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    When a good insect father pairs with a bad mother, he risks being exploited by her for childcare and could bear the ultimate cost by dying young.

    A new study carried out with burying beetles also shows that bad parenting creates bad parents-to-be, while well-cared for larvae mature into high quality parents.

    The research is published today in the open access journal eLife.

    “Parents obviously play a huge role in determining the characteristics of their offspring,” said lead researcher Professor Rebecca Kilner from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

    “The aim of our study was to investigate non-genetic ways that parents achieve this.”

    This is important because non-genetic inheritance could speed up the rate at which animal behaviour evolves and adapts in a rapidly changing world

    Whether examining mothers or fathers, the research team found that individuals that received no care as larvae were less effective at raising a large brood as parents, and died younger. In contrast, high quality care not only produces a larger brood, but individual offspring with a higher mass. This is consistent with previous studies.

    “We found that parental care provides a mechanism for non-genetic inheritance. Good quality parents produce offspring that become good parents themselves, while offspring that receive poor parenting then become low quality parents. Our experiments show how parental care allows offspring to inherit characteristics of their parents, but non-genetically,” Kilner said.

    However, the team also found that offspring pay a cost for receiving high quality care, because it makes them vulnerable to exploitation if they pair up with a lower quality partner. This may explain why animals often choose a mate that is willing to put in a similar amount of effort as them as a parent. In this way, they are less vulnerable to exploitation.

    The burying beetle, Nicrophorus vespilloides, uses the carcass of a small vertebrate such as a mouse as an edible nest for its young. As its name suggests, a breeding pair buries the carcass and preserves it with an antibacterial secretion. The mother lays eggs nearby in the soil, and the larvae crawl to the carcass when they hatch. Although the larvae can feed themselves, they also beg both parents for partly-digested food from the carcass.

    In the current study, when males were paired with females that had received no post-hatching care as larvae, they had significantly shorter lives than those whose partners had received more care. The most likely explanation is that males with low quality partners put more effort into parental duties to compensate for the shortcomings of their mate, and paid the price by dying younger. 

    Story taken from an eLife press release. 

    New research shows beetles that received no care as larvae were less effective at raising a large brood as parents. Males paired with ‘low quality’ females - those that received no care as larvae - paid the price by dying younger, researchers found. 

    Our experiments show how parental care allows offspring to inherit characteristics of their parents, but non-genetically
    Rebecca Kilner
    Female burying beetle with offspring.

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    One evening, a couple of weeks ago, there was a knock on the door of Dr Talal Al-Mayhani’s house in Cambridge. “A man stood on the doorstep – a neighbour I might have spoken to once or twice in the street. He looked at me and said ‘Tell me what I can do for Syria’,” remembers Al-Mayhani. “A few days later, Stephen Tomkins, who was my tutor at Homerton College, phoned to check I was ok. Those simple acts of humanity were something quite wonderful.”  

    Al-Mayhani was brought up in Aleppo, Syria, a historic city now split into two by warring factions. He graduated in 2003 as a Medical Doctor (MD) from the University of Aleppo, and undertook clinical training in Damascus and Aleppo. In 2006-2010 he took a PhD at Cambridge University under Dr Colin Watts at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair. His career objectives were to contribute to the fields of scientific research and healthcare in his native Syria.

    While still based in Cambridge, Al-Mayhani helped to set up a Cancer Research Unit (CRU) at the University of Aleppo. He was assisted by Watts and Cambridge colleagues. The CRU launched a project to bring together basic and clinical techniques and teams to study six of the most common types of cancer in Syria.

    “It seemed a good time for research and for science in Syria – things were really blooming. However, they were not sustainable in a war environment,” he says. “When the political situation deteriorated, and tensions within Syrian society escalated, some members of the CRU team got arrested and others had to escape. It was simply not possible for us to maintain the CRU in Aleppo.”

    Late in 2012, Al-Mayhani made the decision to settle in Cambridge. Since then he has taught neuroscience to undergraduates at Sidney Sussex College and worked on brain cancer, specifically stem cell models of cancer organisation, in Watts’ lab. “The lab is one of the few centres for research into brain cancer in the UK. It brings clinical and basic science together for the benefit of patients. Being part of this group has been a great opportunity for me in so many ways,” says Al-Mayhani.

    But Syria has never been far from Al-Mayhani’s thoughts. “For the past three years, I’ve worked on my medical research during the week and on peace initiatives at weekends,” he says. “I founded the Centre for Thought and Public Affairs (CTPA), a London-based think tank that focuses on conflict resolution. I’m motivated by total belief that peace will come to Syria – and that education, communication and long-term investment in human capital will ensure that peace will happen.”

    Earlier this year, in collaboration with the peace-building organisation International Alert, the CTPA and a number of Syrian organisations and individuals set up the Syrian Platform for Peace (SPP). Acting as an umbrella, SPP aims to bring the Syrians in diaspora together to lobby for peaceful change, and to raise awareness among the public in the UK. In mid-September Al-Mayhani gave a short talk at the Conflict Café: Syria, a pop-up restaurant on the South Bank in London that champions peace through food. 

    In the next few months, Al-Mayhani plans to step down from his role as director of the CTPA to focus on his career as a medical doctor, ideally in East Anglia. However, making a contribution to bringing peace back to Syria remains his life mission.

    In the Q&A below, Al-Mayhani answers some of the questions about Syria that he is most frequently asked in the UK. Top of the list are: What is happening? Why is it happening? And what can we do about it?

    What is happening in Syria – and why?

    Syria is a country of ethnically and religiously diverse populations of 23 million. In 2011, demonstrations took place in different parts of Syria, and the authorities tried to oppress them. The use of violence led to things getting out of control, and Syria became a stage for conflict, and a proxy war ensued between regional and international powers. The conflict in Syria has gradually manifested itself as sectarian strife and civil hatred, and medieval pre-modern identities have become fuelled by extreme thoughts and out-dated political mythologies used by warlords and other violent actors. Those identities have become so prominent under current circumstances that they hide the concepts of citizenship and belonging to the modern Syrian state, and create an environment for ongoing atrocities committed by the warring factions.

    Millions of Syrians found themselves trapped amid this bloodshed, with estimated figure of 250,000 victims and hundred of thousands of wounded and disabled. Destruction is widespread, and many Syrians, including my family, lost their houses and businesses due to this war. I watched a youtube video of my grandfather’s house, which had been in our family for 200 years, being bombed. It stood on a central square in Aleppo. In minutes it was ruined, and all memories had gone forever.

    According to UNHCR around 8 million people have left their homes and have become internally displaced within Syria. But living in Syria today is not compatible with any standard of living in the 21st century. Even if you are lucky enough to not be bombarded, killed, arrested or kidnapped, there is shortage in basic services. In Aleppo, where some of my family still live, there is little access to electricity, water, healthcare and education. Many school buildings have become army bases, prisons or refugee camps.

    A further 4 million Syrians have left the carnage to take refuge in neighbouring countries. Two million have fled to Turkey and 1.5 million to Lebanon. Only a small proportion of Syrians have tried to come to Europe. Attitudes towards leaving the country differ. For example, older people tend to say: we lived here all our lives, we want to die here. Many younger people think differently. They are reluctant to leave the country they’ve been brought up in, but try to see a positive future in front of them somewhere else, and want to find safety and schools for their children.

    What can we do about it?

    On an immediate basis, we can donate money to relief and humanitarian organisations, and we can welcome refugees who will add value to the diverse and multicultural society in the UK. We need to do both of these things.  But more than anything we need to help the people of Syria find a peaceful solution, stop the war and put this terrible time of bloodshed behind them so that millions can return to the lives, and contribute to the building of their country.

    In the UK, the Department for International Development (DFID) shows a clear interest in peace policies in Syria, and supports many initiatives and projects in this regard. These efforts should be up-scaled and paralleled with other deliverable policies and action plans with wider impact.

    Cambridge University, with its reputation for academic excellence and long history of welcoming political exiles, can play a role here. In the 1930s and 1940s, Cambridge and other British universities provided places for academics fleeing the Nazis. That’s how Max Perutz, the Austrian-born Nobel Laureate and supervisor of Francis Crick, came to work in Cambridge. Perutz is just one of many examples.

    As a response to the present crisis, Cambridge can provide the platforms for student unions, staff, researchers and the public to raise the awareness, call for co-ordinated action to pressure for peace, in addition to helping Syrian scientists, academics and students to resume their research and education through scholarships and fellowships. St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and St Andrew’s University are showing the way – and in Cambridge, Clare Hall is offering scholarships to Syrian graduates. Much more could be done.

    What are the routes to peace?

    The majority of Syrians want peace, but this majority lacks the platforms and means to express itself.  When some colleagues and I set up CTPA we identified two objectives. First, we wanted to encourage Syrian intellectuals to think deeply and critically about the Syrian crisis, and its roots. We also saw that there was the need for Syrian lobbying for peace, and hence it is essential to bring Syrians together to make this happen.  

    Out of CTPA have come other initiatives to build bridges between Syrians who hold polarised attitudes and opinions on what is going on in their country. Our initiatives include activities of trust-building, engagement, providing the platforms, and encouraging people to recount and share their stories, pains, feelings and hopes – activities that we envisage as potential ingredients for peace.

    In August, the CTPA hosted a workshop on “peace-building across Syrian divides” in Lebanon. This workshop was the result of partnership with the UK-based Peaceful Change Initiative (PCI), and it aimed to strengthen a network of peace-resources inside Syria. Being there was a thrilling experience, not only to see Syrians with different attitudes and opinions sitting together in the same room, but to watch them working together on joint initiatives on conflict resolution and management, and to see their faces lit up with a sense of hope.

    Greater awareness among the general public in the UK and elsewhere is also really important. This awareness can make a change and it will. Earlier this month, there was a march in London to welcome refugees. There was a huge feeling of support – just to see all those thousands of people was something quite wonderful and life affirming. This show of solidarity gave us in the CTPA a new energy to keep going.

    Nothing happens without the will of the people – but we have to reach out to them. Peace will come about as a result of bottom-up grassroots pressure, as well as through policies of international and regional powers. This is a universal responsibility that should be shared by all humans who believe in and dream about peaceful world for all.

    How have you kept a sense of optimism?

    My optimism stems from my belief in Syria, and the people of Syria. Not merely in political Syria which was established in 1918, but in cultural Syria with its contribution to human civilisation across millennia. It also stems from the sense of solidarity that I encounter in my surroundings here in Cambridge. This optimism allows me to emerge psychologically intact from this crisis, and gives me the motivation to translate hope into reality.

    Would you ever return to live and work in Syria?

    It’s my dearest wish to return to Syria. I will go back there – it’s only a question of when. I’m incredibly grateful to the UK, and to Cambridge, for the opportunities I’ve been given to study and to develop my skills and knowledge. But I am also indebted to Syria, and I’ve always wanted to live and work there, and to pay back part of my debt to my country.

    When I think about Syria, and about my childhood in Aleppo, I remember its beauty, its warmth, its history, its wonderful diversity, the small aspects of everyday life – from morning greetings in the busy ancient streets and markets to families sitting around tables of delicious food of the Syrian cuisine – such as kubba (meat balls with wheat) and muhshi (stuffed aubergine). I know that many Syrians leaving now miss these small things, share these same nostalgic feelings, and dream about making them real again.

