VEGA News Item

VEGA’s September Festivation in Science at Uni and Other Events - 05/12/2006
First Report. Participation, Activity, Campaigning
First Report. Participation, Activity, Campaigning

1. September was such a busy month for off-site activity and representation that we have to report in instalments and enter material gradually into our database. We apologise for the delay in posting our reports on our website and in our VEGA News mail-outs: we’ve not been idle.

2. Our preparations and activities over the summer came to a head as the start of the new academic year approached and with it a new intake of breath and students entering into university life and the challenges of catering and responsible living. We had prepared material for freshers’ fairs and the catering and self-catering that students would have to experience, with special concern for campuses with a wide range of interests and activities, notably universities with strong departments of Science and Humanities, where the debates over science and ethics might be especially pertinent. VEGA is an educational Trust, also imbued with practical considerations of meals at uni which were just as important as the catering for schoolchildren. Dietary and physiological – and psychological – changes at puberty and adolescence, some unfortunate and irreversible, engaged our attention as urgently as the wider academic issues.

3. Institutional catering affects staff, teachers, doctors, nurses and visitors at places such as schools, universities, and hospitals and it has to include provision for shift workers and consumers with special and well-understood needs. A VEGA researcher has just returned from a day’s international conference at Birkbeck College, London University (on genetics and other factors in degenerative diseases such as parkinsonism) at which his special vegan offering was suitable, but appropriate only if he had been a celiac as well; much as the ordinary veggie fare appeared suitable for a strict vegetarian, as was proved when boxes of surplus sandwiches, still in their takeaway packaging, offered for doggy-bags, proved their acceptability, it seems that the caterers don’t understand that “normal” vegans eat bread and use oil and don’t lead protein-deficient diets.

4. September began with the British Association’s Festival of Science, held this year at the University of East Anglia (UEA) at Norwich. For our purposes it was an excellent choice: the campus itself is pleasant and modern, the accommodation and facilities are good, and the University is strong in the Sciences and Arts. Within the Campus or in the abutting Colney Park are the Norfolk General Hospital and the John Innes and Food Research Institutes; Norwich itself is within easy reach by frequent bus services and offers cultural entertainments, some provided within the Festival program. The Uni is excellently equipped with athletic and sports facilities and environs have arresting characteristics from many points of view – the Norfolk Broads and brecklands and Fens, to mention a few. The Sainsbury Building is an Arts Centre in the Campus and a reminder of the beneficence from the supermarket family, one of whom was until very recently a Science Minister in the House of Lords. VEGA’s representative spent the whole week busy on the Campus, except for one day on a guided trip to an ancient forest and another on an archaeological foray: these provide material for on-site sessions back at the University.

Can We Animals Communicate Telepathically?

5. VEGA attended both as a paying participant at the conference and as a member of the press, which added to the value of the experience. Journalists were great in number, but were herded into morning briefings, timed to allow then interviews with the main speakers on chosen topics to generate stories for the next day’s papers. This left many sessions, especially in the afternoons, unreported. As the audiences comprised active scientists and interested public, the journos were missing debates in sessions that were more vigorous than at the pre-arranged press conferences. This omission showed in accounts we read from cuttings from next day’s papers. The public had also to cope with choices among concurrent topics – an embarrassment that arises nowadays at many scientific conferences.

6. The conference adulated science in many ways and avoided stridently contentious issues. Schools parties abounded among the participants, as well as students at the University and from local research institutes. Questions and comments at the open sessions were great opportunities for introducing interests and issues, as well as attracting enquiries after possible jobs from work with VEGA. Much as we’d like to expand our work, we cannot afford at the moment to do much more than keep in touch with such enquiries by e-mail and website. Many organizations speak big on issues of farming, food, health, and land, with the welfare of all animals (which includes humans) and the environment (which embraces wildlife) to the fore, these bodies missed opportunities to strut their stuff or remained mute. Jobsworths hovering up charitable donations and selling raffle tickets and Christmas junk should be blooded as campaigners at Festivals of Science, where they can go face to face with the movers and shakers of the modern world. Well, we at VEGA did our lonely best, telepathically and in full voice.

