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A personal plea from Europe’s polar bears

Amanda Windle

06 November, 2016

This month's Backchannels reblog was written for NS Tech, the New Statesman’s new B2B tech website, and first published here.

Amanda Windle is a feminist digital researcher heading up the Digital Laboratory at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London.

I’ve done two important things this month — went on holiday and voted to remain in the EU. I took my midsummer break in Iceland, which is not an EU member state but sits on its fringe as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Geologically, the country is splitting down the middle; half of it moving towards America, and the other half towards Europe. But that’s a slow tectonic shift. I saw the Norwegian and American fighter jets training overhead as a response to Russia’s recent drilling. I visited empty herring factories laid bare due to overfishing. I slid down an avalanche barrier where the television series, ‘The Trapped’ was recently filmed (with EU funding).

And, I also learned how Iceland deals with climate issues like, what to do when a polar bear makes the record-breaking journey from Greenland to Iceland? Basically, they get to shore very hungry and are shot on sight.

During my time away, there were other unfathomable deaths in our global village. With the American election and the UK referendum as politically-charged backdrops, there were shootings at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, followed just a week later by the murder of Jo Cox MP. While being away meant participating less in social media discussions around these two tragic events, my work as a digital researcher has already been touched by earlier outbreaks of violence. The Paris bombings last October put a stop to my trip to Brussels for the public-private European Culture Forum (ECF), which is an attempt to understand European cultural contributions to areas like innovation, jobs and growth. The subsequent attacks in Belgium itself in March didn’t stop the event for the second time, enabling me to take part in that defiant political and cultural assembly, albeit amid a police and military presence.

Getting involved

Prior to the ECF, I was selected as an expert stakeholder on the topic of ‘audience development via digital means’ working alongside the European Commission in a parallel workstream called ‘Voices of Culture’. This enables specialists from the cultural sector, including industry experts such as digital archivists and film agencies, to feed into discussions with the European Commission about funding priorities which can also indirectly inform new policy for arts and culture. Culture, as well as digital themes and methods, cut across all EU pillars of funding in the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, so being involved means collaborative opportunities across sectors, disciplines and countries. Coverage in the press around how the EU Referendum will affect researchers has been heavily skewed towards the sciences, yet there is crucial EU funding available for all areas of research from tech through to the arts. R&D is covered in this too and industry partners also have opportunities to apply for pots of money to help fund their work.

Iceland or Switzerland?

Iceland can participate in this EU funding scheme but were not a part of the Voices of Culture discussions as it only involves EU member states, meaning it can apply for EU funding but cannot potentially shape it. UCL applied health researcher Mike Galsworthy suggested in 2015 that the UK could face similar consequences to Switzerland if we vote for Brexit. Switzerland lost its ‘associated country status’ and was demoted to ‘third party status’ from 2014, which meant that Swiss researchers were cut out of EU grants that promote mobility, like Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and Erasmus Plus. This was because Switzerland would not adopt a mass migration initiative like the rest of Europe.

The outcome of the referendum, therefore, has far-reaching consequences to all researchers, whether they are developing new audiences or mapping the effect of climate change on polar bears.

Where does leaving get us?

The first impact will be that the research landscape becomes far more labyrinthian for UK researchers. It is already mind-numbingly complicated. But my way of dealing with the complexity has been to get involved, and to advise on priority areas such as the dual need for more research and skills training around audience development via digital means. Through Voices of Culture, I’ve been able to impact on policy and the funding agenda for culture. If I had not participated, the case for digital accessibility for older audiences would not have been made, which included work with multi-arts venues across the UK to help them engage harder to reach audiences using digital tools. The result of this was an EU tender for further audience development, giving me the opportunity to create more national case studies in this area. As a result, it was announced at the ECF that there will be inputs from this into the forthcoming EU policy to be published in 2018, all linked to the overarching Work Plan for Culture.

I can only join in with this work because the UK is a member of the EU. Leaving means funding potentially gets smaller, more complicated and we don’t get to input so widely into that agenda. How can UK research remain innovative if we’re not shaping that at the EU level?

While there is much in the way of rethinking how academic researchers input into policymaking, this is part of what I’ve chosen to do with my cultural and intellectual wealth. While we are digitally connected in so many ways, I struggle to believe we’re close to potentially creating more barriers to research engagement. These barriers will get in the way of funding the very research, R&D and skills training that are needed to understand how we live together differently [polar bears included]. This kind of understanding could become the very thing that prevents such terrible incidents like those that we’ve witnessed in the UK, across Europe and further in recent months and years, from happening in the future.

Indeed, the very reason Europe came to exist in the first place.

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Backchannels / Reflections

Commentary on the current and future state of the field or subfields within science and technology studies. Can include interviews, meditations on particular concepts or methods, biography / autobiography, essays, and other more personal and less formal writings.