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    The Prime Minister’s personal papers for the year 1986, held at Churchill College, reveal the significant and ongoing fallout from the Westland affair – which prompted the resignation of Defence Minister Michael Heseltine, who went on to challenge Thatcher for the Tory leadership in 1990.

    The affair was bruising disagreement between Thatcher and Heseltine over a proposed rescue package for the UK’s last helicopter manufacturer – Westland. Heseltine favoured a European-based rescue package, while the PM favoured a US deal, with both sides using the press to brief against the other. Heseltine famously stormed out of a Cabinet meeting and resigned on January 9, 1986, accusing the Prime Minister of having lied during the course of the conflict.

    Included in the 1986 papers is the text of a letter Thatcher drafted to Heseltine just three weeks before his eventual resignation – but did not send; an ultimatum to either toe the line or give up office. It ends bluntly: “In this situation, no Minister should use his position to promote one commercial option in preference to another – so long as he remains in Government.”

    “The important thing about this letter of course is that it was never sent,” said Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. “Throughout the crisis, Thatcher was wary of any course of action that might finally provoke Heseltine’s resignation or gather sympathy for him once he actually had, putting her in an uncomfortably and uncharacteristically defensive position. She knew she was dangerously isolated in Cabinet and among the Tory press where Heseltine had many friends.”

    In many respects, 1986 was defined by Westland. Much happened in its shadow or was judged a consequence of it. It was also a genuine contest for power in the Conservative Party, one that Thatcher came close to losing.

    “It’s no accident that Westland anticipated her final demise in 1990,” added Collins. “Many of the people were the same, the issues too. An argument in cabinet could not be contained and blew out into the street – with rivals chancing their arm against a dangerously isolated leader. The truth is that she was deeply conflicted, angry as hell but painfully aware of her vulnerability.”

    Included in the archives, a day after the resignation, is a warning from her Political Secretary, Stephen Sherbourne, that she must be seen to be in control of events as they unfolded, not merely a bystander. “People want Prime Ministers to be in charge and they expect that from you,” says his letter.

    Also among the papers being released today are those which reveal the scale of opposition for her support of President Reagan’s April bombing of Libya – including that of Norman Tebbit, Conservative Party Chairman, and historically one of Thatcher’s key supporters.

    The clear and continuing discord between the pair makes for uncomfortable reading according to Collins, with Tebbit and other leading figures such as Deputy PM Willie Whitelaw, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Chancellor Nigel Lawson among those vocal in their opposition to giving the US administration what they considered to be a ‘blank cheque’ in prosecuting its bombing campaign against Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya.

    American F-111 bomber aircraft stationed at RAF Lakenheath were used in the raids on the Libyan capital Tripoli, which proved highly controversial in Britain. The raids gained major exposure thanks to the reporting of BBC journalist Kate Adie who was considered to have covered the story coolly and critically from Tripoli.

    The BBC coverage enraged Tebbit who launched a prolonged counterattack which alarmed Number Ten in both its style and substance. Once among Thatcher’s closest allies, by 1986, their relationship had deteriorated remarkably.

    “Number Ten was keen to fight the next election at least in part on the issue of defence where Labour was vulnerable,” added Collins. “Anything that kept Libya in the headlines jeopardised that plan.”

    Tebbit’s attacks on the BBC became so severe, and riled Home Secretary Douglas Hurd so much, that Nigel Wicks, Thatcher’s Personal Private Secretary, warned the PM that Tebbit’s ‘obsession’ with the BBC coverage risked repeating elements of the Westland affair all over again – going against the collective responsibility of the Government  when things had appeared to be settling down.

    Alongside larger worries about national and international affairs, the papers for 1986 also record the concerns of Mrs Thatcher’s advisors when it to plans for the Prime Minister to test drive the new Rover 800 in Downing Street – all in the name of lending a hand to the ailing car manufacturer British Leyland.

    “There were predictable worries,” added Collins. “Her press secretary Bernard Ingham remembered a previous Rover test drive when the firm had delivered a red car. Officials were also worried that the Prime Minister’s driving skills might not be up to scratch!”

    A quiet rehearsal was arranged at Chequers, with the car towed secretively under cover, while plans for the Downing Street drive were formalised. In the end, perhaps buoyed by her experience at Chequers, Mrs Thatcher not only drove the car along Downing Street, but also reversed it, pulling off the manoeuvre flawlessly in front of the assembled press.

    Rover, rather cackhandedly, later attempted to sell her a discounted car under their “VIP Preferential Purchase Scheme”. The offer was never taken up.

    Andrew Riley, Archivist of the Thatcher papers at the Churchill Archives Centre, said: “Margaret Thatcher’s personal papers for 1986, released for the first time today at Churchill Archives Centre, provide unique insights into a year which ultimately proved to date a little over half way into her Premiership. Of course, no one knew in 1986 just how long she would stay at Downing Street but for the first time the issue of “succession” had been dramatically raised.

    “Her political troubles are well documented in the release, especially the dramas of the Westland crisis and her isolation within Cabinet on a number of key foreign policy issues. The release gives a chance for a fresh look at the major political news stories of 1986 and a chance to understand something of the stress of the Prime Minister’s year.”

    Margaret Thatcher’s isolation over Westland and the US bombing of Libya – as well as fears about the standards of her driving – are among the subjects revealed within 40,000 pages of her papers opening to the public today at the Churchill Archives Centre.

    For the first time the issue of “succession” had been dramatically raised.
    Andrew Riley
    Portrait of Margaret Thatcher

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    As convenient shorthand for a brand of politics that has stolen the headlines, ‘populism’ has been used by academics and journalists to describe a host of movements and their leaders at different times and in different parts of the world that appear, at first glance, to have little in common.

    Despite its wide usage in politics, the term remains ill-defined. This is partly because populism is chameleon-like; it changes its appearance depending on what (or whom) it is attached to.

    Most notably, populism has been attributed to right-wing groups and leaders. Top of the list is US President Donald Trump, who has proposed draconian measures to deter illegal immigrants.

    In recent years, however, the term has also been associated with left-wing movements such as Podemos, a Spanish party that wants to introduce voting rights for foreign residents.

    While the term ‘populism’ has become a buzzword, it is certainly not a new phenomenon. The populist label was attached to a late-19th century radical peasant movement in the USA that sought to reform the political system and gave rise to the American People’s Party.

    It has also been used to describe the Narodnik movement formed by a small group of urban elites in 19th-century Russia in a (failed) attempt to incite a peasant revolt.

    Moving forward to the mid-20th century, the term ‘populism’ was used to characterise a new form of political mobilisation in Latin America that emerged with charismatic leaders such as Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina.

    In Western Europe, populism was a relatively rare phenomenon until the end of the 20th century, when it was associated with the emergence of a new wave of nationalist, right-wing parties with an anti-immigration agenda.

    Because the term is often equated with demagogy or political opportunism, populism generally carries a negative connotation. Indeed, it has become a label to denigrate a political opponent. The pejorative, vague and widespread use of the term in the public sphere is perhaps unsurprising given the lack of a definitional consensus in the academic literature.

    Scholars have sought to characterise populism as a strategy, a movement, a doctrine, a political style and rhetoric. What unites most (if not all) definitions of populism is the emphasis it places on the centrality of ‘the people’.

    In 2004, the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde generated a definition that has become highly influential. Mudde conceptualises populism as a ‘thin’ ideology (one that lacks a programmatic core) that is based on the symbolic division of society into two antagonistic groups: ‘the virtuous people’ (who play the role of the underdog) and ‘the evil elite’.

    Populism rarely exists in isolation; indeed, it usually attaches itself to more refined (‘thick’) host-ideologies (eg socialism on the left, and nationalism on the right).

    In recent years, Europe has witnessed the rise of populist parties at both ends of the political spectrum. Since the onset of the refugee crisis, right-wing populist groupings have been gaining momentum.

    Scholars have come up with countless theories to help explain the success of these groups. One way to make sense of the expanding literature is to differentiate between demand- and supply-side explanations.

    Demand-side explanations emphasise the factors that help create a breeding ground for right-wing populist parties to thrive. Classical demand-side explanations include so-called ‘grievance theories’, which hypothesise that broad changes in the international environment, such as immigration and globalisation, can generate insecurity and dissatisfaction with mainstream (consensus) politics.

    An environment of discontent generates fertile soil for right-wing populists, as they present themselves as a refreshing alternative to ‘mainstream’ parties (ie traditional party families in Europe, such as Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals).

    While demand-side factors appear necessary for the rise of right-wing populist parties, they do not guarantee electoral success. The supply side, therefore, looks at how such parties harness this demand.

    Supply-side explanations may include factors like the media landscape, party organisation and leadership, as well as so-called political opportunity structures (institutional arrangements such as the electoral system). For instance, proportional representation (PR) electoral systems generally entail a lower risk of ‘wasted votes’ (votes that do not help elect a candidate), which makes it easier for emerging (smaller) parties (eg populist parties) to access power.

    Against the backdrop of the Brexit vote and the ascent of Donald Trump in the USA, the fear of a renewed swing to the right in European politics looms large in public discourse. In his State of the Union address in September 2016, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, spoke about the dangers of the unprecedented rise of ‘galloping populism’. His statement echoed earlier warnings by European leaders about the rise of populism in response to European crises.

    These warnings were not entirely unfounded. In October 2015, the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei or SVP) scored a record high by securing nearly 30% of the votes in the Swiss federal elections. In December 2015, Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) won the first round of French regional elections. The following year, the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) reached double-digit percentages in their first appearance in German state parliamentary elections in several Bundesländer.

    With the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, 2016 will inevitably be remembered as the year of the populist revolt. This trend may continue in 2017, with important elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

    In the face of these developments, it is important to put the rise of the populist right into a broader perspective. While support for right-wing populist parties has increased in many countries, these parties still have limited access to power. In fact, there is wide variation in the electoral performances of such parties across Western Europe.

    While right-wing populist parties have formed part of (or provided parliamentary support for) national governments in some countries, including Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands, they have been virtually non-existent or unsuccessful in others, such as Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Luxembourg.

    The disparity between Western European countries raises questions about the variation in the electoral fortunes of right-wing populist parties in Europe. Specifically, why do right-wing populist parties emerge and succeed in rallying support in some countries but fail to do so in others?

