The March for Science: advocacy masterstroke or PR misfire?

Last night made my way to an upstairs room at The Castle pub near Farringdon to participate in a debate organised by Stempra on the forthcoming March for Science.

March for Science debate
The panel (Photo by Anastasia Stefanidou)

The question before the panel and the assembled audience was whether the call to arms, first issued by scientists in the USA but now heard and answered across the globe, is an “advocacy masterstroke or PR misfire”. In truth, there was not much actual debate, though there was plenty of discussion. The panel, consisting of myself, Fiona Fox (director of the Science Media Centre), and environmental science writer and campaigner Mark Lynas, broadly agreed that the march is a good thing, albeit for different reasons and with different qualifications – and we’ll all be marching in London on Saturday. Here below, for what they are worth, are the opening remarks that I prepared.

For other interesting takes on the March for Science, I can recommend this article by Michael Halpern and Ed Yong’s interview with Hahrie Han, a social scientist who studies activism.

“When I first heard about the March for Science in London I was extremely lukewarm about the whole idea. 

I could see the point of Americans marching for science, given the threats posed by the Trump administration – both to evidence-based policy on issues like climate change and vaccination, and to the science budget. 

Those threats are hard to judge given the wayward nature of Trump’s administration. He has shown himself to be ham-fistedly ineffectual, both on his travel ban from countries with large Muslim populations, and the attempt to overturn Obamacare. Even so, if I were working in the USA right now, I would not have hesitated to sign up in support because there are specific policies to protest. 

But I did wonder about the spill-over of the protest to the UK and the rest of the world. I could see why the March for Women, initiated in the US also in reaction to Trump, had rapidly spread to the rest of the world – because the issues of women’s rights and gender equality are ones that are very much alive – in many forms – across the globe.  

But although I am a scientist – and therefore very pro-science! – I didn’t immediately see the point of the march for science in the UK. (I can’t speak for the rest of the world). 

It’s not that I’m one of those researchers whose focus is entirely on my research. I’ve campaigned before for science. I was one of the founder members of Science is Vital and helped organise our rally to protest against the threat of cuts to the science budget back in 2010 – and on several other occasions since then. 

We’re a very small and entirely amateur organisation (though hopefully not too amateurish!), so we are mindful to concentrate our efforts. And to do that we rather deliberately concentrate our messaging, which has almost always been about making the case for public investment in R&D. And to that end, we have tried to tailor our campaigns so that they are heard by politicians and I think we’ve had some success in doing that. 

But what is the point of the march for science? The political point, I mean? What are the aims? As stated on the web-site, these are:

“The March for Science celebrates publicly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to support science that upholds the common good, and political leaders and policymakers who enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.”

Well, who could be against that? The organisers’ statement is at once the march’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. 

It’s broad enough and vague enough to accommodate all-comers. Hopefully (and I am mostly a hopeful person), it is roomy enough to find place for the diversity of voices within the scientific community and those who feel peripheral to it or even excluded (though that could well be wishful thinking on my part). I know there has been lots of discussion about failings on diversity and inclusion by the US organisers but, the UK organisers appear to me to have done a better job. There seems to me to be a decent mix of speakers for the London march and I hope that from them – and from the placards brought by marchers – a diversity of voices and viewpoints will be heard. We’ll see…

But by being so broad and so vague, the organisers avoid asking some of the hard questions that come up when the gears of science and politics mesh (or crash, depending on who’s driving). On their web-site the organisers have mentioned to the concerns about the emergence of “post-truth” or “post-fact” types of public discourse in the EU referendum and in Trump’s election campaign. That’s certainly worth protesting, but the follow-up questions are hard. 

For example, should we regulate the media more forcibly than we do to ensure that they are factual? Or does that play into the hands of those who are all too ready to cry “fake news”? Should we insist that scientists volunteer to do more spots on the Today programme? How far should scientists stray into the political domain, and how far outside their field of expertise should they be allowed to speak? Does speaking out compromise their scientific integrity? It certainly opens them to attack – as any climate scientist will tell you. 

I think all of these questions have answers (and I hope we’ll get to some of them in the discussion). The answers aren’t easy and they involve issues that we probably need to keep constantly under review. 

