despite my giving sermons all over the world on this topic, it seems journals hold sway even more prominently than before,” Randy Schekman told me. It is that influence, more than the profits that drove the system’s expansion, that most frustrates scientists today.

Elsevier says its primary goal is to facilitate the work of scientists and other researchers. An Elsevier rep noted that the company publishes 1.5m papers a year; 14 million scientists entrust Elsevier to publish their results, and 800,000 scientists donate their time to help them with editing and peer-review. “We help researchers be more productive and efficient,” Alicia Wise, senior vice president of global strategic networks, told me. “And that’s a win for research institutions, and for research funders like governments.”

On the question of why so many scientists are so critical of journal publishers, Tom Reller, vice president of corporate relations at Elsevier, said: “It’s not for us to talk about other people’s motivations. We look at the numbers [of scientists who trust their results to Elsevier] and that suggests we are doing a good job.” Asked about criticisms of Elsevier’s business model, Reller said in an email that these criticisms overlooked “all the things that publishers do to add value – above and beyond the contributions that public-sector funding brings”. That, he said, is what they were charging for.

In a sense, it is not any one publisher’s fault that the scientific world seems to bend to the industry’s gravitational pull. When governments including those of China and Mexico offer financial bonuses for publishing in high-impact journals, they are not responding to a demand by any specific publisher, but following the rewards of an enormously complex system that has to accommodate the utopian ideals of science with the commercial goals of the publishers that dominate it. (“We scientists have not given a lot of thought to the water we’re swimming in,” Neal Young told me.)

Since the early 2000s, scientists have championed an alternative to subscription publishing called “open access”. This solves the difficulty of balancing scientific and commercial imperatives by simply removing the commercial element. In practice, this usually takes the form of online journals, to which scientists pay an upfront free to cover editing costs, which then ensure the work is available free to access for anyone in perpetuity. But despite the backing of some of the biggest funding agencies in the world, including the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, only about a quarter of scientific papers are made freely available at the time of their publication.

The idea that scientific research should be freely available for anyone to use is a sharp departure, even a threat, to the current system – which relies on publishers’ ability to restrict access to the scientific literature in order to maintain its immense profitability. In recent years, the most radical opposition to the status quo has coalesced around a controversial website called Sci-Hub – a sort of Napster for science that allows anyone to download scientific papers for free. Its creator, Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazhakstani, is in hiding, facing charges of hacking and copyright infringement in the US. Elsevier recently obtained a $15m injunction (the maximum allowable amount) against her.

Elbakyan is an unabashed utopian. “Science should belong to scientists and not the publishers,” she told me in an email. In a letter to the court, she cited the cited Article 27 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asserting the right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

Whatever the fate of Sci-Hub, it seems that frustration with the current system is growing. But history shows that betting against science publishers is a risky move. After all, back in 1988, Maxwell predicted that in the future there would only be a handful of immensely powerful publishing companies left, and that they would ply their trade in an electronic age with no printing costs, leading to almost “pure profit”. That sounds a lot like the world we live in now.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

What the Kohli-Kumble saga tells us

Ian Chappell in Cricinfo

Pakistan soundly beat India in the Champions Trophy final, and it has been interesting, to say the least, to witness the aftermath.

Firstly, the Indian coach, Anil Kumble, resigned. Then the Pakistan players - not surprisingly - were welcomed home as heroes. This was followed by an ICC announcement that Afghanistan and Ireland have been added to the list of Test-playing nations, increasing the number to 12.

Kumble's resignation was no great surprise, as he's a strong-minded individual and the deteriorating relationship between him and the captain, Virat Kohli, had reached the stage of being a distraction. Kumble's character is relevant to any discussion about India's future coaching appointments. The captain is the only person who can run an international cricket team properly, because so much of the job involves on-field decision making. Also, a good part of the leadership role - performed off the field - has to be handled by the captain, as it helps him earn the players' respect, which is crucial to his success.

Consequently a captain has to be a strong-minded individual and decisive in his thought process. To put someone of a similar mindset in a position where he's advising the captain is inviting confrontation.

The captain's best advisors are his vice-captain, a clear-thinking wicketkeeper, and one or two senior players. They are out on the field and can best judge the mood of the game and what advice should be offered to the captain and when.

The best off-field assistance for a captain will come from a good managerial type. Someone who can attend to duties that are not necessarily related to winning or losing cricket matches, but done efficiently, can contribute to the success of the team.

The last thing a captain needs is to come off the field and have someone second-guess his decisions. He also doesn't need a strong-minded individual (outside his advisory group) getting too involved in the pre-match tactical planning. Too often I see captaincy that appears to be the result of the previous evening's planning, and despite ample evidence that it's hindering the team's chances of victory, it remains the plan throughout the day.

This is generally a sure sign that the captain is following someone else's plan and that he, the captain, is the wrong man for the job.

