Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.
Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?
College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.
You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?
I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.
It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90’s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?
What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.
I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00’s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?
I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.
I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?
I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.
What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.
What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.
It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.
Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.
Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.
However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.
And here’s mine:
But Ron Paul did.
I’m checking out the graphic below, and, first, wondering why anyone ever thought that gold was the only investment to make given it’s bubblish nature, and second, wondering what it must have been like to have investments in the 19th century. Granted, most people didn’t, and some people were even the targets of investment themselves. The wide volatility in the inflation rate must have driven people nuts.
If you owed money, one year, you’d make out like gangbusters, watching inflation obliterate your debt obligations, the next year, you’d watch your world crumble as the currency became worthless. If people owed you money, you’d be in the opposite pinch. Either way, you were screwed and had little ability to plan for the future. By the time you rode out the constant rough spots, though, you’d end up with the same amount of money you started with decades earlier. I’ll take steady inflation and reasonable economic certainty over crazyland, but Ron Paul might be into it, I guess.
It’s a reasonable question to which no one really has an answer. I work in a field site located on Lake Victoria, the office of which is based out of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) station on Mbita Point.
We do malaria field surveys and have a large health and demographic surveillance system that has monitored births, deaths, migration and health events of nearly 50,000 people over the past six years.
The goals of the project are to monitor changes in demographics, outbreaks and changes in the dynamics of the transmission of infectious diseases and gauge the effectiveness of interventions.
While I view those as scientifically important, I don’t think that people on the ground experience any immediate benefit from scientific research activities. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, unless they’re getting a free bednet, it’s mostly an annoyance. Of course, we appreciate their cooperation and they are free to tell us to bugger off at anytime.
We are seeing rapid declines in malaria incidence, infant mortality and fertility in the communities we study. This is, of course, cause for celebration. Less kids are dying and people are having fewer of them.
In fact, the shift in the age distribution was so dramatic from 2011 to 2012, that we thought it an aberration of the data: the mean age of 12,000 people rose nearly two years from the beginning of 2011 to the latter part of 2012. Old people died off, and fewer babies were there to replace them, resulting in an upward shift in the age distribution. Cause for celebration in an area where women normally have anywhere from 5 to 10 children, who often end up malnourished, poorly housed and uneducated.
But we have to ask ourselves, how much of this is representative of trends in communities similar to the ones we study and how much is directly influenced by the presence of the research station itself?
A recent article in Malaria Journal documents the positive impacts that a research facility had on the local community:
To make the community a real partner in the centre’s activities, a tacit agreement was made that priority would be given to local people, in a competitive manner, for all non-professional jobs (construction workers, drivers, cleaners, field workers, data clerks, and others). Of the 254 people employed at the CRUN, about one-third come from Nanoro. This has strengthened the sense of ownership of the centre’s activities by the community. Through the modest creation of new jobs, CRUN makes a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the community. In addition, staff members residing in Nanoro contribute to the micro-economy there.
Another crucial benefit for Nanoro and CRUN stemming from their productive engagement was electrification for the area. This was made possible by the mayor of Nanoro leading the negotiations for extending the national electrical grid to the CRUN, and with it, to the village of Nanoro. Electrification spurred a lot of economic activity and social amenities that enhance the wellbeing of the community, such as: (1) improved water supply through use electricity instead of generator; (2) ability to use electrical devices, such as fans during the hot season (when temperatures can reach 45-47°C), lighting so students can study at night, the use of refrigeration to safely store food and the extension of business hours past sunset.
Health care services have been improved through CRUN’s new microbiology laboratory. Before this laboratory was established, local patients had to travel about 100 km to the capital city, Ouagadougou, for the service.
This agrees with my experience on Lake Victoria. The presence of the research facility (built originally in the 1960’s) and the subsequent scale up of research activities has been transformative for the area. As more and more people have moved to the area, a bridge to Rusinga Island has been built, two new ferry routes have been installed, the existing ferries have been upgraded, power has been extended to the area and finally, after years of waiting, a paved road has been built from Kisumu to Mbita Point.
..which brings back me to my initial question. It is clear that the building of research facilities can be a major spur for economic development and economic activity in a previously desolate and marginalized area. In case of Mbita Point, it is possible that these gains can be sustained even following an eventual cessation of research activities and strangled funding. In this sense, field research projects are doing at least some of the world good.
