Seventh Annual POLSIS Postgraduate Colloquium

Please read below- an exciting event in the University of Birmingham’s POLSIS department.

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The cyber threat to the United Kingdom

GavGavin E L Hall is a Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Political Science & International Studies at the University of Birmingham. His main focus of research NATO’s role in the broadening security environment, especially cyber-security.  You can follow him on twitter @GavinELHall.

When the new government takes office in May 2015 one of the first tasks will be to initiate a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

The SDSR of 2010 introduced four Tier 1 threats to the United Kingdom. For the first time, threats emanating from both state and non-state actors in cyberspace were classified as a direct threat to the national security of the UK. Thus, in 2011 the UK Cyber Security Strategy was launched, and an update is likely to follow in 2016/17.

We will focus here on two aspects: the threat of cyber-attack and the threat of a cyber-incident.

Significant debate exists around issues of taxonomy within cyberspace, though the notion of an attack implies the use of violence and the ability to cause physical damage, whether to a human, a machine or infrastructure.

Any number of ‘what if’ scenarios exist and our impending doom might seem assured. However, intent and capability are not synonymous, and the actual potential for damage is largely overstated. Only three events in cyberspace can claim to have actually caused physical damage, and no human has ever died directly from such an event.

Operation Orchard in 2007 saw the Syrian radar station at Tall al-Abuad go offline, possibly via a kill-switch embedded in the software by the manufacturer, which allowed Israeli bombers to fly undetected and destroy the Deir ez-Zor nuclear reactor construction site. Whether this is a cyber-attack or not is hotly debated due to the time delay between the cyber-action and the damage caused.

In December 2014, the German IT Security Situation report highlighted an event at a metal foundry where a ‘cyber-attack’ had gained access to the plant’s control systems. As a result, a blast furnace was unable to be shut down, and an explosion occurred. Whether this was the intention behind the cyber-attack remains unclear and provokes debate on the nature of intent required to commit an act of violence, especially in the legal sense.

The standard illustration of a cyber-attack is the Stuxnet incident in Iran in 2010. A complex operation was launched that led to an engineer at the plant unwittingly installing a virus into the control system that caused the centrifuges at the nuclear processing plant at Natanz to spin in an unpredictable manner.

Initial claims suggested that the centrifuges were destroyed directly – however, Dmitri Alperovitch has recently argued that the Iranians actually destroyed the centrifuges themselves, as they believed them to be faulty. Like Operation Orchard, the time delay and role of direct destruction may well mean that not a single true cyber-attack has ever actually occurred.

The citizens of the UK, as well as companies, have experienced a number of cyber-incidents. However, the present language of the debate ensures that the problem remains within the framework of the military and the nation-state.

The yearly data breach reports from Verizon continually highlight that over 85% of cyber-incidents could be prevented by ensuring adequate passwords are set and that software has been updated to the latest model. Furthermore, a number of incidents require the user to have handed over information willingly, admittedly usually via duping.

In reality, the UK is vulnerable to cyber-incidents and a significant factor in this is the lack of effort the government has made to adequately pursue the premise behind Objectives 3 and 4 of the Cyber Security Strategy: to provide education for the populous to enhance security by knowledge.

A more informed public with clear information provided free of hyperbole and threat-inflation would provide the single biggest boost to cyber security.

The threat of cyber warfare and cyber-attack is severely overstated, as such an event would not take place in a political vacuum or indeed be possible to achieve. Hostile actions in cyberspace would almost certainly accompany traditional forms of conflict, such as used by Russia against Georgia, in 2008, and Ukraine. Therefore, the threat can be mitigated via traditional means of diplomacy and deterrence, and no specific vulnerability to a cyber-attack can be ascertained.

First Published on The Birmingham Brief 05/02/15

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Gender & the Research Excellence Framework: An Analysis of the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment (II)

by Fran Amery, Stephen Bates & Steve McKay

This is the second of two posts on gender and the Research Excellence Framework (you may also be interested in this post on what titles of outputs submitted to the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment tell us about (sub-)disciplinary trends).