    Amid the media frenzy, we tend to forget about these ‘negative cases’. Heeding Sherlock Holmes’s advice to pay attention to ‘the dog that didn’t bark’, it makes sense to study the puzzling absence of right-wing populist parties in some polities.

    As academics, we must continue to strive for a deeper understanding of this phenomenon. Populism is not a disease; it is a symptom of a democratic system that is ailing. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about populism. In small doses, it can act as a political corrective: it can flag up discontent and serve as an antidote to voter fatigue.

    If we want to counteract the populist tide, we should start addressing the causes, not the symptoms. We must first tone down our anti-populist rhetoric and find creative ways to revamp our political system. Defaming those who vote for populists will do nothing but provide ammunition to further their cause.

    Léonie de Jonge will be giving a talk on  Right-Wing Populists in Power and Periphery’ at Pembroke College (Nihon Room, Foundress Court) at 6.30-7.15pm on 26 January 2017. All welcome.

    In an article that draws on her research into populism in Western Europe, Léonie de Jonge (PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies) urges a measured approach to movements often viewed as threatening. De Jonge is giving a talk at Pembroke College on 26 January 2017.

    Populism is not a disease; it is a symptom of a democratic system that is ailing. There is nothing inherently undemocratic about populism. In small doses, it can act as a political corrective.
    Léonie de Jonge
    Populism

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    In a landmark constitutional judgment handed down today, the Supreme Court has ruled by 8-3 that Prime Minister Theresa May has no legal power to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and must seek statutory authorisation from Parliament.

    For the Prime Minister to meet her own self-imposed deadline of triggering Article 50 before the end of March, Parliament will need to adopt legislation quickly to put the Brexit bullet in the Article 50 barrel.

    Nothing in today’s Supreme Court ruling can ultimately prevent the UK Government from triggering Article 50. Once Parliament has legislated, Brexit will begin.

    But the decision of the majority of the Supreme Court judges is controversial. Voters will be astonished that they voted in a referendum without the Government having the legal power to implement their wishes if the country voted to leave the EU.

    The case was brought by Gina Miller, an investment manager (the ‘lead claimant’), together with Mr Deir Dos Santos, a hairdresser, both UK citizens resident in the UK. Their claim was supported by a crowd-funded claim – the so-called ‘People’s Challenge’ – in the name of Graeme Pigney and other UK citizens resident in different parts of the UK and in other EU states.

    The Scottish Government will be disappointed with the ruling because, unanimously, the Supreme Court did not accept that the Scottish Parliament must give its consent before Westminster legislates on Brexit.

    SNP MPs may seek to add amendments to the Brexit Bill to be passed by Parliament. These amendments may include a requirement that Holyrood gives its consent to the triggering of Article 50, or may even go so far as to provide a legal basis for a second independence referendum. Although any such amendment would have no hope of being passed, their rejection by Westminster might be used as evidence by the SNP that Scotland’s future lies inside the EU, but outside the UK.

    In her Lancaster House speech last week, the Prime Minister accepted that both Houses of Parliament will be given a vote on the withdrawal agreement once the Brexit negotiations have ended.

    Any risk of Parliament derailing Brexit will come at the end of the Article 50 process, rather than the beginning. And that could lead the UK into an early General Election, throwing the whole withdrawal from the EU into chaos.

    Kenneth Armstrong is Professor of European Law at the University of Cambridge. His new book, Brexit Time, will be published by Cambridge University Press in the Spring.

    Cambridge’s Professor of European Law reacts to the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling

    Voters will be astonished that they voted in a referendum without the Government having the legal power to implement their wishes if the country voted to leave the EU.
    Kenneth Armstrong
    Supreme Court Library ceiling

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    Cooperatively breeding mammal species, such as meerkats and naked-mole rats, where non-breeding helpers assist breeding females in raising their offspring, are better able to cope with living in dry areas than related non-cooperative species, new research reveals.

    A comparative study of mammals, by University of Cambridge researchers Dieter Lukas and Tim Clutton-Brock, shows that cooperatively breeding species occur in dry areas, yet are absent in tropical climates - even though these are the places on earth with the highest biodiversity.

    Researchers have found that most cooperatively breeding mammals live in areas where it might not rain for weeks. While many have long argued that climate and social behaviour are linked, the Cambridge team say these findings provide a detailed understanding of how helping behaviour is connected to the environment individuals live in.

    “Rainfall often affects food availability, and cooperatively breeding mammals appear better able to cope with the uncertainties of food availability during periods of drought,” said Lukas, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

    In this study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers mapped the global occurrence of mammalian species living in different social systems to determine how averages and variation in rainfall and temperature explain species distributions.

    They found that although the presence of non-breeding adults in breeding groups is not associated with contrasts in climate, non-breeders commonly play an important role in raising the offspring of breeders in species living in dry environments.

    “Long-term field studies show that helpers improve offspring survival, and our findings highlight that such cooperation is particularly important under harsh conditions,” said Clutton-Brock. Previous studies of birds show that here, too, non-breeding adults often help breeders to raise their young in species living in dry unpredictable environments.

    Researchers say the activities of helpers in groups of cooperative mammals may ensure that infants and juveniles born in the group (who are usually closely related to them) are adequately fed, even when resources are scare.

    In turn, non-breeders may gain future benefits from helping because it increases their chance that their group will survive adverse years, giving them a chance of inheriting the breeding position.

    Groups of cooperative breeders occupy territories year-round. During droughts, mortality can be high, and only the largest groups might persist. “However, females in cooperatively breeding mammals can have very high rates of reproduction as soon as conditions are suitable. Populations can rebound, and dispersers move to fill vacant territories,” said Lukas.

    By contrast, he says that many other mammals that live in arid areas are migratory, moving as resources are exhausted, such as the large ungulate herds roaming across the African savannahs.  

    Researchers say the new study also indicates that cooperation enables cooperative breeders to occupy a wider range of habitats than non-cooperative species which are limited to more favourable habitats.

    Cooperative breeders are also twice as likely as non-cooperative mammals to occupy human-modified habitats suggesting that cooperative breeding may make it possible to colonize new environments. “Cooperative breeders may also persist in areas where changes in climate make life increasingly difficult,” said Clutton-Brock. 

    New research suggests that cooperative breeding makes mammal species such as meerkats better suited to dry, harsh climates.  

    Cooperative breeders may also persist in areas where changes in climate make life increasingly difficult
    Tim Clutton-Brock
    Meerkats

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    Writing in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews the team describes how new analysis of the partly fossilised remains of a tree killed by the eruption, and ice cores drilled in Greenland, lead them to conclude the eruption occurred in the final months of 946 AD.

    The volcano, also known as Mount Paektu, is located on the border between China and North Korea. The team of researchers, led by Dr. Clive Oppenheimer from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography, set out to establish an accurate date for the event by making new radiocarbon measurements on a fossilised larch trunk recovered from the Chinese side of the volcano. The tree was 264 years old when it was killed and buried by a flow of larva, hot ashand pumice.  

    Armed with new information, the modern-day time detectives set about ascertaining when this could have happened. They reckoned the tree would have been standing in 775, a year that was marked by a burst of cosmic rays reaching the Earth. Evidence of this event, in the shape of radiocarbon, was found in one of the tree’s rings and by counting to the outer ring, the team was able to work out when the tree must have perished. Further analysis indicates it had stopped its seasonal growth suggesting Autumn or Winter as the likely time of its demise.

    By cross-referencing with ash deposits found in ice cores drilled in northern Greenland, the team could narrow down the calculation to the last 2 or 3 months of 946 AD.

    Lead author, Dr Oppenheimer says:

    “The Millennium eruption has fascinated scientists and historians for decades because of its size, potential worldwide impacts, and the mystery surrounding when it actually happened. Lacking a clear historical record of the event, there have been dozens of attempts to date the eruption using conventional tree ring techniques. We got lucky thanks to the burst of cosmic radiation that bathed the Earth in the year 775. It was only recently recognised that this left a worldwide signature in trees alive at the time. Now we have a secure date for the eruption at last, we can be more confident in investigating the effects it has on the climate, environment and society.”

    The fossilised tree trunk recovered from the side of the volcano

    Previous attempts to date the eruption had led historians to scan medieval texts for clues. Some argued the event led to the collapse of the Bohai kingdom (698-925 AD), however the findings now prove this predated the eruption. The kingdom spanned a vast area of what was then eastern Manchuria and northern Korea. The new date focuses attention instead on a chronicle from a temple in Japan that reports “white ash falling like snow” on the 3rd November 946 AD. This site is not near any of Japan’s active volcanoes, and is close to where ash from the Millennium eruption has recently been identified in lake sediments. It may well pinpoint the actual date of the eruption since it would only have taken the ash clouds a day or so to reach Japan. 

    Changbaishan is a site revered by the Koreans. It is steeped in folklore and Koreans see it as their spiritual and ancestral home. Its eruption in 946 was one of the most violent of the last two thousand years and is thought to have discharged around 100 cubic kilometres of ash and pumice into the atmosphere – enough to bury the entire UK knee deep.  

    Clive Oppenheimer et al “Multi-proxy dating the ‘Millennium Eruption’ to late 946 CE" (DOI:10.1016/j.quascirev.2016.12.024)

    An international team of researchers has managed to pinpoint, to within three months, a medieval volcanic eruption in east Asia the precise date of which has puzzled historians for decades. They have also shown that the so-called “Millennium eruption” of Changbaishan volcano, one of the largest in history, cannot have brought about the downfall of an important 10th century kingdom, as was previously thought.

    Now we have a secure date for the eruption at last, we can be more confident in investigating the effects it has on the climate, environment and society
    Clive Oppenheimer
    Changbaishan volcanic crater

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    According to psychologists, the extraordinary variety of human personality can be broken down into the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits, namely neuroticism (how moody a person is), extraversion (how enthusiastic a person is), openness (how open-minded a person is), agreeableness (a measure of altruism), and conscientiousness (a measure of self-control).

    In a study published today in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, an international team of researchers from the UK, US, and Italy have analysed a brain imaging dataset from over 500 individuals that has been made publicly available by the Human Connectome Project, a major US initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health. In particular, the researchers looked at differences in the brain cortical anatomy (the structure of the outer layer of the brain) as indexed by three measures – the thickness, area, and amount of folding in the cortex – and how these measures related to the Big Five personality traits.