However, the gains which these communities are experience really have little to do with the research projects themselves and more to do with the influx of employment and infrastructure that come with research stations and research projects. This is non-controversial and I’m sure that the locals appreciate it.
But the quality and goals of research need to be assessed. Are the results we are seeing truly representative of communities which may be similar to the Mbita Point of the past? Are we unnecessarily influencing the outcomes of the research and then perhaps inappropriately generalizing them to contexts which little resemble our target communities? From a scientific perspective, this is troubling.
Of greater concern, however, are we claiming that gains against malaria are being made, when in fact, morbidity and mortality in communities we haven’t looked at is increasing? This could result in a dangerous shift away from scaled up ITN distributions or even a total reduction in international funding. If this happens, kids will die.
Today’s interview is with my friend, advocate for the poor and downtrodden and purveyor of loudness, Greg Pratt. Greg’s a great guy in just about a billion ways. This interview should tell you why. You can learn more about the group he works with MISSION A2, here.
Who are you and what do you do?
Greg Pratt. I am a social worker by training, an organizer and movement worker by necessity. The two primary foci of my work are material and political support.
I help people with resources for living outside, so propane, water, socks, tents, sleeping bags, batteries etc. I also help them organize politically [internal and external]. Sometimes, that manifests in a camp community [internal] other times that manifests in local ordinances like the Good Neighbor Amendment to the Ann Arbor Parks Ordinance [external]. This amendment waives the fee for organizations handing out free material goods to folks in A2 public parks.
The Camp Take Notice Good Neighbor Subcommittee worked on this from April 2013 until the ordinance passed its 2nd reading on November 18, 2013. The Subcommittee was comprised of 7-8 individuals and I believe everyone but myself was homeless or recently emerging from homelessness.
You have done a lot of work with homeless people in the Ann Arbor area. How did you get started doing that work?
I am an alcoholic. On December 31, 2001, I had my last blackout and was charged with my third DUI.
On July 3, 2001, I was sentenced to six months in Oakland County Jail. The first five days were spent in the middle section of a three-section holding tank area of the Oakland County Jail. Each section was 10’ X 15’, separated by plexiglass, and had anywhere from 10-15 individuals in each section at any given time. There was one toilet per section. We were let out once per day to eat.
After I got out of there I was transferred to the County Barracks across the street for the work release program. This was basically an army style, bunk bed living quarters. We paid weekly rent [I think mine was something like 160-70 per week] and were allowed out of the barracks, at most, 5 days/week. I was only fortunate enough to get out 4 days/week.
After getting out of jail, I spent six months on tether [house arrest]. At the same time, I began my probation which included many hours of community service.
I chose to do my service hours at SOS Community Services at the River St. Location in Ypsilanti, MI. I did their “empathy training” to become a volunteer crisis counselor. At the time, the River Street SOS location served as a place for people to get referrals to other services in the area, food distribution, and a 24-hour crisis hotline which people used for information or just to talk when things were getting a bit to much to handle. I only had one suicide call [fortunately] while we still had the phone lines in place. I continued on in my volunteer capacity at SOS for a year after I got my hours for probation completed. I really enjoyed the work and the community I was a part of as a result of being there two to three times per week.
Anyhow, that is how I became involved. My first social work mentor, from SOS, was Christina Oliver. She still works in the area as a disabled-persons’ advocate.
I haven’t had a drink of alcohol since February 19, 2001. My higher power is the collective consciousness of all living beings. I am not anonymous, but I practice the principles in my daily life.
Do you find that the situation for homeless people in Ann Arbor is getting worse or better? Is Ann Arbor becoming increasingly closed?
I think you may be asking the wrong person on this one.
I am going to give an answer that is the best I can with the information I have from the friends [I don’t use the word client or consumer] with whom I work.
On the one hand Ann Arbor is great because of its manifold set of resources for low-income people struggling with mental/physical health, addiction, and unemployment. On the other, it has very little in the way of low-income housing that is near places of low-income employment. The bus system is ok, but has limited evening hours during the week [M-F] and pretty much zero hours on weekend nights. So, if you live in Ypsilanti and work in Ann Arbor and have no car, your options for hours to work are limited as a result of these limited transportation options. If you talked to the current VP of MISSION, Jimmy Hill, you may get a more comprehensive version of what it is like trying to navigate one’s way out of homelessness in Ann Arbor.
