Dr. Christopher Haggarty-Weir is a Scottish-Australian vaccine scientist and venture capital analyst currently based in Edinburgh. He received his Bachelor in Biomedical Science from the University of the Sunshine Coast, then completed a Master in Molecular Biology at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience where he worked with the Australian Army on novel malaria mosquito control technology. He recently completed a joint Doctorate in malaria vaccine development at the University of Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the University of Edinburgh. During his Ph.D., Dr. Haggarty-Weir undertook a mini-MBA in Melbourne and business studies with MIT. He has published in various scientific disciplines in addition to philosophy, and has previously worked in intellectual property management and business development in the biomedical sector. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his wife, author Stephanie Haggarty-Weir (https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/stephaniehaggarty), writing for MostlyScience.com as the co-editor (http://mostlyscience.com/), reading broadly and watching bad movie reviews. He currently consults on vaccine development projects and venture capital investments and is completing an MBA at the University of the People in conjunction with Yale and Oxford universities.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early development life for you – geography, culture, language, and religion if any?
Christopher Weir: I grew up in a Scottish-Australian family in a town called Redcliffe (just north of Brisbane, Australia). It was a fairly typical Queensland town, which is why I was never a big fan. The culture was fairly anti-intellectual with an over focus on sports and a prevalent drug element that only got worse over time. However, despite coming from a low socioeconomic background, my family (mum in particular) was very pro-education as they saw it as a means of upward social mobility. This manifested itself in a positive way, with no pressure put on me to go into a certain field, but reinforced to aim very high and dedicate myself to what I took an interest in. My family was not overly religions, more culturally Christian you might say with a slight theist outlook. Nowadays both my mother and I are atheists (with me being particularly anti-theist).
Jacobsen: What concerns you about some of the subsectors of the progressive movement, which can seem not as progressive as self-proclaimed at times?
Weir: I have several concerns with subsectors of the progressive movement, with certain things being prevalent amongst subsectors of the far right (which really is quite ironic). These include: rabid Antisemitism, use of pseudoscience, identity politics, racism, a general lack of nuance manifesting itself as a ‘with us or against us’ mentality, anti-free speech, and lack of broad critical thinking skills. There is also the use of severe bullying tactics by some which should always be called out. I am also very concerned with subsectors wanting to deform and demonise healthy expressions of human sexuality. At the end of the day some of these groups behave like an authoritarian cult of sorts.
Jacobsen: How did you come into the world of writing? What would be your advice for those want to get involved in writing and progressive politics and activism in particular?
Weir: I first started writing during my Masters degree after being invited to contribute to a science communication website, Mostly Science.com, by a student in the semester above me. I always enjoyed discussing and teaching science, so I jumped on board and still write for them today as the co-editor. Arguably my passion for writing came before this when I wrote and published a literature review on diet and allergy amongst Australian Aboriginals with one of my undergraduate professors at USC in Queensland. Eventually, I started branching out from pure science after studying philosophy and getting an academic paper published while I was studying my Ph.D in malaria vaccine research. So now, I write about quite broad topics from science to philosophy to business and politics.
If one wants to get involved in writing then I would say start by identifying what interests you (as you really need to have passion) and just get writing! Of course, it obviously helps to plan out what you are going to write, and this will take several forms depending on the type of writing you work on (i.e. writing an academic paper takes months or longer compared to an opinion piece or blog post). As for getting involved with progressive politics, identify the political party/parties that you consider progressive, read their manifesto to see if your image of them is somewhat correct and follow this up by getting involved in things like student groups or the party itself. I did went through this process before I joined the Scottish National Party, and now the few things I have significant disagreements about, I engage with them over (as I am pro-nuclear power and pro-GMO). I think it is healthy to write to politicians and about politics of parties you are associated with but in a critical way; this helps prevent you from falling into a trap of being another ‘yes-man’.
Jacobsen: When you reflect on the state of the academic system, what concerns you? For example, some have concerns over trigger warnings, safe spaces, and other infringements on freedom of inquiry, debate, and speech in the university environments.
Weir: I could write entire essays about the problems in academia globally at the moment, but I will try to keep it relatively brief. Firstly, there is what no one seems to be talking about and that is more equal access to university and uni life for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Often in countries like the US, Australia and the UK, universities make their accommodation unaffordable for these students, and don’t offer much in the way of scholarships and support despite their enormous wealth. This is what led me to set up the Haggarty-Weir Scholarship at the University of the Sunshine Coast (where I did my undergrad) whilst I was finishing off my graduate studies in Edinburgh, because I know from experience that often poorer students forego things like food in order to buy equipment and books.