India is fortunate to have two capable leaders in Kohli and the man who stood in for him during the Test series with Australia, Ajinkya Rahane.

It's Kohli's job as captain to concentrate on things that help win or lose cricket matches, and his off-field assistants' task is to ensure he is not distracted in trying to achieve victory.

India's opponents in the final, Pakistan, were unusually free of any controversies during the tournament. They were capably led by Sarfraz Ahmed, who appeared to become more and more his own man as the tournament progressed.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

After the Grenfell fire, the church got it right where the council failed

Giles Fraser in The Guardian

We are an “unsuccessful church”, the exhausted Rev Alan Everett told me, as I persuaded him to take a break and have some lunch. He meant that they only get 30 to 60 people in the pews on a Sunday morning and that it wasn’t one of those whizzy Alpha course churches beloved by London bishops and their growth spreadsheets. Next to us in the church’s sunny courtyard, an extended Muslim family talked openly about their escape from the fire. “Our lungs are full of smoke but at least, thank God, we are all alive.” A church worker told them where to find new shoes and clothes. It felt like a refugee camp. Perhaps it was a refugee camp. And hanging over the whole scene, Grenfell Tower, black and enormous. It stands as a biblical-scale condemnation to a whole society.

In the days after the fire, the church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale, became a hub for grieving families, generous donations of clothes and food – and camera-ready politicians. First Jeremy Corbyn came. Then a furtive Theresa May met a few residents in the church. Then Sadiq Khan was at mass on Sunday morning. I wanted to know from Everett how the church was able to respond so quickly in a way that the council didn’t. “I was woken up at 3am by a priest who lives in the tower, and so I came down to the church, opened the doors and turned the lights on,” he said. It all began from there. People started coming in out of the dark – often passersby looking to help. First they sorted out tea and coffee. By 7am, they had a fully stocked breakfast bar, with volunteers organising themselves into teams. Within hours, local restaurants were delivering food; clothes began to pile high in the church sanctuary – about 40 Transit vans’ worth, the vicar estimates. The place looked like a warehouse.

Listening to Everett, it struck me that “opening the doors and turning the lights on” was precisely the difference between the church and a local authority that had become arms’ length from its residents, continually dealing with local people only through intermediary organisations such as the locally much-hated Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. The nicest thing I heard about the royal borough from local people was that it had outsourced its care for the poor as a cost efficiency. The worst, that it was deliberately running down its stock of social housing so that they could eventually bring in the developers.

Donations inside the church of St Clement’s, Notting Dale. Photograph: Matthew Barrett

In his Sunday morning sermon, Fr Robert Thompson, an assistant priest in the parish and also a local Labour councillor, channelled his anger. Contrasting the good communication of the local volunteers with the bad communication of the authorities, he said: “The people on the lowest incomes of this parish simply do not feel listened to, either this week or in previous years, by those in power. Worse than that, what the whole issue of the cladding and the lack of sprinklers may well highlight is that some people in our society have simply become excess and debris on our neoliberal, unregulated, individualistic, capitalist and consumerist society.” The churchy way of saying “I agree” with all this is “amen”. The church of St Clement was built and paid for in 1867 by Alfred Dalgarno, a philanthropist vicar with deep pockets and a compassion for the poor. Thompson is a councillor for the Dalgarno ward, named after him. “This parish was built pre-welfare state and it is going to be needed as we now enter the post-welfare state,” he told me, chillingly.

Of course, parishes like St Clement are only superficially unsuccessful. Its secularised charity arm, the Clement James centre, helps thousands of local people every year, into work, into university. That’s why the parish is so trusted locally. “We are called to share in the brokenness and the forgottenness of the people we serve,” the vicar explained. In poor parishes, the job is to keep the doors open and the lights on. And this being permanently present is no small thing. Not least because, as Christians believe, the light will always beckon people out of the darkness.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Older men have geekier sons.

Ian Sample in The Guardian

Older men tend to have “geekier” sons who are more aloof, have higher IQs and a more intense focus on their interests than those born to younger fathers, researchers claim.

The finding, which emerged from a study of nearly 8,000 British twins, suggests that having an older father may benefit children and boost their performance in technical subjects at secondary school.

Researchers in the UK and the US analysed questionnaires from 7,781 British twins and scored them according to their non-verbal IQ at 12 years old, as well as parental reports on how focused and socially aloof they were. The scientists then combined these scores into an overall “geek index”.

Magdalena Janecka at King’s College London said the project came about after she and her colleagues had brainstormed what traits and skills helped people to succeed in the modern age. “If you look at who does well in life right now, it’s geeks,” she said.

Drawing on the twins’ records, the scientists found that children born to older fathers tended to score slightly higher on the geek index. For a father aged 25 or younger, the average score of the children was 39.6. That figure rose to 41 in children with fathers aged 35 to 44, and to 47 for those with fathers aged over 50.

The effect was strongest in boys, where the geek index rose by about 1.5 points for every extra five years of paternal age. The age of the children’s mothers seemed to have almost no effect on the geek index.