    How do you feel watching the plight of Syrians through the lens of the British media?

    The media focus is quite understandably on the plight of people risking their lives in tiny boats, and crossing Europe on foot to find safety.  What we never see or capture is what people have left behind – their houses, shops, businesses. Those Syrians have no idea of whether they will ever get these things back, and their individual narratives are never mentioned, or at best get diluted and marginalised within the tragedies of mass crisis.

    It is one thing to realise how ugly the war is, but it is totally another thing to realise how much beauty has been destroyed by an ugly war. An English colleague of mine said that when he saw the picture of the little boy found dead on the beach, he felt terribly sad.  Then he saw a picture of the same little boy, standing bright-eyed with his father and brother, just a few days before he drowned – that’s when my colleague cried.

    Inset images: Dr Talal Al-Mayhani with medical colleagues on an old district on Aleppo in 2012. Since 2012 most of Aleppo's old districts have been destroyed by the ongoing war; From a workshop on "peace building across Syrian divides" hosted by the CTPA where Al-Mayhani serves as its director; Aleppo at night; Aleppo citadel. The citadel is considered one of the main historical and symbolic landmarks of Aleppo. Parts of the citadel have been affected by the ongoing war.

    He trained as a medical doctor in Syria and did a PhD at Cambridge in order to set up a cancer research unit in Aleppo. In 2012, Dr Talal Al-Mayhani found himself in an impossible situation and decided to settle in the UK. He has worked hard for peace in Syria ever since – and is convinced that it will come. When it does, he will return to Aleppo. 

    I’m motivated by total belief that education, communication and long-term investment in human capital will ensure that peace will happen
    Talal Al-Mayhani
    Talal Al-Mayhani discusses the Syrian crisis in an interview in "The World this Evening", a programme by BBC Arabic

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    In the animal kingdom, the flashiest males often have more luck attracting a mate. But when your predators hunt by sight, this can pose an interesting problem.

    Like many species, lizards use bright colours for sexual signalling to attract females and intimidate rival males. A new study published in Ecology and Evolution by Kate Marshall from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Martin Stevens from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation has provided evidence that this signalling comes at a cost.

    Using models that replicated the colouration of male and female wall lizards found on the Greek islands of Skopelos and Syros, they found that the male lizard models were less well camouflaged against their habitat and more likely to fall prey to bird attacks.

    Marshall, lead author of the study, explains: “we wanted to get to the origins of colour evolution; to find out what is causing colour variation between these lizards. We wanted to know whether natural selection favours camouflage, and whether the conflicting need to have bright sexual signals might impair its effectiveness.

    “It has previously been assumed that conspicuous male colours are costly to survival, but this hasn’t been tested before among these specific lizards living on different islands, and in general rarely in a way that takes into account the particular sensitivities of avian vision.”

    Birds see the world differently from you or I: they are able to see ultraviolet (UV) light whereas we cannot, which means they perceive colour (and camouflage) in a very different way. To test whether the males really are more visible to feathered predators, the researchers had to develop clay models that accurately replicated the lizards’ colour to a bird’s eye.

    Using visual modelling, Marshall and her colleagues painstakingly tested around 300 colour variations to find ones that matched the male and female colours in order to make the 600 clay lizards used in the study.

    Marshall comments: “it was important to get a clay colour that would be indistinguishable from a real lizard to a bird’s eyes: we even tried using a paint colour chart, but they all reflected too much UV. To us the models may not look like very good likenesses, but to a bird the models should have looked the same colour as the real lizards.”

    Marshall and her field assistant, Kate Philpot, placed the male and female lizard models in ten sites on each of the two islands and checked them every 24 hours over five days to see which had been attacked by birds.

    “The models that had been attacked showed signs of beak marks, particularly around the head, and some had been decapitated,” explains Marshall. “We even found a few heads in different fields to the bodies.”

    “The fact that the birds focused their attacks on the heads of the models also shows us that they perceived them as real lizards because that is how they would attack real prey,” she adds.

    At the end of the study, the researchers found that the models with male colouration had been attacked more than the models with female colouration.

    Marshall and the team also tested how conspicuous the models were against their real backgrounds using further modelling of avian vision, and found that the male models were less camouflaged than the females.

    “In females, selection seems to have favoured better camouflage to avoid attack from avian predators. But in males, being bright and conspicuous also appears to be important even though this heightens the risk of being spotted by birds,” says Marshall.

    However, it is not entirely a tale of woe for the male Aegean wall lizard. Despite being attacked more than the females by predatory birds, 83% of the male lizard models survived over the course of the five-day experiment. Marshall explains that this may indicate that males have colour adaptations that balance the contradictory needs to attract a mate and to avoid becoming lunch.

    “In past work we’ve found these lizards have evolved bright colours on their sides, which are more visible to other lizards on the ground than to birds hunting from above,” explains Marshall. “The visual system of lizards is different again from birds, such as through increased sensitivity to UV, so the colour on their backs is more obvious to other lizards than to birds. Such selective “tuning” of colours to the eyes of different observers might provide at least some camouflage against dangerous predators that sneakily eavesdrop on the bright signals of their prey.”

    “With these models we were only able to replicate the overall colour of the lizards rather than their patterns, so it would be interesting to investigate further whether these patterns affect the survival rates of lizard models,” she adds. “It would also be great to apply this type of experiment to other questions, such as how different environments affect the amount of predation that prey animals experience.”

    Reference: Marshall, K et al. “Conspicuous male coloration impairs survival against avian predators in Aegean wall lizards, Podarcis erhardii” Ecology and Evolution (September 2015). DOI:

    The research was enabled by funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the British Herpetological Society, the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and Magdalene College, Cambridge.

    Inset images: Tetrahedral plot of avian vision (Kate Marshall et al); Models showing signs of bird attack (Kate Marshall et al); Males, females and their corresponding models (Kate Marshall et al).

    New research shows male lizards are more likely than females to be attacked by predators because the bright colours they need to attract a mate also make them more conspicuous to birds.

    The models that had been attacked showed signs of beak marks, particularly around the head, and some had been decapitated
    Kate Marshall
    Female (left) and male (right)

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    Professor David Runciman is a political theorist at the University of Cambridge where he is Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS). He has worked as a columnist for The Guardian newspaper and written for many other publications. He currently writes about politics for the London Review of Books. Professor Runciman’s latest book, Politics: Ideas in Profile, asks the big questions about politics: what is it, why we do we need it and where, in these turbulent times, is it heading?

    Professor Runciman also led the team on the ELECTION podcast, the University's weekly politics podcast, asking the questions that no one else was in the run-up to the British General Election, with the most interesting people inside and outside the political arena. All the episodes can be listened to online, or downloaded through iTunes.

    On 24 October, Professor Runciman will be taking part in a special live recording, ELECTION: LIVE!

    CFI: Does victory for Jeremy Corbyn mean the end of Labour and what are the implications for opposition to the current government, given the collapse of the Lib Dems?

    DR: This is clearly the big question for the next five years of British politics and beyond – and my answer is that I don’t know! But what I do know is that we are going to see new fault-lines opening up. One is between members of parties and MPs in parliament – this looks particularly acute for Labour, given the people who voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn are not represented by the party in parliament. But it could spell trouble for other parties too – there is a disconnect across the spectrum between the career politicians and the passions that drive popular frustrations with politics. Corbyn tapped that successfully, which might tempt others to try.

    But if the Corbyn experiment ends with a crash, as I am pretty sure it will, it might give everyone pause about letting populism off the leash. I can’t see how Corbyn can reconcile his long-held political beliefs with the institutional constraints of parliamentary politics.  If that leads him to reject parliament – by appealing over the head of elected representatives to the people – he will do huge damage to democratic politics as well as to his own party. Yet if he compromises, what’s the point of him (especially as he doesn’t seem a particularly adept or competent politician)?  Will Labour be finished?  Probably not, since first past-the-post systems need a main party of opposition and I can’t see the Lib Dems filling that role, nor some new breakaway party getting its act together in time.

    So is it plain sailing for the Tories? No, since they have their own deep-seated fault-lines and absence of effective opposition on the other side of the chamber will empower the discontents on their own side. Plus we have two votes looming that could change the dynamics of British politics again: the EU referendum and possibly another Scottish referendum after that. Lots could still shift the balance of power over the next five years.  Still, nothing will persuade me that electing Corbyn as leader of the Labour party was anything other than an indulgence and a mistake. People who support him say that he will shake things up, which is undoubtedly true. But we have to remember that shaking things up doesn’t automatically make things better (this isn’t the tech industry). It can make them worse as well, for everyone.

    CFI: 2015 saw the highest turnout since 1997. Why do you think that is?

    DR: Well, it’s all relative. Turnout was up a bit on the 2010 election, which in turn was up on the two before. What it shows is that the view that we are on an inexorable slide towards disengagement with electoral politics is wrong: people vote when they can see something real is at stake for them.  Often this means not so much that they are enthusiastic about the people they vote for as that they really don’t want the other side to win (it’s important to remember that turnout is often highest where divisions are greatest – in contemporary Iraq, for instance, or in Weimar Germany, where people voted in droves because they were terrified of the alternatives). The 2015 result was less an endorsement of the Tories than a clear expression of what people didn’t want to get stuck with (Miliband in power and/or a Labour-SNP government). Negative energy is a big part of what drives democracy: most of us are much clearer about what we don’t like in politics than about what we do like.

    CFI: What's been the biggest political development in the UK in recent years?

    DR: The rise of the SNP to its current position of dominance in Scotland is a huge change and has happened very fast: it has affected the dynamics of politics across the UK, including by making people feel that rapid change is possible (Corbyn’s even more dramatic rise reflects some of that). 

    More broadly, the fragmentation of the electorate into different identities, which are hard to squeeze into a two-party system, has produced all sorts of turbulence. Some of these identities are national (as in Scotland), some are regional (London politics – where Corbyn has his powerbase – now looks pretty different from the rest of the UK), and some are reactions against these: anti-London feeling, for instance, or anti-immigration. 

    As always, the challenge for the mainstream parties, and for anyone wanting to represent a broad coalition of interests, is to find some way of channelling the sharp negative energies into something bigger and more encompassing. Gordon Brown tried to get some impetus into the idea of British identity, but with very little success. Corbyn’s not going to manage it (he strikes me as more of a ‘Wolfie Smith’-style Islington nationalist, for anyone whose memories go back that far). And as for the prospect of a British politician who can plausibly make the case for the wider European identity we have in common, that seems more remote than ever. But also more necessary than ever. 

    CFI: Who do you think are the up and coming political stars of the future?

    DR: There are all sorts of interesting people coming into politics all the time, often with very different perspectives and motives. I hope the era of philosophy, politics and economics (PPE)/Oxford dominated politics is over – nothing against PPE or Oxford (or at least not much) – it was just too narrow a pool from which to draw. 

    The most interesting politicians are probably the ones with another side to them than just a career in politics: Dan Jarvis (ex-army) and Keir Starmer (ex-DPP) are the stand-out examples on the Labour side; perhaps Rory Stewart (writer/ex-diplomat) on the Tory side. Having said that, the word is that the new Tory intake of 2015 is generally more diverse and interesting than their Labour counterparts. The stars of the future are likely to be people we know very little about at present. That’s another reason why the rise of Corbyn is so underwhelming (I’ll stop going on about this in a moment): he’s such a throwback at a time when politics could be opening up to fresh voices.