Is is getting better? I hope that in the wake of the forum hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library last week it will. Camp Misfit A2 [one of the groups interdependent with MISSION] has, through their activism and public actions, put the issue of lack of affordable, low-income housing on the radar of local politicos as well as the local human services industry. I am cautiously optimistic right now.
Ann Arbor, as a small and somewhat well to do area, likely does not have the social space or will to accommodate an underclass, but at the same time, would not like to be seen as exclusionary. Do you think that Ann Arbor will ever be able to rectify these competing problems?
Good question. For me, change will have arrived when “our” kids can play with “their” kids.
I don’t think that we will ever correct the problem given the current system of resource distribution in our society, Capitalism.
Capitalism is a system that is framed to encourage economic growth. In this system, there are winners and losers. It is not “survival of the fittest” that determines winners. It is more like a complex gambling system that is weighted toward those with more wealth.
So, I think for Ann Arbor to rectify these problems, we would have to end capitalism as it is practiced now.
Here is another point I want to make. This one is predicated on our capitalist system of resource distribution. Homelessness is not a pond we can drain, but rather a river that flows on beyond our time here on this earth. We can dam up the river and provide bridges at certain sections of the flow, but regardless of our actions to “stop the flow” it continues on just like the wind.
There are people who are “chronically” homeless. But, most folks struggle with this for a matter of months. At our camp out on Wagner Rd [RIP], the average stay was just under three months. The Delonis Center has a similar statistic, although I think stays have been increasing over the last couple of years there.
I’m finding it interesting that Ann Arbor is having discussions about whether to create and improve public spaces, based on a perception that homeless people will use them (like this is a bad thing). How much of these concerns is based on alarmism, and how much is justified?
I think that we need to plan those spaces in an inclusive way, all stakeholders at the table. If we were to take that tack as a community I think we might reduce some of the alarmism. But ultimately, I think the folks with capital to invest in this area would rather see sunshine and lollipops and yellow brick roads, than help people who are struggling to make it in our community.
What do you see ultimately happening?
For the time being, more sunshine and lollipops and yellow-brick roads to nowhere for the poor and to increased wealth for Rick Snyder and his Carpet Bagger Finance Capitalists.
You’ve also done work with the unions, specifically during the push to bring GSRA’s into GEO. What’s your history working with labor?
Ugh. What a nightmare campaign that was. Before that disaster, I helped nontenure track faculty at MSU and EMU build their unions.
Yes, I worked for AFT Michigan [American Federation of Teachers]. I was a member of GEO as a grad student at the UM School of Social Work and was interested in learning labor/political organizing. I became a member of the GEO Organizing Committee just as our 2008 contract campaign was ramping up in December 2007. This was the contract campaign wherein we shut down both the UM Stadium and Business school renovation projects. I was picket captain for the business school site.
That summer, I was hired by AFT to work on a campaign with non tenure track faculty at MSU. After we won that campaign, I was sent to EMU to help bring the part time lecturers into the existing full time lecturer union. EMU has about 120 full time lecturers and about 500-600 [depending upon the semester] part time lecturers. In order to accomplish this, we conducted a few well-attended sit-ins at President Martin’s office. Paul Horvath [Math Lecturer at EMU] was one of the key lecturers involved in that effort. Good times.
After that campaign, I went to work with GEO leaders on bring the GSRAs into the union. In the wake of that Rick Snyder signed a law that prohibited GSRAs from joining a union. I believe this law has since been found unconstitutional and is in some sort of legal limbo on appeal.
That battle was eventually lost. It seemed like a really not so controversial idea. What do you think was going on to make it blow up as big as it did?
I think that conservative anti-union folks in Michigan watched AFT organizing at many of the colleges and some community colleges across the state. Grad Students, Lectures and even some faculty were joining unions in large numbers through the dedicated work of organizers like Jon Curtiss and Lynn Marie Smith between the years 2003-2010. When Rick Snyder was elected, the republicans had every lever of our state’s government under their control. I think they saw an opportunity and put a lot of resources toward blocking this campaign.