When the scientists looked at the children’s achievements at school they found that having a high IQ, a tendency to focus intensely and social aloofness were all linked to children taking more technical GCSEs. When children displayed all three traits, the effect was even more pronounced, the researchers write in the journal Translational Psychiatry. Overall, children who were born when their fathers were 50 or older were 32% more likely to achieve two A or A* grades at GCSE than children born to men aged under 25.

Janecka said the study is one of the first to suggest that having an older father can have benefits for a child. Previous work by Janecka and others has found that children born to older men are more at risk of medical conditions including autism and schizophrenia.

The scientists calculate that 57% of the geek index score is inherited, but that figure is likely to vary with age. If right, it suggests that DNA and the environment have roughly an equal share in how geeky someone turns out. Writing in the journal, the researchers speculate that there may be some overlap with genes that contribute to autism and a high score on their index.

If the findings are right, it is unclear why the effect is different in boys and girls. Janecka said that the study may simply have failed to capture how girls display geekiness. “Maybe we aren’t measuring geekiness properly. They may be geeky in a different way to boys,” she said. But it is also possible that whatever averts autism in girls – five times as many males are diagnosed than females – also shields them from the most geeky traits.

Research is under way to recognise why older parents are more likely to have children with particular mental disorders. One theory pinpoints mutations that build up in parents’ sperm and eggs. But with geekiness, the answer could lie in geekier men simply being more likely to delay fatherhood.

“Certain men who delay fatherhood tend to be better educated and have better jobs and a higher geek index and they pass those genetics nto their offspring,” said Janecka. “It causes them to delay fatherhood, but other factors might contribute too.”

Monday, 19 June 2017

Life and death in Apple’s forbidden city - Shame on you Steve Jobs

Brian Merchant in The Guardian

The sprawling factory compound, all grey dormitories and weather-beaten warehouses, blends seamlessly into the outskirts of the Shenzhen megalopolis. Foxconn’s enormous Longhua plant is a major manufacturer of Apple products. It might be the best-known factory in the world; it might also might be among the most secretive and sealed-off. Security guards man each of the entry points. Employees can’t get in without swiping an ID card; drivers entering with delivery trucks are subject to fingerprint scans. A Reuters journalist was once dragged out of a car and beaten for taking photos from outside the factory walls. The warning signs outside – “This factory area is legally established with state approval. Unauthorised trespassing is prohibited. Offenders will be sent to police for prosecution!” – are more aggressive than those outside many Chinese military compounds.

But it turns out that there’s a secret way into the heart of the infamous operation: use the bathroom. I couldn’t believe it. Thanks to a simple twist of fate and some clever perseverance by my fixer, I’d found myself deep inside so-called Foxconn City.

It’s printed on the back of every iPhone: “Designed by Apple in California Assembled in China”. US law dictates that products manufactured in China must be labelled as such and Apple’s inclusion of the phrase renders the statement uniquely illustrative of one of the planet’s starkest economic divides – the cutting edge is conceived and designed in Silicon Valley, but it is assembled by hand in China.

The vast majority of plants that produce the iPhone’s component parts and carry out the device’s final assembly are based here, in the People’s Republic, where low labour costs and a massive, highly skilled workforce have made the nation the ideal place to manufacture iPhones (and just about every other gadget). The country’s vast, unprecedented production capabilities – the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that as of 2009 there were 99 million factory workers in China – have helped the nation become the world’s second largest economy. And since the first iPhone shipped, the company doing the lion’s share of the manufacturing is the Taiwanese Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, Ltd, better known by its trade name, Foxconn.

Foxconn is the single largest employer in mainland China; there are 1.3 million people on its payroll. Worldwide, among corporations, only Walmart and McDonald’s employ more. As many people work for Foxconn as live in Estonia.

An employee directs jobseekers to queue up at the Foxconn recruitment centre in Shenzhen. Photograph: David Johnson/Reuters

Today, the iPhone is made at a number of different factories around China, but for years, as it became the bestselling product in the world, it was largely assembled at Foxconn’s 1.4 square-mile flagship plant, just outside Shenzhen. The sprawling factory was once home to an estimated 450,000 workers. Today, that number is believed to be smaller, but it remains one of the biggest such operations in the world. If you know of Foxconn, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve heard of the suicides. In 2010, Longhua assembly-line workers began killing themselves. Worker after worker threw themselves off the towering dorm buildings, sometimes in broad daylight, in tragic displays of desperation – and in protest at the work conditions inside. There were 18 reported suicide attempts that year alone and 14 confirmed deaths. Twenty more workers were talked down by Foxconn officials.

The epidemic caused a media sensation – suicides and sweatshop conditions in the House of iPhone. Suicide notes and survivors told of immense stress, long workdays and harsh managers who were prone to humiliate workers for mistakes, of unfair fines and unkept promises of benefits.

