The Big Bang Fair: Why it must cut ties with the arms industry

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Algerian scientist and human rights activist Hamza Hamouchene argues science education must stop promoting arms companies.

If you think the association of arms companies with an educational event aimed at schoolchildren is a dangerous liaison, then you will be outraged by this. The Big Bang Fair, the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK counts amongst its sponsors BAE Systems and other arms companies such as Thales, Selex ES, Doosan, Rolls-Royce and Airbus.

As a health scientist who has always been fascinated with science’s amazing ability to improve public health, relieve human suffering and save lives, the association of the arm trade that destroys lives and create more human anguish with an event like the Big Bang fair seems deeply wrong and fundamentally inappropriate.

While doing my PhD at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, I wanted to learn how to communicate science to lay audiences and help spark an interest in science amongst young people. I got involved in a scheme called Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNET) and, as a STEMNET ambassador, I participated in the 2010 Big Bang fair, helping promote science to young learners and encourage them to consider pursuing scientific careers. I remember talking to them about genetics, cells, DNA and disease, seeing their inquisitive eyes and answering their curious questions when I showed them some of the material I was working with at the time. It was truly an exhilarating experience and I would do it again because I strongly believe in the benefits of science to humanity and the importance of such fairs and events in inspiring young people to become the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Such initiatives are always welcome and are surely a positive endeavour but the link with the arms industry is very problematic to me, and indirectly stains the fair with human rights abuses and repression under authoritarian and ruthless regimes like in my home country Algeria. This is an issue I deeply care about as I have been actively campaigning in the last three years within Algeria Solidarity Campaign for peaceful democratic change and the respect of human rights in my country.

Algeria is a serious human rights offender, continues to suppress freedoms and quash democratic struggles. Yet the British government has courted close relations with the Algerian regime, including arms sales and military partnership, thus ignoring the democratic aspirations of the Algerian people. Arms sales constitute collusion with a dictatorship, contributing to the longevity of such a regime and the repression inflicted on the people.

These are the reasons that compelled me to sign the letter published by the Guardian this week, calling for an end to arms sponsorship of the Big Bang Fair. On top of that letter, I have started a public petition building on our call for arms money to be dropped.

Such links normalise the arms trade and give them undeserved PR opportunities. Such a connection with educational events aimed at promoting science, technology, engineering and maths is fundamentally antinomic to the noble values that education is supposed to instil in young people, values of respect, generosity and bettering the human condition.

It is time to be honest with ourselves and with our children and not sheepishly offer a “good- guys” cloak to such companies. Our duty to the next generation is to continuously expose this wrong-doing, not to white-wash it and give it a veneer of scientific credibility.

As stated in our letter, we need programmes which offer young people spaces to learn about science and engineering as it is currently constituted – including environmental and human rights concerns – and what it could look like. It’s not a matter of “There is No Alternative.” Surely there are other ethical sponsors who could broaden the understanding of young scientists as to how science should be a positive, transformational force in society.

Unless it is willing to sell its soul and lose its spirit, the Big Bang fair must divorce the sponsorship of arms companies. This Faustian pact must be brought to an end. Let’s hope the 2015 event has a more human vision.

Dr Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian scientist and human rights activist. He is the co-founder of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC).

Photo: BAE at the Big Bang Fair 2012. Photograph: bisgovuk/Flickr

Source: The Guardian

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