That describes what happened on their side. I think it is more telling, what happened on our side [labor]. Our leaders, when planning this campaign, did not listen to the suggestion of leaders on the ground in GEO and in general on campus. We were internally divided. That made it easier for the Mackinac Center to pick us apart and stop the momentum we had while out talking to hundreds of researchers like yourself.
You eventually left. What happened?
Unions are great at the local level. But, as they get bigger, the organizational structure mirrors the organizations they are meant to regulate or keep in check. I didn’t want to compromise my organizing style in order to get a paycheck. I decided that the work needed to be done was the work for which there is no paycheck.
I had been teaching at UM School of Social Work in Winter 2012. I continued on as a lecturer there and at EMU until December 2013.
I am currently unemployed, but doing the work for which there is no paycheck.
What’s up with your radio career? How does radio figure in to your worldview as champion of the poor and marginalized?
You are very kind to call it a career 🙂
How does it figure in? Well, I grew tired of complaining about the media and decided to become a part of it instead. Viva Jello!
What’s up for the future?
1) Kicking ass for the working class!
2) Getting a job with a paycheck.
Which isn’t suprising, given that’s what he does for a living. The NYT this morning had an interesting interview with Milanovic this morning, where he discussed issues of inequality both within and between countries, globalization, national policy and the simultaneous rise of a global economic elite and growing populism around the world.
The context here is that while inequality is rising in wealthy countries like the United States, on a global level, inequality in incomes and lifestyles is shrinking quickly, most due to the rise of China and India.
Inequality calculated among all individuals in the world, as if they were part of one single nation, has been edging slightly downward over the past 10 to 15 years, mostly thanks to very high growth rates in China and India. These relatively poor giants (particularly India) have pulled quite a lot of people out of poverty and into something that can be called “the global middle class.”
That is the key factor behind the decline of global inequality: The distance between their incomes and the rather stagnant incomes of the middle class in rich countries has diminished. Yet global inequality is still extremely high by the standards of any single country. It is, for example, significantly higher than inequality in South Africa, which is the most unequal country in the world.
Obviously, we still have work to do. Many African countries, due to an unfortunate poor hand of geography, internal ethnic struggles and an unforgivable failure of government still sit in the same mess they sat in around the time of independence. For these countries, the future continues to look bleak.
The contrast is between a globalized economy that largely determines our employment and income level, and political systems that remain national. This contrast was not nearly as strong before the 1980s, when national economies were not as interdependent and capital could not flow easily across the borders. Then, countries could more or less design the economic policies that suited them. Today this is no longer the case.
The danger is that these dynamics could lead to populism — a sort of a Luddite reaction against globalization — or to plutocratic rule. We can already see some hints of the latter. Rule of the rich would ensure the continuation of globalization, but it would deprive political democracy of any meaning. If I wanted to be somewhat melodramatic, I would have said that the challenge is to navigate between the Scylla of populism, which would do away with globalization, and the Charybdis of plutocracy. Our defining challenge is how to maintain both globalization and meaningful national democratic systems.
I fear the erosion of political rights of low and middle class citizens that has occurred in the context of rising inequality. I believe that I fear populism and it’s myopic focus on short term solutions to complex problems even more. A response to rising inequality in the US or Europe is not to close the borders or embark on destructive protectionist policies which benefit only a small minority of people.
My feeling is that domestic (US) inequality is best handled through re-distributional policies such as income subsidies, the provision of health care and investments in education and infrastructure. International inequality should be attacked through a combined effort to increase opportunities of movement of people to areas which present economic opportunities, through the encouragement of policies of good governance which reduce onerous and bureaucratic restrictions on economic development within developing countries, an increase in access to capital by individuals and policies which encourage the granting of true democratic rights and protection for citizens, something we don’t see a whole lot of in African countries. Looking at this, I’m realizing the solutions to inequality in in wealthy countries seem much easier to implement.
I know very little about lab sciences. A few months ago, Obokata Haruko, graduate of Waseda University and researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, discovered something “too good to be true.” She found a way of creating pluripotent cells, that is stem cells which can become anything, without the awful side effect of inducing cancer in a vertebrate host. Though my knowledge of such matters is sadly lacking, from what I understand, virae are usually used to induce the cell to convert, which can make the cell unstable, and likely to turn cancerous. Obokata discovered that the cell could be manipulated merely by stressing them with pressure.