I don’t think these questions will be addressed in the march on Saturday. Marching is a rather blunt instrument for democratic discourse. 

And these aren’t even all the questions that we need to be asking about science. I think there’s another debate to be had about how much the public should be enabled to influence the science that they fund. That was one of the disconnects that emerged most strongly in my mind in the painful aftermath of the EU referendum. To me, inequality is the single most important issue facing Britain today – in education, in employment, in healthcare – and it is one that is not being touched by all the hullaballoo over Brexit. And yet it once was. It was one of the issues that seeded movements like Science for the People in the US or the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, which brought scientists and the public together in the 1970s to try to find ways to do science that was relevant to people’s lives. (For more background on these movements, see Alice Bell’s article in Mosaic).

Now, I’m not suggesting that science doesn’t touch people’s lives in many different and important ways today – clearly it does, and that’s worth shouting about. But there is a sense of powerlessness out there, felt by many people. And I wonder what science and scientists can or should do to address that? 

So, I see the march for science as that quintessentially scientific thing: an experiment. An experiment that may well fail, that may have to be repeated with improved methods, or to test a modified hypothesis. But an experiment that is still worth trying because it makes you think and, I hope, will get people talking.” 


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Grim resolve at the House of Commons on the scientific priorities for Brexit

On Tuesday morning last week MPs, MEPs, and representatives of various organisations with a stake in post-Brexit UK science gathered in the Churchill Committee room at the House of Commons for the launch of  the “Scientific priorities for Brexit” report, published by Stephen Metcalfe MP, chair of the Commons select committee on science and technology.

Science Priorities for BrexitVenki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, addresses the meeting in the Churchill Room.

The report, released under the auspices of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, is the result of widespread consultation with universities, learned societies, campaign groups and industrialists. It pulls into sharp focus the principal challenges raised by Brexit and sets out priorities for the British negotiators who will have to hammer out an exit deal with the EU over the next 18 months, and for the government’s domestic R&D policy.

The recommendations are split into four key areas. First and foremost are the rights of EU nationals working in the UK R&D sector – at all levels.

It was heartening to see people identified as the central concern. However, the recent failure of Parliament to pass an amendment to the Article 50 bill which would have guaranteed their residency rights nationwide hung over the room like a grey cloud. It was in my opinion a callow piece of political miscalculation,  a view that I do not hold alone. At the meeting Labour MEP Clare Moody relayed the views of UK nationals living in the EU whom she’d spoken to. All were clear in their belief that it would in fact be their interests  for the UK government to behave honourably with regards to EU nationals living in Britain.

The remaining three areas are investment in research and innovation, collaboration and networks, and regulation and trade. In brief, the report emphasises the importance of finding some way to maintain access to EU funding mechanisms, the immense value of the multilateral collaborative networks that the EU is so good at fostering, and the need to ensure that the UK remains at the leading edge of developing regulatory frameworks to facilitate trans-national science and trade.

I won’t go into further details because the summary statement is succinct (and supported by a longer evidence report) – and because I have covered some of this ground before. But I want to reiterate the point that the government’s current and welcome commitment to underwrite UK participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme will not be sufficient to protect UK-based researchers looking to forge long-term collaborations in the EU. This is because their European colleagues cannot have confidence in the ability of their British partners to continue to collaborate on funding applications made post-Brexit. The Chancellor’s announcement in the Autumn statement of significant new money for UK research and innovation over the next four years is certainly encouraging – as indeed is the CBI’s new-found enthusiasm for a total UK R&D spending target of 3% of GDP (re-iterated at the meeting) – but the government needs to go faster and further. In particular, it needs to articulate clear plans for shoring up Britain’s international research prospects beyond 2020.

Those prospects seem to take a hit every time one of the more thoughtless Brexiteers opens his mouth. Boris Johnson has been upbraided for his wayward rhetoric on Britain ‘liberating’ itself from the EU. And this past week Bill Cash MP surprised the European Scrutiny Select Committee by suggesting that UK negotiators should remind the EU of the cancellation of German debt after World War 2. Such arrogant pronouncements, coupled with the fact that Brexit has been dubbed ‘Empire 2.0’ in the corridors of Whitehall, serve only to confirm the impression that Brexit is driven by an ignorant and backward-looking vision of Britain and its history. They are squandering the good will forged over many years thanks research collaborations and many other joint activities between Britain and the EU.