In our first post, we used the REF submissions data in order to offer a new ‘survey’ of political scientists. We looked at the ratio of men to women across different universities, and with different levels of seniority. In this post, we focus more on the outcomes of the REF and, in particular, the association between the outcomes and the proportion of men and women in each submission.

Sizes of Submissions

The distribution by size of staff is quite skewed: half the institutions submitted to the REF contained one-quarter of the staff, while just the five largest submissions (KCL, Oxford, LSE, Warwick and Birmingham) also contained one-quarter of the staff. As can be seen in Table 1, there is therefore no apparent link between the size of submissions and the proportion of women included. So, for example, looking at this overall scale, it is not the case that women seem to be clustered in smaller submissions. This is important because, on average, smaller submissions tended to achieve lower overall results.

Table 1: Size Distribution

Table 2

Larger submissions tended to do relatively well, although not all those doing well were large. Figure 1 shows the association between size (and intensity as measured by HEFCE/HESA) and the overall GPA awarded. The size of each point on the graph reflects the size of the submission. The red points are those submitting 84% or more of their eligible staff – dividing the submissions into two groups – with the blue points submitting less than that. We have named the larger and higher achieving submissions in the chart.

Figure 1: Association between Submission Size & Grade Point Average

size_GPA

Unlike the 2008 RAE, it is not possible to link individual academics to particular publications (a bit annoying from our perspective). Instead, at the moment at least, we must rely on a more ‘ecological’ approach by looking at totals within each institution and their REF profiles.

Seniority & Outcomes

As can be seen in Figure 2, having more professors on the staff seemed to be linked to better overall outcomes (again the size of each point on the graph reflects the size of the submission).

Figure 2: Association between Grade Point Average & Professorial Rate

GPA_Profs

A simple ‘fit line’ is shown, but in reality the fit to the data is relatively weak. The r-squared is 20%, most of the points below the line are the smallest submissions, and the larger submissions mostly stand above the line (i.e. they do ‘better’ than the mere proportion of professors would suggest).

Women & Overall Outcomes

There is a very weak negative correlation between the proportion of women and the outcomes in terms of overall GPA (see Figure 3, r-sq=9%), but again this is not particularly informative as it stands. Once one small submission with a high female proportion is excluded there is no longer a statistically significant association between gender ratio and GPAs.

Figure 3: Association between GPA & Proportion of Women Submitted

GPA_women

Women & Types of Output

Having more women was slightly associated with a smaller proportion of books as outputs (see Figure 4). Even so, different institutions seem to have quite different proportions of books, even for the larger and better-rated submissions.

Figure 4: Association between Women & Proportion of Books

Books_women

Models of Overall Outcomes

In a multiple linear regression of the overall GPA, higher results were associated with avoiding chapters and edited books as outcomes, having fewer lecturers as a proportion of staff, and having more staff. The gender ratio was not statistically significant in such models.

Observations & Conclusions (with some being More Tentative than Others)

  • Submissions with more professors tended to score more highly, ignoring other factors.
  • Books were, on average, more likely to be rated as 4* outputs than other kinds of outputs, followed by journal articles (as explicitly stated in the REF Politics panel overview report).
  • There was a weak negative association between women and the proportion of books submitted. However, it must be stressed that the emphasis here is on ‘weak’, and data at an individual level (on outputs) would be more informative than the ecological data being used in this post. It is hoped that future work will allow us to focus on the individual level so that we have a better picture of what, if anything, is going on in this regard.
  • It is highly plausible that any link between gender and outcomes is being driven by differences in seniority and possibly also by differences in publications profile (i.e. the extent to which men and women are more or less likely to publish monographs, articles, chapters, etc). This is hopefully what our future work will be able to tell us so please watch this space.

