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- 05/10/16--04:18: _Opinion: Can we sav...
- 05/10/16--06:39: _Reading the face of...
- 05/10/16--07:20: _Cambridge Universit...
- 05/11/16--01:13: _Opinion: Local take...
- 05/11/16--02:57: _Explaining the Euro...
- 05/11/16--11:00: _Neighbourhoods with...
- 05/12/16--03:18: _Ageing affects test...
- 05/12/16--07:11: _Youngest Ancient Eg...
- 05/13/16--06:30: _Natural selection s...
- 05/13/16--07:26: _Martina Navratilova...
- 05/16/16--16:01: _A shaggy dog story:...
- 05/17/16--01:10: _Body-worn cameras a...
- 05/17/16--16:12: _Sexual transmission...
- 05/18/16--01:00: _The man we love to ...
- 05/18/16--05:27: _How the brain contr...
- 05/19/16--02:20: _First evidence of i...
- 05/18/16--17:15: _Opinion: Uber shoul...
- 05/20/16--00:19: _Support from family...
- 05/20/16--01:02: _Genes discovered th...
- 05/20/16--03:45: _Opinion: Dear young...
- 05/10/16--04:18: Opinion: Can we save the algae biofuel industry?
- 05/10/16--06:39: Reading the face of a leader
- 05/10/16--07:20: Cambridge University Botanic Garden Festival of Plants
- 05/11/16--01:13: Opinion: Local takeaways create a double burden for obesity
- 05/11/16--02:57: Explaining the European Union
- 05/12/16--03:18: Ageing affects test-taking, not language, study shows
- 05/13/16--06:30: Natural selection sculpts genetic information to limit diversity
- 05/16/16--16:01: A shaggy dog story: The contagious cancer that conquered the world
- 05/17/16--16:12: Sexual transmission involved in tail-end of Ebola epidemic
- 05/18/16--05:27: How the brain controls what we eat
- 05/19/16--02:20: First evidence of icy comets orbiting a sun-like star
- 05/20/16--01:02: Genes discovered that enable birds to produce the colour red
Algal biofuels are in trouble. This alternative fuel source could help reduce overall carbon emissions without taking land from food production, like many crop-based biofuels do. But several major companies including Shell and ExxonMobil are seemingly abandoning their investments in this environmentally friendly fuel. So why has this promising technology failed to deliver, and what could be done to save it?
Algae are photosynthetic organisms related to plants that grow in water and produce energy from carbon dioxide and sunlight. Single-celled microalgae can be used to produce large amounts of fat, which can be converted into biodiesel, the most common form of biofuel. There are many possible ingredients for making biofuels, from corn to used cooking oil. But algae are particularly interesting because they can be grown rapidly and produce large amounts of fuel relative to the resources used to grow them (high productivity).
In the last decade or so, vast amounts of money have been invested in the development of algae for biofuel production. This made sense because, ten years ago, there was a need to find alternatives to fossil fuels due to the high oil price and the increasing recognition that carbon emissions were causing climate change. Algal biofuels were touted as the answer to these twin problems, and huge investment followed.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite to plan. Companies making algal biofuels struggled to retain their high productivity at a larger scale and found predators often contaminated their farms. They also found that the economics just didn’t make sense. Building the ponds in which to grow the algae and providing enough light and nutrients for them to grow proved too expensive, and to make matters worse the oil price has plummeted.
But algae don’t just produce biofuels. In fact, algae are like microscopic factories producing all sorts of useful compounds that can be used to make an amazingly diverse range of products.
For example, algae can produce large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, an important dietary supplement. This means it could be a sustainable, vegetarian source of omega-3, which is otherwise only available from eating fish or unappetising cod liver tablets. More generally, algae are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and proteins, with species such as Chlorella and Spirulina commonly being consumed for their health benefits.
Another useful product that can be made from algae is bioplastic. Regular plastic is a product of fossil fuels and takes an extremely long time to break down, which makes it very environmentally unfriendly. Bioplastic from algae can be produced with low carbon emissions, or even in a way that absorbs emissions. Their use could help prevent the build up of plastic in the environment.
The diversity of these products may be the key to finally developing algal biofuels. Many are high-value chemicals, selling for a much higher price than biofuels. So by combining them with biodiesel production, we could subsidise the price of the fuel and offset the high costs of algal cultivation.
This concept, known as a “biorefinery”, is part of a new wave of algae research that aims to overcome the issues of the past decade or so. We already know that oil refineries produce plastics, fibres and lubricants as well as fuels. Now we are hoping to develop algal biorefineries in exactly the same way.