The corporate response spurred further unease: Foxconn CEO, Terry Gou, had large nets installed outside many of the buildings to catch falling bodies. The company hired counsellors and workers were made to sign pledges stating they would not attempt to kill themselves.

Steve Jobs, for his part, declared: “We’re all over that” when asked about the spate of deaths and he pointed out that the rate of suicides at Foxconn was within the national average. Critics pounced on the comment as callous, though he wasn’t technically wrong. Foxconn Longhua was so massive that it could be its own nation-state, and the suicide rate was comparable to its host country’s. The difference is that Foxconn City is a nation-state governed entirely by a corporation and one that happened to be producing one of the most profitable products on the planet.

If the boss finds any problems, they don’t scold you then. They scold you later, in front of everyone, at a meeting

A cab driver lets us out in front of the factory; boxy blue letters spell out Foxconn next to the entrance. The security guards eye us, half bored, half suspicious. My fixer, a journalist from Shanghai whom I’ll call Wang Yang, and I decide to walk the premises first and talk to workers, to see if there might be a way to get inside.

The first people we stop turn out to be a pair of former Foxconn workers.

“It’s not a good place for human beings,” says one of the young men, who goes by the name Xu. He’d worked in Longhua for about a year, until a couple of months ago, and he says the conditions inside are as bad as ever. “There is no improvement since the media coverage,” Xu says. The work is very high pressure and he and his colleagues regularly logged 12-hour shifts. Management is both aggressive and duplicitous, publicly scolding workers for being too slow and making them promises they don’t keep, he says. His friend, who worked at the factory for two years and chooses to stay anonymous, says he was promised double pay for overtime hours but got only regular pay. They paint a bleak picture of a high-pressure working environment where exploitation is routine and where depression and suicide have become normalised.

“It wouldn’t be Foxconn without people dying,” Xu says. “Every year people kill themselves. They take it as a normal thing.”

Over several visits to different iPhone assembly factories in Shenzhen and Shanghai, we interviewed dozens of workers like these. Let’s be honest: to get a truly representative sample of life at an iPhone factory would require a massive canvassing effort and the systematic and clandestine interviewing of thousands of employees. So take this for what it is: efforts to talk to often skittish, often wary and often bored workers who were coming out of the factory gates, taking a lunch break or congregating after their shifts.

A Foxconn employee in a dormitory at Longhua. The rooms are currently said to sleep eight. Photograph: Wang Yishu / Imaginechina/Camera Press

The vision of life inside an iPhone factory that emerged was varied. Some found the work tolerable; others were scathing in their criticisms; some had experienced the despair Foxconn was known for; still others had taken a job just to try to find a girlfriend. Most knew of the reports of poor conditions before joining, but they either needed the work or it didn’t bother them. Almost everywhere, people said the workforce was young and turnover was high. “Most employees last only a year,” was a common refrain. Perhaps that’s because the pace of work is widely agreed to be relentless, and the management culture is often described as cruel.

Since the iPhone is such a compact, complex machine, putting one together correctly requires sprawling assembly lines of hundreds of people who build, inspect, test and package each device. One worker said 1,700 iPhones passed through her hands every day; she was in charge of wiping a special polish on the display. That works out at about three screens a minute for 12 hours a day.

More meticulous work, like fastening chip boards and assembling back covers, was slower; these workers have a minute apiece for each iPhone. That’s still 600 to 700 iPhones a day. Failing to meet a quota or making a mistake can draw public condemnation from superiors. Workers are often expected to stay silent and may draw rebukes from their bosses for asking to use the restroom.

Xu and his friend were both walk-on recruits, though not necessarily willing ones. “They call Foxconn a fox trap,” he says. “Because it tricks a lot of people.” He says Foxconn promised them free housing but then forced them to pay exorbitantly high bills for electricity and water. The current dorms sleep eight to a room and he says they used to be 12 to a room. But Foxconn would shirk social insurance and be late or fail to pay bonuses. And many workers sign contracts that subtract a hefty penalty from their pay if they quit before a three-month introductory period.

The body-catching nets are still there. They look a bit like tarps that have blown off the things they’re meant to cover

On top of that, the work is gruelling. “You have to have mental management,” says Xu, otherwise you can get scolded by bosses in front of your peers. Instead of discussing performance privately or face to face on the line, managers would stockpile complaints until later. “When the boss comes down to inspect the work,” Xu’s friend says, “if they find any problems, they won’t scold you then. They will scold you in front of everyone in a meeting later.”

“It’s insulting and humiliating to people all the time,” his friend says. “Punish someone to make an example for everyone else. It’s systematic,” he adds. In certain cases, if a manager decides that a worker has made an especially costly mistake, the worker has to prepare a formal apology. “They must read a promise letter aloud – ‘I won’t make this mistake again’– to everyone.”