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Gender & the Research Excellence Framework: An Analysis of the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment (I)

Ever wondered about the gendered dimensions of the REF returns and rankings for the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment? Well wonder no longer.

by Fran Amery, Stephen Bates & Steve McKay

1320 people were submitted to the Politics & International Studies Unit of Assessment of REF 2014. Of these, 929 were men, 387 were women with 4 not known*. This means that, excluding not knowns, 29.4% of those submitted to the REF were female, a slightly lower percentage than the percentage of UK-based female political scientists in Bates et al.‘s 2011 survey of the profession (see Table 1).

Table 1: Number & percentage of male & female political scientists submitted to REF 2014 & in 2011 Survey

Male Female Overall2

Tables 2 and 3 show breakdowns of these statistics in terms of job title and gender**.

Table 2: Numbers of Male & Female Political Scientists by Job Title and in Total, 2011 Survey & 2014 REF (% in Brackets)

M & F by Job Title

Table 3: Job title by number of male or female political scientists and in total, 2011 Survey & 2014 REF (% in bracket)

Job Title by M&F

These figures suggest that the reason why the percentage of female political scientists submitted to the REF was lower than the 2011 survey is because women are more likely to occupy positions that meant they were unable to be submitted (e.g. they were teaching fellows, etc.), rather than because they were less likely to be chosen. The figures also appear to show that there has been an increase in the number of female professors since 2011 but that there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in the number of male professors. 65 female and 369 male professors were recorded in the 2011 Survey; 87 female and 361 male were submitted to the 2014 REF. This means that 19% of professors submitted to the REF were female (compared to 15% of professors recorded in the 2011 Survey).

It is also perhaps interesting to note the figures for institutions which have moved towards using the more US-leaning titles of Assistant and Associate Professors, rather than Lecturers and Senior Lecturers (the figures are included in the equivalent job category in the Tables above). While numbers are small, some 87% of assistant professors were male (much higher than for lecturers), as were 65% of associate professors (about the same ratio as for senior lecturers).

In terms of individual institutions, the institutions which submitted the highest percentage of female political scientists to the REF (although sometimes with a small total number of people submitted) were: St Mary’s University College; Lincoln; Oxford Brookes; and Surrey. The institutions which submitted the lowest percentage of female political scientists were: Cardiff; Robert Gordon (both of which submitted no female political scientists); Essex; and Swansea (see Table 4).

Table 4: Number & percentage of female returnees to the REF by institution

Percentage & Number of REF Female by Institution

Of those institutions for which we had both sets of data (n=53), 9% submitted the same percentage of female political scientists as the percentage recorded in the 2011 survey (highlighted in green), 45% submitted a greater percentage (yellow), and 45% submitted a lower percentage (blue; see Table 5).

Table 5: Comparison of 2011 survey & 2014 REF in terms of % female political scientists

Comparison 2011 & 2014 by institution 1 Comparison 2011 & 2014 by institution 2

Table 6 shows a ranking of institutions in terms of the Seniority Sex Gap (SSG)^ for those scholars returned to the REF. A positive rating means the average female political scientist is more senior than the average male political scientist; a negative rating means the opposite. It shows that, taking all institutions into account, the average female political scientist returned to the REF holds a position just under a third lower than their male counterpart does. On this rating mechanism, the average male political scientist has a seniority rating of 3.07 (just over a senior lecturer/reader), while the average female political scientist has a seniority rating of 2.73 (just over a quarter under a senior lecturer/reader).

Table 6: Seniority Sex Gap by Institution

Seniority Sex Gap by Institution

This is the first of two blog posts on gender & the REF. The next one will look at the various rankings of the REF.


* Data on the gender and job title of the person submitted to the REF was collected using websearches of university and other relevant websites. This data was collected between the 1st and 6th February 2015 which means that the job title recorded may be different to when the person was submitted to the REF. Thanks to Darcy Luke for collecting this data.