    “Evolution has shaped our brain anatomy in a way that maximizes its area and folding at the expense of reduced thickness of the cortex,” explains Dr Luca Passamonti from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge. “It’s like stretching and folding a rubber sheet – this increases the surface area, but at the same time the sheet itself becomes thinner. We refer to this as the ‘cortical stretching hypothesis’.”

    “Cortical stretching is a key evolutionary mechanism that enabled human brains to expand rapidly while still fitting into our skulls, which grew at a slower rate than the brain,” adds Professor Antonio Terracciano from the Department of Geriatrics at the Florida State University. “Interestingly, this same process occurs as we develop and grow in the womb and throughout childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood: the thickness of the cortex tends to decrease while the area and folding increase.”

    In addition, as we get older, neuroticism goes down – we become better at handling emotions. At the same time, conscientiousness and agreeableness go up – we become progressively more responsible and less antagonistic.

    The researchers found that high levels of neuroticism, which may predispose people to develop neuropsychiatric disorders, were associated with increased thickness as well as reduced area and folding in some regions of the cortex such as the prefrontal-temporal cortices at the front of the brain.

    In contrast, openness, which is a personality trait linked with curiosity, creativity and a preference for variety and novelty, was associated with the opposite pattern, reduced thickness and an increase in area and folding in some prefrontal cortices.

    “Our work supports the notion that personality is, to some degree, associated with brain maturation, a developmental process that is strongly influenced by genetic factors,” says Dr Roberta Riccelli from Italy.

    “Of course, we are continually shaped by our experiences and environment, but the fact that we see clear differences in brain structure which are linked with differences in personality traits suggests that there will almost certainly be an element of genetics involved,” says Professor Nicola Toschi from the University ‘Tor Vergata’ in Rome. “This is also in keeping with the notion that differences in personality traits can be detected early on during development, for example in toddlers or infants.”

    The volunteers whose brains were imaged as part of the Human Connectome Project were all healthy individuals aged between 22 and 36 years with no history of neuro-psychiatric or other major medical problems. However, the relationship between differences in brain structure and personality traits in these people suggests that the differences may be even more pronounced in people who are more likely to experience neuro-psychiatric illnesses.

    “Linking how brain structure is related to basic personality traits is a crucial step to improving our understanding of the link between the brain morphology and particular mood, cognitive, or behavioural disorders,” adds Dr Passamonti. “We also need to have a better understanding of the relation between brain structure and function in healthy people to figure out what is different in people with neuropsychiatric disorders.”

    This is not the first time the researchers have found links between our brain structure and behaviour. A study published by the group last year found that the brains of teenagers with serious antisocial behaviour problems differ significantly in structure to those of their peers.

    Reference
    Riccelli, R et al. Surface-based morphometry reveals the neuroanatomical basis of the five-factor model. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience; 25 Jan 2016; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsw175

    Our personality may be shaped by how our brain works, but in fact the shape of our brain can itself provide surprising clues about how we behave – and our risk of developing mental health disorders – suggests a study published today.

    Linking how brain structure is related to basic personality traits is a crucial step to improving our understanding of the link between the brain morphology and particular mood, cognitive, or behavioural disorders
    Luca Passamonti
    Drain Brain Spider

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    The research will prioritise ‘difficult-to-diagnose’ cancers, which are also associated with poorer survival outcomes, and will look at both existing and novel technologies.

    Dr Walter, from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, says: “We know that GPs sometimes have to wait weeks for results before they can make any decisions for their patients. We’re trying to reduce this time by assessing ways that GPs could carry out the tests by themselves, as long as it’s safe and sensible to do so. We are open to assessing many different tests, and we’re excited to hear from potential collaborators.”

    The Award aims to boost progress aligned to Cancer Research UK’s strategic priorities by building new collaborations within and between institutions, also involving researchers based at the University of Exeter, UCL (University College London), the University of Leeds and a number of international institutions.

    “This is a fantastic opportunity to transform cancer diagnosis and we are delighted that Cancer Research UK is investing so substantially in primary care cancer research,” adds Dr Walter. “This award will enable us to nurture a new generation of researchers from a variety of backgrounds to work in primary care cancer diagnostics, creating an educational ‘melting pot’ to rapidly expand the field internationally.”

    The Catalyst Award supports capacity building and collaboration in population health with up to £5 million awarded to enable teams to deliver impact over and above what they could do alone.

    Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “This collaboration will help us discover new and more effective ways to diagnose cancer by applying different methods to GP surgeries, and finding out what really works for them on the job.

    “By investing in future experts in this field, it will allow us to continue searching for the best way to diagnose cancer patients for many years to come. This has potential not only to save GPs’ and patients’ time, but also to reduce the anxiety patients feel when waiting for their results.”

    Adapted from a press release by Cancer Research UK.

    Researchers in Cambridge are set to receive a £5m Cancer Research UK’s Catalyst Award to improve the early detection of cancers in GP surgeries. The CanTest team, led by Dr Fiona Walter from the University of Cambridge, will work with researchers in three UK sites and across the globe on a five year project that will help GPs to detect cancers in a primary care setting, enabling patients to benefit from innovative approaches and new technologies, and reducing the burden of referrals.

    We know that GPs sometimes have to wait weeks for results before they can make any decisions for their patients. We’re trying to reduce this time by assessing ways that GPs could carry out the tests by themselves, as long as it’s safe and sensible to do so
    Fiona Walter
    Georgia Guidestones - Cancer (cropped and edited)

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    The research adds to increasing evidence that household pets may have a major influence on child development, and could have a positive impact on children’s social skills and emotional well-being.       

    Pets are almost as common as siblings in western households, although there are relatively few studies on the importance of child-pet relationships.

    ‘‘Anyone who has loved a childhood pet knows that we turn to them for companionship and disclosure, just like relationships between people,” says Matt Cassells, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Department of Psychiatry, who led the study. “We wanted to know how strong these relationships are with pets relative to other close family ties. Ultimately this may enable us to understand how animals contribute to healthy child development”

    This study, published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, was conducted in collaboration with the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, part of Mars Petcare and co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a larger study, led by Prof Claire Hughes at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research. Researchers surveyed 12 year old children from 77 families with one or more pets of any type and more than one child at home. Children reported strong relationships with their pets relative to their siblings, with lower levels of conflict and greater satisfaction in owners of dogs than other kinds of pets.

    ‘‘Even though pets may not fully understand or respond verbally, the level of disclosure to pets was no less than to siblings,” says Cassels. “The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental.

    “While previous research has often found that boys report stronger relationships with their pets than girls do, we actually found the opposite. While boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys, perhaps indicating that girls may interact with their pets in more nuanced ways.’’ 

    “Evidence continues to grow showing that pets have positive benefits on human health and community cohesion,” says Dr Nancy Gee, Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager at WALTHAM and a co-author of the study. “The social support that adolescents receive from pets may well support psychological well-being later in life but there is still more to learn about the long term impact of pets on children’s development.”

    Reference
    ​Cassells, M et al. One of the family? Measuring early adolescents' relationships with pets and siblings. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology; 24 Jan 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2017.01.003

    Adapted from a press release by WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition.

    Children get more satisfaction from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters, according to new research from the University of Cambridge. Children also appear to get on even better with their animal companions than with siblings.

    The fact that pets cannot understand or talk back may even be a benefit as it means they are completely non-judgmental
    Matt Cassells
    0216

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    More than 6,000 Cambridge undergraduate and graduate students responded to the survey. The mix of gender (52% female, 48% male) and level of study (67% undergraduate and 33% postgraduate) of survey respondents reflects that found in Cambridge’s student body.

    While the results of any survey of this type should be interpreted with caution, the general patterns of the results suggest that Cambridge students’ experiences of alcohol are similar to those of their counterparts in other UK universities, when compared to a survey of students at 21 higher education institutions carried out in 2016 by the National Union of Students (NUS).

    The Cambridge survey showed:

    • A high proportion of students felt there was a need for more alcohol-free spaces (40%).
    • A quarter of Cambridge students drink to get drunk regularly, compared to 41% in the NUS survey.
    • Pre-drinking, while popular in Cambridge (46%) was less common than the NUS survey suggested (67%). 

    • Far fewer students in Cambridge (38%) think getting drunk is part of University culture (compared to 85% in the NUS survey). 

    • Just over a quarter of Cambridge students (26%) thought they had compromised their personal safety when drinking, compared to 52% in the NUS survey.
    • Students drink for a mixture of reasons, with most not normally thinking about why they do so. Reasons for drinking included having fun (73%), to relax after a hard day (42%), peer pressure (20%), social routine (36%), and to overcome anxiety (18%). 

    • 21% of students reported sexual harassment (drinkers and non-drinkers), with 74% of those 
believing that alcohol had, in some way, been a factor (there are no comparative figures in the NUS survey).
    • 3% of Cambridge students reported sexual assault (drinkers and non-drinkers) with 67% of 
those believing that alcohol had, in some way, been a factor (there are no comparative figures in the NUS survey). 


    Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: “We undertook this survey, not only because alcohol misuse is a serious public health issue which we have a moral responsibility to engage with, but also because we take the welfare of our students extremely seriously. We pride ourselves on our collegiate structure at Cambridge and the strengths this brings in ensuring exceptional levels of pastoral care for our students. Promoting safer drinking is one way we can encourage and support student wellbeing.

    “However, the issues associated with alcohol consumption that emerge from the Cambridge survey, by and large, mirror those highlighted in the NUS survey and also tally with what we know to be wider societal trends and challenges.

    “It is reassuring to know that we are not alone in facing these challenges but we cannot use the fact that alcohol misuse is multifactorial and societally endemic as an excuse for inaction and the outcomes from the survey helpfully highlight areas we can focus our energy to enact small but significant cultural change within the student body.”

    The results, together with the results of the NUS survey, will be used to inform policies and initiatives aimed at giving advice and support to students. This is likely to include training for staff who interact with students, consideration of introducing alcohol-free spaces, and a campaign to address common misconceptions about the effects of alcohol.

    The data detailing the negative impacts in particular will aid the University in its work to promote safer drinking. The inclusion of sexual harassment and assault data in the survey will also feed into ongoing work, both in Cambridge and nationally, to understand and prevent incidences of sexual harassment and assault. 