    CFI: Who was the most interesting to interview for the Election podcast?

    DR: Probably the first guest, Maurice Glasman, the originator of the idea of ‘blue Labour’. He came on at the start of the year, well before the election campaign even started, and talked very presciently about the reasons why Labour was in so much difficulty.  I don’t agree with everything he said – I wouldn’t put as much emphasis on virtue or on faith as he does – but his analysis struck a chord in his willingness to talk about the need for Labour to find new ways to communicate what it stands for. He was also humorous – not true of all Labour people – and very wide-ranging in his frame of reference, making the connection between British politics now and the challenges the Tudors faced in building a state five hundred years ago. He exemplified what we were trying to achieve with our podcast: to have conversations about politics which are urgent and topical but also go wider and deeper than the usual three-minutes of partisan back-and-forth. I hope we succeeded.

    CFI: Politicians have to be squeaky clean in all they do these days. So would the likes of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill have risen to the top today? And how would they have coped with today's media intrusion?

    DR: Would they have risen to the top? Yes probably – that sort of political talent and drive is so rare that almost no political system can repress it.  How would they have coped with today’s media?  I guess a bit like Boris Johnson copes, using a mix of bravado, cunning and crossing of fingers. All politicians need luck when it comes to avoiding being brought down by their peccadilloes and the invention of Twitter hasn’t changed that. But what today’s media really demands is stamina to try to keep one step ahead of it – the most important quality, as Churchill always said, is the ability just to keep going.

    CFI: Should England follow Scotland’s lead and lower the voting age?

    DR: It’s hard to think of any good reason why not – it added energy and excitement to the Scottish referendum and did nothing to lower the tone of the debate (it might even have raised it!). The problem though is persuading young people to use the vote you give them – turn-out in the 18-24 age group was the lowest of any at the last election, far below the turn-out among the over-65s. There is a huge imbalance in the input of different generations into our politics, which means policy is skewed towards the elderly and against the young. Anything to redress that is a good thing. So yes, 16-year olds should get the vote; but more importantly they should actually vote when they get it.

    CFI: Do you think the Liberal Democrats will recover from their crushing defeat in the 2015 elections?

    DR: Short answer: yes, since there is a space in British politics for a liberal party of one kind or another that is not met by the two main parties. There will always be significant numbers of people who want what the Lib Dems have to offer. But the problem is that electoral reform, which is what the Lib Dems really need, is further away than ever. So any recovery will be slow and painful. And in their case, you can’t say there is a new generation of parliamentary talent coming through, since there are so few of them (and they’re all white men, which really doesn’t help). People who think an Osborne-led Tory party and a Corbyn-led Labour party will leave an open goal in the centre ground for the Lib Dems are making it sound much too easy: yes, the goal might be open, but the Lib Dems are going to be playing with their feet tied together for a long time to come.

    CFI: Your next series of podcasts [beginning in January] will be more internationally-focused. Why?

    DR: Because there are so many interesting elections going on around the world, starting in the US, where the presidential election has already taken some surprising turns (Sanders! Trump!!). It gives us a chance to talk to a wide variety of guests from far beyond Cambridge and to discuss how democracy works in places that our listeners might not be familiar with: when we are broadcasting there are due to be elections in Thailand, Uganda and Peru. I hope we’ll find interesting and informative things to say about them all.  As it happens, we have experts in Cambridge on all these parts of the world and we will try to use them to explain what makes these elections important (since every election is important to the people voting in it). But we’ll also touch base with British politics to reflect on what has happened since our first series ended in June. Which means more on Corbyn, if he’s still around (sorry, I can’t help myself).

    This article was originally published on the Cambridge Festival of Ideas website.

    Professor David Runciman, Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), answers questions about UK politics, voting, and the ELECTION podcast.

    David Runciman

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  • 09/23/15--02:43: Q is for Queen Bumblebee
  • Each autumn, colonies of bumblebees die. All, that is, apart from the gravid (egg-carrying) queens who survive the winter in tiny burrows in the ground.  Early in the spring, the queen emerges to start making a nest in which to lay her eggs. To do so, she needs the energy provided by nectar and pollen. If she can’t find enough flowers from which to gather these resources, she will die – and the next generation she is carrying will die too.

    Bumblebees are among the UK’s estimated 1,500 species of wild pollinators and play a vital role in the environment. They transfer pollen from plant to plant – and thus ensure that plants reproduce. An estimated 75% of the crops we eat depend on pollination. Bumblebees are particularly important pollinators of beans, raspberries and tomatoes. Uniquely, they are capable of ‘buzz pollination’, producing a high-pitched buzz which releases pollen from pollen-containing tubes inside some flowers. Tomatoes are pollinated like this.

    Over the past 80 years or so, there has been a dramatic decline in the distributions of some bumblebee species. Two of the 26 species of bumblebee once common in the UK are now extinct. Scientists think that the factors behind this decline are several and interconnected. Most obvious is the loss of wild flower meadows which have disappeared as farming has become more intensive and fields made larger by the removal of hedgerows. Although many British gardens burst with flowers, many of the showy favourites (such as pansies and begonias) produce little pollen or nectar.

    A recent report by Dr Lynn Dicks (Department of Zoology) and staff at Natural England makes an important contribution to the development of nation-wide strategies to halt – and reverse – the loss of wild pollinators such as bumblebees. In 2013, a rare and time-limited opportunity opened up for scientists to contribute to the development of an ‘agri-environment package’ for wild pollinators as part of the new Countryside Stewardship scheme, launched earlier this year.

    As an expert in the ecology of flower-visiting insects, Dicks used this ‘policy window’ to bring together a wide range of available information and ask key questions about wild pollinators and their relationship with the farmed environment. In providing tentative answers to these questions, her paper provides ballpark figures on aspects of land management that determine population levels of wild pollinators, including bumblebees, and bolsters arguments for policies that encourage farmers to sow a mix of wild flowers.

    “An agri-environment package is a bundle of management options that supply sufficient resources to support a target group of species. Data from a similar package, aimed at helping farmers provide resources for species of birds known to be declining, are not yet publically available. But some of the measures in the package are known to have led to an upturn in numbers of six target species – including skylarks and yellowhammers – which is most encouraging,” says Dicks.

    “We depend on pollinators for food production so it’s in our interests to halt drops in numbers. If species are declining, it’s because they lack specific resources – or because other factors are reducing their numbers faster than they can reproduce. Some risks to pollinators – notably pesticides and climate change – are difficult to quantify and politically challenging. An alternative is to focus policy on providing the resources that are lacking – such as nectar-rich flowers.”

    The most critical period for bumblebee survival is March and April when the queens that have hibernated over the winter need access to enough nectar and pollen to raise their first batch of workers within an estimated 1km radius of their nests. The first batch of eggs laid by the queen become female workers whose role is to feed the new colony by visiting flowers to gather nectar.  Throughout the summer the queen will produce further batches of eggs, seldom leaving the nest. She will eventually control a nest of as many as 400 individuals, including new queens. Honeybee hives, in comparison, typically contain around 50,000 bees.

    Many commercial crops flower several weeks after the queen bumblebees are most in need of nectar. Oil seed rape, for example, produces its bright yellow flowers in May and June. Nectar and pollen provided by these crops are valuable to later batches of bumblebees. However, the first batch of bumblebees relies on plants that flower in early spring – including those associated with rough land (such as comfrey and white deadnettle) and hedgerow species (such as willow, hawthorn and blackthorn).

    Recent research revealed that wild pollinators provide a much more important service to commercial crops than previously thought. Dicks’ report identifies opportunities for enhancing the environment for six species of wild bee including three species of bumblebee by sowing wild flowers and providing environments for nests.

    She compiled and analysed data from a number of wildlife conservation and research organisations, including the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, to build an overall picture of the resources that these insects need to flourish.

    By calculating the pollen demands of individual bees, and the resulting demand for flowers, Dicks has come up with some approximate figures in terms of the percentage of land and hedgerow needed to resource a healthy population of selected wild pollinators. Using a 100-hectare block of land as the basis for calculations, she estimates that the provision of a 2% flower-rich habitat and 1km flowering hedgerow will supply the six pollinator species with enough pollen to feed their larvae.

    “We suggest that farmers sow headlands, field corners and other areas with mixes that will flower in the summer months, but they also need to manage hedgerows, woodland edges, margins and verges to enhance early and late flowering species and provide nesting and hibernating opportunities,” says Dicks. “It’s really important that the packages offered to farmers through the Countryside Stewardship scheme are easy to implement and well supported by financial incentives and advice. Because we are learning more all the time about the interaction between wild pollinators and the environment, schemes also need to have built-in flexibility.”

    Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: R is for an animal that is often found among the pages of children's literature.

    Have you missed the series so far? Catch up on Medium here.

    Inset images: Bombus pascuorum (Joan Chaplin); Bombus lapidarius (Tessa Bramall).

    The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, Q is for Queen Bumblebee, one of the UK's 1,500 species of wild pollinators that play a vital role in the environment and food production.

    We depend on pollinators for food production so it’s in our interests to halt drops in numbers
    Lynn Dicks
    Bombus pascuorum

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    The small tumours concealed in the adrenal gland are “unmasked” in early pregnancy, when a sudden surge of hormones fires them into life, leading to raised blood pressure and causing risk to patients.

    New research published today in the New England Journal of Medicine conducted by a team led by Professor Morris Brown, professor of clinical pharmacology at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, identifies this small group of lurking tumours for the first time, and explains why they behave as they do.

    The study means that, when patients are found to have high blood pressure early in pregnancy, doctors will now be encouraged to consider that the cause could be the tumours, which can be easily treated. Currently, adrenal tumours are not usually suspected as the cause of high blood pressure in pregnancy, and so go undiagnosed.

    Brown and an international group of PhD students including first-author Ada Teo of Newnham College used a combination of state-of-the-art gene “fingerprinting” technology and old-fashioned deduction from patient case histories to work out that the otherwise benign tumours harbour genetic mutations that affect cells in the adrenal gland.

    The mutation means the adrenal cells are given false information and their clock is effectively turned back to “childhood”, returning them to their original state as ovary cells. They then respond to hormones released in pregnancy, producing increased levels of the salt-regulating hormone aldosterone.

    Aldosterone in turn regulates the kidneys to retain more salt and hence water, pushing up blood pressure. High blood pressure – also known as hypertension – can be fatal, since it greatly increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.

    The new findings build on a growing body of research focusing on the adrenal gland and blood pressure. Sixty years ago, the American endocrinologist Dr Jerome Conn first observed that large benign tumours in the adrenal gland can release aldosterone and increase blood pressure (now known as Conn’s Syndrome).

    Brown and his team have previously found a group of much smaller tumours, arising from the outer part of the gland, that have the same effect. The latest discovery drills down still further, revealing that roughly one in ten of this group has a mutation that makes the cells receptive to pregnancy hormones.

    Brown said: “This is an example of what modern scientific techniques, and collaborations among doctors and scientists, allow you to do [through a form of genetic fingerprinting]. Conditions are often around for 60 years which we have had no explanation for, and now we can get to the heart of what has gone wrong.”