** All the following figures excludes the not knowns.

^ The average seniority for male and female political scientists is produced by, first, giving a weighting to each category of job title (1 = Teaching/Research Fellow, or equivalent; 2 = Lecturer/Senior Research Fellow, or equivalent; 3 = Senior Lecturer/Reader, or equivalent; and 4 = Professor, or equivalent). The sums of each weighting multiplied by the number of male or female political scientists in the corresponding category of job title is then divided by the total number of male or female political scientists to produce a rating for both female and male political scientists. It is not possible to offer comparisons with the findings of the 2011 survey because a slightly different methodology was used to produce the figures for the REF.

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A Corpus-Based Analysis of REF Output Titles for Politics and International Studies*

Have you ever wondered what the titles of outputs submitted to the REF tell us about disciplinary trends, foci and boundaries? Well, thanks to the wonder of corpus linguistics and Laurence Anthony‘s AntConc, wonder no longer.

Dr Stephen Bates is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham

Table 1 shows us a ranking of the 100 most popular words used in titles of work submitted to the 2014 REF and 2008 RAE for the Politics & International Studies panel**.  As can be seen and as would probably be expected, the same grammatical words – the, and, of, in and a – occupy the first five places in the same order for both rankings (s is there because of ‘apostrophe-S'; eu is there because the method treats all data as lower case). After that, we can see the kinds of lexical words that, again, we would probably expect to see in a list of popular words with political scientists and IR scholars. So, lots of titles have the words politics, political, policy, international, European, war, theory and power (including this little beauty) in them. These lists are able to tell us a lot about the perennial concerns of the discipline but they aren’t able to tell us very much about growing and declining areas of interest.

Table 1: REF & RAE Politics Word Lists (Sorry for the break in the middle of the table. I couldn’t work out how to insert the whole table at once – the same goes for the other tables below).

Politics Wordlist 1 Politics Wordlist 2

Analysing (sub-)disciplinary trends can be achieved through comparing the word lists in Table 1 to produce rankings of keywords for both the 2014 REF and the 2008 RAE. These rankings can be found in Table 2 which lists the top 100 keywords for each. Keywords are words which are unusually frequent, or infrequent, in one collection of words, or corpus, in comparison to another^.

Table 2: REF & RAE Keyword Rankings

Politics Keyword 1 Politics Keyword 2

So, if we compare the keywords for the 2014 REF with the 2008 RAE, we find that Obama, financial, austerity and crisis are ranked highly. Again, this is what we would probably expect to see given the timing (and the importance) of the global financial crisis, austerity measures and the election of Barack Obama. Yet, beyond these expected keywords, these rankings can help us to identify some interesting – well, I think they’re interesting – possible trends within the discipline:

  • Although not appearing very frequently in titles, the high ranking of both experiment and spatial in the 2014 REF list may suggest the growing importance of particular methods and theories to the discipline in the UK. The relatively high ranking of philosophy in the 2008 RAE list may indicate a decline in interest (or that political philosophers were submitted to the Philosophy sub-panel).
  • We are no longer as concerned with globalisation/globalization as we were in 2008 or, at least, we now call it something different and/or don’t refer to it in our titles
  • The same can be said for technology, industry, things that are communist, and diplomacy, while we’ve become more interested in things to do with the climate, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism.
  • In terms of geography, Afghanistan, GreeceChina, Ecuador, Somalia, Rwanda and India have shot up our list of concerns, whereas we’ve become less interested in GermanyAsia (or at least the bits of Asia that are not China, India and Afghanistan), Estonia, Chile, Mozambique and Canada.
  • Things European are now not so prominent or important as they were in 2008 (Europa, European, Europe and EMU  all appear in the top 100 keywords for RAE 2008, although European remains very high in the REF 2014 word list ranking).
  • We now talk more often of capitalisms than we used to.
  • We have turned to Polanyi more often since 2008, presumably to understand the crisis and its aftermath.
  • We do not turn to Rawls as often as we used to.
  • We are now more interested in the left than in Labour.
  • A focus on gender is becoming an increasingly important element of the discipline.
  • The presence of und, der and (maybe) die in the 2008 list suggests that we do not publish as much work in German as we used to.
  • The presence of Judith and Friedrich but not (presumably) Butler and Nietzsche/Engels suggests we’re becoming politer as a discipline, and/or is simply a reflection that our titles are getting longer (the average length of a title submitted to the 2014 REF and 2008 RAE was 10.7 words and 9.9 words respectively).