This culture of high-stress work, anxiety and humiliation contributes to widespread depression. Xu says there was another suicide a few months ago. He saw it himself. The man was a student who worked on the iPhone assembly line. “Somebody I knew, somebody I saw around the cafeteria,” he says. After being publicly scolded by a manager, he got into a quarrel. Company officials called the police, though the worker hadn’t been violent, just angry.

“He took it very personally,” Xu says, “and he couldn’t get through it.” Three days later, he jumped out of a ninth-storey window.

So why didn’t the incident get any media coverage? I ask. Xu and his friend look at each other and shrug. “Here someone dies, one day later the whole thing doesn’t exist,” his friend says. “You forget about it.”

Employees have lunch in a vast refectory at the Foxconn Longhua plant. Photograph: Wang Yishu/Imaginechina/Camera Press

‘We look at everything at these companies,” Steve Jobs said after news of the suicides broke. “Foxconn is not a sweatshop. It’s a factory – but my gosh, they have restaurants and movie theatres… but it’s a factory. But they’ve had some suicides and attempted suicides – and they have 400,000 people there. The rate is under what the US rate is, but it’s still troubling.” Apple CEO, Tim Cook, visited Longhua in 2011 and reportedly met suicide-prevention experts and top management to discuss the epidemic.

In 2012, 150 workers gathered on a rooftop and threatened to jump. They were promised improvements and talked down by management; they had, essentially, wielded the threat of killing themselves as a bargaining tool. In 2016, a smaller group did it again. Just a month before we spoke, Xu says, seven or eight workers gathered on a rooftop and threatened to jump unless they were paid the wages they were due, which had apparently been withheld. Eventually, Xu says, Foxconn agreed to pay the wages and the workers were talked down.

When I ask Xu about Apple and the iPhone, his response is swift: “We don’t blame Apple. We blame Foxconn.” When I ask the men if they would consider working at Foxconn again if the conditions improved, the response is equally blunt. “You can’t change anything,” Xu says. “It will never change.”

Wang and I set off for the main worker entrance. We wind around the perimeter, which stretches on and on – we have no idea this is barely a fraction of the factory at this point.

After walking along the perimeter for 20 minutes or so, we come to another entrance, another security checkpoint. That’s when it hits me. I have to use the bathroom. Desperately. And that gives me an idea.

There’s a bathroom in there, just a few hundred feet down a stairwell by the security point. I see the universal stick-man signage and I gesture to it. This checkpoint is much smaller, much more informal. There’s only one guard, a young man who looks bored. Wang asks something a little pleadingly in Chinese. The guard slowly shakes his head no, looks at me. The strain on my face is very, very real. She asks again – he falters for a second, then another no.

We’ll be right back, she insists, and now we’re clearly making him uncomfortable. Mostly me. He doesn’t want to deal with this. Come right back, he says. Of course, we don’t.

To my knowledge, no American journalist has been inside a Foxconn plant without permission and a tour guide, without a carefully curated visit to selected parts of the factory to demonstrate how OK things really are.

Maybe the most striking thing, beyond its size – it would take us nearly an hour to briskly walk across Longhua – is how radically different one end is from the other. It’s like a gentrified city in that regard. On the outskirts, let’s call them, there are spilt chemicals, rusting facilities and poorly overseen industrial labour. The closer you get to the city centre – remember, this is a factory – the more the quality of life, or at least the amenities and the infrastructure, improves.

  ‘Not a good place for human beings’: Foxconn Longhua. Photograph: Brian Merchant

As we get deeper in, surrounded by more and more people, it feels like we’re getting noticed less. The barrage of stares mutates into disinterested glances. My working theory: the plant is so vast, security so tight, that if we are inside just walking around, we must have been allowed to do so. That or nobody really gives a shit. We start trying to make our way to the G2 factory block, where we’ve been told iPhones are made. After leaving “downtown”, we begin seeing towering, monolithic factory blocks – C16, E7 and so on, many surrounded by crowds of workers.

I worry about getting too cavalier and remind myself not to push it; we’ve been inside Foxconn for almost an hour now. The crowds have been thinning out the farther away from the centre we get. Then there it is: G2. It’s identical to the factory blocks that cluster around it, that threaten to fade into the background of the smoggy static sky.

G2 looks deserted, though. A row of impossibly rusted lockers runs outside the building. No one’s around. The door is open, so we go in. To the left, there’s an entry to a massive, darkened space; we’re heading for that when someone calls out. A floor manager has just come down the stairs and he asks us what we’re doing. My translator stammers something about a meeting and the man looks confused; then he shows us the computer monitoring system he uses to oversee production on the floor. There’s no shift right now, he says, but this is how they watch.

No sign of iPhones, though. We keep walking. Outside G3, teetering stacks of black gadgets wrapped in plastic sit in front of what looks like another loading zone. A couple of workers on smartphones drift by us. We get close enough to see the gadgets through the plastic and, nope, not iPhones either. They look like Apple TVs, minus the company logo. There are probably thousands stacked here, awaiting the next step in the assembly line.