Producing an algal biorefinery
To make this model cost-effective and sustainable, we would need to use waste sources of heat, carbon dioxide and nutrients to grow the algae. These are widely available from power plants, factories and water treatment plants and so could reduce some of the costs of growing algae. After making algal fuel, you’re left with lots of proteins, carbohydrates and other molecules. These can be converted into the kinds of products mentioned above, or used to produce biogas (another fuel source). This biogas can be sold or used at the biorefinery to produce heat for the algae, closing the loop and making the whole process more efficient.
It’s easy to see how this process could be a way forward for sustainable, profitable biofuel from algae. In fact, there are companies already applying this concept to their work. In 2014 Sapphire Energy, one of the world’s largest algal biotechnology companies, announced that they were diversifying their work to include nutritional supplements as well as biofuels. This move towards biorefinery is becoming more common and many firms diversifying their product lines.
Clearly, the algal biorefinery will not solve all the problems facing commercial algal cultivation today. There are still key issues facing the loss of yield at very large scales, and the contamination of algal cultures by predators that eat your crop of algae. These issues will only be solved by continued research efforts. However, biorefinery may well be the next step towards a future free from fossil fuels.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.
Christian Ridley (Department of Plant Sciences) discusses why algae biofuel has failed to deliver, and what could be done to save this promising technology.
Past studies have shown that, in competitive settings, people prefer both male and female leaders to have masculine facial characteristics – because these are perceived as signalling competitive personality traits.
A new academic study finds, however, that low facial masculinity in women is also linked in people’s minds with competitiveness, and not only to cooperation – suggesting that traits of facial masculinity in men and women are interpreted differently.
“Whereas men in competitive settings benefit from high levels of facial masculinity, women fare well when they either look particularly masculine or when they do not look masculine at all,” concludes the study published in the journal Academy of Management Discoveries.
The practical implications of these findings, says study co-author Jochen Menges, work both ways for women: while there may be less of a disadvantage to some women than previously assumed based on traditional facial-characteristic leadership theories, recruitment in competitive settings “may be biased” against women whose faces simply fit in the middle between masculine-looking and not masculine looking at all.
“This study challenges gender theory that says women with feminine facial characteristics are associated with communal behaviour and nurturing, while men with masculine features are associated with being driven and competitive,” says Menges. “The study finds that it’s much more nuanced – that when women look very feminine people associate competitiveness with them as well.”
More masculine facial characteristics, as shown in digitally altered photos of a man and a woman in the study, include thicker and flatter eyebrows, a squarer jaw and more pronounced cheekbones.
The study – entitled “Reading the face of a leader: Women with low facial masculinity are perceived as competitive” – was co-authored by Cambridge Judge PhD alumnus Raphael Silberzahn of IESE Business School at the University of Navarra in Barcelona, and Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at University of Cambridge Judge Business School and Professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany.
The study cites Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, Hewlett Packard’s Meg Whitman and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – three high-profile women executives – as having three particular things in common: “They are all top-level leaders in highly competitive companies, they are all women, and none of them look particular masculine.” In fact, the study finds, that in S&P 500 companies, “a greater range of facial masculinity is present among women CEOs compared to men CEOs.”
The researchers based their findings on a series of studies involving hundreds of American adult participants, a mixture of men and women.
In one study, participants selected a suitable leader of a company that “has many rivals and competes heavily” from a series of images showing faces of women or men with digitally altered degrees of masculinity, while in another study participants were asked to assign certain competition-themed statements (such as “She wants it her way or you’re out” and “He treats others with respect to a degree, but mostly believes he is right”) to such modified images.
Among the results: For women leaders, more than 50 per cent of study participants associated such statements as “She was feared by those around her” or “There is only one boss, and that is her” with both a low-masculinity and high-masculinity image of the same woman. For men leaders, the statement “Coworkers consider him very driven” was associated by 64 per cent of participants with high-masculinity images compared to 33 per cent for low-masculinity images, while “Doesn’t tolerate people trying to act like they are smarter or wiser than he is” had a 63 percent link to a high-masculinity image compared to 27 per cent for a low-masculinity image.
“Our findings suggest that there has been a misalignment between past research and the reality,” says Menges, emphasizing that feminine-looking women have a better chance of being seen as leaders than previously thought.
Women (but not men) with both high and low facial masculinity are perceived as competitive leaders, finds new study co-authored by a Cambridge Judge Business School academic.
Set in the Garden’s 40 acres, the Festival of Plants celebrates all things plant as it hosts a range of activities, tours and events including: hands-on plant science activities and plant-themed pop-up museum family fun; displays of carnivorous plants and orchids; free tours of the Garden and bite-size plant science talks. Horticultural experts will be on hand to answer plant queries and offer advice including tips on vegetable growing and composting and there will be specialist plant stalls, pop-up food stalls and musical entertainment on the Garden’s Main Lawn.