Table 3 compares the 2014 REF Politics word list to the 2014 Economics and 2014 Sociology word lists. As would be expected, the keyness figures are much higher in these rankings than when comparing the REF Politics to the RAE Politics and most of the keywords are words that you would expect to find in such a list, relating, as they do, to typical disciplinary concerns (for example, war, security, party, EU, democracy for Politics and IR; market(s), growth, price, wage, inflation for Economics; and life, family, work, urban, class, household for Sociology). There are, however, some more interesting inclusions and omissions, particularly when comparing economics to political science and vice versa:

  • Noticeable at the top of the Politics-compared-to-Economic/Sociology and Sociology-compared-to-Politics rankings are politics and the political, and sociology and the social respectively. Noticeable by its absence at the top of the Economics-compared-to-Politics ranking are economics and economic. This appears to be both because political science and sociology focus on economics in a way that economics does not on politics and sociology and because economics does not talk about itself in the same way as the other disciplines do. Thus, for example, while economic and economics are mentioned 83 times and 7 times in political science titles respectively (compared to 56 times and 14 times in economics titles), politics and political are mentioned 5 times and 31 times in economics titles (compared to 406 times and 381 times in political science titles).
  • The appearance of crisis and capitalism (and maybe also neo and liberalism) in the top 100 Politics-compared-to-Economics keywords is perhaps surprising. Indeed, capitalism is not mentioned in any economics title at all (although capital is mentioned 55 times).
  • The inclusion of words such as evidence, models, equilibrium and games at the top of the Economics-compared-to-Politics list without a corresponding list of theoretical/methodological-type words at the top of the Politics-compared-to-Economics list suggests that political science as a discipline is pluralist and diverse in a way that economics is not.
  • Although bioethics is increasingly important for political scientists, sociologists remain much more likely to use words related to biotechnology in their titles (for example, genetic(s), stem, cell, biology).
  • The presence of Bourdieu in the Sociology-compared-to-Politics ranking suggests that political scientists still cannot, or do not want to, find a use for him in their work, or at least do not want to shout about using him in their titles (only one person did so).
  • In comparison with both economists and sociologists, political scientists like to use the and apostrophes in their titles.
  • In comparison with political scientists, economists like to use with in their titles.

Table 3: REF Politics, Economics & Sociology Keyword Rankings

Pol Econ Soc Keyword 1Pol Econ Soc Keyword 2Pol Econ Soc Keyword 3

Bis bald.


* This analysis was undertaken by: (1) removing as many duplicate titles as possible (it was not possible to remove all because some titles submitted twice were listed using different punctuation and/or combinations of upper and lower case letters); (2) saving all remaining titles submitted as outputs to REF 2014 and RAE 2008 to plain text files; and then (3) using the wordlist and keyword tools on AntConc, a freeware corpus analysis toolkit for concordancing and text analysis, designed by Prof. Laurence Anthony of  Waseda University Japan.

** The total number of different words, or word types, used in titles submitted to the 2014 REF and the 2008 RAE were 6708 and 6767 respectively. A full list of the word types and keywords are available on request.