    But the discovery also relied on what doctors call “clinical pattern recognition” – using experience to spot similarities. Brown was able to link together the cases of two pregnant women almost ten years apart and a woman in early menopause. All suffered high blood pressure, leading him to screen their adrenal tumours and identify a matching genetic mutation.

    Pregnant women found to have the newly identified subset of tumours can now be identified more readily, and the tumours either treated with drugs or potentially even removed.

    The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, National Institute for Health Research, British Heart Foundation and A* Singapore.

    Hidden tumours that cause potentially fatal high blood pressure but lurk undetected in the body until pregnancy have been discovered by a Cambridge medical team.

    Conditions are often around for 60 years which we have had no explanation for, now we can get to the heart of what has gone wrong
    Morris Brown
    11C metomidate PET CT of small Conn's tumour

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    Sometimes, it’s only when you arrive at college that you realise precisely what is vital for student life. In a letter dated 18 June 1562, a servant wrote that his master, an undergraduate at Oxford, needed “a gitterne and bowe and arrows the whyche I thinke to be necessarye for hym…” The servant’s name was Thomas Madock and his master was John Somerford. Madock’s letter is addressed to Charles Mainwaring of Croxton, who was probably Somerford’s guardian.

    Gitterne is an old word for guitar – alternative spellings (a ‘foreign’ instrument guaranteed a great proliferation) include gittern, quinterne and even gyttron. As instruments that were highly portable, and relatively easy to learn to a modest standard, guitars became increasingly popular in the second half of the 16th century, vying with and eventually overtaking other stringed instruments such as the lute.

    Madock’s letter is one of many details that make Christopher Page’s latest bookThe Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History compelling reading for anyone interested in the ways in which people acquire and use things, and their skills with those things, to define and maintain their place in society – and, of course, to have fun.

    In researching the book, Page has scoured archives that range from the patent rolls of Bloody Mary in the National Archives at Kew to household inventories on the Isle of Wight. In doing so, he creates a rich and often entertaining picture of the Tudor world seen through the lens of a ‘newfangled’ musical instrument.  He looks not just at the history of the uptake of the guitar, and its contribution to courtly and popular music, but also at representations in art and architecture, most notably its appearance among the decorative motifs of the exquisite Eglantine Table (a piece of furniture made in Italy to celebrate marriages between powerful English dynasties).

    Page’s book is the second in a three-part series devoted to the history of the guitar from 1547, when Henry VIII died, to 1837 and the accession of Victoria. It shines a light, in particular, on the rise of guitar-playing as one of the constructs of masculinity. Madock’s comments that a gittern and bows and arrows are “necessarye”, and that his charge is “verye desirous” to obtain them, are revealing: the implication is that without these must-have items his master is unable to fulfil his potential as a gentleman of not just means but also taste and talent.

    The bows and arrows requested in Madock’s letter were for sport. Most towns would have had a butt – an area for the practise of archery – a fact recorded by names of streets and fields. Laws requiring archery practice date back to the 13th century: England needed men trained to use the longbow. By the 16th century, archery was recreational.  But, along with fencing and dancing, music-making and archery were accomplishments expected of well-born and aspiring young men.

    The guitar’s emergence as a fashionable plaything was rapid. In the 1540s it was regarded as “strange”, derived from the French meaning ‘foreign’. Some years later the first traces of imported guitars appear in the records kept by the Port of London: a list of stringed instruments includes the duty to be paid on “Gitterns the dosen”. Early on, the guitar trade was dominated by a single individual, a draper named John White who imported instruments from Antwerp. Soon the role of the gittern as part of a “young man’s lyfe” guaranteed a thriving trade in guitars and guitar strings.

    Inventories held by the University of Cambridge suggest that in the period 1535-1605 around a fifth of its members (chiefly scholars and fellows but also domestic staff) owned a musical instrument. Mental health was taken seriously: music-making was an antidote to melancholy brought about by the rigours of study in a town pestilential in summer and perennially damp in winter. Music practice is described as a form of “pleasant learning” that brings real benefits to the young man “for the refresshynge of his witte”.

    Music, according to the Tudor guitarist Thomas Wythorne, enlivened the spirits, bringing a “fors with it lyk unto A heavenly inspirasion”. Guitar-players had other advantages too. In the hands of an amorous young man, the guitar was a means of courting young ladies who would flock to the player “lyke beez to hunny”. In the Paris of the 1540s (far more fashionable than London) lovelorn serenaders did “nightly walke the streates before their louers gates, tearing the poor strings of their instruments”.

    Guitars made an initial impact at the luxury end of the market. Henry VIII (responsible for the completion of King’s College Chapel and the founding of Trinity College) was probably the first named owner of one under the name of ‘Spanish viol’. His daughter Elizabeth I (who visited Cambridge and berated its scholars for their torn and soiled clothes) was presented with a boxed set of three as a New Years Day gift in 1559. The record of the gifts shows that she asked to have them brought to her. A portrait of her favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, features a guitar, complete with musical score, in its elaborately decorative border.

    The instruments were also purchased by men of learning. The 1591 probate inventory of Thomas Lorkin, Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge, included an extensive library of 631 volumes as well as “a lute with a case and 2 Gittornes”, with an overall value of 20s. Fourteen years later, the inventory of his son-in-law Edward Liveley, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, also included “In the studye… a gitterne in a case”.

    As imports from Europe, guitars were both luxury goods (thus highly desirable) and foreign (thus potentially dangerous). Similarly, the social profile of the instrument trod a thin line between the exclusive and the popular. Once affordable, the guitar became a favourite with apprentices (who came from a wide spectrum of society). In Cambridge, the butler of Peterhouse College (as it then was) owned a guitar as well as a small number of books – an example of a townsman able to invest in his own improvement.

    Sixteenth-century apprentices, like students today, were notorious for boisterousness. High spirits brought out some of the worst aspects of their elders. In 1554 a consortium of employers in Newcastle issued ‘An Act for the Apparell of Appryntyses’ to counter a woeful decline in moral standards. The wayward young men concerned were upbraided for their fancy clothes and beards, drinking and dancing, the pursuit of harlots, and playing “gitterns by nyght”.

    The last word should go to the wholesome-sounding Dennys Bucke, whose probate inventory was drawn up in 1584. Bucke was a yeoman – a tenant farmer renting good arable land in north Norfolk. Itemised room by room, his belongings point to the emergence of a middling sort with the financial wherewithal to lift themselves to a new level of prosperity. Few of Bucke’s things speak of luxury; most are practical. But he is the possessor of a gitterne.

    The presence in Bucke’s gitterne in his “parlor chamber”, along with “fower fetherbedds” and a “warming pann”, hints not just at a comfortable life for its recently departed owner and but also to a flourishing long-term future for the guitar itself as an instrument of the people. The guitar has never looked back.

    The Guitar in Tudor England: A Social and Musical History by Christopher Page is published by Cambridge University Press.

    Inset images: The guitar shown in marquetry on the Eglantine Table, now at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire. Probably made to commemorate the marriage of Elizabeth (Bess) of Hardwick to George Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1567. Photograph by Marzena Pogorzaly (Cambridge University Press); 'An instruction to the Gitterne', f. 15 r-v (Cambridge University Press); Detail from a portrait of Robert Dudley (The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge).

    What to take to university is a question foremost in the minds of thousands of freshers up and down the country. Christopher Page’s latest book ‘The Guitar in Tudor England’ reveals that 16th century students faced similar dilemmas – though their packing lists were rather different.

    In the hands of an amorous young man, the guitar was a means of courting young ladies who would flock to the player “lyke beez to hunny”
    Detail of one of the triumphal arches built for the entrance of James I to London in March 1603, devised by Stephen Harrison and engraved by William Kip. Photograph by Michael Fleming.

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    When is the right time to have a baby, can women achieve equality in the workplace, where do we draw the line on pornography and what are implications of trans identities for religious faith?

    Speakers include the historian Professor Ulinka Rublack, Dr Helena Cronin, Director ofDarwin@LSE, and philosopher Professor Rae Langton.

    A panel from two major research projects, Generation to Reproduction and the Casebooks Project, will debate whether women should be having babies at 20.  The question has its roots in current medical recommendations that female fertility declines after the age of 24. More recent scientific studies have revealed that the quality of male sperm also declines after the age of 25. But age is just one consideration in the complex web of social, cultural as well as biological factors that affect when we think is the ideal time to have a baby.

    In the Sir Hermann Bondi Lecture – Sex at work - science, policy and the truth about male-female differences,  Helena Cronin, co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Nature and Social Science at the LSE and Director of Darwin@LSE, will look at how evolutionary science can explain why women and men often gravitate to different fields of work and why there are so few women are at the top of their professions.

    The body politic: censorship and the female body will see philosopher Professor Rae Langton, David Bainbridge, author of Curvology: the origins and power of female body shape, Ian Dunt, political editor of the Erotic Review, and poet Hollie McNish debate the politics of pornography, objectification of women and censorship and whether and where the line should be drawn on pornography.

    Christina Beardsley, a transgender Anglican hospital chaplain, and Surat-Shaan Knan, founder of Twilight People, will discuss the implications of trans identities for religious faith in Rebellious bodies, faithful minds? Religion and gender identity. Beardsley says trans identities can serve to question narrow and limited assumptions about gender expression and roles and that the church has for too long developed its theology about trans people without them. She is co-editing a book, Trans substantiations: hearing the theology of transgender Christians which aims to help to redress that imbalance.

    Other events relating to women and gender politics include:

    Hidden voices: censorship through omission. Censorship is often understood as the act of stopping the expression of views, but sometimes it is more about whose voice is heard rather than what is said. Has the internet made debate more inclusive of gender, sexuality, race and class?

    In all ways that matter, women count - Dr Wendi Momen MBE on why full and equal participation of women in all spheres of life is essential to development and peace.

    WOW Lecture #Upforschool - a discussion of the campaign to ensure all out-of-school children gain the right to education and future action in the light of the Sustainable Development Goals post-2015 to be finalised this week. There will also be a WOW Think-inwhere members of the public can brainstorm ideas for the next Women of the World festival.

    Rapping our way to Islam - rapper Tommy Evans recounts his conversion to Islam as part of a celebration of the Centre for Islamic Studies’ research on Narratives of Conversion.

    The astronomer and the witch - Professor Ulinka Rublack discusses her new book, The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Defence of his mother. It tells the shocking story of how the mother of the well-known 17th century astronomer was accused of witchcraft and how he defended her. Professor Rublack will talk about historical resistance to women and its impact on families.

    Pornography, feminism and resistance - Dr Julia Long will give a brief historical overview of feminist resistance to pornography, and consider how things currently stand in the light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, with claims being made around ‘feminist’ pornography and with women now being championed as both producers and consumers of pornography.

    Challenging the gender binary through science fiction and fantasy - science fiction critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan in conversation with Professor Farah Mendlesohn on how writers of science fiction and fantasy fiction have imagined worlds in which the dominance of binary gender is challenged, subverted and even swept away.

    Awesome women of the stage - Come and meet awesome women of the stage from history over tea and cakes, in a series of encounters in this family event. Have afternoon tea with Sarah Siddons as she learns her lines for her new role as Lady Macbeth; meet Emma Cons in a temperance meeting as she plans her new theatre (The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern – now known as the Old Vic); meet Cheryl Crawford as she sublets her New York apartment to save cash for her new Broadway production.

