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Monbiot on CSAs

George Monbiot is worried about the integrity of government chief scientific advisers. Very worried. In fact one would go so far as to say that he is slightly hysterical on the issue, accusing Mark Walport of being a lobbyist (and all manner of other sins), despite the poor chap having been in his job for only a few weeks.

Among the official duties of the chief scientist is "to ensure that the scientific method, risk and uncertainty are understood by the public". Less than a month into the job, Sir Mark Walport has misinformed the public about the scientific method, risk and uncertainty. He has made groundless, unscientific and emotionally manipulative claims. He has indulged in scaremongering and wild exaggeration in support of the government's position.

This righteous anger is slightly strange, when one considers Monbiot's previous silence on the subject. The weird-beard era CSAs (May, Watson, Beddington et al.) were plainly men with a cause and were pretty much open in their lobbying activity, whether on behalf of scientists or environmentalists. One can only conclude that Monbiot is in favour of lobbying by CSAs when the cause is his own.

To my mind, the position of a CSA is a nonsense. Ministers need to hear advice from people they trust and who have expertise in an area. Why should any minister have trusted the climate science advice of Beddington, a population biologist who openly declared that he saw part of his role as promoting the interests of the scientific community in Whitehall? The minister's role is to promote the interests of the public, not of scientists.

In return for their lobbying work on behalf of scientists, CSAs fleece the taxpayer for enormous salaries and preposterous pension packages. There is therefore a huge saving to be made: close down the network of scientific advisers and take advice on an ad-hoc basis from trusted third parties.

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Reader Comments (40)

'One can only conclude that Monbiot is in favour of lobbying by CSAs when the cause is his own.'

Hardly a surprise , there a number of issues where Monbiot has actual no problem with approach used but with the nature of the message the approach is used for . In that his consistent in his hypocrisy has he attacks others for doing the same thing he or his green friends are happy to do , such has flying .
Bottom line , in the name of 'the cause' all things are justified.

Apr 30, 2013 at 9:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

An interesting sentence from Mr Monbiot which could perhaps be used in other contexts:

Mark Walport has [A number of climate scientists have] misinformed the public about the scientific method, risk and uncertainty. He has [They have] made groundless, unscientific and emotionally manipulative claims. He has [They have] indulged in scaremongering and wild exaggeration in support of the government's [their] position

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Dent

I think you are right. If the creation of CSAs was an experiment, surely enough data has been gathered by now to reveal the very idea is flawed. Perhaps a higher calibre of office-holder could have been found, but surely the professional credentials of those appointed were impressive enough?

As for Monbiot, I think his peculiarly blinkered but vivid view of things is becoming of more interest as evidence of his eccentricity than for any substance it may hold on the nominal topics of his articles. (see Unthreaded 9:57 AM) for a little more on this.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:03 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Similar initial reaction to KnR

"One can only conclude that Monbiot is in favour of lobbying by CSAs when the cause is his own."

I would only suggest that the word "conclude" is not strictly accurate as it indicates (to me at least) that this conclusion is a bit of a surprise.

Monbiot is such a spin merchant that I would hazard that a more accurate description would be that this latest wordwooze from Monbiot simply CONFIRMS that he is in favour of lobbying by CSAs when the cause is his own.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterDoug UK

The best part was Walport reassertion of scientific principles

"This, he says, “just means working out and balancing in advance all the risks and benefits of action or inaction, and to make a proportionate response.” No it doesn’t. The Rio declaration, signed by the UK and 171 other states, defines it as follows: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”(18) This, as it happens, is the opposite of what his article sought to do. Yet an understanding of the precautionary principle is fundamental to Walport’s role."

Great are we ditching the precautionary principle. Its a sign of the times.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrianJay

Well said, and I'm not referring to Monbiot.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

It would seem that the CSAs are the scientific equivalent of the Civil Service "Pilgrims" (exposed by Guido Fawkes) - union officials sucking at the public teat and occupied solely with union business rather than the job for which they are nominally employed. Rather better paid, though...

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Chappell

Good post and fair comment, Mr. Monbiot doesn't know, nor would he recognise an objective point of view if it slapped him in his chops.

If you don't hang with Mr. Monbiot's and by extension the ideology of all of the left leaning intelligentsia, then, either your a racist, or a denier and that is how the left couch and counter all contrary opinion.
Actually, it's worse, if you do not conform to the cultural Marxist doctrine and the green lunacy - you are marked a heretic and or unclean.

though cripes, I thought Walport was on the side of the alarmist fruitcakes, God then help the advocates, luvvies and 'experts' when they step out of line.