^ Using Log Likelihood as the statistical measure, the following significance values apply:

  • 95th percentile; 5% level; p < 0.05; critical value = 3.84
  • 99th percentile; 1% level; p < 0.01; critical value = 6.63
  • 99.9th percentile; 0.1% level; p < 0.001; critical value = 10.83
  • 99.99th percentile; 0.01% level; p < 0.0001; critical value = 15.13

See page 7 of here and also here for more.

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Do Local Authorities Really Want Sustainable Construction Powers?

National planning policy and building regulations have undergone considerable reform in recent years. The latest incarnation is embodied in the Housing Standards Review, (HSR) published in 2014. The HSR sought to consolidate the plethora of standards into national building regulations whilst making it harder to local authorities (LAs) to introduce standards that supplement these national regulations in response to local needs or priorities. One area where local powers have been significantly curtailed by the HSR is in the sustainability and energy efficiency of homes.

Since the publication of Building A Greener Future and the Supplement to the Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change in 2007, LAs have been able to set local standards on building sustainability to reflect local needs and priorities. Although options are provided in the HSR for local standard setting in a number of areas to supplement the revamped building regulations, this isn’t one of those. The extent to which sustainable construction targets can be set locally has thus been significantly curtailed. The response was predictably fierce. The Association for the Conservation for Energy remarked on the ‘political naivety’ and ‘shortsightedness’ associated with the decision. A report of the Environmental Audit Committee from November 2013 suggests that ‘this decision bulldozes local choice in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach designed to benefit developers who want to build homes on the cheap’.

Yet what do local authorities themselves think? The evidence actually points towards local authorities being against the idea of local standard setting in the area of energy-efficiency in buildings.

When asked in the HSR consultation whether sustainable construction standards should be incorporated into National Building Regulations (thus restricting local choice) an overwhelming number of local authorities responded in favor (46 of 69 responses). When asked their views on whether local authorities should have the powers to set ‘Merton Rule’ type policies (which mandate the minimum renewable energy use in a building) ‘a number of local planning authorities are also in favour of a review [of the Merton Rule type policies], who do not see a role for planning in decisions about the energy performance of houses’.

What’s more, as part of my on-going research into this area I have surveyed all local English local authorities. Only 50% have embraced the standard setting powers that they have had up until the HSR, and even then there are serious concerns over whether those local standards are being enforced thoroughly.

An obvious question that arises from this is why? Why do local authorities propose a national Building Regulations led approach to sustainable construction standards? In the course of my research two factors have been raised.

First, there are considerable costs associated with rewriting Local Plans and many local authorities feel that the national debate on sustainable construction is in such flux that to expend resources on incorporating local standards is risky given that the national policy framework may change mid-way through, requiring a new local plan. This has happened in Harrogate Borough Council which, having introduced stringent sustainability standards into their local plan in 2009, was forced to begin the process anew after technical changes published in the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework undermined their whole plan.

Second, many local authorities realise that although local authorities are ideally placed to raise the sustainability of buildings. However, they are subject to strong external pressures from developers that prioritise growth over sustainability and lack the necessary internal capacity (whether in terms of expertise, institutional norms, pro-environment policy networks or dominant discourse favouring ecologism) to overcome these forces. On that basis many consider any local powers a waste, because they can’t be fully exploited.

We must not therefore be alarmist when we look at the HSR and its curtailment of local powers. It is by no means perfect; the extent to which the sustainability and environmental standards of homes can be raised in the future is largely down to how the Building Regulations are going to be reformed and there are doubts that it will go far enough in this regard. Nevertheless, the evidence points towards local authorities favouring a national approach. We should listen to and respect this view, and try to understand why they think like this at all. Only then can we hope to do anything about it.

2014-03-11 18.43.34Max Lempriere is a third year PhD student in POLSIS at the University of Birmingham. His research interests include the politics of planning and construction, local government innovation and ecological modernisation.

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Depoliticisation and the Father’s Clause in Parliamentary debates

Image

University of Birmingham POLSIS academics

Dr Stephen Bates, Dr Laura Jenkins and Fran Amery, use work on in vitro fertilisation to think through depoliticisation. 