But it’s not just the image of Brexit, put about by the likes of Johnson and Cash, that is the problem. While it was encouraging last Tuesday to see politicians come together from across the political spectrum to fight for science in the forthcoming negotiations, the mood in the plush surroundings of the Churchill Committee room was one of grim resolve. The difficulties we face are deep-rooted because of the way that Brexit rips through the international fabric of science, plunging us in a direction that takes us away from our colleagues, from our collaborations, and from greater purpose. I thought by this stage I would be less angry. But I’m not, and this fight goes on.

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Science, art and Art

Last week I attended the award ceremony of the Wellcome Image Awards. Every time I go to this event I tell myself I’ll submit an entry for the following year, but somehow I never manage to get a submission organised. I suspect my opportunities are dwindling because the standard of entries seems to be getting higher and higher.

Rita Levi-Montalcini

The competition is often dominated by images from microscopy. Many of these are beautiful and arresting but this year I was pleased to see more entries that were more self-consciously artistic – with a capital ‘A’. They told stories rather than simply creating eye-catching abstractions from cells or biomolecules captured in microscopes, and I say that as someone who has worked in the molecular realm for the whole of his research career and made efforts to convey the strange appeal of studying life at the level of the atom.

My favourite piece in this year’s competition is the digital painting of Rita Levi-Montalcini by Russian artist Daria Kirpach. Levi-Montalcini, an Italian Jew, was forced to work in secret during the Mussolini regime. After the end of World War II she moved to continue her research in the USA and was jointly awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovering nerve growth factor (NGF). Her life and her life’s work – and her elegant style of dress – are rendered with graceful simplicity in Kirpach’s portrait.

However, the competition judges were of a different mind and selected a haunting rendition of Crohn’s Disease called “Stickman” as the overall winner. But I am happy to concede that it too is a powerful work of Artistry.

Of course, your tastes may differ too. Have a look for yourself. You can see all 22 entries  on Wellcome’s web-site – and vote for your favourite.


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Interview with the author

Those of you who have read all 346 posts on my Reciprocal Space blog will have no need to read this one. You probably already have a sense of what I do and what I’m like – my science, my hobbies, my hobby-horses, and my foibles.

But on the off chance that you’re new here, or are a faithful reader who just can’t get enough, here is an interview I did with The Free Think Tank. I say ‘interview’ though this was no Michael Parkinson affair. There was no cosy tête-à-tête in comfy armchairs. Instead, it was pure Web2.0 – they sent me an email with questions, I wrote my replies, and they posted the whole thing online, prefaced by a short introduction and illustrated with a photo taken of me at the EBI last year which refutes the hypothesis that black shirts make me look slim.

Stephen Curry speaking at the EBI in 2016Does my tum look big in this? 

I figured there was no point in doing the interview without giving honest answers, so I tried to be candid, even if I couldn’t prevent myself straying from seriousness from time to time. These things are all a matter of taste but I think my interview is definitely funnier than the ones with Jim Al-Khalili and Athene Donald, though probably not as comedic as Dean Burnett’s

Whether it’s more informative or inspirational to younger minds, I will leave for you to decide.


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Status Report – February 2017

I said when I started this blog in 2008 that I would not promise to post regularly, so as to avoid the endless repetition of apologies for failing to write. And I’m not about to start apologising now, even though the regularity of my posting is not what it once was – not even close. But I’m disappointed that I seem to have got out of the habit and I’d like to turn that around. 

I’ve been busy, you see. I know it’s a boring and commonplace excuse. I know we’re all busy – and, believe me, I try not to trot out that answer whenever anyone starts up a casual conversation with “How are things?”, but here I am in mid-February and only now have I a moment to pause and have a look around at 2017. 

