Friday, January 30, 2015

Particle physics, politics and our breakfast at our shelter....

So the morning I hd a conversation that at times I struggled to keep up. It was with a particle physicist, a man who is mid-way through a PhD and who has been involved in developing and building proton beam machines for use in cancer treatments (little wonder I was getting lost!)

We were actually talking about CERN and the large hadron collider and what it might reveal when it starts up again in the spring, having undergone a refit. Some of this conversation ran away from me as well!

I was having this chat over breakfast in our winter night shelter, for this guy is a guest of ours, one of the growing number of homeless in my apparently prosperous bit of London. He is not a drug user or alcoholic (he drinks less than I do); he is not the victim of a break down of relationship that's left an angry, wounded partner in the family home. It's unclear what he's the victim of. Yes, he is vulnerable to depression, but this seems to be a consequence rather than cause of his current situation.

He is looking for work, a job that would use his skills. But he is constantly being told that he is too well qualified. In a country that desperately needs investment in the kind of ground-breaking medical technology he has been involved in developing, it seems that society would rather pay him to be idle or push him into some useless zero-hours contract job.

If you remember the Aysha King story last summer, the little boy taken to Prague to have proton beam therapy, my friend's story is even more maddening. He has been working on such technology in South Africa but not here.

It's a small story that illustrates the insanity of our current way of running things. He's homeless because there's a chronic shortage of affordable homes across the country, but certainly in London. He finds himself in a system that doesn't understand his skills and therefore can't find room for them and yet which, at the same time, bemoans the fact that we are lagging our competitors in cutting edge technology; that we are apparently unable to turn pure science into innovation and hence economic growth.

We fell into our conversation because we shared the experience of having studied at Manchester University. Back in 1977-78 I was part of a social science research council funded MSc programme that had been founded a decade earlier to answer the question 'why can't Britain innovate?' It struck me that I was having the same conversation with my guest as we had had in our seminar rooms almost forty years ago; and nothing has changed.

I left feeling sad and mad at the waste of so promising and so clever a man languishing in our shelter because he has neither a job or a home.

New government, anyone? Fresh thinking on how we organise ourselves, about how we utilise all the skills and talents of all our people to create a better society for all of us?

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