Originally posted on May 19th at Policy and Politics Journal Blog

Depoliticisation, in simple terms, involves disavowing political responsibility, or persuading the public that one is no longer responsible for particular decisions, with the result that deliberation and choice are restricted. Crucially, as the literature has identified, choices are still being made – e.g. politicians may retain mechanisms for indirect control – but they are concealed.

Studies of (de)politicisation often conceptualise it as a function of government and tend to focus on economic and monetary policy (a classic example is the devolution of monetary policy to the Bank of England). Our article argues that (de)politicisation may occur outside of formal governmental arenas and should not be regarded simply as a form of statecraft. Specifically, we explore in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and the parliamentary debates surrounding the addition and eventual removal of the Father’s Clause of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Acts.

Our first point is that new reproductive technologies such as IVF may themselves be seen as politicising, allowing greater intervention into areas of life previous considered subject to fate, and thereby expanding the capacity for the exercise of human agency. This is not to suggest that human reproduction was never touched by social intervention before IVF – surrogacy, for example, has existed for almost as long as recorded human history – but the birth of Louise Brown, the first ‘test-tube baby’, in 1978 brought with it unprecedented new possibilities. IVF involves the creation of an embryo outside the female body without the need for sexual intercourse, and consequently allows for new distinctions to be drawn between biological and social parenthood.

In some senses, subsequent political debates on IVF may be conceptualised as reactions to its politicising potential. Partially owing to its controversy, there was a substantial time lag between the birth of Louise Brown and the eventual regulation of IVF, but the latter came in 1990 in the form of the HFE Act, which also covered other issues surrounding treatment of the embryo such as stem cell research. While the issue of embryo research came to dominate parliamentary debate on the HFE Act, another prominent issue was the welfare of any child created by IVF, in particular the child’s ‘need for a father’.

As a result of two amendments successfully appended by the Conservative MP David Wilshere, the eventual Act required ‘a child’s need for a father’ to be taken into account before treatment, potentially barring same-sex couples and single women from accessing IVF (although the effect that this ultimately had on clinical practice is debateable). In parliamentary debate, the need for this clause was justified in terms of the need to maintain ‘natural’, ‘normal’ and ‘common-sense’ – that is, traditional – family forms, and not to ‘upset the natural order of things’. This, we argue, represents a depoliticising reaction to the politicising potential of reproductive technologies, rejecting the possibilities for increased human agency and choice these technologies open up, and attempting to conceal the contingent nature of traditional family forms.

In 2008, after a review of the regulation surrounding human reproductive technologies, the Father’s Clause was removed from the Act. A number of amendments to the 2007 Draft Bill were tabled proposing the re-introduction of explicit reference to the need for a father, but these were rejected in favour of an amendment which simply expressed ‘the need for supportive parenting’. In the article, we argue that this represents a formal repoliticisation, once again opening up the possibility of a plurality of family forms and challenging traditional understandings of gender roles and reproduction. However, this repoliticisation is only a partial one – the parliamentary debate was premised on essentialist assumptions about gender, and the potential harmful effects of IVF were not debated.

While the article focuses on IVF, in particular its potential to challenge traditional understandings of the family, there are obvious parallels to other areas in which doctors and scientists may be perceived as ‘playing God’ or ‘interfering with nature’. We might expect to see similar depoliticising responses to other areas of human life in which new technologies – reproductive or otherwise – have opened up new possibilities for the exercise of human agency, or exposed the contingent nature of traditional or ‘common-sense’ ways of doing things: genetic engineering, human enhancement and sex reassignment therapy, to name a few.

The full article  on the subject – (De)politicisation and the Father’s Clause parliamentary debates – along with the rest of the special issue of Policy & Politics on depoliticisation, is available free in Policy and Politics throughout May.

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