    A student drinking survey carried out by the University of Cambridge suggests that while almost 30 per cent of students do not drink, a similar percentage drink more than the recommended weekly limit. 

    Promoting safer drinking is one way we can encourage and support student wellbeing.
    Graham Virgo
    Pints

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    Researchers have identified traces of what they believe is the earliest known prehistoric ancestor of humans – a microscopic, bag-like sea creature, which lived about 540 million years ago.

    Named Saccorhytus, after the sack-like features created by its elliptical body and large mouth, the species is new to science and was identified from microfossils found in China. It is thought to be the most primitive example of a so-called “deuterostome” – a broad biological category that encompasses a number of sub-groups, including the vertebrates.

    If the conclusions of the study, published in the journal Nature, are correct, then Saccorhytus was the common ancestor of a huge range of species, and the earliest step yet discovered on the evolutionary path that eventually led to humans, hundreds of millions of years later.

    Modern humans are, however, unlikely to perceive much by way of a family resemblance. Saccorhytus was about a millimetre in size, and probably lived between grains of sand on the seabed. Its features were spectacularly preserved in the fossil record – and intriguingly, the researchers were unable to find any evidence that the animal had an anus.

    The study was carried out by an international team of academics, including researchers from the University of Cambridge in the UK and Northwest University in Xi’an China, with support from other colleagues at institutions in China and Germany.

    Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology and a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, said: “We think that as an early deuterostome this may represent the primitive beginnings of a very diverse range of species, including ourselves. To the naked eye, the fossils we studied look like tiny black grains, but under the microscope the level of detail is jaw-dropping. All deuterostomes had a common ancestor, and we think that is what we are looking at here.”

    Degan Shu, from Northwest University, added: “Our team has notched up some important discoveries in the past, including the earliest fish and a remarkable variety of other early deuterostomes. Saccorhytus now gives us remarkable insights into the very first stages of the evolution of a group that led to the fish, and ultimately, to us.”

     

     

    Most other early deuterostome groups are from about 510 to 520 million years ago, when they had already begun to diversify into not just the vertebrates, but the sea squirts, echinoderms (animals such as starfish and sea urchins) and hemichordates (a group including things like acorn worms). This level of diversity has made it extremely difficult to work out what an earlier, common ancestor might have looked like.

    The Saccorhytus microfossils were found in Shaanxi Province, in central China, and pre-date all other known deuterostomes. By isolating the fossils from the surrounding rock, and then studying them both under an electron microscope and using a CT scan, the team were able to build up a picture of how Saccorhytus might have looked and lived. This revealed features and characteristics consistent with current assumptions about primitive deuterostomes.

    Dr Jian Han, of Northwest University, said: “We had to process enormous volumes of limestone – about three tonnes – to get to the fossils, but a steady stream of new finds allowed us to tackle some key questions: was this a very early echinoderm, or something even more primitive? The latter now seems to be the correct answer.”

    In the early Cambrian period, the region would have been a shallow sea. Saccorhytus was so small that it probably lived in between individual grains of sediment on the sea bed.

    The study suggests that its body was bilaterally symmetrical – a characteristic inherited by many of its descendants, including humans – and was covered with a thin, relatively flexible skin. This in turn suggests that it had some sort of musculature, leading the researchers to conclude that it could have made contractile movements, and got around by wriggling.

    Perhaps its most striking feature, however, was its rather primitive means of eating food and then dispensing with the resulting waste. Saccorhytus had a large mouth, relative to the rest of its body, and probably ate by engulfing food particles, or even other creatures.

    A crucial observation are small conical structures on its body. These may have allowed the water that it swallowed to escape and so were perhaps the evolutionary precursor of the gills we now see in fish. But the researchers were unable to find any evidence that the creature had an anus. “If that was the case, then any waste material would simply have been taken out back through the mouth, which from our perspective sounds rather unappealing,” Conway Morris said.

    The findings also provide evidence in support of a theory explaining the long-standing mismatch between fossil evidence of prehistoric life, and the record provided by biomolecular data, known as the “molecular clock”.

    Technically, it is possible to estimate roughly when species diverged by looking at differences in their genetic information. In principle, the longer two groups have evolved separately, the greater the biomolecular difference between them should be, and there are reasons to think this process is more or less clock-like.

    Unfortunately, before a point corresponding roughly to the time at which Saccorhytus was wriggling in the mud, there are scarcely any fossils available to match the molecular clock’s predictions. Some researchers have theorised that this is because before a certain point, many of the creatures they are searching for were simply too small to leave much of a fossil record. The microscopic scale of Saccorhytus, combined with the fact that it is probably the most primitive deuterostome yet discovered, appears to back this up.

    The findings are published in Nature. Reference: Jian Han, Simon Conway Morris, Qiang Ou, Degan Shu and Hai Huang. Meiofaunal deuterostomes from the basal Cambrian of Shaanxi (China). DOI: 10.1038/nature21072

    Inset image: Photographs of the fossils show the spectacularly detailed levels of preservation which allowed researchers to identify and study the creature. Credit: Jian Han.

    A tiny sea creature identified from fossils found in China may be the earliest known step on an evolutionary path that eventually led to the emergence of humans

    We think that as an early deuterostome this may represent the primitive beginnings of a very diverse range of species, including ourselves
    Simon Conway Morris
    Artist’s reconstruction of Saccorhytus coronarius, based on the original fossil finds. The actual creature was probably no more than a millimetre in size

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    The University of Cambridge is a global community of scholars.

    For centuries, it has thrived on the talent and the ideas brought by people from around the world. It has, in turn, contributed to global knowledge through the free movement of its students and researchers. We believe that diversity – of nationality, of background and of opinion – is one of our greatest strengths.

    The recent executive order issued by the United States government, imposing a ban on nationals of seven Muslim-majority nations, is an affront to one of the most fundamental human freedoms.

    As the head of a university whose staff is actively engaged in research collaborations around the world, I cannot accept a policy that undermines academic freedom, disrupts partnerships, and blocks the pathways to understanding between peoples, faiths and nations.

    As the son of a family of refugees welcomed by Britain after the Second World War, I abhor a discriminatory policy that further endangers the lives of people who have fled conflict and sought sanctuary elsewhere.

    While we acknowledge that a country must have the right to manage its own borders, this ban is fundamentally at odds with the values of openness, tolerance and evidence-based decision-making that the University of Cambridge stands for.

    Implementation of the executive order may curtail some of our researchers’ ability to attend academic events, work with colleagues, and in some cases even meet with their families in the United States.

    Although we are not yet aware of any specific cases, the University of Cambridge will provide guidance and support to any of its students or members of staff affected by the travel ban.

    We are determined to champion openness, and the free exchange of knowledge across borders. Even as governments around the world seek to curb freedom of movement, the University of Cambridge remains committed to welcoming the best and brightest students and staff— irrespective of their nationality.

    ---

    Students concerned about the potential impact on their travel plans of new restrictions on entry to the United States can contact the International Student Team; staff members with similar concerns can contact the University's Immigration and Compliance Manager.

    "The executive order issued by the United States government is an affront to one of the most fundamental human freedoms," says Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

    I cannot accept a policy that undermines academic freedom, disrupts partnerships, and blocks the pathways to understanding between peoples
    Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

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    Isobel Firth
    Isobel Firth (Newnham College) BA Natural Sciences (2016)
     
    I graduated last summer and I’m currently working with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), a non-profit organisation based in Geneva that develops treatments for neglected diseases and patients with a public health focus. 
     
    I’m working in the paediatric HIV and Hepatitis C programmes with a very experienced and interdisciplinary team. The projects are a fantastic mixture of medicine, chemistry, law and public health rolled into one and I’m learning lots about the world of drug development. 
     
    In the HIV project we are working to provide a treatment for children with HIV which is practical to dose, easy to administer, in a taste-masked formulation, and which is available to infants as soon as they are diagnosed with HIV. This is vital because early treatment makes the difference between life and death for these children. The Hepatitis C project is focussed on developing an affordable treatment for Hepatitis C as the current treatment options are too expensive for the majority of people living with the disease which can eventually lead to liver cancer. 
     
    The work I do on these projects is varied, including literature reviews, presenting and analysing scientific data on potential drug candidates and editing scientific papers for peer review. These all require skills I developed during my time at Cambridge. Working here has confirmed my interest in a career in public health, and the experience of working in this organisation will help in making that a reality.  
     
    What Cambridge did for me
     
    On the Natural Sciences course, I had to write scientific essays for supervisions which left nowhere to hide – if you have misunderstood a topic it becomes very obvious. I had never written a scientific essay before coming to Cambridge and the first few took me days to write but I slowly improved through practice. In my final year I did a laboratory research project where, along with other practical lab skills, I learnt the ropes of academic science writing which I use all the time in my current job. 
     
    On top of my studies, I was part of the Cambridge University Swimming and Water Polo Club (CUSWPC) throughout my three years and was president of the club in my final year. This involved organising events such as alumni meals and our historic varsity match against Oxford, and lobbying for greater provision for sports clubs within the university. Many of the skills I now have in the workplace were developed as a result of being involved with CUSWPC and it was definitely the best thing I did while at Cambridge. 
     
    When I was applying to do a Masters in public health I met with a Cambridge careers advisor who helped me to re-engineer my CV and, as a bonus, told me about the Cambridge Global Health Scheme. I applied with little hope but was accepted onto the scheme which led me to an internship at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. It was a fantastic experience for someone with aspirations in public health and I was lucky to have the experience so early in my career. Through that, I began an internship with DNDi in Geneva – this wouldn’t have been possible without the University’s Global Health Scheme.
     
    My motivation
     
    I was always impressed, if not intimidated, by the calibre of research going on at Cambridge. I understood that it was, in some abstract way, impactful down the line, however my real interest was how incredible scientific innovation translates into positive change. For that reason, I wanted to use my scientific background to work in public health, where science meets the harsh reality of economics and politics. 
     
    Bridging the gap between innovation and health intervention for the most needy is what motivates me now, which is why the work of DNDi appealed to me so much. Their motto is ‘the best science for the most neglected’ which means that the organisation is the vital link between a eureka moment at the laboratory bench and helping people with diseases for which they would not otherwise get treatment. 
     
