George Walkden's blog

Evidence-based policy? Only if it fits with your preconceptions

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From May, a new clause will be slipped in to all government grant agreements, preventing public funding from being used to lobby the government. While the clause is aimed at quangos, it will also affect charities, and - crucially - academic research. As David Nutt puts it in yesterday's Guardian, this move is an attempt to "limit scientific outputs to those that support its policies". 

This is not just a slap in the face to evidence-based policy. It could be a deathblow.

Three hundred years of piracy: why academic books should be free

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I think academic books should be free.

It's not a radically new proposal, but I'd like to clarify what I mean by "free". First, there's the financial sense: books should be free in that there should be no cost to either the author or the reader. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, books should be free in terms of what the reader can do with them: copying, sharing, creating derivative works, and more.

I'm not going to go down the murky road of what exactly a modern academic book actually is. I'm just going to take it for granted that there is such a thing, and that it will continue to have a niche in the scholarly ecosystem of the future, even if it doesn't have the pre-eminent role it has at present in some disciplines, or even the same form and structure. (For instance, I'd be pretty keen to see an academic monograph written in Choose Your Own Adventure style.)

A Pirate reads Piketty, part 4: Transparency

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Transparency and its sister, the flip side of the coin, privacy, are at the heart of Pirate politics. The first of the seven principles on which the PPUK constitution is founded states that society is built on the sharing of knowledge (and we've already seen how important that is in reducing inequality, according to Piketty). The third principle makes this more explicit with respect to the role of government: "Everyone should have a say in the structure and processes of governance and the right to know what is done on their behalf".

A Pirate reads Piketty, part 3: The Rich Shall Inherit The Earth

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One of the refreshing things about Piketty’s book - at least for a humanities academic like me - is that he uses literary sources, particularly the novels of Austen and Balzac, as evidence of attitudes to wealth in the nineteenth century. His favourite episode is from Balzac’s Père Goriot, in which the young protagonist Rastignac is faced with a dilemma: marry Victorine and inherit a vast fortune, or work his way to the top? The cynical Vautrin comes to the rescue with a timely lesson, explaining to young Rastignac that even at the height of a career in law - for which he would have to fight hard and sacrifice much - he would still earn far less than he could simply by marrying into a wealthy family.

A depressing thought for anyone with the slightest attachment to meritocracy. But that sort of society is dead and gone. Isn’t it?

A Pirate reads Piketty, part 2: The Caprices of Technology

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Part 2 of Piketty's book deals with the relationship between capital and income over time. There are fluctuations, there are differences between countries, and some forms of capital have changed in importance: agricultural land, for instance, has shrunk to a tiny proportion of the overall capital of the countries investigated. Still, the overall trajectory is pretty clear: capital is on the rise. Piketty cautions that "there is no natural force that inevitably reduces the importance of capital ... over the course of history" (p234).

One contention that should resonate with Pirates is that "technology, like the market, has neither limits nor morality". Piketty clarifies this by arguing that "Progress toward economic and technological rationality need not imply progress toward democratic and meritocratic rationality", and hence that "If one truly wishes to found a more just and rational social order based on common utility, it is not enough to count on the caprices of technology".

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