Hell hath no fury like - a Monbiot scorned.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

you are - even.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

If Wallport's job is to give advice to the govt on scientific matters then why on earth is he writing in the FT about what he thinks? His advice should be to the govt who will then make a decision. If he doesn't agree with the line that the govt takes he should either

resign or shut up.

If he wants a public profile then he should not have taken the job. He is embarrassing the govt by publicly stating views that are not govt policy and arguing with the govt in public. A civil servant should not do this. Someone should have a quiet word with him and if he does it again he should forgo his fat paid by the taxpayer salary.

Apr 30, 2013 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterVBC

VBC he isn't "publicly stating views that are not govt policy.." his viewsare identical to the government policy, the UK opposed the ban on these pesticides. No, he's spouting views and arguing with environmental activist policies, which is what caused the madness of Impetuous George this morning.

What he said was that the pesticides did have an effect of bees in laboratory conditions but the evidence in the environmental conditions was less persuasive. I don't know whether he's right or not and don't have a particular axe to grind on the ban, but bear in mind, we'll still use pesticides else we stand to lose the crops. So it's something of a Phyrric victory for environmentalists.

Apr 30, 2013 at 11:50 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Sir Mark Walport on the radio earlier this month, speaking about bees, neonicotinoids and the precautionary principle:

Martha Kearney: So, shouldn't you be applying the precautionary principle, which is what the MPs suggest?

Mark Walport: Well, but I think the precautionary principle is something that is often misinterpreted. It's often interpreted that if there's any risk at all, you shouldn't do something. Now, I mean, it's "look before you leap", but having looked, it's sometimes sensible to leap. So the precautionary principle doesn't say you should automatically stop doing something if there's any risk. But, I mean, I need to finish the point, because there is uncertainty, so - in laboratory conditions, there's no question that neonicotinoids affect bee behaviour, they affect colony formation. In the field studies that have been done so far, in bees, in agriculturally treated environments, there is no unequivocal evidence that it does harm bee colonies. Now, we need more research.

Apr 30, 2013 at 12:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull

Geronimo, pyrrhic indeed. The alternative insecticides to neonicotinoids are far less selective, largely because they're much less soluble in water and therefore need to be sprayed onto crops rather than used in seed treatments to be translocated within the plants needing protection. This means that it's not just the species eating the crop that gets a lethal dose - everything gets it.

Willfully ignorant Greens screw everything up for everybody yet again.

Apr 30, 2013 at 12:31 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor

If Walport manages to raise standards I shall start referring to him in the honorific.

So far, I vote that Monbiot's lights get switched off before Walport's. Now that would be good cause for the introduction of smart meters. People could arrange vigils outside Monbiot’s house to see what electricity source he used in winter when the windmills weren't working. By their choices yea shall judge them.

Apr 30, 2013 at 12:40 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Off topic but hilarious nonetheless; apparently climate change could drive women to prostitution:

Apr 30, 2013 at 12:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterPH

"we'll still use pesticides else we stand to lose the crops"

Yes, other pesticides will still be used, and they may be more toxic to mammals. But - the crop losses they are intended to prevent are only partial. The current activist focus has been on bees and other pollinators, but there is major use of neonicotinoids on cereal, beet and potatoes, as seed treatment to control aphids and nematodes. Seed treatments employ an inert carrier to coat seeds with pesticides, and in the case of neonicotinoids over 95% of the active ingredient is left in the soil. Seed treatment as currently practised is prophylactic - this has become standard husbandry to the extent that untreated non-Organic OSR seed is not generally available in the UK. Neonicotinoids are persistent in soil, water-soluble, systemic, non-specific neurotoxins with cumulative effect. Is this want we want? - because this is what our regulators are ignoring, and the signs are that definitive answers may be sought only for bees et al.

SNTF - neonics are not selective, they are also systemic and everything else eating the crop, including nectar, pollen and guttation ingests a dose. A major use of oilseed rape and wheat is in biofuels - so let's not get too tearful.

Apr 30, 2013 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterFilbert Cobb

On twitter, Moonbat says "@jameswilsdon I don't know about you, but I see it as a deeply serious matter when a chief scientist twists science for political ends".

Several people have pointed out the irony in the comments at CIF.

Regarding previous silence, here is an article from 2005 where Moonbat praises the CSA when he agrees with him, but accuses him of being a "government spin doctor" when he doesn't.

The basic rule seems to be that the chief scientific adviser is correct and a Good Thing when he supports left-wing activism, but a spin doctor or industry stooge if he happens to support the government line.

There is an interesting article in the Telegraph saying that the beekepers themselves are not convinced that the pesticide ban is a good idea.

