The NS Interview: Nancy Rothwell, vice-chancellor, Manchester University

“The cuts risk destroying things that can’t be brought back”

You must be delighted that two Manchester physicists have just won the Nobel Prize.
Everyone feels a great sense of pride. It means a huge amount that Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov's work has been recognised - it's the highest accolade in the scientific world. It's also a wonderful example of how the university supports research with major benefits for society.

Are you worried about how the forthcoming cuts will affect scientific research?
We are told that unprotected government departments will have, on average, a 25 per cent cut. We don't know how serious the situation will be, but I think it's going to be somewhere between very and exceptionally difficult.

Will the cuts cause long-term damage?
There is a danger of destroying things that can never be brought back, particularly in science. It means you have no PhD students coming through - but you don't just lose four or five years, you probably lose ten years, because of the knock-on effect.

Is there a risk of Britain falling behind?
Absolutely - many of our competitors are investing more in science, not just the US and Canada, but China, Germany, France. They are increasing their budgets at a time when it looks as if the budget in the UK will be declining.

Lord Browne's review of tuition fees is also due soon. Are you anxious about its impact?
It depends on the model - whether it's a graduate tax, an increase in fees or a lift of the cap. There is great concern that there will be significant groups of very talented students who won't be able to afford university.

Was there a moment in childhood when you became fascinated by science?
My father was a biology lecturer - when I was five or six, I saw pictures in his books. Apparently I wrote an essay then saying I wanted to be a scientist. But I nearly chose to go into art.

Do you think the division between art and science in our education system is too strict?
I don't like the separation - it leads to the view that arts are creative and interesting and science is difficult and logical. The best scientists are extremely creative.

You specialised in neuroscience. To what extent do we understand the brain?
We know the basic wiring, but more difficult is understanding how we think and remember.

Will this understanding improve?
With modern imaging, we can look at functioning inside a living, thinking brain. So we are starting to unravel, for example, which bit of the brain tells us the way home.

Why did you decide to run a university?
My research is still running, I'm not giving it up. But if you enjoy being a scientist, it's because you like discovering things and solving problems. And that's what universities are there for: to educate, discover and solve.

Are there barriers facing women in science?
Yes. To be successful you need to have an international network, and that isn't possible for women caring for children. For some women, the lack of role models is daunting. I've been surprised how many people have spoken to me about the importance of having a woman leading the university.

Why do scientists come under such attack?
One of the fundamental difficulties is that any good scientist will say that most things that we believe, we still can't say we're certain of. And we do change our minds sometimes.

Do scientists do enough to defend their work?
I think scientists are often poor at communication. I don't know what happens to us when we become scientists, but we forget how to use normal words.

Are you politically engaged?
I think it's important that a university is non-political. I'm not particularly political. I was as a student - everybody's an extreme left-wing student - but less so now.

What does God mean to you?
To me, personally, something abstract that I don't believe in, but to other people a great deal, and I recognise that.

Should science and religion be seen as opponents?
Science works on proof and testing hypotheses, and I don't think religion can do that.

Is there, or has there ever been, a plan?
My only ambitions were to become a professor and to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Everything else came along and I thought, "That looks like an interesting thing to do."

Is there anything you regret?
Lots of things. I used to be very impulsive. One thing I've learned is to stop and think.

Are we all doomed?
I hope not.

Defining Moments

1956 Born near Preston, Lancashire
1976 Obtains first-class BSc in physiology, University of London
1994 Is awarded a chair in physiology at Manchester University
2003 Wins Pfizer Research Prize
2004 Is elected a fellow of the Royal Society
2005 Made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire
2010 Becomes vice-chancellor and president of Manchester University

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hopep to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.