    Applying to Cambridge
     
    I went to a local comprehensive school in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I had great teachers who inspired me to learn science and helped me with the things I found difficult (thanks Mrs Nicholl for all the help). My school would generally have a couple of Oxbridge applicants every year but I had almost no preparation for my Cambridge interview. Following one good interview and one terrible interview at the College I applied to, I was offered a place in the Winter Pool by a different College, Newnham, where I happily completed my three year Natural Sciences degree.
     
    Starting at Cambridge was intense, the first year Natural Sciences course is extremely full on and I don’t think any of us, whatever schools we had been to, were prepared for it. We helped each other through it and when I received my good results at the end of first year, I realised that I wasn’t as out of my depth at Cambridge as I sometimes felt. 

    Cambridge graduates enter a wide range of careers but making a difference tops their career wish lists. In this series, inspiring graduates from the last three years describe Cambridge, their current work and their determination to give back.

    Bridging the gap between innovation and health intervention for the most needy is what motivates me
    Isobel Firth (alumna)
    Isobel Firth (alumna)

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    American farmers and food producers are said to be licking their lips at the trade opportunities opening up as Britain exits the single European market. But is the British public ready to consume chickens cleaned with chlorine, more genetically modified crops, fizzy drinks made with brominated vegetable oils (emulsifiers), or beef produced with growth-promoting hormones?

    Practices such as these are currently prohibited in the EU, leading to a situation where health-related legislation, backed by scientific claims, acts as an effective trade barrier against US food products. Also citing scientifically verified health concerns, the USA has, in turn, banned EU-produced beef for decades after a series of BSE (or Mad Cow Disease) scares in the 1990s. While both continents will continue to use scientific claims to justify trade controls, where does the UK stand with its free trade aspirations?

    Scientific claims surrounding the safety of food processing techniques are nothing new. Indeed, the use of new chemical food ingredients in 19th-century food provides one of the earliest examples of how governments and businesses appeal to science and scientists to help protect trade from foreign competition.

    Aniline and azo dyes, produced for Europe’s booming 19th-century textile industry, were among the first commercial commodities, including drugs, perfumes and flavourings, which chemists began to synthesise. These chemicals were produced on an industrial-scale from coal-tar, a waste product of the gas industry.

    The new synthetic dyes, whose commercial potential was first recognised by Britain’s William Perkin in 1856, were greeted by the Victorian press as ‘wonders’ of science. Within a few years, they began to be used to colour a wide range of food products such as butter, margarine, milk, wines, noodles, jams and confectionery.

    The mid-19th century was a period when food adulteration was of considerable social concern.  Growing public distrust surrounded the provenance of food and its growing industrialisation. Governments and municipal authorities in Britain, continental Europe and the USA appointed chemists to test for food adulteration, while food producers recruited chemists to improve their food processing techniques and to fend off accusations of food manipulation.

    While general awareness of the use of textile dyes in food increased, and reports of their possible toxicity emerged, health activists, politicians and businessmen turned to chemists to find answers. Chemists, however, were unable to agree on accurate methods to detect these new chemical substances in food or to assess their toxicity.

    Many chemists believed the new dyes were preferable to the toxic metals and minerals – such as lead, copper and arsenic – previously used to colour food. These chemists argued that the new synthetic dyes were a harmless and scientific way to colour and preserve food, helping to increase the range and variety of food available to the public. Other chemists, however, claimed that the safety of the new dyes was not established, and that they were being used illicitly to disguise the quality of food products and deceive the consumer.

    A lack of scientific consensus, differing political ideologies and successful lobbying by specific business groups led to a geographically divergent regulatory response. Germany was one the first countries to introduce legislation.

    By 1887 Germany was the world’s leading producer of chemical dyes, and its chemical industry was a key constituent of its growing industrial economy. It was certainly in the interest of Germany, and German chemists and industrialists, to maintain public confidence in the new chemical substances being produced by companies such as BASF, Bayer and Hoechst. To strengthen public trust in the new chemicals, Germany and several other European countries, chose to ban a limited number of specified aniline dyes considered to be toxic.

    This form of regulation meant that hundreds of other aniline and azo dyes not named in the legislation could be marketed as ‘harmless’ and used in food production, despite the fact that the health effects of most of the legally allowed dyes had never been assessed. As a result, chemical food additives effectively became legitimised as a result of legislation aimed to protect the consumer.

    The USA, meanwhile, opted for a different and more precautionary approach. It was an approach that reinforced the use of the new textile dyes in food and proved beneficial for US businesses.

    Instead of banning a few dyes known to be toxic, the US government recommended the use of just seven specified dyes for food colouring. All seven dyes had to be certified by the US government.  This strategy, which effectively opened up a new legitimised and specialised market for food dyes, was eagerly embraced by US chemical companies as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their bigger European competitors.

    Meanwhile, Britain, in pursuing laissez faire, free-market trade policies, opted for no prescriptive legislation. The British government relied on general food law that prohibited the use of food ingredients capable of poisoning or being used to defraud the consumer, without specifying any particular substances.

    As detecting the use of the new dyes in food was almost impossible, and because there was little scientific consensus as to which dyes were harmful, this form of legislation effectively resulted in chemical substances becoming increasingly used, but rarely disclosed, as food ingredients.

    In the late 19th century, the use of chemical dyes in food lay at the heart of a negotiation between freedom of trade, consumer choice and the support of commercial practices versus consumer protection, public health and greater transparency.

    Legislation, allegedly based on science, failed to resolve the controversies surrounding the risks and benefits of chemical food additives, which remain the focus of considerable debate 150 years later. Instead, regulations, designed to protect public health, acted as trade barriers used to protect domestic businesses.

    Although the regulatory list of permitted and safe food ingredients used today in Europe, so-called E-numbers, is more like the original regulatory approach adopted by the US in 1906, there is still a significant difference in opinion between European and US regulators, businesses and scientists as to which chemicals can be safely used in food.

    History shows that interested parties invoke science for different purposes, whether consumer groups trying to protect public health or business trying to stave off competition. For the country’s future physical and economic health, the British public and British businesses need to keep a watchful eye on future trade talks between President Trump and Prime Minister May as Britain exits the trade and regulatory regime of the EU.

    As the UK prepares to leave the EU, trade regimes are being reconfigured. Research into 19th-century trade regulations by Carolyn Cobbold, historian of science, shows that scientific claims play a significant role in shaping international trade. She urges us to heed the lessons of the past.

    Is the British public ready to consume chickens cleaned with chlorine, more genetically modified crops, or beef produced with growth-promoting hormones?
    GM sweetcorn

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    LGBT+ History Month takes place every February, and promotes equality and diversity by increasing the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, their history, lives and experience; as well as raising awareness and advancing education on matters affecting the LGBT+ community.

    On Tuesday, 7 February, Professor Elena Rodriguez Falcon will share her experiences of being an out lesbian engineer at the University of Sheffield in the LGBT+ History Month Lecture, organised by the University’s LGBT+ Staff Network. Professor Rodriguez Falcon is Professor of Enterprise and Engineering Education, Director of Enterprise Education, and Faculty Director of External Affairs and Communications at Sheffield.

    The recent #ILookLikeanEngineer social media campaign, which Professor Rodriguez Falcon passionately supported, has helped raised the profile of women working in the area. But it also made her think about other conversations about diversity that sector could be having. Her lecture, which is open to all, will take place on 7 February at the McGrath Centre, St Catharine’s College. Bookings can be made at https://lgbthmfeb72017.eventbrite.co.uk.

    On 28 February, the University will welcome Stuart Milk, international human rights activist, LGBT rights speaker, government relations consultant, and youth advocate. He is the co-founder and Board President of the all-volunteer Harvey Milk Foundation. As the nephew of Harvey Milk, the iconic civil rights leader, Stuart has taken his uncle’s message of authenticity, example of courage and the power of collaboration onto the global stage supporting local, regional and national human rights struggles and emerging LGBT communities on five continents. His talk will take place at the McCrum Theatre, Corpus Christi College. Bookings can be made at www.equality.admin.cam.ac.uk/events.

    Pembroke College is holding a series of events throughout the month, covering topics such as Trans experiences of health care, support LGBT+ prisoners, lesbian and gay parent families, and LGBT+ leadership in Cambridge. Pembroke is one of many Cambridge Colleges which will be flying the rainbow flag for all or part of February.

    “Flying the Rainbow Flag at Pembroke sends out a clear signal that the LGBTQ+ community has a home at the college, recognising Pembroke's diverse, open and tolerant atmosphere and the welcoming nature of its staff and students,” said George Severs, Pembroke’s LGBTQ+ Officer. “In elite institutions such as the University of Cambridge, people with minority status can often feel ostracised, unappreciated or ignored. Flying the rainbow flag sends a defiant message to all who see it that Pembroke College, Cambridge is a home welcome to all.”

    A number of student-run events are taking place this month, coordinated by the Cambridge University LGBT+ Campaign. A calendar of events is available on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lgbtcusu/.

    In addition to University and College events, there are more than 20 events taking place around Cambridgeshire to mark LGBT+ History Month. Further details are available at encompassnetwork.org.uk

    Today is the start of LGBT+ History Month, which will be marked with a series of public events at the University throughout February. Public lectures from leading LGBT+ activists Stuart Milk and Professor Elena Rodriguez Falcon are among the highlights for the month, along with a number of College and student-organised events.

    Rainbow

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  • 02/01/17--07:05: Cambridge and Africa
  • Collaboration with Africa is embedded in the University of Cambridge’s DNA. I am paraphrasing our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, but there is no better way to describe the scale and vitality of Cambridge’s partnership with the continent. This month, here and in our research magazine, we celebrate some of these partnerships that have made Cambridge one of the world’s leading universities for engaging with and supporting African research. 

    Many of our researchers have long worked with African colleagues on issues that matter not just to the continent but to the world. Our Centre of African Studies, a hub for Africa-based scholarship, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015. And our Cambridge-Africa Programme provides a framework that makes the mentorship and personal commitment of our researchers available to African researchers working in Africa on African priorities.

    Africa is a region of rapid economic, demographic and population growth, with unresolved challenges in areas such as health, education, governance, poverty and nutrition. It has excellent researchers, but too few to train and mentor the millions it needs to accelerate its progress. It has good universities but many are too under-resourced to be internationally competitive. This is where global, research-driven universities across the world can help.