Apr 30, 2013 at 1:20 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Filbert Cobb,
In my experience of Medicinal Chemistry, water-soluble compounds are not persistent. It is lipophilic compounds that tend to accumulate.

Apr 30, 2013 at 1:45 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

"CSAs fleece the taxpayer for enormous salaries and preposterous pension packages" And so do teachers, doctors, policemen, BBC employees, and on and on. When's (any) government going to be able to manage its affairs well enough to stop the staff robbing the till?

Apr 30, 2013 at 1:59 PM | Unregistered Commenterbill

Filbert Cobb,

Neonics themselves aren't selective, but if they are located in the crop then only something that eats the crop can get a dose. This means that the treatment is selective.

The use of seed treatments to target pesticides is several magnitudes more effective than blanket spraying. I'm not sure why you think this needs spelling out.

Can you also please explain your understanding of the relationship between soil persistence and water solubility?

As for toxicity, seed treatments are used in very small doses to protect very small but rapidly growing plants. As they grow, the dose reduces exponentially to the point where it is no longer toxic. At this point the plant is no longer protected from the pest.

The major use of both oilseed rape and wheat is to feed the human population. For this reason, I think there's plenty to be concerned about. If you think that these crops can be sacrificed because some crap legislation says we should burn a small proportion of it for political posturing then maybe your perspective needs some unwarping.

Apr 30, 2013 at 2:06 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor

@ michael hart

That may be so in a medical context, but the half-life of some neonics in soil is being quoted in hundreds of days for some compounds, and is positively correlated with soil organic matter. In the USA and Netherlands neonics are found at disturbing concentrations in natural waters. In the UK the EA don't analyse for neonics - at least, not as far as they are letting on.

Apr 30, 2013 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterFilbert Cobb

"To my mind, the position of a CSA is a nonsense. ...In return for their lobbying work on behalf of scientists, CSAs fleece the taxpayer for enormous salaries and preposterous pension packages. "

Totally agree and it seems that Beddington has spent much time in his role ensuring that it is duplicated in every major department in govt.,

"When Civil Service World last caught up Professor Beddington, in 2009, he had nearly succeeded in his mission of persuading every department to appoint a chief scientific adviser (CSA) – something that could, he said, much improve departments’ policymaking and operations. Three and a half years on, he expresses satisfaction with the “excellent cadre” which has been assembled across Whitehall. Once a month, he says, all the CSAs meet for lunch to highlight areas where cross-departmental cooperation is needed."

Not only that but it seems there are now a network of deputy CSAs ...

"Professor Beddington: Thank you for your good wishes. I probably share your hope that we will not be seeing each other again. I would probably focus on three areas. The first one in essence is bureaucratic and it is managing to achieve a network of CSAs now covering every major Department. That has been very helpful. It has been supplemented quite recently by Dr Claire Craig, my deputy. We now have regular meetings of deputy chief scientific advisers. That is an interesting and important new development."

And all this during a time of 'austerity' and 'cuts' - it seems the only thing that is being cut is frontline services to the public!!!

Apr 30, 2013 at 2:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterMarion

Filbert Cobb,
In "the medical context" usually means "inside living organisms" which is what we are concerned with. It is difficult to poison a rock. What is the typical known excretion rate/half life of these compounds (and in which animals)?

"Disturbing concentrations" is a rather imprecise term, depending on who is being disturbed, and how much they want to be disturbed.

Apr 30, 2013 at 2:49 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Monbiot = bigot

Nice middle class tree hugger

nothing but a bandwagoner and a media tart

Hates progress

Apr 30, 2013 at 3:37 PM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

Michael Hart,

Predictably the internet is stuffed with disinformation on neonic persistence - drivel such as 'in the absence of soil microorganisms' abounds, claiming decades when the product actually degrades more quickly than this in the retail package. They're rapidly metabolised by bees - imidacloprid in 4-5 hrs, acetamiprid in 25 minutes (

According to Californian studies on imidacloprid here ( it can't 'accumulate' in the soil as it doesn't survive from season to season:

Hydrolysis half-life >30 days (25 deg C at pH 7)
Aqueous photolysis half-life 3.98 x10^-2 days (24 deg C at pH 7)
Anaerobic half-life 27.1 days
Aerobic half-life 9.97 x 10^2 days
Soil photolysis half-life 38.9 days
Field dissipation half-life 26.5 to 229

Apr 30, 2013 at 3:39 PM | Registered Commenterflaxdoctor

He has made groundless, unscientific and emotionally manipulative claims. He has indulged in scaremongering and wild exaggeration in support of the government's position.

Coming from George that is absolutely priceless.