    The Maternity Ward - an exhibition of photos by Kerstin Hacker which reveals a different and provocative view of childbirth.


    Established in 2008, Cambridge Festival of Ideas aims to fuel the public’s interest in arts, humanities and social sciences. The events, ranging from talks, debates and film screenings to exhibitions and comedy nights, are held in lecture halls, theatres, museums and galleries around Cambridge. Of the over 250 events at the Festival, most are free.

    The Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), Cambridge Live, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Arts Council England, Cambridge Junction, British Science Association, Heritage Lottery Fund, Heffers, WOW Festival, Southbank Centre, Collusion, TTP Group, Goethe Institut, Index on Censorship and BBC Cambridgeshire.

    Gender politics inform many of the debates, including on pornography, reproduction and transgender identities, at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas which runs from 19th October to 1st November.

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    Remaining in the European Union will allow the UK to continue its globally recognised research and tackle the most important challenges facing the world said the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge yesterday (25 Sept, 2015).

    Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz warned in a keynote speech that the UK could lose its position as a leading light in European research and find itself on the fringes trying to “pick up the scraps”, if the UK pulled out of the EU.

    Speaking at ‘Excellent research in the UK: Do we need the EU?’ the Vice-Chancellor said that 17 per cent of last year’s research income at the University, totalling £68 million, had come from the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme– but he stressed that the importance of the Union went beyond its monetary value to UK institutions.

    He said: “Even more than the funding, it is society, and society’s needs, that are the drivers that keep us going forward. In today’s competitive world we cannot stand alone.”

    His speech came at the start of the event which was organised by the European Parliament Information Office, the International Unit of Universities UK, and the University of Cambridge.

    The Vice-Chancellor said European collaborations drove the University’s fundamental purpose – to serve society through teaching, research and learning at the highest international standards of excellence.

    He added: “Under Horizon 2020 we did something that was special. Europe made a statement to the whole world that it is going to be tackling global problems which are not just of petty interest in Cambridge, or East Anglia, or in the United Kingdom, but ones that will make a difference to the world – the world I am going to leave behind for my granddaughters.”

    He added that issues like cancer, climate change and aging required research without boundaries, allowing free movement and collaboration between academics.

    As an example he cited InnoLife Knowledge and Innovation Community, a €2.1bn project launched last year, supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, to address the impact of ageing populations and dependence. It involves 144 European companies, research institutions and universities across nine EU countries, including the University of Cambridge.

    “That scale is exactly what is needed if we are to overcome society’s grand challenges. Put simply, we cannot access the talent, develop the infrastructure or provide the funding at a national level.”

    Being inside Europe allowed the UK to help shape policy said the Chancellor, adding: “I’d rather we stay in the boat, trying to shape and to lead research policy in Europe, than to stay on the side-lines picking up scraps.”

    The event also featured talks from University of East Anglia Vice-Chancellor Professor David Richardson, MEP Vicky Ford, and Professors Gerry Gilmore and Florin Udrea of the University of Cambridge. A panel discussion was also held, led by BBC presenter Martine Croxall.

    ‘Excellent research in the UK: Do we need the EU?’ event held at Downing College, Cambridge

    In today’s competitive world we cannot stand alone.
    Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz
    Parlamentarium Bruxelles

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    A new study using big data has confirmed that those who complete university can expect to earn, on average, a decent premium for their degree. This alone won’t come as a shock – previous studies have shown that attending university pays off for most graduates. But my colleagues (Neil Shephard of Harvard University and Jack Britton of the Institute for Fiscal Studies) and I confirmed that this “graduate premium” is much higher for women than for men.

    Using government administrative data, we looked at the median earnings of English men and women ten years after their graduation. We found that women graduates earn three times as much as women without a degree, while male graduates earn around twice as much as male non-graduates.

    While women benefit more from their degrees than men, the gender gap in graduate earnings remains stark.

    Using big data

    Part of what makes this work novel is our use of big data – specifically, government administrative data in the form of tax and student loan records for over 260,000 graduates, collected up to ten years after their graduation. This is the first time a “big data” approach has been used to look at graduate earnings in England.

    Previous work has estimated the premium earned by graduates using survey data. But the administrative data give a much more accurate picture than existing surveys, which tend to be based on much smaller samples of people who self-report their earnings, which makes the information subject to biases.

    Using this anonymised tax data and student loan data, we looked at cohorts of graduates who started university in the period from 1998 to 2011, and observed their earnings (or lack thereof) in the tax year 2011/12 – though the results hold for graduates in other tax years, too.

    The work, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, suggests that survey data has previously underestimated the earnings of graduates, particularly higher earning graduates. These new data indicate that ten years after graduation, 10% of male graduates were earning more than £55,000 per annum, 5% were earning more than £73,000 and 1% were earning more than £148,000.

    Ten years after graduation, 10% of female graduates were earning more than £43,000 per annum, 5% were earning more than £54,000 and 1% were earning more than £89,000.



    Our analysis is not causal, since we are simply comparing the earnings of graduates and non-graduates. Still, the results add to the evidence that, on average, graduates fare much better in the labour market than non-graduates.

    Hit by recession

    The study also produced a number of other interesting findings. Crucially, we found that the recession had a large impact on the earnings of people in their 20s and early 30s. This is particularly true for women, who experienced much lower earnings than previous cohorts. Over a four year period, men’s earnings were cumulatively 14% lower than expected, based on previous cohorts. For women over the same period, they were 20% lower than expected.

    We’ll have to wait and see what this means in the long term, but there is no doubt that the recession has taken a toll on graduates in these cohorts in the short term.

    Yet the research also indicates that graduates fared better than non-graduates through the recession – that is, they saw proportionally smaller drops in their earnings. So it also appears that higher education provided some protection from the economic downturn.

    As with any study, there are limitations to the analysis. We used administrative data from both the Student Loan Company (SLC) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to observe how the earnings of students who take out a loan from the SLC change through the years as they mature in the labour market. This means we can only identify graduates who have borrowed money from the Student Loan Company, which is around 85% of English graduates in the period we looked at.

    This means that there are some graduates whose earnings we cannot identify. Even so, we have reason to believe that they are likely to be higher earning graduates, on average if we assume that those who don’t take a loan are likely to come from more advantaged backgrounds and hence on average have higher levels of prior achievement and attend higher status institutions. If anything, the data we used is likely to underestimate average graduate earnings.

    Despite these caveats, there is no doubt that this type of big data analysis allows us to better understand how earnings evolve during a graduate’s career. This is important if we are to understand not only the extent of the graduate wage premium, but also how earnings vary across different types of graduates.

    Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education, Jesus College, University of Cambridge

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Anna Vignoles (Faculty of Education), together with colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Harvard University, authors a study that finds women with degrees earn three times as much as non-graduates within a decade of leaving university.

    There is no doubt that this type of big data analysis allows us to better understand how earnings evolve during a graduate’s career
    Anna Vignoles
    Congratulations, Graduates!

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    In his day job, John Rink is Professor of Musical Performance Studies and a Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at St John's College. As a specialist in nineteenth-century music and performance studies, he is also one of 17 members of an international jury appointed to judge the prestigious Chopin Competition in Warsaw this autumn.

    Hosted by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, the competition occurs once every five years and is one of only a few devoted entirely to the works of a single composer. Professor Rink, whose musicological research has focused in particular on Chopin, highlights the importance of the competition to budding concert pianists as they forge their careers.

    Rink attributes the enduring popularity of Chopin’s music to its “timeless” quality: “One of the reasons why Chopin remains such a popular composer – and, as we will hear in the competition, a composer who invites ever-new interpretations – is because of the rich potential and possibility within the music, which means that it’s not tied to a given time. Instead, it is open to all of us to feel, interpret and make our own as we wish. And that’s a very special property."

    During his short career, Chopin (1810-49) composed some 270 works, all of which involve the piano, with the majority consisting of solo piano music. He is widely regarded as one of a handful of composers who understood the instrument “from within”. After attending a recital given by Chopin in 1841, a contemporary critic wrote: “In truth, nothing equals the lightness, the sweetness with which the composer preludes on the piano; moreover nothing may be compared to his works full of originality, distinction and grace.”

    Professor Rink’s research has resulted in the publication of books, articles, editions and catalogues of Chopin’s works, as well as a range of books and articles on the subject of musical performance. He currently directs the £2.1 million AHRC Research Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice, and the online research projects Chopin's First Editions Online (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) and Online Chopin Variorum Edition (funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). He is also a noted lecture-recitalist, specialising in particular on performances using historic pianos.


    In Warsaw he will be part of a hand-picked international jury, led by Polish pianist Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń and comprising classical pianists and music specialists from Poland, Russia, France, Japan, China, the USA, Argentina, Vietnam and Latvia. Their work will be undertaken in three successive rounds of five days each, culminating in the nail-biting Finals when the winners will be chosen. Rink comments: “Listening eight hours a day to pianists playing Chopin may sound like a pleasure, but it will require intensive concentration and enormous stamina, as well as the application of consistent, sound criteria in order to give each competitor a fair crack of the whip. The debates between members of the jury are likely to be lively, to put it mildly!”

    For Rink, practical musicianship and scholarly research are not alternatives, but rather two sides of a unified approach to performing, analysing and writing about music – experiences he will draw on in his role as competition juror.

    “One of the things that a scholarly approach has helped me to develop over the years is ways of understanding other people’s performances in their own terms. What is a pianist doing? What is he or she trying to get across? Have they discovered something in the music that I have never found there myself? Such discoveries can be enlightening and invigorating. Even if I disagree with aspects of their performance, I may nevertheless regard it as a brilliant conception.”

    The Chopin Competition recitals commence on 3 October 2015, with the winners’ concerts scheduled for 21 –23 October at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall.

    A series of videos created by the Chopin Institute, documenting the jurors’ personal expectations and approaches to the competition, is available on YouTube.

    This article was originally published on the St John's College website.

    As 82 of the world’s most accomplished young pianists gather in Poland for the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition, Juror and College Fellow Professor John Rink reflects on the challenges and rewards of selecting the winning performances.

    Frederic Chopin

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    Following UN Women’s announcement, the University of Cambridge is pleased to welcome the inaugural HeForShe #GetFree Tour for a vital discussion on the importance of gender equality.

    The HeForShe #GetFree Tour is a new effort, bringing a global conversation on gender equality to young people around the world. The #GetFree Tour will enable students to express themselves and explore their own understanding of gender issues, empowering them to take a lead in advancing equality in their environments and communities, say its organisers.

    The HeForShe GetFree Tour will visit six universities in the U.K. and France: University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, University of Leicester, the London School of Economics and Political Science, University of Nottingham, University College of London, and the Paris Institute of Political Science (Institut d'études politiques de Paris) respectively. The University of Leicester and the Paris Institute of Political Science are part of HeForShe’s IMPACT 10x10x10 programme, which engages ten leaders across three sectors to drive systemic change.                                                                               

    "It's this generation of young people who will be the ones to steer our societies and our economies into the living reality of what it means to be equal. Their energy and dedication to making this change happen are inspiring," said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, introducing the initiative. "The #GetFree tour is a perfect way for us to connect directly with thousands of students. We are grateful to the universities for their warm welcome and hope that this is just the beginning of a journey around the world on the road to gender equality.”

    Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said: “For more than 800 years the University of Cambridge has been at the forefront of the ever-changing face of education and has benefited from the widening diversity and equity among its staff and students. The University's diversity plays a key role in sustaining its academic excellence, enabling it to carry out global research to tackle the challenges facing the world today. We are happy to stand side-by-side with HeForShe and declare that we believe in the dignity of all people and their right to respect and equality of opportunity.”

    The #GetFree Tour will visit the University of Cambridge on October 6 for a lively discussion on how different genders impact on aspirations, experiences and opportunities. Prominent personalities including actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw will join university leaders, CUSU (Cambridge University Students’ Union) and students to discuss the relevance and meaning of gender equality to universities in the 21st century.

    University of Cambridge joins Universities across the UK and France for inaugural #GetFree Tour.

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    The findings, published today (September 28) in the journal Nature Genetics, suggest that the reproductive cells or ‘eggs’ in a woman’s ovaries (known as oocytes) that repair damaged DNA more efficiently survive longer. This results in a later age at menopause, which marks the end of a woman’s reproductive lifetime. Previous research has shown that DNA is regularly damaged by age and by toxic substances such as cigarette smoke - hence women who smoke go through menopause 1-2 years earlier on average than non-smokers.

    Our cells have many mechanisms to detect and repair such damage, but cells die when too much damage accumulates. DNA is also damaged and repaired during the production of eggs – therefore these genes might also act to enhance a woman’s pool of eggs which is set in early life.

    In a collaboration involving scientists from 177 institutions worldwide, the authors undertook a genome-wide association study of almost 70,000 women of European ancestry.

    “Many women today are choosing to have babies later in life, but they may find it difficult to conceive naturally because fertility starts to diminish at least 10 years before menopause,” said Dr Anna Murray from the University of Exeter, and the paper’s senior author. “Our research has substantially increased our understanding of how reproductive ageing in women happens, which we hope will lead to the development of new treatments to avoid early menopause.”

    Dr John Perry from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge co-led the study, and said: “We have known for some time that the age at which women go through menopause is partly determined by genes. This study now tells us that there are likely hundreds of genes involved, each altering menopause age by anything from a few weeks to a year. It is striking that genes involved in DNA repair have such an important influence on the age of menopause, which we think is due to their effect on how quickly a woman’s eggs are lost throughout her lifetime.”

    The researchers also used these genetic findings to examine links between menopause and other health conditions. They predict that every one year later that menopause occurs increases the risk of developing breast cancer by 6%.

    Dr Deborah Thompson from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge also co-led this large international collaboration and said: “One particularly convincing finding was that going through menopause earlier reduces your chances of developing breast cancer and we think this is because these women have less exposure to the hormone oestrogen over their lifetime.”

    The next step is to understand in more detail how the genetic variations found in this study are causing alterations in the timing of menopause. Uncovering these mechanisms will hopefully lead to better treatment for conditions linked to menopause, such as infertility and also improved understanding of the heath impact of menopause, such as risk of osteoporosis and heart disease.

    Menopause usually occurs between ages 40 to 60 years old, indicated by the end of natural menstrual cycles and in many women by physical symptoms, such as hot flushes, disrupted sleep, and reduced energy levels. Natural menopause before the age of 40 is often called “primary ovarian insufficiency” and occurs in 1% of women.

    Adapted from a University of Exeter press release.

    Felix R Day et al. 'Large-scale genomic analyses link reproductive aging to hypothalamic signaling, breast cancer susceptibility and BRCA1-mediated DNA repair.' Nature Genetics (2015). DOI: 10.1038/ng.3412

    An international study of nearly 70,000 women has identified more than forty regions of the human genome that are involved in governing at what age a woman goes through menopause. The study, led by scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Exeter, found that two thirds of those regions contain genes that act to keep DNA healthy, by repairing the small damages that can accumulate with age. 

    We have known for some time that the age at which women go through menopause is partly determined by genes. This study now tells us that there are likely hundreds of genes involved
    John Perry
    Human egg

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    In the largest genome wide association study (GWAS) into polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) to date, new research conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge and ten other institutions, including 23andMe, has identified genetic variants and causal links associated with PCOS, some of which might be relevant to informing positive lifestyle and treatment choices for women.

    Published this week in the journal Nature Communications, this study looked at genetic information from more than 200,000 women.

    ”We estimate that one in every five women in the UK have polycystic ovaries and therefore research such as this is critical to advance our understanding and help us to better tackle the disease.” said Dr John Perry, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, and study co-lead. “Not only did we find new genetic markers for PCOS, and confirm some linkages seen in previous studies, but our analyses also help us to understand the underlying biology of the disease in more detail.”

    The study found that the risk of PCOS was increased by genetic variants that are known to act by increasing body mass index (BMI) and insulin resistance. The findings indicate that therapies that counteract these mechanisms could be beneficial in women with PCOS.

    “Previous studies had suggested that weight loss has only partial benefits for women with PCOS,” said Dr Ken Ong, of the MRC Epidemiology Unit and study co-lead. “We recommend that new studies should be done to test whether more intensive efforts to reduce body weight and improve insulin resistance are effective in treating women with PCOS.”

    In additional to these causal links, the study also identified new genetic variants that implicate three of the four epidermal growth factor receptors, which are known targets of some modern cancer therapies. This opens up new avenues of research into future treatments in PCOS. Another new variant identified in the FSHB gene (which encodes the beta subunit of ‘follicle stimulating hormone’ FSH), indicates that low levels of FSH may also contribute to the development of PCOS.

    PCOS is a condition that impacts how a woman’s ovaries work. It is very common, affecting millions of women in the UK. It is a leading cause of fertility problems and is also associated with an increased risk of developing health problems in later life, such as Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

    The researchers used genetic information from more than 5,000 women of European ancestry who are 23andMe customers, reported having PCOS and consented to research. The study also included another 82,000 women customers of 23andMe who also consented to research but do not have the condition. Those women were used as controls for the study.

    Researchers also did follow up in 2,000 other women, whose PCOS had been clinically validated, and another 100,000 women without the condition. Those women were studied by the Icelandic company deCODE, by researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and also at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, USA.


    Felix R Day, et al. "Causal mechanisms and balancing selection inferred from genetic associations with polycystic ovary syndrome" Nature Communications 6 (29 September 2015).

    A new genetic study of over 200,000 women reveals the underlying mechanisms of polycystic ovary syndrome, as well as potential interventions.

    We estimate that one in every five women in the UK have polycystic ovaries and therefore research such as this is critical to help us to better tackle the disease
    John Perry
    Ovum in Cumulus Oophorus, Human Ovary

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    The study, which could see over 500 students receive mindfulness training, aims to measure its effectiveness in managing stress amongst students, particularly at exam time, and whether it helps in other factors such as sleep and wellbeing. It will also explore whether the training affects students’ use of mental health treatment and support services.

    Mindfulness involves the use of meditation techniques and self-awareness. Originally developed to help patients with chronic pain cope with their condition, it is now a recognised – and clinically-proven – way of helping individuals cope with depression, anxiety and stress.

    Géraldine Dufour, Head of Counselling at the University, says: “University life can be stressful at time for students, as they develop the skills to live and study independently. Developing resilience and the skills to cope with stress is key so that students can make the most of life in the collegiate university and when they leave. The university counselling service offers many opportunities for students to develop their skills through an extensive programme of workshops, groups and individual counselling. We believe mindfulness could be a powerful tool to help them, in addition to the other counselling services we offer. This research project will help us determine if mindfulness is a good use of resources.”

    From October, undergraduates and postgraduates at the University of Cambridge will be invited to register for a free, eight-week mindfulness training course called Mindfulness Skills for Students, which will be led by Dr Elizabeth English, the University’s Mindfulness Practitioner. The course is a group-based training programme based on the course book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, and adapted for Cambridge students. It consists of one 90-minute session and seven 75-minute sessions. Participants are also requested to do some home practice and reading every week.

    Students will be allocated at random to two groups – one to receive training immediately, the second to be deferred twelve months. All students – both those who take the course and those whose training is deferred – will record their stress levels using a smartphone app during the exam period, while activity monitors will record their physical activity and sleep patterns.

    “The academic year provides a very real ‘natural experiment’,” says Dr Julieta Galante from the Department of Psychiatry, who will carry out the research together with Professor Peter Jones. “Students receive training, practice at home, then face a ‘pressure point’ – their exams. We hope that our study will help us answer the question of whether the provision of mindfulness training, which we know to be effective in other settings, can help students throughout the year and particularly at exam time.”

    The level of support available to students at Cambridge is unparalleled in most other universities. The University Counselling Service, one of the best funded in the country, includes counsellors as well as mental health advisors and supplements the support available to students from specialist staff in the colleges such as college nurses and chaplains. In the previous academic year, over 1,500 people were seen for counselling – this represents around one in 12 of the student population. Its Mindfulness Skills for Students programme is believed to be the largest such programme in any university.

    Students wishing to register for the evaluation study of the Mindfulness Training Programme should visit the mindfulness website or email

    Students at the University of Cambridge are to be offered free, eight-week mindfulness training to help build resilience against stress as part of a new research project launched to coincide with the start of term. 

    University life can be stressful at time for students, as they develop the skills to live and study independently
    Géraldine Dufour
    General Admission 2012

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    Conventional wisdom has it that a lack of guile contributed to Jeremy Corbyn’s shock triumph in the Labour leadership election. He won because he was the anti-spin candidate.

    But having been smeared, derided and traduced by the press since winning the election, Corbyn is being urged ahead of today’s party conference speech to get “professional” – in other words time to get spinning or be lost.

    But maybe a glance at how PR itself has changed will reveal that what Corbyn is doing has its own merit. It’s not clear that a more “professional” approach, where this is taken simply to mean returning to media relations as usual – of the kind used by Number 10 in the Blair era – would increase the amount of favourable coverage he gets.

    Although Corbyn’s speeches might benefit from more rehearsal, it’s also important to think about where Corbyn has been strong. How he has achieved the the biggest-ever mandate for a Labour leader and massively increased party membership.

    One of the most interesting aspects about his successful campaign for the Labour leadership was that – unwittingly or not – it revived an older practice of public relations in the UK. Because the idea that public relations is mainly about managing press headlines, or measuring media coverage is actually a relatively new one.


    Alistair Campbell – Blair’s former spokesman.University of Salford Press Office, CC BY


    It also an idea that plays into a myth that is comforting to journalists, that media opinion is the same as public opinion: that the whole complexity of the public’s relationships can be contained in the media’s representation of them. Or as Campbell put it to the Leveson enquiry with typically astute bluntness: “It’s journalists that are the real spin doctors.”

    1930s-style PR

    By contrast, Corbyn appears to see public relations as the pioneers of the profession in the UK saw it, as an add-on to civic society not as a container for it. A local mental health charity event was prioritised over an appearance on the Andrew Marr show.

    It’s a little-known story that the pioneers of public relations in the UK were the people who promoted the London Tube map and Routemaster buses, who invented “dial 999”, the speaking clock and the Jubilee telephone kiosk. These 1930s innovations were prompted by many of the same types of challenges we face today: economic depression, new technology, and the unpredictable path of mass democracy.