    Engagement through research partnership and capacity building is embodied in the Cambridge-Africa Programme. Today, the Programme supports African researchers in 58 institutions in 26 African countries; its various schemes link PhD, postdoctoral and group leaders with a network of over 200 Cambridge-based researchers working in over 30 fields of research across the University and affiliated institutions.

    And in a scheme that is unique to Cambridge among African Studies centres in the UK, the Centre of African Studies hosts each year visiting research fellows from Africa, who spend six months in Cambridge unencumbered by duties in their home institutions. Collaboration with research institutes and individual researchers in Africa has long been key to the Centre’s work.

    Other partnerships across the University, which include business, executive education, social entrepreneurship and technology transfer, take our engagement with Africa to 36 countries, and the list continues to expand.

    Interactions with Africa enrich the intellectual and cultural environment of our academics and students, helping us to be a truly global university. Being a global university means understanding that what we do at home can positively affect lives, and livelihoods, on the far side of the world. It requires us all to take full responsibility for that knowledge – and to act on it, together.

    It means knowing, for instance, that collaboration between viral experts in Cambridge and plant scientists in Africa can help make crops in Ghana more resilient. It means understanding that the knowledge developed by clinicians in a Ugandan maternity ward supported by Cambridge researchers can save lives everywhere.

    And it means recognising that evidence collected through collaborations with NGOs, peacebuilders and research institutes working on the ground can make a difference in areas as diverse as education, post-conflict resolution and nutrition.

    Last year, I was invited to attend a meeting of the International Alliance of Research Universities at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. The theme of the meeting was ‘Global transformation’. My participation prompted me to wonder: what if every one of the world’s leading research universities could do something similar to the Cambridge-Africa Programme? Imagine the effect that the commitment, and the concerted efforts, of the world’s top research-intensive institutions might have on Africa’s capacity to produce knowledge. That would be global transformation indeed.

    Professor Eilís Ferran is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations.

    To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.

    Cambridge is one of the world’s leading universities in its engagement with, and support for, African research. This month we begin a month-long focus on some of these partnerships, introduced here by Professor Eilís Ferran, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional and International Relations.

    Being a global university means understanding that what we do at home can positively affect lives, and livelihoods, on the far side of the world
    Eilís Ferran
    Cambridge-Africa postdoctoral researchers

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    Researchers working on ancient DNA extracted from human remains interred almost 8,000 years ago in a cave in the Russian Far East have found that the genetic makeup of certain modern East Asian populations closely resemble that of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

    The study, published today in the journal Science Advances, is the first to obtain nuclear genome data from ancient mainland East Asia and compare the results to modern populations.

    The findings indicate that there was no major migratory interruption, or “population turnover”, for well over seven millennia. Consequently, some contemporary ethnic groups share a remarkable genetic similarity to Stone Age hunters that once roamed the same region.     

    The high “genetic continuity” in East Asia is in stark contrast to most of Western Europe, where sustained migrations of early farmers from the Levant overwhelmed hunter-gatherer populations. This was followed by a wave of horse riders from Central Asia during the Bronze Age.  These events were likely driven by the success of emerging technologies such as agriculture and metallurgy

    The new research shows that, at least for part of East Asia, the story differs – with little genetic disruption in populations since the early Neolithic period.

    Despite being separated by a vast expanse of history, this has allowed an exceptional genetic proximity between the Ulchi people of the Amur Basin, near where Russia borders China and North Korea, and the ancient hunter-gatherers laid to rest in a cave close to the Ulchi’s native land.

    The researchers suggest that the sheer scale of East Asia and dramatic variations in its climate may have prevented the sweeping influence of Neolithic agriculture and the accompanying migrations that replaced hunter-gatherers across much of Europe. They note that the Ulchi retained their hunter-fisher-gatherer lifestyle until recent times.

    “Genetically speaking, the populations across northern East Asia have changed very little for around eight millennia,” said senior author Andrea Manica from the University of Cambridge, who conducted the work with an international team, including colleagues from Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in Korea, and Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin in Ireland. 

    “Once we accounted for some local intermingling, the Ulchi and the ancient hunter-gatherers appeared to be almost the same population from a genetic point of view, even though there are thousands of years between them.”

    The new study also provides further support for the ‘dual origin’ theory of modern Japanese populations: that they descend from a combination of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists that eventually brought wet rice farming from southern China. A similar pattern is also found in neighbouring Koreans, who are genetically very close to Japanese.

    However, Manica says that much more DNA data from Neolithic China is required to pinpoint the origin of the agriculturalists involved in this mixture.

     

    The team from Trinity College Dublin were responsible for extracting DNA from the remains, which were found in a cave known as Devil’s Gate. Situated in a mountainous area close to the far eastern coast of Russia that faces northern Japan, the cave was first excavated by a soviet team in 1973.

    Along with hundreds of stone and bone tools, the carbonised wood of a former dwelling, and woven wild grass that is one of the earliest examples of a textile, were the incomplete bodies of five humans.

    If ancient DNA can be found in sufficiently preserved remains, sequencing it involves sifting through the contamination of millennia. The best samples for analysis from Devil’s Gate were obtained from the skulls of two females: one in her early twenties, the other close to fifty. The site itself dates back over 9,000 years, but the two women are estimated to have died around 7,700 years ago.

    Researchers were able to glean the most from the middle-aged woman. Her DNA revealed she likely had brown eyes and thick, straight hair. She almost certainly lacked the ability to tolerate lactose, but was unlikely to have suffered from ‘alcohol flush’: the skin reaction to alcohol now common across East Asia.  

    While the Devil’s Gate samples show high genetic affinity to the Ulchi, fishermen from the same area who speak the Tungusic language, they are also close to other Tungusic-speaking populations in present day China, such as the Oroqen and Hezhen.

    “These are ethnic groups with traditional societies and deep roots across eastern Russia and China, whose culture, language and populations are rapidly dwindling,” added lead author Veronika Siska, also from Cambridge.  

    “Our work suggests that these groups form a strong genetic lineage descending directly from the early Neolithic hunter-gatherers who inhabited the same region thousands of years previously.”

    In contrast to Western Europeans, new research finds contemporary East Asians are genetically much closer to the ancient hunter-gatherers that lived in the same region eight thousand years previously. 

    The Ulchi and the ancient hunter-gatherers appeared to be almost the same population from a genetic point of view, even though there are thousands of years between them
    Andrea Manica
    Right: Exterior of Devil’s Gate, the cave in the Primorye region near the far eastern coast of Russia. Left: One of the skulls found in the Devil’s Gate cave from which ancient DNA used in the study was extracted.

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    By the time she was 13 years old, Vumilia had supported herself through primary school by collecting and selling firewood. Now she faced an even greater challenge. After weeks of anxiety, Vumilia left home at 4.30 a.m. to walk the 10 km to secondary school; she had no pencils, no uniform and no money to pay her school fees.

    Twelve-year-old Husna had no choice but to leave school to work, helping to support her grandmother and siblings on her US$14 a month working as a housemaid. Husna would wonder what lay ahead of her: “I was imagining that my life would be horrible. Because even if I stopped being a maid,where would I go? What would I do?”

    Catherine also saw a bleak future. After the death of her father, her uncles took her family’s land. Some days Catherine would manage to go to school; on others she would sell food by the roadside. “I would see other children studying and all the time I would just look at their exercise books and try to learn. I was imagining my future as going into a big hole where no one could help me. A girl without education is nothing in the world. Education is everything.”

    Vumilia, Husna and Catherine all live in Tanzania in East Africa. With an economy based largely on agriculture, Tanzania has among the lowest rate of secondary school enrolment in Africa. Many girls from poor, rural families can’t afford the cost of going to secondary school and leave home to become ‘house girls’ in urban centres. There, they sometimes experience abuse and exploitation, returning home infected with HIV, or pregnant. Sadly, Catherine’s prediction of a desperate future is all too accurate.

    “Education is a fundamental human right,” says Professor Pauline Rose from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, “but moving between that undeniable statement and on-the-ground change is a long and complex process. Education is at the heart of social transformation – it increases opportunities in life, can pull people out of poverty, empower women and drive economic growth. Understanding the barriers that prevent this happening is crucial.”

    Rose is Director of the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre in the Faculty of Education. Working with NGOs, schools and education policymakers in African countries, India and Pakistan, her team is highlighting the factors that limit children’s learning and the mechanisms that can improve the effectiveness of teaching.

    “Firstly, children need to be able to access primary and secondary school. But it is also important to make sure that this is valuable – there’s little point in being in school if children don’t learn the skills they need,” she explains. “And while this needs to happen for all children, we know that it is often girls from poor households who are the most disadvantaged when it comes to completing education.”

    Fortunately for Vumilia, Husna and Catherine, they are now among over 40,000 Tanzanian girls who in the past decade have been helped into secondary education by the non-profit organisation Camfed (Campaign for Female Education), with whom the REAL team has a research partnership.

    Since 1993, Camfed has supported more than 1.6 million students in five African countries to attend primary and secondary school, and has benefited nearly four million children through the provision of improved learning. A range of barriers to schooling are targeted through scholarships, mentoring, educational resources and community-led initiatives.

    The organisation particularly focuses on those girls who are poorest and most likely to be excluded from the school system, and at an age where they are at greater risk of dropping out due to poverty, early marriage or pregnancy.

     “There is a pressure in the development sector to want to find the ‘silver bullet’ – find the vaccine – in terms of what can be done to effect social change,” explains Camfed CEO Lucy Lake. “We see girls’ education as the starting point to everything – from tackling poverty and early mortality through to driving economic development – it generates a multiplier effect like no other.”

    However, Lake is quick to point out that there is still much to be done to raise learning outcomes for all, and that evidence is crucial. “Reducing the chance that children leave school early or without basic literacy and numeracy skills is clearly important but which interventions work best, with whom and when?”

    Rose’s team is helping Camfed unpick the basis of the organisation’s on-the-ground results. Building on the evidence of Camfed’s successful programme, the research will not only provide a unique large-scale analysis of the cost-effectiveness of educational programmes, but will also contribute to understanding how they can be sustained.

    “An obvious point, but an important one to make, is that it’s not that poor children can’t learn,” says Rose. “It’s that the conditions that affect whether they go to school and stay in education are much worse. Our evidence shows for instance that when poor children and rich children are in the same class there’s a very, very narrow learning gap. But what is less clear is by what mechanism targeted support can level the playing field.”