If this is indeed where iPhones and Apple TVs are made, it’s a fairly aggressively shitty place to spend long days, unless you have a penchant for damp concrete and rust. The blocks keep coming, so we keep walking. Longhua starts to feel like the dull middle of a dystopian novel, where the dread sustains but the plot doesn’t.

We could keep going, but to our left, we see what look like large housing complexes, probably the dormitories, complete with cagelike fences built out over the roof and the windows, and so we head in that direction. The closer we get to the dorms, the thicker the crowds get and the more lanyards and black glasses and faded jeans and sneakers we see. College-age kids are gathered, smoking cigarettes, crowded around picnic tables, sitting on kerbs.

And, yes, the body-catching nets are still there. Limp and sagging, they give the impression of tarps that have half blown off the things they’re supposed to cover. I think of Xu, who said: “The nets are pointless. If somebody wants to commit suicide, they will do it.”

We are drawing stares again – away from the factories, maybe folks have more time and reason to indulge their curiosity. In any case, we’ve been inside Foxconn for an hour. I have no idea if the guard put out an alert when we didn’t come back from the bathroom or if anyone is looking for us or what. The sense that it’s probably best not to push it prevails, even though we haven’t made it on to a working assembly line.

 A protester dressed as a factory worker outside an Apple retail outlet in Hong Kong, May 2011. Photograph: Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images

We head back the way we came. Before long, we find an exit. It’s pushing evening as we join a river of thousands and, heads down, shuffle through the security checkpoint. Nobody says a word. Getting out of the haunting megafactory is a relief, but the mood sticks. No, there were no child labourers with bleeding hands pleading at the windows. There were a number of things that would surely violate the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration code – unprotected construction workers, open chemical spillage, decaying, rusted structures, and so on – but there are probably a lot of things at US factories that would violate OSHA code too. Apple may well be right when it argues that these facilities are nicer than others out there. Foxconn was not our stereotypical conception of a sweatshop. But there was a different kind of ugliness. For whatever reason – the rules imposing silence on the factory floors, its pervasive reputation for tragedy or the general feeling of unpleasantness the environment itself imparts – Longhua felt heavy, even oppressively subdued.

When I look back at the photos I snapped, I can’t find one that has someone smiling in it. It does not seem like a surprise that people subjected to long hours, repetitive work and harsh management might develop psychological issues. That unease is palpable – it’s worked into the environment itself. As Xu said: “It’s not a good place for human beings.”

Balance of power deters would-be whistleblowers from rocking the boat

Sean Ingle in The Guardian

A couple of days ago I asked a UK Sport insider why more athletes do not go public with their concerns. “Put yourself in their shoes,” came the reply. “One path is potentially well rewarded. And then there’s another that comes after speaking out. If you are a rational person, do you want to travel down the road of a Brian Cookson or a Jess Varnish? There is a massive disincentive to rock the boat.”

One can see their point. Cookson, having enjoyed a long career in sports administration, is now president of the UCI, earning £235,000 a year. Varnish, having spoken out about the problems in British Cycling – and having been largely vindicated – finds herself marginalised and ostracised. At 26 she also knows her career in elite sport is probably over. What would you do?

British Bobsleigh team told: keep quiet about bullying or miss Olympics

Of course not every complaint is serious or justified. And nor is elite sport a place to hold hands round the campfire and sing kumbaya. But in a week where fresh and disturbing allegations about bullying in British Bobsleigh and child abuse in British Canoeing were heard there is an urgent need to tilt the balance in favour of whistleblowers and honest brokers.

Indeed, lost amid the flurry of reports into British Cycling last Wednesday was the damning verdict from the financial accountants Moore Stephens on UK Sport’s whistleblower policy. In their view it was inadequate: it needed to be “more robust”, “encourage a culture of openness” and “provide statutory protection from unfair dismissal for making a protected disclosure”. The question is how.

The main problem is that a vast amount of power lies with UK Sport and the heads of each sport – and very little with the athletes, who are subject to an annual review whereby their lottery money can be cut or stopped completely.
Player power” is often heard of in football but for those in Olympic sports the power dynamic favours coaches and administrators – which hardly encourages athletes to question them.

One coach recently told of an athlete who made some modest but justified criticisms of his sport. A few months later his lottery funding was trimmed. Perhaps it was coincidental but his fellow athletes took away a lesson: he rocked the boat and lost out. As the coach explained: “A lot of signals are sent to people to say don’t misbehave and I am troubled by that. No one is saying that bullying and other such behaviour is widespread but there is an environment that does not allow enough checks and balances.”

One can imagine how vulnerable this leaves the athletes. One false move and their livelihood is toast. It does not help that Olympic athletes do not really have a strong union. Nominally there is the British Athletes Commission, which represents 1,400 Olympians and Paralympians, but few believe it has enough resources or independence to be as effective as it needs to be.