    Having come to prominence during the slump, partly as a way of navigating totalitarianism, during the war these pioneers would build the V for Victory campaign, design new towns and plan the Festival of Britain. These initiatives weren’t done to increase media reach, or win the headlines (which they understood were controlled by the newspaper barons and newsreel censors) but they were about building relationships.

    People in interwar Britain – from the poor and marginalised to the new consumer classes – were put into contact by these new media pioneers through discussions, films and even telephone debates. They took the electorate seriously. The language for making a new nation was taking shape.

    When you look at the artwork that David Gentleman did for the Stop the War campaign, which was chaired by Corbyn, or simply the sharply designed logo of his leadership campaign, you can see something of this older visual tradition of public relations in the UK. Good design and media enabled civic connectivity as a conduit for actual social and attitudinal change.

    By contrast, an analysis popular with the commentariat is that young Corbyn voters in the election were a regrettable product of an irresponsible age of social media. An age where people want opinions that project a personal image to the world – so-called identity politics – and which signify something about their personality, rather than picking sensible leaders that could win a grown-up election.

    Ironically, this is actually quite an old put down; a curmudgeonly dismissal that tends to resurface every time the prospect of political transformation, for example the responses to full votes for women and the working class, rears its anarchic head.

    While it wasn’t the change that the pioneers expected, it’s always struck me that it is no coincidence that the biggest economic and political shift that modern Britain has ever seen arguably came in the wake of the new practices of public relations finding their feet in the 1930s.

    Sneer if you want but …

    The 21st century may once more show the strength of the pioneers' approach to public relations. The short-term managing of headlines is an impossible task – in a 24-hour news environment a politician will likely always look on the defensive in times of crisis (real or manufactured). Instead, political parties are forced to play a longer game while shrewd politicians begin to stock up on integrity for the inevitable moments when their judgement goes astray. The wheel has turned and approaches that were once dismissed as old hat are starting to look prescient again. Unwittingly or not, this is the approach that Corbyn has taken.

    All of which makes it important that being “professional” at the conference in Brighton does not prelude the Labour leadership from continuing to focus on ways to coax the wide network of civic and social relationships that they can call upon (a network far wider than that of the present-day Conservatives) into the media. Bring these groups together – verbally, visually and emotionally – and unpredictable things will happen.

    It’s worth remembering that the UK’s news media generally sneered at the many social and political oddities of the “Million” march coalition against the Iraq War in 2003 but it marked a watershed in British politics, let alone new Labour’s electoral fortunes, that few predicted at the time.

    Equally, it’s worth remembering that it was at a low ebb in World War II that the “V for Victory” campaign was born. What came out of existential weakness has now by a strange trick of history come to be seen as part of an inevitable triumph. There was little that was “professional” about it.

    Scott Anthony, Affiliated Research Scholar , University of Cambridge

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

    Scott Anthony, Affiliated Research Scholar in the Faculty of History, discusses Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership campaign and the history of political 'spin'.

    It strikes me as no coincidence that the biggest economic and political shift that modern Britain has ever seen came in the wake of the new practices of public relations
    Scott Anthony
    Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Margate, 5 September 2015

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  • 09/30/15--01:45: R is for Rabbit
  • Dr Zoe Jaques (Faculty of Education) is a lecturer in children’s literature. Her research spans fiction for children from 1800 to the present, and in particular how children’s fantasy participates in questions of what it means to be human. Here she answers questions about rabbits in children’s fiction.

    What is the first fictional rabbit that comes to mind?

    The first rabbit that springs to my mind has to be Lewis Carroll’s albino bunny from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (simply because I’ve been so involved in the 150th anniversary celebrations of the text this year).

    He sparks Alice’s journey into Wonderland, and she encounters him many times. What piques Alice’s interest is that, like so many other literary bunnies, the White Rabbit has anthropomorphic action and curious attire (this rabbit, she notes, sports a waistcoat and carries a pocket watch). Tenniel’s original illustration of him is probably the best known, although Walt Disney’s animated version gives Tenniel a run for his money. Like Tenniel’s, the 1951 Disney White Rabbit wears a jacket and carries an umbrella, but he gains trousers to cover a bare rabbit bottom.

    Other illustrators have invested the White Rabbit with all manner of additional traits; from Arthur Rackham’s slightly eerie looking version from 1907, through to Ralph Steadman's 1967 rendering of him as ‘today’s commuter’ or Helen Oxenbury’s more kindly, portly gentleman bunny of 1999. What is clear in most iterations of Carroll’s White Rabbit is that he is not to be regarded as a pet even if his white coat and pink eyes are suggestive of the domestic.

    A hare features in Aesop’s fables, although these tales don’t really become associated with a child audience until the late 17th century. Certainly rabbits are mentioned in 18th century lesson books for children, but Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit has to be an early example of a rabbit character in texts specifically for a young audience.

    Are rabbits universally popular in children’s literature?

    Certainly they are popular in British children’s fiction; rabbits feature prominently in A A Milne’s ‘Pooh’ books, Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series, Ivy Wallace’s ‘Pookie’ stories, Richard Adams’s Watership Down, and, of course, Beatrix Potter’s tales. But they also have a broader heritage; one might argue that the Peter Rabbit stories owe a great deal to Br’er Rabbit in the African-American folktales adapted by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 19th century. Beatrix Potter even illustrated eight scenes from the Br’er Rabbit Uncle Remus stories in the same years as she began her first sketches of Peter.

    The contexts of the tales are entirely different, but certainly Potter’s Peter recalls Br’er Rabbit in action, attitude and even gait. While Br’er Rabbit moves with a ‘lippity-clippity’ pace across the American south, Peter goes ‘lippity-lippity’ through the English country garden.

    The US also gives us a host of other infamous bunnies: from 1910, Howard R Garis wrote the Uncle Wiggily Longears stories, about an elderly rabbit with a cane; the toy-rabbit-made-real is the poignant motif of Margery Williams’s 1922 The Velveteen Rabbit and Margaret Wise Brown produced a number of bunny picturebooks. Walt Disney was also something of a pioneer when it came to the rabbit – Mickey Mouse began life as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. So although these rabbits might be distinct from their British cousins, there is certainly an Anglo-American interest in anthropomorphising the rabbit in narrative.

    Why have some rabbits become so much a part of British culture?

    There is something captivating about the rabbit, but this is not an exclusively western phenomenon. Chinese, Japanese and Korean folklore include tales of the Moon Rabbit, as does Buddhist tradition. The peculiarly British charm of Beatrix Potter’s tales made them immensely popular from the moment of their publication; more than 56,000 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit were printed in its first year of commercial sale.

    Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Beatrix Potter’s tales appeal to a particular notion of childhood which may or may not have a great deal to do with real rabbits. Alice’s curiosity, piqued by spying the White Rabbit, and Peter’s charming disobedience make for two particular compelling but also class-conscious child characters.

    The interest in rabbits, and anthropomorphising them as characters, is perhaps rather a curious phenomenon in British culture. Rabbits occupy an almost untenable position as animals that we eat, experiment on, own as pets and make into characters in children’s books, all within the same cultural context. They are one of the few mammals to occupy all of these distinct subject positions simultaneously.

    Some of this awkwardness emerges in Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit when Peter is threatened by the consumptive appetites of Mr McGregor (or, more truthfully, his wife, who had baked Peter’s father in a pie). This ‘accident’ is a light-hearted threat, but nevertheless it exposes the multifarious ways in which the rabbit is deployed – from a foodstuff, to a domesticated creature, to an anthropomorphic character aligned with the child reader – in British culture.

    Do rabbits always play the rascal in children’s stories?

    The naughty rabbit is a popular motif, although the rabbit has broader associations, including as an arbiter of moral good. The Easter bunny, originally a hare, was once known for his judgments on children’s behaviour at Eastertide and handing out gifts accordingly.

    Rabbits in children’s fiction sometimes assume a rather saccharine sweetness (the Flopsy, Mopsey and Cotton-tails, perhaps, when compared to the Peters). The toy rabbit of Margery Williams’s tale navigates this line quite effectively. The velveteen rabbit is no rascal, but he isn’t insipid either, and his tale of becoming a ‘real’ rabbit is marked by its frank depiction of a child’s waning affections (which might well apply to a toy rabbit or a pet one).

    Rabbits are also associated with luck: Disney’s Oswald is a ‘lucky’ rabbit, Br’er Rabbit proves himself a lucky escape artist (as, of course, does Peter), and the ‘lucky’ rabbit’s foot’ is a tradition that exists in many cultures (although not so lucky for the rabbit in question).

    What do rabbit characters do for us: are we really trying to see from an animal’s point of view?

    Many texts, especially those written for children, assume the point of view of an animal. The animal autobiography has a long history, made most famous by Anna Sewell in her 1877 Black Beauty, but including earlier texts such as Francis Coventry’s The History of Pompey the Little (1751) or Dorothy Kilner’s The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse (1783).

    There is something compelling about the notion that certain humans are able to talk to animals in their own language, but it is also a practice in everyday communication with pets and young children. We ‘converse’ with babies and pets, assuming both sides of the conversation and translating the actions of the child, dog or cat into a response.

    On the one hand, these acts of translation might be considered reductive, in that they communicate an animal or child voice only through a human adult. But they also bespeak an interest in reaching across a divide to ‘know’ another person or creature. The representation of animals in literature works in much the same way: often animals are made to parrot human concerns. Black Beauty, for example, is as much concerned with the subjugation of women as it is with equine husbandry.

    I would argue that it is impossible to ‘use’ an animal only as a symbol of something else. Animal representation automatically stimulates reflection upon real animals and their relations with human readers or viewers, even if that is not the primary purpose of the narrative.

    Why do we sometimes depict animals in clothing?

    We might argue that there is a merely a romantic charm to it. There is a gaiety to a text like William Rocoe’s The Butterfly’s Ball (1807) where animals are dressed up as humans to indulge in the delights of parties. Something similar occurs in the messing about in boats of Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), although this text is also invested in moments of parody and nostalgia. The same impulses inflect narratives of toys coming to life or of miniature communities like those in Mary Norton’s ‘Borrower’ books.

    But dressing animals as humans also offers a playful engagement with the boundary between the human and the animal – a line which is both well established and rather strange, given that humans are, of course, just one of many mammals. By imagining ways in which non-human animals can be human-like, this boundary becomes much more permeable. Although dressing as a human might have little to do with animal subjectivity, it brings humans and animals into closer contact. It clouds the distinctions between humans and animals, and indeed between animal species.

    Humans are the only animals which can ever be ‘made naked’, and clothing animals introduces some rather awkward and demeaning constructions of the animal which can dislocate the creatures from their natures for distinctly human ends.

    Why are animals rather than human characters often used in moral tales?

    There is a pervasive critical view that ‘using’ animals makes a moral a little more palatable. Although dressing an animal up might bring human and animal closer in some ways, there is still a distancing that can ‘lighten’ narrative didacticism. Animals also provide a ‘veneer’ for distinctly human narratives; although I would argue that the animality of the protagonists is never entirely lost. Political satires such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) or autobiographical tales such as Han Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Ducking (1843) operate in exactly this fashion.