    Rose continues: “It’s all very well saying how beneficial Camfed’s programme is but we also need to assess why, and how this can be replicated across an education system.”

    Three years ago, Camfed won funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) to scale up their work as part of the Girls’ Education Challenge programme. Lake describes how they saw this as an opportunity to do this at the community level rather than at an organisational level. “More girls would gain if we could scale locally without needing to grow a costly and potentially unsustainable organisation at this end,” she explains.

    “Because disadvantage is so nuanced, we work with local communities to identify who should receive scholarships. As a result, there’s a sense that these are the community’s resources and not the resources of an organisation coming in and making decisions.”

    Securing funding from DFID was also an opportunity to take a critical look at precisely how Camfed’s programmes are meeting the needs of those who are most marginalised. Camfed routinely collects data for evaluation purposes and they now turned this over to Rose’s team at the REAL Centre for deeper analysis.

    Rose explains: “We are independent – we aren’t wishing to make a case one way or the other. We could see how these data could help us uncover the factors that limit children’s learning, which could have lessons beyond Camfed’s own programme. Globally, even after going to school, 250 million children cannot read, write or count. It’s been described by UNESCO as a global learning crisis.”

    With funding from Echnida Giving, the REAL team has recently completed its first analysis of Camfed’s data in Tanzania, comparing enrolment and learning outcomes for girls supported by the organisation with those for girls who didn’t receive support. “We found that marginalised girls receiving a bursary were about 30% more likely to stay in education, and those in Camfed-supported schools on average tripled their assessment scores compared with those in other schools,” Rose says.

    They also looked at how the Camfed programme’s influence on self-esteem affected learning. In particular, a system of ‘Learner Guides’ aims to expand the presence of female role models, lead students through a broad life skills curriculum, organise academic study groups, and provide counselling and follow-up on students in danger of dropping out. Again the programme was found to benefit the learning of those identified as having low self-esteem before the intervention.

    “We have quantitative evidence that what Camfed is doing works,” Rose adds. “The next questions are: how much does it cost to reach the most marginalised girls, how far can it be scaled up and how sustainable is it?”

    National governments need these answers to consider policy changes and budget allocation. In fact, Camfed’s approach has always been to work in tandem with local stakeholders.

    “Whenever we start in a country, we never start with setting up an office, we always start with the Ministry of Education,” says Lake. “We work with them to identify those areas where there is the greatest disparity in terms of enrolment, academic performance and so on, and where it makes sense for us to come in as a partner to work on improving those areas.”

    However, as with any NGO, there is always a danger that if funds were to run out then the programmes could falter and fail. Understanding cost-effectiveness, says Rose, is imperative to understanding how any NGO programme can be sustained: “There have been assessments for how to improve access to school and how to improve learning but very little on both together.”

    Lake highlights the timeliness of the study: “While there’s a general movement towards ensuring that there’s free education for all, there’s a real concern that expansion in secondary level provision might lead to exclusion of those who are most marginalised.”

    It’s also vital not to lose sight of primary education in the mix, says Rose: “There’s only so much you can fix once children get to secondary school. If you don’t start early enough then you will only have a select group of children who will benefit from improved education later.”

    Her team works with the People’s Action for Learning (PAL) Network – an independent organisation that measures basic reading and numeracy abilities of children across three continents through annual citizen-led assessments. Since these skills are mostly learned at primary school, the partnership between the REAL Centre and the PAL Network is helping to work out how well the building blocks for future progress in school are being laid down at this early age.

    “We are now in a position to look at the bigger picture, thanks to recent funding by the Hewlett Foundation,” Rose explains. “It’s vitally important to collect data on children’s learning. We now want to ask how this collecting of data has motivated or contributed to community engagement at making schooling more effective at a country-wide level.

    “Just knowing that there are low levels of learning is not going to change anything – the idea is to strengthen the accountability of schools and policymakers at the local level by making information from surveys available to communities, and ensuring they have the support to use these data effectively.”

    When Lake is asked whether she thinks the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring that “all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education” will be met by 2030, she says: “It’s a tall order. There is momentum building but the next 18 months will be critical in terms of seeing what level of investment or commitment there is in practical terms.

    “But that doesn’t mean to say it’s not possible, and understanding the costs will be important to achieving the goal. It’s a powerful piece of knowledge for any government to know what to look at in policies around education.” Rose agrees: “Our new work is helping to move beyond rhetoric – to provide answers for where we want to be in 2030.”

    Inset images: credit Camfed/E. Powell (top, bottom) and Camfed/D. Hayduk (middle).

    To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.

    Half the children in Africa miss out on school and basic learning as a result of poverty, gender or disability. While major efforts are being made to reverse this situation, Cambridge researchers are working with NGOs on the ground to ask what works, why and how much it costs.

    It’s a powerful piece of knowledge for any government to know what to look at in policies around education
    Lucy Lake, CEO Camfed
    Vumilia walks 10 km to school
    Staying in school is not as easy as it sounds

    “There’s a need to face the fact that there are complex issues that result in fewer girls receiving a secondary education,” says Lucy Lake, CEO of Camfed.

    “It costs more to send girls to school because of the additional wraparound costs. A girl going to school will need proper clothing because protecting her decency is very important. This is especially true for secondary school level because schools may be a long distance from home. If she needs to walk for several hours or find local places to stay this makes girls vulnerable to abuse. That’s why many may drop out prematurely.

    The need to earn money to support siblings is another factor. You find that girls aren’t missing school because parents don’t want them to be there, it’s because of poverty. In the history of Camfed across the five countries we work in – Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi – not one parent has turned down support for their daughter to go to school. 

    Pregnancy and early marriage is an issue but if you dig deeper to find reasons behind it, they are often poverty-related. In Tanzania, there was an extreme case we came across in one district following a period of drought. Girls living near school had no access to water and were seeking out ‘sugar daddies’ to earn money to buy buckets of water. Girls are being put in positions of risk that sometimes translate to early pregnancy.

    Early marriage is often cited – but again the situation is more complex.  Girls are not necessarily dropping out to get married – it’s more that the system is pushing them out because it requires a certain level of pass rates to progress from one level of the school to another. If there’s a small window between leaving school and getting married it’s often assumed you’ve left school to get married, whereas for many marriage becomes the only option for future security. That’s why it’s so critical to get right the support systems in school, and the pathways of opportunity beyond school.”

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    New research indicates that Baltic hunter-gatherers were not swamped by migrations of early agriculturalists from the Middle East, as was the case for the rest of central and western Europe. Instead, these people probably acquired knowledge of farming and ceramics by sharing cultures and ideas rather than genes with outside communities.

    Scientists extracted ancient DNA from a number of archaeological remains discovered in Latvia and the Ukraine, which were between 5,000 and 8,000 years old. These samples spanned the Neolithic period, which was the dawn of agriculture in Europe, when people moved from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a settled way of life based on food production. 

    We know through previous research that large numbers of early farmers from the Levant (the Near East) – driven by the success of their technological innovations such as crops and pottery – had expanded to the peripheral parts of Europe by the end of the Neolithic and largely replaced hunter-gatherer populations.

    However, the new study, published today in the journal Current Biology, shows that the Levantine farmers did not contribute to hunter-gatherers in the Baltic as they did in Central and Western Europe.

    The research team, which includes scientists from the University of Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin, say their findings instead suggest that the Baltic hunter-gatherers learned these skills through communication and cultural exchange with outsiders.

    The findings feed into debates around the ‘Neolithic package’ – the cluster of technologies such as domesticated livestock, cultivated cereals and ceramics, which revolutionised human existence across Europe during the late Stone Age.

    Advances in ancient DNA work have revealed that this ‘package’ was spread through Central and Western Europe by migration and interbreeding: the Levant and later Anatolian farmers mixing with and essentially replacing the hunter-gatherers.

    But the new work suggests migration was not a ‘universal driver’ across Europe for this way of life. In the Baltic region, archaeology shows that the technologies of the ‘package’ did develop – albeit less rapidly – even though the analyses show that the genetics of these populations remained the same as those of the hunter-gatherers throughout the Neolithic.

    Andrea Manica, one of the study’s senior authors from the University of Cambridge, said: “Almost all ancient DNA research up to now has suggested that technologies such as agriculture spread through people migrating and settling in new areas.”

    “However, in the Baltic, we find a very different picture, as there are no genetic traces of the farmers from the Levant and Anatolia who transmitted agriculture across the rest of Europe.”

    “The findings suggest that indigenous hunter-gatherers adopted Neolithic ways of life through trade and contact, rather than being settled by external communities. Migrations are not the only model for technology acquisition in European prehistory.”

    The researchers analysed eight ancient genomes – six from Latvia and two from Ukraine – that spanned a timeframe of three and a half thousand years (between 8,300 and 4,800 years ago). This enabled them to start plotting the genetic history of Baltic inhabitants during the Neolithic.

    DNA was extracted from the petrous area of skulls that had been recovered by archaeologists from some of the region’s richest Stone Age cemeteries. The petrous, at the base of the skull, is one of the densest bones in the body, and a prime location for DNA that has suffered the least contamination over millennia. 

    While the sequenced genomes showed no trace of the Levant farmer influence, one of the Latvian samples did reveal genetic influence from a different external source – one that the scientists say could be a migration from the Pontic Steppe in the east. The timing (5-7,000 years ago) fits with previous research estimating the earliest Slavic languages.

    Researcher Eppie Jones, from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Cambridge, was the lead author of the study. She said: “There are two major theories on the spread of Indo-European languages, the most widely spoken language family in the world. One is that they came from the Anatolia with the agriculturalists; another that they developed in the Steppes and spread at the start of the Bronze Age.

    “That we see no farmer-related genetic input, yet we do find this Steppe-related component, suggests that at least the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family originated in the Steppe grasslands of the East, which would bring later migrations of Bronze Age horse riders.”

    The researchers point out that the time scales seen in Baltic archaeology are also very distinct to the rest of Europe, with a much more drawn-out and piecemeal uptake of Neolithic technologies, rather than the complete ‘package’ that arrives with migrations to take most of Europe by storm.

    Andrea Manica added: “Our evidence of genetic continuity in the Baltic, coupled with the archaeological record showing a prolonged adoption of Neolithic technologies, would suggest the existence of trade networks with farming communities largely independent of interbreeding.