7. We were actually at an occurrence that split the press corps and has gained some notoriety in the debate over instances of the press “making a story” or reporting accurately what happened – or didn’t happen. It concerned a talk by Dr Robert Sheldrick on what could broadly be described as telepathy. In scientific circles Dr Sheldrick was known for his associations with “morphic resonance”, essentially a form of coincidences without an adequate scientific explanation. Dr Sheldrick’s resume, available before his press conference, and his talk, gave a full account of test of telepathic communication and of confounding factors that might spoil their validity. These are experiments that many of us as schoolchildren have tried with our friends, and Dr Sheldrick’s summary indicated an example of scientific method that would appeal to budding scientists of whom there would likely to be many in his audience. This was the very stuff of scientific investigation; not, however, to some influential members of the press and to one or two “top scientists” in some way connected with the Festival and its organizations.

8. To make a story of Dr Sheldrick’s afternoon talk and its supposed solecisms one or two journos contacted professor Robert Winston, a celebrity who had not attended the Festival. To voice his reservations on inclusion of such a subject as telepathy and the unknown in a Festival of Science. Headlines erupted accordingly in some of next day’s papers, although some of the journos were appalled by the reaction and had taken the trouble to attend the event in the afternoon. They satisfied themselves that Dr Sheldrick had kept to his script and that, on a show of hands at the end, over 70% of the audience “believed in telepathy”. Some of the journos themselves could cite experiences, not just among humans but among other animals and in communications involving human with other species, notably domestic. We had much discussion with a BBC R4 producer who was preparing a 30 minute program on the subject in which the “feelings” of exploited livestock received often-neglected attention. The other animals may be browbeaten and downcast but they can see a lot more than we can on good solid coidence of contentment and suffering.


9. Our first meal – at breakfast – was a pleasant surprise. No need for fumbling explanations at the counter: a jug of soya milk was in frequent use alongside the skimmed cow’s milk for the cuppa and breakfast cereals and the usual veggie questions were anticipated in notices prominently displayed and at a veggie counter running fry-ups as well as fare more in the style set by the Food Standards Agency. Fairtrade was among the lists of polices adhered to by the caterers, and their notices also included GM, organic, free range, and locally-grown among its standards, which pervaded other eating places in different styles, all of them busy and well serviced. We met a woman with many allergies who presented the caterers with a list of about a dozen components from which the ingredients of all her meals had to be drawn overmost of the week. She spoke of the special meals provided for her. Our representatives met nobody else signed in as a full veggy (vegan) but many who were free-froms as regards various foods of animal origin.

10. So VAE provided an example of what can be done, even if the Portfolio ideas could be more prominently demonstrated; and our experimental veggie animal would probably find the choices, week-in, week-out, limiting. We couldn’t find much to recommend a trip into Norwich itself by the frequent bus-service for a sociable evening meal., Going Indian, Chinese, or Thai might fill the bill, or possible a pub or theatre Norwich Council had laid on some social events to complement the Festival, but we had to give those a miss. The lively Athletics Centre at the UAE had a range of light evening meals on offer until about 8.30pm. apart from the day trips to the forest and to the archaeological dig, and evening visits to Norwich Hospital offered a wonderful opportunity to examine the latest equipment in blood matching, emergencies due to accidents, and peculiarities in the genes of the denizens of Norfolk, which may account for their gloriously pronounced version of the English language and use of the glottal stop. And the names and blood characteristics bear witness to the immigrations of old into East Anglia and of the effects of recent – in revolutionary terms – glaciations and of the substantial European Union of eastern England before the major rivers draining from the Continent broke through to the North Sea and opened up the English Channel. A major river running almost due west to east debouched into the North Sea just south of the Wash, which was scoured out in one of the recent glaciations.

11. Our next report will see the Festival’s solutions to the chronic problems of Africa and the developing continents, all, in a day’s conferencing.

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