The results followed the peer review process, were rejected once, and, after revising and resubmitting, were eventually published in Nature. Soon thereafter, the results were challenged and it was discovered that the images accompanying the paper did not represent the content of the paper and had likely been lifted from her doctoral dissertation. Obokata was disgraced.
Yesterday, an article appeared which claimed that even more improprieties were found in Obokata’s doctoral thesis and that she has formally requested that her dissertation be withdrawn. She supposedly lifted portions of her introduction from the NIH website without attribution and had doctored images. Even some of the chapter bibliographies were suspicious:
Each chapter in the dissertation has a separate bibliography. For chapter 3, there is a bibliography of 38 references even though there are no footnotes in that chapter. The bibliography contains the authors of the material referred to, the title, the journal and the pages on which the original article appeared.
However, the bibliography in question is almost exactly the same as the first 38 items in a bibliography containing 53 reference materials that was published in 2010 in a medical journal by researchers working at a Taiwanese hospital.
It is entirely possible that Obokata is a shoddy researcher. Actually, it’s quite likely given the mountain of evidence against her. What isn’t clear, is how her mentors allowed her train wreck of a career to happen. Research doesn’t occur in a box. I’d certainly be entirely happy if no one at all ever looked at my dissertation again (outside of the published papers from it). But, one would assume that the most egregious of infractions would be caught by her committee members (and her co-authors) before the work goes into print.
It’s worth nothing that Obokata, like a lot of academics, is quite odd. She had her lab repainted pink and yellow, and would don a Japanese smock more characteristic of kindergarten teachers rather than a traditional lab coat. Though I encourage such behavior, I’m not sure that her eccentric style is doing her career any favors at this point.
This incident brings more than a few conflicting ideas to mind.
First, Japan is a terrible, awful place to be a woman in a professional position. In fact, Japan is pretty much just a terrible place to be a woman at all. In terms of women’s empowerment, wages, education and political representation, Japan is 101st out of 135 countries, well under less developed countries like Kenya, El Salvador, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and among the worst in all of Asia.
Once, I remember when I was visiting Japan, a tenured faculty member who happened to be female was tasked with serving us men tea. I was enraged.
Though Obokata is likely less than professional, professionals are made, not born. I can imagine that, given her reproductive capabilities, her mentors refused to take her seriously, and slacked on their most important job, which was to create and nurture a responsible and talented scientist.
Of course, Obokata, though likely a victim of shoddy mentoring, has to shoulder some of the blame. Shoddy mentors create shoddy students, but shoddy students still have to take responsibility for their own actions. But I can’t help but thinking that it’s interesting that a young female is taking the heat for what should be a collective fuck up.
Obokata is currently being eviscerated in the press. After making numerous appearances on television as an eccentric though brilliant scientist, her downfall has brought out the worst. Many are alleging that Obokata slept with her mentors to attain her position (despite being trained at Harvard), following a narrative that women can’t attain privileged positions without having sex with someone. The vile depths of the interweb are even speculating that Obokata will start making porn, a common standby career for fallen actresses and swimsuit idols, again following a narrative that women are never degraded enough.
Does Obokata deserve the brutal punishment she’s receiving? While scientists need to held accountable for their work, given the amount of shoddy research out there, I would say that Obokata is probably being treated rather unfairly. It would seem though, that the extreme nature of her punishment is due to her gender, her age and the fact that she was unlucky enough to appear on Japanese television.
We are living in an unprecedented age of human mobility. It is estimated that nearly 250 million people around the world are living as migrants. Some migrated across national borders as political, environmental and economic refugees, some as forced migrants and some simply to seek opportunities for work. This number is expected to reach 400 million by 2050.
Remittances (money sent from migrants to family and friends back home) totaled nearly $600 billion, triple the amount of international foreign aid. Migrants tend to save just as much, which could be a major source of capital to fund local business enterprises.
Despite it’s importance and magnitude, migration was not included in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which really should coe as no surprise. Calls for the protection of migrant rights and for the relaxation of onerous taxation laws which skim off the top of remittances are both the responsibility of governments, specifically governments of countries which host migrants. The MDGs were notable in that they demanded little change to how governments operate in developing countries and demanded almost nothing of the wealthy countries which depend on migrants as a source of cheap labor.