    “It seems the hunter-gatherers of the Baltic likely acquired bits of the Neolithic package slowly over time through a ‘cultural diffusion’ of communication and trade, as there is no sign of the migratory wave that brought farming to the rest of Europe during this time.

    “The Baltic hunter-gatherer genome remains remarkably untouched until the great migrations of the Bronze Age sweep in from the East.”       

    Ancient DNA analyses show that – unlike elsewhere in Europe – farmers from the Near East did not overtake hunter-gatherer populations in the Baltic. The findings also suggest that the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family originated in the Steppe grasslands of the East.

    The Baltic hunter-gatherer genome remains remarkably untouched until the great migrations of the Bronze Age sweep in from the East
    Andrea Manica
    The shores of Lake Burtnieks in Latvia, near where the human remains were discovered from which ancient DNA was extracted for this study.

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    There’s a strange paradox when it comes to iron deficiency anaemia. We’ve been able to treat the condition for almost two centuries, ever since French physician Blaud of Beaucaire introduced ‘A Readily Assimilated Form of Iron for Making the Blood Red and Healthy’. And yet, in developing countries, where some of those people who are most susceptible to anaemia live, taking an iron supplement can make things worse.

    Oral iron supplements contain iron in a form that dissolves quickly in the gut, passes rapidly into the bloodstream, and makes itself available for its many vital functions: carrying oxygen, building DNA and powering muscles. No wonder it’s the treatment of choice.

    But, says Cambridge researcher Dr Dora Pereira, the situation is far from straightforward if the patient is not only anaemic but also carrying any one of a number of infections that are endemic in developing countries: hookworm, malaria, HIV, salmonella and amoebic dysentery, among others.

    “By making iron available to the cells of the patient, you are also making it available to the cells of any pathogen they carry. The results can be far worse than the anaemia they are being treated for,” she explains.

    “This is why the global burden of iron deficiency anaemia hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, particularly in children and women of reproductive age. In developing countries, taking oral iron supplements may be associated with increased infection if there is no appropriate infection control available. Unfairly, the most-deprived populations with the highest burden of disease also do worse with currently available iron supplements. So, despite considerable public health efforts, the most widespread nutritional deficiency remains without an effective cure.”

    Nearly 12 years ago, while at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge, Pereira and colleagues began to question whether the right type of iron was being used to treat anaemia.“If you look at our diet, we obtain iron from red meat, pulses, whole grains and leafy greens, and in all of these the iron is found in a less ‘accessible’ form than the soluble iron currently used in supplements,” says Pereira.

    “The body needs to work harder to release it, which happens within the cells that line the gut. This slows down how available it is to the body, and to pathogens. In fact, this ‘slow release’ of iron may be an innate mechanism that humans have developed throughout evolution in order to live with the many flora and fauna that colonise our guts.” They began looking for an alternative.

    Iron exists in hundreds of different forms. The one we see on rusty pipes is a very crystalline and stable iron oxide; if we were to eat this we’d take in very little. At the other end of the spectrum are the soluble forms. “But the forms you find in food and those which form during digestion are not soluble forms of iron. So we decided to make a synthetic form that mimicked this more stable mineral and particulate iron structure. In a nutshell, this is a more available form of ‘rust’.”

    The result is IHAT (iron hydroxide adipate tartrate; the A and the T stabilise the iron and are widely used as food additives). IHAT behaves like the iron forms that are found in our diet – it doesn’t dissolve in the gut. It’s taken up whole as nanoparticles by cells in the lining of the gut and it’s broken down inside these cells – mimicking what happens with iron in the diet, and resulting in a slower release of iron into blood.

    There is also another advantage. Unlike IHAT, the soluble form of iron in current supplements is what’s called ‘redox reactive’ – it can react with oxygen to produce free radicals that damage the gut lining and contribute to the side effects of taking iron supplements such as diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal pain, cramps and heartburn.

    “In developed countries these may be uncomfortable, but in developing countries side effects like diarrhoea can be life-threatening, particularly in children when associated with pathogens such as Salmonella,” adds Pereira.

    IHAT has already been tested in ‘first-in-man’ studies and a Phase II trial is now being conducted in 700 children in The Gambia, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health programme. The trial is in collaboration with the MRC Unit in The Gambia, West Africa, and is co-led by Professor Andrew Prentice (MRC International Group and MRC Unit, The Gambia), an expert at conducting oral iron intervention studies in rural Gambia.

    Pereira hopes that the IHAT supplement might provide the solution to what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called ‘a public health condition of epidemic proportions’.
    Lack of iron, and its associated anaemia, is the largest nutritional deficiency disorder in the world today, affecting two billion people. In developing countries, where bland diets contain too little iron and infectious diseases reduce iron absorption, at least half of all pregnant women and pre-school children are estimated to be anaemic.

    Iron deficiency anaemia causes the death of around 0.8 million people each year, and many millions more are affected by an associated lowering of IQs, complications in pregnancy and unproductive working lives, all of which limit national development.

    This is why in countries where more than one in five young children have anaemia, iron compounds are included in a powdered mix of vitamins and minerals made freely and widely available by UNICEF, the World Bank and NGOs.

    Keeping an eye on the costs of IHAT has been crucial – if the clinical trials are successful, then the researchers need to be sure that the end product will be affordable and can be made in large quantities. Their current financial projections suggest that a month-long supply of a daily dose will cost around $1–2.

    Pereira’s team has been helped with thinking ahead to the marketplace through a mentorship programme with GSK (GlaxoSmithKline), which began after IHAT won the 2014 Emerging Technologies Prize from the UK Royal Society of Chemistry.

    “This has been a tremendous help,” says Pereira. “Throughout the years there were many instances where we couldn’t get funding. To many, this type of research seems more like a social enterprise than a business opportunity. But there is no reason why women and children should be dying of iron deficiency anaemia in the world today.”

    “And if we are successful, then this would be a safer option with fewer side effects for anyone in the world who needs iron. If it works, it will be a very nice story of a very simple solution.”

    Top inset image: Almost 200 years ago, French physician Blaud of Beaucaire introduced ‘A Readily Assimilated Form of Iron for Making the Blood Red and Healthy; image from www.mohma.org courtesy of M. Donald-Blaufox.

    Bottom inset image: representation of one IHAT particle by Dr Helen Chappell.

    To keep up to date with the latest stories about Cambridge’s engagement with Africa, follow #CamAfrica on Twitter.

     

    Iron deficiency can be fatal. But in countries where patients are also likely to have other serious diseases, so too can the iron supplements used to treat it. Nearly 12 years ago, Dora Pereira – sometimes referred to as ‘The Iron Lady’ – was part of the team who had an idea for a new supplement. She now leads its clinical trial in The Gambia.

    The global burden of iron deficiency anaemia hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, particularly in children and women of reproductive age
    Dora Pereira
    Check-up at MRC Unit, The Gambia

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    The programme for the 2017 Festival features hundreds of mostly free talks, exhibitions and hands-on events – and some family favourites are back again for another year.

    Children (and adults!) will love the explosive fun of Burning Issues: Fire and Flames with Peter Wothers (Department of Chemistry, 18-20 March) and school groups can make a rocket launchpad at the Department of Engineering (20-24 March). Hugh Hunt and Rob Eastaway use playing cards, bouncing balls and a pair of socks help make maths fun in The Maths of Everyday Objects (UTC Cambridge, 24 March). And there’s the chance to explore the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences by twilight (22 March), create your own personal microbiome print at the Grafton Centre (11 March) and use a Raspberry Pi computer to bug your bedroom at the Centre for Computing History (16 March).

    Top picks at the Babbage Lecture Theatre include Zits, Sex, Drug and Rock ‘N’ Roll (18 March), where David Bainbridge answers the age-old question, what did our teenage years ever do for us? Few will be able to resist seeing James Grime use an Enigma machine to break an unbreakable code (Alan Turing and the Enigma Machine, 18 March) or having their Brain Poked by Steve Mould, host of BBC1’s Britain’s Brightest (19 March).

    Also tipped to get booked up fast are talks by Emily Shuckburgh, who recently garnered headlines with her Ladybird book of climate change, co-authored by Prince Charles. She asks Tackling Climate Change: Whose Responsibility Is it? at the Webb Library, Jesus College (15 March). In Engineering Solutions To Medical Problems, Ewen Kellar covers 3D printing body parts, supergluing the brain and making artificial tendons out of racing car fibres (UTC Cambridge, 26 March).

    Those after a voyage of discovery have plenty to choose from. Mums can discover how ‘in tune’ they are with their babies at See Your Baby’s Brain Learn (Department of Psychology, 13 March) while at the Guildhall, find out how well you are ageing (Babraham Institute Molecular Explorers), how efficient your immune system is (Your Personal Immune Army) or how your subconscious governs your food choices (Science And Cereal Packets), all on 18-19 March.

    Several exhibitions are being held during the Festival - an audio-visual display of snail embryos is being hosted at the Ruskin Gallery, while a stereoscopic 3D display of molecules can be experienced at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

    Performance events include a science-themed Ceilidh, the first ever 'breath choir', stand-up comedy at the Boathouse pub and the Portland Arms, and Ensonglopedia - a song event with John Hinton about science for every letter of the alphabet at the Cambridge Junction.

    The programme for the 2017 Festival has just been released. Aimed at sparking scientific debate and inspiring young people to take an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, the two-week Festival is run by the University of Cambridge and our partner research institutions, local charities and businesses.

    “This year the Festival is ‘getting personal!’ said Dr Lucinda Spokes, Coordinator of the Cambridge Science Festival. “Through debates, talks, demonstrations and performances, we’ll be addressing important questions about our health and lifestyle, our place in the world and our impact on the environment in which we live. We thank all our scientists and the city and our community for their support for the Festival and we look forward to welcoming people of all ages to join us in March to explore Cambridge science.”

    Bookings do not open until Monday, February 20, but science enthusiasts will need to start planning early - last year's Festival website received nearly half a million visitors.

    Cambridge Science Festival, 13-26 March. To pre-book events, visit the Cambridge Science Festival website, or call: 01223 766 766. Visit the Festival’s twitter site or Facebook page.

    Crochet a brain neuron, find out if aliens exist or discover the science behind explosions in one of hundreds of activities taking place at this year’s Cambridge Science Festival.

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