With respect to the whole trigger warning nonsense, I think that should die off for the most part. I have never come across it in a course in any of the 5 universities from 3 different countries I have been to, but I did STEM and business. So it seems to be a problem concentrated in the arts for the most part. The only time I have come across it was in a philosophy society discussion group where we were discussing the philosophy of suicide; I think this was a legitimate time for it to be brought up. Ultimately, the problem with trigger warnings is overly coddling people to the point where they are not taught how to deal with problems, instead they are taught to avoid and fear; that is not healthy. Likewise for the concept of safe spaces, they serve almost like segregation chambers that prevent healthy emotional development. Further, in a university environment, you should be actively seeking to challenge your ideas and perceptions so that you can intellectually grow.
Another significant problem I see is not only the enormous power difference between a professor and their student, but the lack of pathways to deal with when things go badly for the student. I had a supervisor who tried to take my scholarship from me, as in, he asked me to write him cheques for it. Another time he lied about his expertise and I had to find someone who could teach me the technique I had gone abroad to learn. This same professor also tried to get me to write them cheques for £14000 once he found out I got another scholarship. But there are very few ways of dealing with this and being able to finish your degree. Another example I have seen is the horrendous sexual misconduct that goes on at universities, but it generally is tolerated or brushed aside. To be a little more specific, what I am talking about here is lecherous lecturers engaging in sexual relations with undergraduate students. Now there are way this can occur which I would say are ethically fine overall; if the student is of age and is getting no special treatment (for example, the marking of assessment is passed on to another faculty member); but this is rarely the case.
Aside from these issues I would finally say that other problems I see include: rising costs of education whilst university executives have salaries growing at a rate faster than finance CEO’s, university staff being treated appallingly and having less academic freedom, less job security post-study, student unions that care more about playing politics than looking after students best interests, slipping academic standards so long as you can pay, and discriminatory immigration policies in the UK where they try prevent students from poorer backgrounds from coming (even if they have a ‘free-ride’ scholarship).
Jacobsen: Of the trends ongoing in the UK for progressive political and social movements, what seem like the bigger positive trends and the negative trends?
Weir: Of the bigger positive trends, I have enjoyed seeing more nuanced criticism of both the main left and right parties (Labour and Conservative respectively) from groups like Conatus, the National Secular Society, Ex-Muslims of Britain, and pro-Eu organizations (i.e. Scientists for the EU). I also have enjoyed seeing certain political parties embrace progressive values on the whole, such as the SNP and the Lib Dems (specifically under the new leadership of Sir Vince Cable). But in my opinion these pale in comparison to the rising negative trends of anti-progressivism. Demagogues are still very popular (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage) indicating people here have not learned any lessons from the United States, a type of stubbornness to keep demonising parties like the Lib Dems for past errors under different leadership, more isolationism, growing conservatism in Scotland (which I am hoping is merely transient), persistence of regressive media, and persistent antisemitism.
I do not see any easy solutions to this, but I am also someone that believes one should try to pose some level of solution after identifying a problem. I think that there needs to be more aggressive litigation against regressive media when false libellous and defamatory claims are made, secular organisations need to try and increase their viability to the general population, and more people do need to try and shed their political apathy. This final point has been made more apparent by the fact that Corbyn has now come out backing membership of the Customs Union after thousands of Labour supporters and members wrote in to their MP’s about it. If this pressure can be sustained then the people might even stand a chance of having convince him to show real leadership over Brexit and come out against it. People can make a difference, but they need to stop being lazy and make the effort to engage in politics; after all this is why we have a democracy. However, our current democratic system can only really function when the people do make the effort to be active players in it.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Weir: I would ask those on the far-left to really consider if their actions are going to really allow them to meet their goals, or are they just fuelling conservatives? If they continue to attack the mainstream left and the centrists over petty things such as their own fringe ideas on gender identity and rejection of capitalism instead of reform towards ethical capitalism, then they truly will isolate themselves and become obscure aside from having memes made of them. Common ground must be met. If it is not then society will continue to suffer as the conservatives keep pushing through antiquated policies whilst everyone else fights amongst themselves. As for those on the right/centre-right, particularly those who are pro-capitalist; you must ask yourselves if continuing to support the current Tory administration’s isolationist and anti-free market approaches is really in-line with your traditional economic liberalism and if it really is beneficial in the long-term? I could give you my opinions but I want you to think for yourself and try to challenge your currently held ideals. This is what made me go from a campus socialist to a staunch ethical capitalist that is pro-banking and pro-social rights; the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Christopher.
Weir: Many thanks for your time and the discussion.
Image Credits: Christopher Weir.