I’m not going to go into all the details tonight but in the past couple of weeks there has been — among other things — the all-too-common academic treadmill of exam marking (a pile of scripts to be second-marked still awaits me in the office) and a slew of grant proposals to be graded for an upcoming panel of the European Research Council. That was a lot more interesting that marking exams which – no offence to my students – is a very repetitive task, but I’ll talk about that another time since it takes me into the topic of research evaluation, which has become something of a hobby horse. 

While on that horse I was also recently occupied helping to prepare the announcement of the news that Imperial College has signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment – something I’ve been campaigning for more or less since the initiative was launched back in 2013. Again I’ll have more to say on that subject another night. Soon, I hope. 

And speaking of campaigns, Science is Vital is currently pressing government and parliament to ensure that, whatever happens in the Brexit negotiations, the UK fights to keep close and productive research relationships with the EU (including funding mechanisms if at all possible) and protects the rights of EU nationals working as researchers in this country. The plans for our lobby a couple of weeks ago gobbled up more chunks of time in early 2017.

Science is Vital Lobby - Jan 2017We might be smiling but inside we’re crying. Brexit – what a shambles. 

The lobby itself was great, but in some ways also a disappointment. Andrew Steele and I wrote up an account for Robin Ince’s new Cosmic Shambles site and I scribbled another one for the SiV blog. What was great was the passion on show from the supporters, about thirty of them, who turned up to plead with MPs. But we had struggled to rally the numbers we needed to button-hole every single parliamentarian and the woeful performance of Parliament in the debates over the Article 50 Bill only reinforced the scale of the task ahead.

I thought I’d be getting the hang of Brexit by now but find I’m just getting more and more angry at the reckless stupidity of it all. I’ve tried to seek out Leave voters on Twitter who can point me to the upsides of Brexit and drawn a series of blanks. Scientifically, economically, socially, this is just the wrong direction for this country. Last Saturday night I went with my family to to Bridget Christie’s angry, funny Edinburgh show about Brexit and to see her spitting and spluttering with artful incredulity about it all was cathartic – but only for a while. I think I’m going to spend the rest of my life agitating as a Brexit-skeptic. It’ll serve those buggers right. In the meantime, watch this space – there’s more to come. 

Queue fo rBridget ChristieQueue for Bridget Christie on a cold, wet February night

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ICYMI No.10 – New Year’s Resolution

Along with many of my academic colleagues from across the nation, I was asked by the Times Higher Education to set down at least one new year’s resolution for 2017.

I drew inspiration from Richard Hamming (whom I wrote about way back in the glory days of 2009)…

By the way, now that I have reach number 10 in this “In case you missed it” series, I think I will dispense with the numbers.



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2016 in pictures

Rather than attempt to sum up this tumultuous year in yet more words, let me share with you some of the photographs I took in 2016.

The image below is an embedded album from my Flickr account. I’m not sure that it does very much so it’s probably best to click on the image. This will take you to the album on Flickr where you can click through the pictures in your own time. There are 52 in total.

2016 in Pictures

Happy new year!


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ICYMI No. 9: Preprints and Embargoes

I’m rather late getting round to this but, for the record, here is a piece I wrote for Research Fortnight in late November on the challenges that preprints pose to embargoed press releases of research reports.

The tl;dr version (though the piece is only 800 words!) is that the benefits of preprints very likely outweigh the convenience of embargoes.


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ICYMI No.8: Being Professorial

I was among several people who contributed to a feature in this weeks’ Times Higher Education on being a professor.

My brief was (briefly):

“Questions you might want to address are whether you should somehow have to conduct yourself differently? Dress more smartly? Speak more seriously? Do people treat you differently? Does an element of imposter syndrome kick in? And what about workload and direction?

The idea is to give a personal perspective that, nevertheless, gives a few pointers to people who have just become professors.”

