George Osborne tours the labs researching graphene at Manchester. Photo: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images
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EU membership is crucial to Britain’s science excellence

Osborne can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes; if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated.

Last month top people from science and industry assembled in Manchester to work out how to start the long-awaited graphene revolution.

In essence, graphene is a sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal pattern, an atomic arrangement that gives the material highly desirable properties, such as almost unparalleled electrical conductivity and a strength tens of times that of steel. The material is flexible, super-thin (each sheet is just one atom thick), light and transparent, a combination of properties that makes graphene a potentially revolutionary material for the electronics and mobile-phone industries, among others.

In 2004 two researchers at the University of Manchester, Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov, discovered how to make graphene using a graphite pencil and a piece of sticky tape. It looked as if we had an easy technological win on our hands. Geim and Novoselov were knighted, they won a Nobel prize, and the UK government poured £60m into the Manchester-based National Graphene Institute, opened by George Osborne in March.

The Chancellor had already announced that the NGI would have a sibling: the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre. This will have a similar budget, sit alongside the NGI in Manchester and enable graphene-based products to be “fast-tracked from the drawing board to the market”, as the Treasury press release put it.

Easier said than done. In some ways discovery has been the easy bit: most of the work lies in finding ways to mass-produce the material and incorporate it. So far, few people – if any – are making money from graphene.

A glance at the agenda for last month’s assembly makes that clear. More than a decade after the material was discovered, dedicated experts are still talking about “Getting graphene to market”, “Emerging trends and opportunities”, “Bridging the gap from lab potential to commercial reality” and, perhaps most important for British science, “Graphene in the European Union: future and emerging technologies”.

With a referendum on this country’s membership of the EU now a certainty, it is important to recognise that great facilities are useless unless put to use by people with rich ideas and creative imagination. Britain has more than its fair share of fine minds, but the UK is so good at science these days because its scientists are able to collaborate with the best in the world – many of whom are working in other EU countries.

It’s not jingoistic to say that Britain is a scientific powerhouse. These shores produce 16 per cent of the world’s highest-quality research yet they host just 1 per cent of the world’s population. EU funding comes “on the basis of scientific excellence”, according to the policy documents, and British science clearly is excellent: it pays into the pot of EU science money but gets back £1.40 for every £1 it contributes.

If we leave Europe because of the referendum, we stand to lose more than just money. Collaboration will become a problem. European Research Council funding requires projects to involve researchers from three different EU member (or associate) states. Today, good science is almost always collaborative: over one-third of the best journal papers result from international collaborations.

George Osborne has been relatively benign towards science up to now and makes no secret of his sense that scientific research underpins a strong economy. The stance on Europe taken by some members of his party threatens that. He can fund the creation of big institutes all he likes, but if Britain left the EU, our scientists would be left isolated, without influence or funding. And no wonder material on earth will change that.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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