There is another factor at play, too. Many athletes want to stay in sport, either as a coach or administrator, when they quit the field of play. For those who pick up a reputation as a troublemaker the stink is hard to shake. As the former British bobsleigher Henry Nwume, who spoke to the BBC last week about problems inside his sport, told me: “You have everything to lose by talking. Athletes know that they run the risk of being attacked, discredited and blackballed. And that continues even after they retire. They fear positions that might have been opened for them will be closed. And they will become persona non grata.”
Whistleblowers also know their accounts are likely to be belittled by athletes inside the system. This is not necessarily malicious. Coaches tend to treat potential medallists better: one I spoke to admitted he was seen as a “golden child” by his performance director and never received – or even saw – the abuse that many of his friends got. So when Sir Bradley Wiggins or Sir Chris Hoy is asked if there was anything wrong with British Cycling, perhaps one should not be shocked when they say no.

One potential solution, put forward by Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson’s duty of care review in April, is for an independent sports ombudsman – or duty of care quality commission – which is separate from UK Sport, to “maintain public confidence that sport is conducted ethically”. To me that makes sense. But change also has to come from within.

UK Sport deserves praise for lifting Britain from 36th in the medal table in 1996 to second in Rio last year. There are many smart people in the system, too. But it surely knows now that its tunnel‑vision focus on winning can breed the type of performance director or head coach who knows the main performance indicator is medals and so puts athlete welfare lower on the list of priorities. It does not help when UK Sport’s chief executive, Liz Nicholl, insists that “99% of this system is working really well” when increasingly the evidence suggests otherwise.
The best organisations do not just challenge themselves to be better. They allow themselves to be challenged in turn. In fact, they welcome it because they know being open and subject to rigorous examination helps them improve. Next month Katherine Grainger, a ferocious competitor with vast intellect, takes over as chair of UK Sport. How she responds to the mounting issues of athlete welfare, whilst keeping standards high, will surely define her tenure.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Economic Myths of UK's 2017 General Election Exposed

Ann Pettifor

With Grenfell Tower, we’ve seen what ‘ripping up red tape’ really looks like

George Monbiot in The Guardian

For years successive governments have built what they call a bonfire of regulations. They have argued that “red tape” impedes our freedom and damages productivity. Britain, they have assured us, would be a better place with fewer forms to fill in, fewer inspections and less enforcement.
But what they call red tape often consists of essential public protections that defend our lives, our futures and the rest of the living world. The freedom they celebrate is highly selective: in many cases it means the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit their workers, landlords to exploit their tenants and industry of all kinds to use the planet as its dustbin. As RH Tawney remarked, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”

It will be a long time before we know exactly what caused the horrific fire in the Grenfell Tower, and why it was able to rage so freely, with such devastating loss of life. But it seems at this stage likely that the rapidity with which the fire spread was either caused or exacerbated by the cladding with which the tower was refurbished.

There have been plenty of warnings that cladding can present a severe fire risk. To give just one example, in 1999 the House of Commons select committee on environment, transport and rural affairs published a report entitled Potential Risk of Fire Spread in Buildings Via External Cladding Systems.

But both Conservative and New Labour governments have been highly reluctant to introduce new public protections, even when the need is pressing. They have been highly amenable to tearing down existing protections at the behest of trade associations and corporate lobbyists. Deregulation of this kind is a central theme of the neoliberal ideology to which both the Conservatives and Labour under Tony Blair succumbed.

In 2014, the then housing minister (who is now the immigration minister), Brandon Lewis, rejected calls to force construction companies to fit sprinklers in the homes they built on the following grounds:

Conservative MPs see Brexit as an excellent opportunity to strip back regulations

“In our commitment to be the first Government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation … Under that rule, when the Government introduce a regulation, we will identify two existing ones to be removed. The Department for Communities and Local Government has gone further and removed an even higher proportion of regulations. In that context, Members will understand why we want to exhaust all non-regulatory options before we introduce any new regulations.”

In other words, though he accepted that sprinklers “are an effective way of controlling fires and of protecting lives and property”, to oblige builders to introduce them would conflict with the government’s deregulatory agenda. Instead, it would be left to the owners of buildings to decide how best to address the fire risk: “Those with responsibility for ensuring fire safety in their businesses, in their homes or as landlords, should and must make informed decisions on how best to manage the risks in their own properties,” Lewis said.

This calls to mind the Financial Times journalist Willem Buiter’s famous remark that “self-regulation stands in relation to regulation the way self-importance stands in relation to importance”. Case after case, across all sectors, demonstrates that self-regulation is no substitute for consistent rules laid down, monitored and enforced by government.

Crucial public protections have long been derided in the billionaire press as “elf ’n’ safety gone mad”. It’s not hard to see how ruthless businesses can cut costs by cutting corners, and how this gives them an advantage over their more scrupulous competitors.

