A mighty wind

People are making too much of Michele Bachmann's remark about the hurricane.

Of course it was a joke. I don't want to pop anyone's balloon, least of all the New Statesman's, but when Michele Bachmann described Hurricane Irene as an act of God, she was trying to be funny. And, indeed, succeeding. Watch the video. As the Tea Party heroine depicts the metereological devastation as a divine commentary on the size of the American government deficit, her audience fall about laughing.

There have been people daft enough to ascribe the hurricane to divine anger. Most notably, Fox News's Glenn Beck, a Mormon, called Irene "a blessing" and "God reminding you you're not in control." And that came just a few days after televangelist Pat Robertson, who has form, hinted that the recent small earthquake in Washington was a sign of the approaching "End Times". But neither of these two is a candidate for the Republican nomination, as Mrs Bachmann, to the alarm of many, most certainly is.

So what happened? The St Petersburg Times's report of Bachmann's remarks in Florida had a matter-of-fact tone and failed to mention the audience response. Taken out of context, the words went viral. Given Bachmann's Evangelical connections and some of her previous pronouncements -- her open support for Intelligent Design or her approval of wifely submissivess -- it's not surprising that many people have jumped with glee on her apparently Old Testament thoughts on divine intervention in the weather.

That said, I find it difficult to read her suggestion that God was saying: "Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now", as anything other than irony. This was a God who was not merely a Republican sympathiser but something like a frustrated taxpayer, using the forces of nature to sound-off as more humdrum citizens might on the comments section of a blog. Had she been serious, she might (like the former Bishop of Carlisle) have blamed the bad weather on "moral degredation" or the prevalence of same-sex relationships. In other words, on sin.

This minor row will pass, like hurricane Irene itself, and is unlikely to do Bachmann's campaign much damage. At most, it confirms a certain caricature of her. But it does highlight how the campaign for the Republican nomination has become religiously fraught to a remarkable degree. The other day, the New York Times's Bill Keller, suggested that it was time to confront the issue head-on:

We have an unusually large number of candidates, including putative front-runners, who belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are Mormons, a faith that many conservative Christians have been taught is a "cult" and that many others think is just weird. (Huntsman says he is not "overly religious.") Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are both affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity -- and Rick Santorum comes out of the most conservative wing of Catholicism -- which has raised concerns about their respect for the separation of church and state, not to mention the separation of fact and fiction.

Keller writes that while he doesn't much care what a presidential candidates believes in terms of religious doctrine, it does matter to him "if a candidate places fealty to the Bible, the Book of Mormon... or some other authority higher than the Constitution and laws of this country," "respects serious science and verifiable history", or "is going to be a Trojan horse for a sect that believes it has divine instructions on how we should be governed". He proposes that would-be presidents should make their views clear on three major questions designed to tease out the church-state relationship: whether America is "a Judeo-Christian nation"; whether they would have any qualms about appointing a Muslim or an atheist to the Supreme Court; and their views on evolution.

He leaves out what to many is the most divisive question of all: that of abortion. But then no presidential candidate manages to get through a campaign without having to negotiate that one.

Keller has been accused of pandering to religious discrimination, although he's the first to admit that "every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders". In a predominantly Christian society, as the United States still generally is, the most popular solution to the religion/politics dilemma has been to regard affiliation to whatever church as a sign of generic virtue without enquiring too closely into particular beliefs. Recent elections, however, have seen candidates subjected to the unrelenting interrogation of every aspect of their life and character. The idea of religion as a private space, something between the candidate and his or her God (if any), has been a notable casualty of this increased scrutiny. But the intense focus on candidates' religion does not necessarily prove that religion has become a more significant factor in politics than it used to be.

Something to bear in mind, I think, is that the US Constitution, with its separation of church and state, is stronger than any one president. The president swears to uphold the constitution; the constitution is not there to uphold the president. Its checks and balances would make it impossible for any president to enforce a theocratic agenda, even if they had one.

As for Bachmann, I find her little joke about the hurricane oddly reassuring. I mean, would she have dared to say such a thing if she was a genuine believer in a thunderbolt-happy deity? Wouldn't she be afraid that God would be unamused and aim the next tornado directly at her?

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com