Apr 30, 2013 at 4:18 PM | Registered Commenterbh3x2

@bhx32, as Douglas Adams almost said

"What's the problem?" said Lunkwill.

"I'll tell you what the problem is mate," said Majikthise, "demarcation, that's the problem!"

"We demand," yelled Vroomfondel, "that demarcation may or may not be the problem!"

"You just let the CSAs get on with the adding up," warned Majikthise, "and we'll take care of the scaremongering thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law wild exaggeration is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working hacks."

Apr 30, 2013 at 4:27 PM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

Moonbat obviously thinks CSA should stand for Chief Socialist Advisor's.

Apr 30, 2013 at 4:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterAC1

Roger Pielke and James Wilsdon respond.

"The source of Monbiot's fury appears to be his concern that Walport backed a course of action that Monbiot himself does not favour."

Apr 30, 2013 at 5:09 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

This Impetuous George article is something of a turnaround, up until now CSAs, have been men of impeccable scientific standing whose every pronouncement should be taken as the unvarnished truth.

I don't see the need for them either, what we have is a funnel between the scientists giving the advice and the government filled by scientific politicians, who can put their own spin on the advice, or in the case of the Met Office lend authority to complete and utter tosh.

Apr 30, 2013 at 5:27 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

En Francais, nous appellons Monsieur Monbiot, Monsieur Mon Bigot

Quel bonmot, non!

Apr 30, 2013 at 5:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterEuroSlapstic

My regard, such as it was, for GM took a tumble last week when he announced (as only he can) that he was eschewing the benefit/pleasure/status of a new smartphone because of the uncertain provenance of some of the tin used in its construction.

I know he’s a bit unworldly, but the implication that he doesn’t know that every electronic device on the planet is soldered together with tin seems to disqualify him from making any useful comment. Is he really that ignorant, or was he perhaps just taking a bet that most of his (Guardian) readers would be?

Apr 30, 2013 at 5:45 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Comrade Walport already has form in having been quoted as endorsing the notorious report for the BBC Trust in which Steve Jones called for the BBC to show more bias, not less,on climate change. I referred to this in my Sunday Telegraph column in the week of Walport's appointment, in an item on how the last four Chief Scientific Advisers have all been cast from the same mould, as cheerleaders for official climate policy who may be expert scientists in their own specialisms but when straying outside it have all shown themselves to be hopleesly out of their depth. If anyone is interested my article is here

Apr 30, 2013 at 6:10 PM | Unregistered Commenterchristopher booker

Jonathan Jones

“If," ["the management consultant"] said tersely, “we could for a moment move on to the subject of fiscal policy. . .”

“Fiscal policy!" whooped Ford Prefect. “Fiscal policy!"

The management consultant gave him a look that only a lungfish could have copied. “Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”

“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn't grow on trees you know.”

“If you would allow me to continue.. .”

Ford nodded dejectedly.

“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”

Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.

“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut."

Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.

“So in order to obviate this problem,” he continued, “and effectively revalue the leaf, we are about to embark on a massive defoliation campaign, and. . .er, burn down all the forests. I think you'll all agree that's a sensible move under the circumstances."

The crowd seemed a little uncertain about this for a second or two until someone pointed out how much this would increase the value of the leaves in their pockets whereupon they let out whoops of delight and gave the management consultant a standing ovation. The accountants among them looked forward to a profitable autumn aloft and it got an appreciative round from the crowd.

What more could one say about our current predicament?

Apr 30, 2013 at 6:11 PM | Registered Commenterbh3x2

I seem to remember suggesting that he wouldn't last long back on the Walport speaks on climate change thread. Well I figured that, by not backing the Moonbats of the world, his career would be fairly short.

I just didn't realise just how short. Resignation letter in the post eh Mark?

Don't mess with the Eco-Taliban. Cast Iron and his 'greenest government ever' are watching your career closely Mark. No-one is irreplaceable. Especially when the guardian doesn't like you.

How far have we fallen?

Apr 30, 2013 at 6:32 PM | Registered Commenterbh3x2

Interesting. On abolishing CSAs I was reminded of this from Lord Armstrong three weeks ago:

One of my duties was to advise her on issues about the organisation of the machinery of government. I do not think that she was ever much interested in those issues: she thought that they were of secondary importance. What mattered to her was having the right policy and having the right person in place to put the policies into effect. Tinkering with organisations diverted energy from what really mattered and was a waste of time, energy, and money.

Thatcher was way ahead of Blair and Brown in this regard in my view - the New Labour tinkerers. But Blair got it right afterwards when he said that at the beginning, when you're at your most popular, you don't have a clue how to do the job and by the time everyone hates you you're beginning to get the hang of it. I'm sure that applies to Walport but, for me, the guy's not made a bad start.