I tried my best, as did several of my professorial colleagues… though the piece didn’t go down well with everyone. 😉


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President Trump – first response

This morning I was asked for a comment on the implications of the US presidential election for the scientific world. This was my immediate response:

Unlike the day after the EU referendum vote, when I was bitterly upset, I just feel numb today. I don’t know if that is a kind of despair settling in because despair is precisely the wrong type of reaction to Trump winning the US presidential election. Throughout the campaign he showed himself to be a fascist and racist who bragged about his mis-treatment of women. He showed scant regard for truthfulness and espoused denialist views on climate change. It seems unlikely that the scientific and research prowess of the USA will flourish under such a president, but perhaps the checks and balances built into the US constitution will provide some sort of protection (notwithstanding the fact that the Republicans appear to be in control of Congress and the Senate).

More worrying is the sense of a turn in the tide of history arising from Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote. I’m in my fifties and in my lifetime I have seen Britain join the EU, I have seen the end of the Cold War, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In my own home nation I have seen the IRA lay down its arms. And yet here we are witnessing the rise of divisive nationalist and xenophobic instincts, which have been deliberately agitated in both recent election campaigns.

Clearly part of the disgruntlement at the status quo is due to the unequal spread of the benefits of globalisation (exacerbated by the lack of consequences for rich bankers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis). That has to be addressed politically. For researchers, increasingly branded as a self-serving elite that is out of touch with the common people, we need to redouble our efforts to stand up for evidence, and for the intrinisically international nature of what we do. We need to work harder to demonstrate the relevance of our work to the wider population and the values that underpin it. In the UK we are already pretty good at public engagement but I think we may not be good enough for the times that we now find ourselves in.

Update (14:11, 11 Nov 2016): Part of my response was reported in an update to this article in Nature.


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Higher Education and Research Bill – Letter to my MP

Science is Vital this week launched a campaign to seek amendments to the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016. The bill is a rather dry and procedural piece of legislation but hidden amongst its many sections and schedules are real threats to the autonomy and independence of UK universities and to the capacity of the research community to guide the research agenda.

The particular issues at stake are summarised on the Science is Vital website and laid out in more detail in a piece I wrote for the Guardian. We hope as many people as possible will write to their MPs to voice their concerns and ask for the necessary amendments to be made. Writing letters is always a bit of a chore so in case it might help some to get over the activation energy barrier, here below I am posting the letter that I have sent this evening to my MP, Mr Bob Stewart, the member for Beckenham. Please feel free to re-work for your own missive.

Dear Mr Stewart

Higher Education and Research Bill 2016

I write as your constituent and as a professor at Imperial College to express my grave reservations about several aspects of the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016, which is currently before Parliament.

As written, the bill removes long-standing legal protections of the autonomy of UK universities and research councils that have been vital to the health these institutions and to the tremendous strength of the UK research base. It is crucial that the bill be amended.

The issues at stake are rather complex, which I think explains why it has taken some time for concerns to bubble to the surface. I have laid out my arguments about the major weaknesses of the bill in an article published online this week in the Guardian.

In short, the bill seriously undermines important academic freedoms of universities by giving the Secretary of State the power to give guidance on what courses may be taught, a power that is amplified by creation of an Office for Students with the authority to remove the university status of institutions. On the research front, the bill concentrates further power in the hands of government by giving the Secretary of State the authority to create or abolish research councils and to redirect their research remit. Such decisions will not require consultation or parliamentary scrutiny.

I understand the practical reason behind this shift of power – to enable flexible decision-making in reshaping higher education and research – which on the face of it seems sensible enough. But the loss of parliamentary scrutiny is nevertheless deeply worrying. The present minister Jo Johnson may not have any intention of abusing these powers – and indeed he has tried to offer some verbal reassurances. But who is to say what his successor might do? It would be wiser to build protections into the legislation from the outset.

The key amendments required can be summarised as follows:

  • Remove the provision (Part 1, Sections 2(2) & 2(4)) allowing the Secretary of State to give guidance to the Office for Students on what courses may be taught by universities.
  • Change the provision (Part 1, Section 43(1)) allowing the Office for Students (a body appointed by the Secretary of State) to revoke the right of institutions to grant degrees and retain the name ‘university’, so that each such decision requires parliamentary assent.
  • Change the provision (Part 3, Section 87(5)) allowing the Secretary of State to create or abolish a research council, or to alter their remits without parliamentary assent.