A report from the office of the UN Special Representative for International Migration came out today with specific policy recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals, which are set to replace the expiring MDGs.
Migration patterns are likely to evolve in response to demographic imbalances, development dynamics and environmental changes. While three quarters of international migrants today move to a country with a higher Human Development Index (HDI) than their country of origin, much of that movement is to non-OECD countries. Nearly half of all international migrants move within their region of origin and about 40 percent move to a neighbouring country. Emigration rates are highest for small and remote countries, many of them small island developing states (SIDS).
As distasteful as some people find it, the economies of the United States, Europe and, to a less obvious extent, Japan, depend on migration to function. Large economies are characterized by falling populations as families have fewer and fewer children and by a constant need to cheap and efficient labor.
Closing borders works well to insure poor working conditions and near slave-labor compensation schemes. Insuring adequate protection for migrant labor and systems which effectively integrate them into the greater economy can benefit everyone.
An aside, I enjoy it when people make arguments that increased immigration will increase the supply of labor reducing wages overall. The flawed economic assumption here is that demand for labor is constant, that is, the demand for good and services is a fixed and unchanging number. This is entirely incorrect. An influx of migrants creates new demand for goods and services by introducing a new set of potential customers which must eat, house themselves and enjoy basketball games on the weekend.
I’m an advocate of open borders. If someone wants to come to the US and work, start a business big or small, take advantage of educational opportunities for their kids or themselves, then by all means, let them. We could use the money.
Bison were once found across most of the middle and western United States and Canada, but were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Expansionists sought to cut off Native American food supplies and the Industrial revolution created an intense demand for buffalo hides, which were used for belts to run large machinery.
Fortunately, a few conservationists saved the fewer than 25 animals who remained in the wild in Yellowstone Park. In 1902, captive bison were introduced into the park to increase the genetic viability of the herd. Populations were managed and regulated until 1966 after which the herd was allowed to expand naturally.
However, climate change and food scarcity has caused some of the expanding population to move out of the park in search of grazing lands.
This is a real problem for cattle herders. Bison are thought to be the largest reservoir of Brucellosis in the United States, despite decades of effort to eliminate the disease. When bison roll into cattle ranches, bacteria can spread from bison to cattle.
Bison appear to suffer little from the disease, but in cattle, spontaneous abortions are likely, resulting in major economic losses to livestock producers. When cattle test positive for the disease, they are culled immediately. The US government compensates the farmer for the loss.
Bison who leave the park and wander into neighboring Montana threaten the state’s Brucella free status. If Montana were to lose that status, all cattle exported from Montana would have to be tested and certified Brucella free, which would increase costs to livestock producers.
Park managers have considered culling the herd, and reducing its size to a more manageable 3000 animals. They propose killing several hundred of the animals which are in the vicinity of Montana’s border as both a precaution and a way to scale back the bison population. The carcasses will be sold as meat.
And this is where environmentalists come it. Several organizations have sprung up around the issue. Most notably, a man chained himself to a 55 gallon drum filled with concrete to prevent more bison from being killed and shipped off the slaughter. Hoping to avoid an escalating political confrontation, the authorities called off the cull.
Opponents of the cull claim that Yellowstone can support more than 6000 bison, far over the target population size of 3000. Proponents argue that the park may theoretically support more than 3000, but a larger herd means that it is more likely that bison will wander into Montana in search of food. The risk there, of course, is that Brucella will be brought into Montana. It is conceivable (to me) that this whole row wouldn’t exist without Brucellosis.
I’m especially interested in the issue because it parallels similar problems in Laikipia, Kenya. Livestock producers and conservationists are constantly in conflict over issues of land rights, economic impacts of disease threats, the rights of wildlife and strategies to protect it in increasingly crowded and rapidly changing areas of the world.
Given the very different perspectives of conservationists and ranchers, no solution has been found in Kenya yet. I’m doubting that one will be found in Yellowstone. Environmentalists are taking this as a moral issue (save the bison!), conservationists are approaching this as a practical issue (manage the herds properly and stay out of the political debate) and herders speak to economic issues (Brucella threatens my business).