    I think one of the main reasons why animals are deployed in children’s fiction so readily – whether in morality tales of otherwise – is because of the sense that there is a special closeness between children and animals that is lost in adulthood.  Authors of children’s books have capitalised on this connection.

    The animal story is almost entirely reserved for young readers, with the exception of the occasional satirical text in which animals play a part but are rarely the focus. Part of the civilising process of growing up seems to be the putting away of childish things – towards an acceptance of a boundary between human and animal with the former in a position of dominance over the other. This is perhaps why there are far fewer young adult fictions concerned with animals. It is a pity that the possibilities of the animal story are not more readily available to an adult audience, too.

    Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: S is for an animal that was the foundation of pre-industrial wealth and the subject of paintings by a visionary member of the 'Ancients'.

    Have you missed the series so far? Catch up on Medium here.

    Inset images: illustration of the White Rabbit from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel (Cambridge University Library); illustration of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby, drawing by E.W. Kemble from The Tar-Baby, by Joel Chandler Harris (Wikimedia Commons); illustration of Peter being chased by Mr MacGregor from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (Wikimedia Commons); illustration from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (Wikimedia Commons); cover of the novel Black Beauty, first edition 1877 (Wikimedia Commons); illustration of Peter being dressed by his mother from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (Wikimedia Commons); illustration of the tortoise and the hare from Aesop for Children by Aesop, illustrated by Milo Winter (Wikimedia Commons).

    The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, R is for Rabbit, as we talk to Dr Zoe Jaques about the bunny's crucial place in the history of children's fiction.

    The interest in rabbits, and anthropomorphising them as characters, is perhaps rather a curious phenomenon in British culture
    Zoe Jaques
    Illustration of Peter Rabbit from The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

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    Fully exploiting the Government’s education data could help to bridge the skills gap that is holding back UK businesses, Cambridge expert Professor Anna Vignoles has said at a Rustat Conference session on the application of Big Data, held at Jesus College.

    The UK’s skills gap has been highlighted by both the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) this year. The CBI reported that over half of employers (55%) are not confident there will be enough people available in the future with the necessary skills to fill their high-skilled jobs¹.

    In the last ten years, the Government has allowed researchers to access some of its educational data under secure conditions. Academics including Vignoles have recently mapped the journeys taken by students from the age of four right through to employment.

    During a session on the application of Big Data and data driven business models, Vignoles argued that researchers could now use earnings data to determine which skills are in greater demand in the labour market, and feed this back into policy to ensure that the education system teaches the skills needed by UK companies.

    “Many firms have difficulties recruiting people with the right skills, and are having to pay a big premium for some skills. Although we can survey firms about their needs, the results can be misleading, not least because only a select group of companies may respond," said Vignoles.

    “I have been working with colleagues to accurately analyse graduate earnings, using anonymous Government administrative data. This type of analysis can show how earnings vary for different types of graduates, and so indicate which skills are in short supply.

    “For example, let’s say that the next stage of our research reveals that graduates with strong analytical skills are in demand. This data could inform students, universities and policy makers, and may result in courses offering more training in analytical skills. More graduates will then have the analytical skills needed by businesses, and the skills gap should start to close.

    “Of course, providing information is not enough to change policy, but without good data any policy development is likely to be ineffective. The UK is world-leading when it comes to education data, but it is only recently that a Big Data approach has been used to look at graduate earnings. Fully exploiting the Government's education data could help to bridge the UK skills gap.

    “However there should always be strict limitations on the way data is used to ensure that people’s privacy is protected. We need to have an informed debate about the extent to which members of the public are happy for data collected by the state to be used in this way.”

    Vignoles sits on the steering group of the University of Cambridge’s Big Data Research Initiative. This brings together researchers to address challenges presented by access to unprecedented volumes of data, as well as important issues around law, ethics and economics, in order to apply Big Data to solve challenging problems for society.

    Rustat Conferences are held three times a year at Jesus College, Cambridge, with this conference focusing on Big Data. Other sessions explored the Internet of Things, sharing data and respecting individual rights without disrupting new business models, and the legal aspects of Big Data. Rustat Conferences offer an opportunity for decision-makers from the frontlines of politics, business, finance, the media and education to discuss vital issues with leading academic experts.

    Analysing graduate earnings using anonymous administrative data can show how earnings vary for graduates and indicate which skills are in short supply, says Cambridge education professor Anna Vignoles.

    Providing information is not enough to change policy, but without good data any policy development is likely to be ineffective
    Anna Vignoles

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    That ceremony was preceded by the Vice-Chancellor giving his annual address which this year focused on partnership and philanthropy.

    “If this University has achieved remarkable things in the past,” he said, “It is because we have always understood the importance of building connections to the wider world and been successful in harnessing the power of partnerships. “

    “As we ready ourselves to launch a new University-wide campaign, it is worth remembering that Cambridge has, among its other varied collaborations, a rich history of philanthropic partnerships.

    “It is the foresight of our benefactors that enables us to serve society through academic excellence today.

    “So together, through partnership, we can and will make a difference to the world of tomorrow for the benefit of all.”

    To view an edited version of the speech please see here.

    To read the full text please click here.


    The new academic year for the University of Cambridge began today with the congregation for the election and admission of the new Proctors.

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  • 10/07/15--01:52: S is for Sheep
  • The artist Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) depicted sheep in numerous paintings and drawings. Most famously perhaps, six sheep feature in one of Palmer’s best known works, The Magic Apple Tree, an exquisite water-colour in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

    This gem of a picture is a reminder that sheep are part of the English landscape and were, for many years, a mainstay of the national economy. Much of the wealth of pre-industrial Britain was founded on wool. Mutton was a mainstay of the diet. Sheep manure fertilised the land. In the House of Lords, the Speaker sits on a woolsack, a symbol of prosperity.

    Palmer’s sheep have an almost sculptural quality; he revels in their fatness and roundness. In The Magic Apple Tree, as in other paintings, his sheep are clustered together and hunkered down, often under starry night skies. The little group of wooly creatures is tended by a shepherd wearing a shady hat and baggy blue trousers. He’s playing a whistle to while away the day.

    As art historian William Vaughan points out, Palmer invites us look at nature again and to wonder at the bountiful generosity of its divine creator. Sheep are, of course, in the Christian tradition in which Palmer was steeped, symbolic of Christ’s followers. But Palmer is also a masterful observer of animal character in all its majesty. In The Magic Apple Tree, he captures the unfathomable look of sheep’s faces with their Roman noses and up-sprung ears.

    The small painting is suffused with the golden light of late summer and brims over with plenty. The central scene is embraced by boughs laden with fruit. In the background, the fields have been harvested and sheaves of corn stand in rows ready for threshing.  The composition draws the eye towards the spire of the village church which makes a focal point at the centre of the landscape. The farming cycle turns, the apples will fall and rot, but God is constant.

    As an image of perfection, The Magic Apple Tree captures the English countryside as a rural idyll – a paradise of order and fecundity with nature and mankind in blissful harmony. As Vaughan points out, Palmer’s work is grounded in a worldview described by the poet William Cowper: “God made the country and men made the town.” Palmer wasn’t painting a reality but an imagined state of rural bliss: a state half way to heaven, a ‘vision’ of how God would like things to be.

    Visionary is the adjective inevitably applied to Palmer’s work. It’s the word that best describes the paintings he produced in the seven-year period when, as a young man, he lived in the Kent village of Shoreham, some 30 miles south east of London. It’s a term loaded with meaning: wrapped up in it are romanticism and those other -isms – pastoralism and spiritualism – that defined much of art and literature in the mid-19th century.

    Palmer was a member of a group known as the ‘Ancients’, a loose-knit brotherhood united by their longing to return to the rural idyll of the late medieval period. To mark their rejection of modernity, the Ancients dressed in cloaks and straw hats. Whenever they could, they escaped from London to the countryside of Kent where they captured a way of life they feared was fast disappearing. Palmer’s fellow Ancients, George Richmond and Edward Calvert also sketched sheep and shepherds.

    However, The Magic Apple Tree was painted in 1830 when rural life was far from idyllic. Low wages, long hours, insecure employment and cramped cottages (often tied to employment) and long hours spelt dismal poverty. The summer before had seen a disastrous harvest followed by a cruel winter. The year 1830 witnessed the eruption of the Swing Riots, an uprising against farmers who were enclosing land, in order to raise large numbers of sheep, and introducing machinery. The loss of common land, and drop in demand for traditional tasks, threatened thousands of jobs.

    The Swing Riots started in east Kent, and by the end of the year had spread across the south of England. Palmer would have been well aware of the politics involved and the plight of agricultural workers. However, he was known to be a High Tory – and deeply conservative. He believed that the “fine old British peasantry” were best served by a paternalistic, hierarchical society which “gave more freedom to the poor and were not morose, sullen and blood-thirsty like the whigs”.

    Palmer’s own background was relatively comfortable though he lost his mother when he was 13. He was taught to paint by his father-in-law, John Linnell, who introduced him to William Blake, the poet and painter. Blake (he, too, portrayed sheep in his paintings) became his greatest inspiration.

    After his death, Palmer, in turn, inspired others – most notably Paul Nash, Eric Ravillious and Graham Sutherland. Some 140 years after Palmer placed flocks in many of his countryside scenes, the sculptor Henry Moore made delightful pen sketches of sheep grazing in the fields surrounding his studio in north Hertfordshire.

    Today Palmer is best known for the bold work he produced in his ‘visionary’ period. His interpretation of natural forms continues to inform the work of artists and illustrators. In Palmer’s own lifetime, the paintings he made while living in Shoreham sold badly and his work was subject to derision by the art establishment which judged his colours crude and garish. To support his family, he returned to London where he adopted a more conventional (and commercial) style.

    During Palmer’s London years, The Magic Apple Tree lay hidden from view in his studio where it was among the works tucked away in what he called his “Curiosity Portfolio”. The painting was given its name by Palmer’s son and first biographer, AH Palmer. Rarely exhibited, due to its vulnerability to light, it proved a star exhibit in the Fitzwilliam’s recent exhibition of watercolours. “Look at those sheep!” said one visitor. “You just want to plunge your hands into their fleeces.”

    Sheep crept into Palmer’s work right until the last years of his life. He died in 1881 with his friend George Richmond at his bedside. Two years earlier, Palmer had produced an exquisite etching, The Lonely Tower, to illustrate Milton’s poem ‘Il Penseroso’. Huddled under some sheltering trees, and watched over by two young shepherds, is a flock of sheep, the rhythms of their fleecy forms caught by the light of a crescent moon.

    Next in the Cambridge Animal Alphabet: T is for an animal that is under threat of extinction due to a rare form of transmissible cancer.

    Have you missed the series so far? Catch up on Medium here.

    Inset images: The Magic Apple Tree, by Samuel Palmer (Fitzwilliam Museum); A Cornfield bordered by Trees, by Samuel Palmer (The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology); Pastoral Scene, by Samuel Palmer (The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology).

    The Cambridge Animal Alphabet series celebrates Cambridge's connections with animals through literature, art, science and society. Here, S is for Sheep and their presence in the evocative, pastoral paintings by Samuel Palmer.

    Look at those sheep! You just want to plunge your hands into their fleeces.
    Visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum
    The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer

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