Grenfell Tower fire is corporate manslaughter, says Labour MP

The “pollution paradox” (those corporations whose practices are most offensive to voters have to spend the most money on politics, with the result that their demands come to dominate political life) ensures that our protections are progressively dismantled by governments courting big donors.

Conservative MPs see Brexit as an excellent opportunity to strip back regulations. The speed with which the “great repeal bill” will have to pass through parliament (assuming that any of Theresa May’s programme can now be implemented) provides unprecedented scope to destroy the protections guaranteed by European regulations. The bill will rely heavily on statutory instruments, which permit far less parliamentary scrutiny than primary legislation. Unnoticed and undebated, crucial elements of public health and safety, workers’ rights and environmental protection could be made to disappear.

Too many times we have seen what the bonfire of regulations, which might sound like common sense when issuing from the mouths of ministers, looks like in the real world. The public protections that governments describe as red tape are what make the difference between a good society and barbarism. It is time to bring the disastrous deregulatory agenda to an end, and put public safety and other basic decencies ahead of corner-cutting and greed.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Momentum - successful grassroots organising!

Rachel Shabi in The Guardian

Not so long ago, in the slur-filled era before this year’s election, Momentum, the grassroots group of supporters for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, were routinely dismissed as armchair activists, cultish Trots, delusional young naïfs, or some combination of the three. Now, media coverage of the group carries headlines such as “How Momentum changed British politics for ever” and “How Momentum HQ perfected social media outreach”.

The 24,000-member group didn’t deserve those dismissive pre-election labels, but it has certainly earned the more recently positive ones. Credited with mobilising the youth vote, Momentum’s snappy social media campaigns gleaned millions of shares. The group also sent scores of campaigners – some of them first-time canvassers – into the country’s most marginal constituencies, helping to drive up support for Labour, house by house and street by street.

Using an online map of marginal seats as well as WhatsApp and phone banks to enlist and direct activists, the group transformed Labour’s canvassing game, helping to turn seats such as Canterbury, Sheffield Hallam, Derby North and Croydon Central into Labour wins. MPs who may once have criticised the group are now more enthusiastic, while Momentum organisers say that, since members and constituency campaigners worked so closely in the past six weeks, relations are more cordial. Those who were divided over past splits in the Labour party got to know each other – and found that they got along.

Now, Momentum wants to build on the – oh, let’s just go with it – momentum to militate against any complacency over Labour’s dramatic increase in voter share, now at 40%, or disillusion that the party nonetheless lost the election. Since the general election, the Labour party has gained 35,000 new members, while 1,500 have joined Momentum. With greater numbers, capacity and credibility, the task now is ensuring more activists join in and are election-ready – because who knows how soon we’re going to have to do it all again.

But elections aren’t the only focus. For a start, Momentum wants to move away from the idea that political campaigning only takes place when votes are needed. It plans to engage in community action, whether that’s voter registration campaigns or support for local causes, so that the group and, by extension, the Labour party, is organically active at grassroots level. Not to re-open old wounds – and definitely not now the Labour party is united in support for its leader – but this terrain might have been broached sooner, were it not for Momentum instead having to rally in support of Corbyn during last year’s leadership challenge.

In any case, such endeavours, however embryonic, have already begun. Last year, local Momentum groups started to collect and volunteer for food banks. Now, national organisers are looking at the possibility of running these independently, although the idea isn’t to provide tinned beans bearing party slogans so much as to support local communities in tackling hardships also addressed by Labour’s political offer. At a time when so many have been terribly affected by the recession and Conservative austerity cuts, there are multiple social issues where Momentum could get involved.

The focus seems to be on harnessing the political engagement unleashed by Corbyn’s leadership and fostering unity among Labour’s different voter groups. This pursuit of collectivism, in the face of decades of rampant individualism, was always one of the more radical aspects of Corbyn’s leadership. It was in evidence throughout his campaign speeches, where he often spoke of society’s many cohorts as one community, binding together groups – young and old, black and white, nurses as well as builders and office workers – that are more often encouraged to compete against each other in the current economy.

Momentum draws inspiration and cross-pollinates ideas with the leftwing Syriza party in Greece and Podemos in Spain, both of which were fed by practical, grassroots organising to counter the effects of crippling austerity cuts. In Greece, for instance, the social movements that ran health clinics, food banks and legal aid centres were the blood supply for the Syriza party now leading a coalition government. In the UK, Momentum is also looking at growing the information-sharing debates developed by the World Transformed, which launched parallel to the Labour party conference in Liverpool last year and hosts political events.

The intention is to convert social media clicks and shares into practical action: the demand for Momentum’s election campaign training and turnout on the doorstop has shown that there is a desire to get involved, given the means, confidence and skills to do so. It’s also pretty much what grassroots democracy looks like – a movement that chimes with and feeds into a viable political party. And it’s this combination – a left wing effective both at parliamentary and community level that could help turn the Labour party into an unstoppable political force and propel it into power.