Without these amendments there is a real risk that this Parliament will preside over a serious weakening of the independence enjoyed by our universities and our research base. As a university professor, clearly I have a conflict of interest in this matter, but this is not special pleading. Important cultural institutions are at stake – as well as the national interest.

While the academy might occasionally have butted heads with governments on a range of issues over the years, I hope you will agree that such disputes are an essential part of the life-blood of an open democracy. Ideas have to be tested to destruction if sound decisions about the best interests of the country are to be made.

I would be grateful if you could find the opportunity to relay these concerns to the Minister for Universities and Science and, if possible, to communicate them on the floor of the house.

I would be more than happy to meet in person to discuss these issues in greater detail.

Yours faithfully…


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Ways of Seeing

It is the weekend and I have been treating myself to some time with the paper. Usually, I buy the Saturday Guardian. On occasion I will also get The Observer on a Sunday but most weekends I don’t have the time to absorb both. Sometimes even one newspaper is too much.

Reading material on the dining table

The book review section is a particular favourite and one of the reasons I have switched away from the digital version of the paper that is served on the web. Not only does this afford the nostalgic and tactile pleasures of the paper paper, but it also releases me from the linear tether of online searches into the comradely hands of the editors, on whom I rely each week to dish up a collection of the new and the unexpected.

I am rarely disappointed, but the joy of novelty is almost invariably accompanied by sweeping feelings of helplessness amid a rising tide of “yet more stuff”. Not only does each fresh volley of book reviews bring new titles to add to my list of the unread, but the reviews invariably also refer to earlier books and authors previously unknown to me. Worse still for my self-confidence, the reviews tend to be written by people whose learning embraces whole movements and epochs of human history, and whose judgement of the achievements of humankind down through the ages rings with cast-iron assurance. Am I the only reader drowning in information who gawps at such a firm grasp of the world? So much knowledge on show makes me uneasy. It compounds my fear of being a dilettante – flitting here and there across the periphery of the world of ideas without really understanding the centre.

In truth this isn’t so serious fear because it doesn’t put me off my weekend read. I can tolerate the discomfort for the sake of the rewards. Such as last weekend, when, in Mary Beard’s review of James Stourton’s new biography of art historian Kenneth Clark, I was once again pleased and disconcerted to have my ignorance taken by surprise. Although I had thrilled at Clark’s Civilisation, his beautiful 1969 television documentary on the importance of European art, I guess I should have expected that not everyone was so impressed. The teenage Mary Beard was also delighted by it on first viewing but learned quicker than I did to mistrust the “great man” approach to history. And nor was the critic John Berger, whose own later documentary, Ways of Seeing, Beard noted in her review as a important critical response to Clark (who nevertheless still has his defenders).

I had never heard of Berger or his 1972 television series which, it turns out – why did I expect anything else? – is widely regarded as a seminal piece of work. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently intrigued to seek out Ways of Seeing online. All four of the 30 minute episodes are available on YouTube.

As was the style of the time the presentation is rather static – large chunks of each episode consist of Berger in a studio, standing in front of a plain screen, just talking. His patterned shirt and 70’s hairstyle strike a more relaxed tone than Clark’s buttoned-up tweediness, but to my ear the accent was no less posh and the story he had to tell no less riveting.

I would need to watch Civilisation again to triangulate precisely for points of opposition. Although there are clear references to Clark’s interpretation of the meaning of art and, in particular, the nude, Berger’s agenda is radically different. His aim is not history per se, but to interrogate the process of looking.

Each episode is a short essay. The first discusses the importance of context, remarking specifically on how modern reproductions of works in print and on television easily detach them from the artist’s intention. The second brings a thoughtful, feminist perspective to the nude and how such paintings reflect the power imbalance between men and women. The third discusses the development of oil painting as a particular way of representing real objects, especially possessions that denote the wealth and status of those who commissioned works of art. And the last episode shows how colour photography has largely supplanted this function of oil painting, but also altered it through widespread use in advertising to create images that, rather than showing achieved wealth and status, foment modern anxieties of aspiration.

But that is just a potted summary. I will leave you to discover for yourself. As Berger himself says in closing the documentary, everything “must be judged against your own experience.”


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