During the dying months of my doing bioinformatics for a living, I attended a scientific conference in Scotland. I helped to run a few of the seminars there, but had nothing to do with their planning.
At one, I marched to the front during a student’s presentation and told a member of the audience to stop whittering and let the poor girl be heard. He turned out to be a full professor and the convener of the meeting, but he was still in the wrong. He wasn’t making a contribution; he was just gossiping with a colleague right in the middle of her talk. (My policy on departmental seminars always used to be that the more junior the speaker the more likely I was to turn up.)
Later on—when we were supposed to be doing so—I took part in the discussion myself. Between sessions, a director of a small consulting firm approached me. She asked me about some things I had said during the debate. At the end of our conversation I told her that I wouldn’t have a job in a year’s time and if she ever wanted to ask me questions for money then she should give me a call. Some months later, when she was at the Genome Campus to see someone more important, she popped into my office and we had a chat about stuff, though not specifically about my working for her.
Last year she asked if I would like to be part of a bid for a contract to advise the European Commission about e-science. I said yes, and I would have done so even if I hadn’t been looking at a bleak wedding-job-free winter. The consultancy won the contract. Because of this I have been doing some freelance work for them recently.
This week I’ve been in Brussels, helping with a workshop, after which a representative of the Commission asked me if I’d be interested in working directly for them on another small job. Even if I do this I won’t be a full-time employee of the EC by any means—I’m still available to take photographs—and I have been and will continue to encourage the Gnomes of Brussels to spend your money wisely. Indeed, for this latest potential contract they would like me to assess a project they have funded and tell them whether or not I think the results have been good value-for-money.
I’ve said before that my instinctive sympathy for the European Union has faded over the past few years. This is despite the EU funding me to go to grad school when the UK research councils couldn’t see the point of training a biologist to do physics with computers. After I graduated again, British academic employers then had to pay more for my skills than they would have if they’d wised up sooner. Now, the Eurocrats are getting to pick the brains whose construction they funded.
There have been many developments in the EU that have worried me and one of the last depressing experiences of the shutdown of the institute where I used to work was a deal-breaking problem with an EU-funded grant, the first serious one I’d ever won—a problem that should have been identified in advance by the people in the university administering the money.
But every time I have direct contact with the EU itself I’m seduced again. This isn’t just because they enrich me personally, but because the officials I meet are intelligent and reasonable people who deploy factual arguments and speak plain English (and plain German and plain French). It was pleasing to me that, when the subject of technical rivalry with the United States came up, attendees at this recent workshop expressed no anti-Americanism. Commission employees also seem to have excellent taste in clothes.
Conversely, I’ve said before that one of the main reasons for the failure of the UK Independence Party and other organisations that are in tune with the natural Euroscepticism of Brits is the bizarre behaviour of their public representatives. Many of them wouldn’t know evidence if it cuffed them and took them down to Europol headquarters for questioning and they talk about the World in xenophobic or unexamined pseudo-classical-liberal clichés. This isn’t true of all of them of course, but I do hope that my new source of income results in my annoying their supporters on the Net, British bloggertarians, more than I do already.