The other thing that grabbed me was what Monbiot seemed most touchy about: mention of malaria.

He then deployed the kind of groundless moral blackmail frequently used by industry-funded astroturf campaigns. "The control of malaria, dengue and other important diseases also depends on the control of insect vectors." Yes, it does in many cases, but this has nothing to do with the issue he was discussing: a partial ban on neonicotinoids in European crops. This old canard (if you don't approve this pesticide for growing oilseed rape in Europe, children in Mozambique will die of malaria) reminds us that those opposed to measures which protect the natural world are often far worse scaremongers than environmentalists can be. How often have you heard people claim that "if the greens get their way, we'll go back to living in caves" or "if carbon taxes are approved, the economy will collapse"?

I read it very differently to George because the one time I talked to Sir Mark I raised the subject of malaria and DDT and how open science in Africa, for Africans, could have made (and perhaps still could make) a vast difference. At which point he seemed to change his view of me from climate naif to something more interesting. He seemed aware of the life-and death tradeoffs and how the poorest suffer when those in power - soft and hard - get them wrong. For that reason I'm glad he's in the position he is.

Apr 30, 2013 at 6:33 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

On occasion Monbiot correctly interprets a critical part of the precautionary principle that many man made climate change advocates do not - that of accounting for the cost of doing the wrong things. He did this in his u-turn on nuclear power. The benefits from having nuclear power outweigh both the risk of nuclear power *and* the cost of not having nuclear and being too reliant on wind leading to higher energy bills and a more precarious supply situation.

Most of the time though, Monbiot does forget that part of the precautionary principle and it sounds like Walport hasn't.

Apr 30, 2013 at 7:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

This new Govenment Chief Scientific Advisor hasnt got a cure for Anti Biotic Resistant Superbugs and Messalls outbreaks in Wales.The guy that was allowed to sell Fake Bomb Detectors to Iraq. Who gave him an export licence .Dosent anybody do any actual checking and proper testing anymore.

Beddington didnt have a cure for the Ash Cloud .He just panicked and grounded the entire European Cilvilian Aircraft fleet.Then someone said why not just use Laser reflections and fly around next Ashcloud.Unfortunatley Thousands of Holiday were ruined and Million of pounds and his reputation lost.

None of them obviously have a cure for Climate Change.Except Windmills Green Deal Loft insulation and Starving and Freezing ourselfs.

WW2 British Scientices invented Radar, invented the Bouncing Bomb, the Atom Bomb the Jet Engine and they broke the German Enigma Codes They saved Britain .British Scientices erm MMR ,Mad Cow Disease,MRSA, Y2K, Bird flu, Climategate etc British Science rubbish in peacetime.

The only exception were the great Test Tube Baby Pioneers .Last of whom sadley died last week.

And to really cap it all all the bright Science Graduates are going abroad to work for Apple ,BMW and CERN and left us with a load of Animal Experiment ,Smacking Kids Hating but Homeopathy, 5 a day loving Media Studies Drama Teachers/Socal Workers.

The office of Government Scientific Advisor is looking more ineffectual and eventually redundant.What Monbiot is actually scared of.

Some ways Paul Nurse in his Horizon Documentary was right.But Shooting Delingpole the Messenger of bad tidings wont solve it.British Scienice foolishly put itself in the firing line Sir Paul.
Post War UK science and Engineering has tragically gone down hill and Climate Porn /Alarmism is sadley but just one symptom of that decline.

Apr 30, 2013 at 8:22 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid


And to really cap it all all the bright Science Graduates are going abroad to work for Apple ,BMW and CERN and left us with a load of Animal Experiment ,Smacking Kids Hating but Homeopathy, 5 a day loving Media Studies Drama Teachers/Socal Workers.

Look at things another way. In my own (very modest) research scientist career, all of the rewarding parts came from solving questions and problems with and for industry. A strategic part in the discovery of an oilfield for one. A small adjustment in an iron ore miner's exploration strategy is another.

I've not bothered to write any of this up for publication. While employed, I was more interested in the next problem than the last. Epic fail, that's why I'm an unemployed geologist.

May 1, 2013 at 10:32 AM | Registered CommenterHector Pascal

Monbiot's hissy fit with Sir Mark continues.

I did try to draw people's attention to the fact that insisting on the UK Gov following the precautionary principle as formulated by the RIO summit was simply demanding that the gov bowed to the world's largest Green pressure group but this suggestion was too strong for the moderators and it was deleted, along, remarkably, with an "ad hom" insult from George Monbiot himself.

May 1, 2013 at 12:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Savage

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