The aim of the Botanic Garden’s Festival of Plants is to provide visitors with an opportunity to find out more about the plants the Garden grows and the science they support as well as exciting plant and conservation projects happening in Cambridge. The day also offers a chance to interact with scientists from across the University working on plant-based solutions to global problems.
Professor Beverley Glover, Director of the Botanic Garden says: "This is the fourth year we’re holding the Festival of Plants. It’s an important day for the Garden where we bring the wonders of the plant world into focus. May is one of the most promising and beautiful months of the year to visit British gardens – the spring tulips are still out, joined by irises and the early summer flowers, creating a crescendo of colour as the days become longer and the temperatures begin to climb. The University Botanic Garden, here in the heart of Cambridge, is no exception, and in spring we particularly celebrate our flowering trees as well as our herbaceous plants.
However, the Botanic Garden is not just about the beauty of plants; it is an important focus for plant science research, particularly in Cambridge, but also around the world. The Garden’s collection of 8000 species is used by researchers investigating how plants work, how they evolved, how they are related to each other, and how they can be used to address global problems as challenging as food security and climate change. Some of the species we grow are the focus of conservation projects because they are so rare while some are the focus of projects to extend the range and yield of important crops."
Botanic gardens and plant scientists play a crucial role in addressing the global concerns the world faces today.
Beverley continues: "The first two decades of the 21st century have been marked by a growing realisation that only scientific research, and particularly research focused on the plants we depend on for food and shelter, can tackle the global problems that face mankind. These issues were brought to public attention in 2009 when Professor John Beddington, then the UK government's chief scientific advisor, talked of a "perfect storm" resulting from shortages of food, energy and water. Botanic gardens are in the unique position of being able to supply researchers with access to an enormous diversity of plant species, and it is both a privilege and a challenge to support scientific research that aims to solve these problems."
Events will include free garden tours, drop-in talk throughout the day, the Cambridge Orchid Society Annual Show, and a Pop-up Science Marquee on the Main Lawn, where groups from the University’s Plant Science department, Sainsbury Laboratory, Global Food Security, Natural Material Group and others demonstrate and explain the wonders of plants with hands on experiments and interactive games designed to highlight how world-leading research can help address global challenges.
You can find an interactive map of the Botanic Garden and the Festival of Plants events here.
Cambridge University Botanic Garden is holding its annual Festival of Plants on Saturday 14 May 2016, offering something for everyone to enjoy: from families to photographers, gardeners to budding plant scientists or anyone looking for an interesting day out in beautiful surroundings.
People in the UK are spending more than ever on takeaway food and there’s good reason to believe that this is contributing to the nation’s obesity problem. Two-thirds of UK adults are either overweight or obese.
But the amount of excess weight the nation is carrying isn’t equal. On average, people in socially disadvantaged groups – those less educated or on lower incomes – are more likely to be overweight. This can be explained by the fact that the socially disadvantaged tend to have less time for cooking, less knowledge about healthy eating and less money for healthy food. Levels of takeaway food consumption are also greater in disadvantaged groups.
Disadvantage can also be environmental. We know that disadvantaged neighbourhoods tend to have greater numbers of takeaway outlets. Although all UK neighbourhoods have become less healthy in the last two decades, disadvantaged neighbourhoods have become unhealthier fastest. It would seem to make sense then that unequal neighbourhoods could be contributing to unequal waistlines.
“But I never use my local takeaway”
This, of course, assumes that neighbourhood food access influences what people eat and how much they weigh. A growing body of evidence suggests that it does. In an analysis, using data on nearly 6,000 people from the Fenland Study in Cambridgeshire, we showed that the greatest neighbourhood exposure to takeaway food was linked to consuming the equivalent of an additional serving of French fries per week and nearly doubling one’s odds of obesity.
We might like to believe that we make entirely free choices about what, when and where to eat. And we often hear from people that they never use their local takeaway outlets. But given that we need to buy our food from somewhere, we’re all influenced to some degree by what’s on offer within our environment. For people living or working in areas full of takeaways but short on healthier options, unhealthy choices are likely to be the easiest or only option. Among our Cambridgeshire adults, as many as 47 takeaway outlets were present within just a mile of one person’s home. And growth in the takeaway sector over two decades outpaced that of supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants, so our environment has become more imbalanced towards greater availability of takeaway food.
Understanding levels of influence
Our new study explores the interplay between social disadvantage and access to neighbourhood takeaway outlets. We used low educational attainment as a marker of social disadvantage – so it’s also an indication of lacking the social, economic, behavioural and psychological resources that might leave people more vulnerable to their environment. For example, less well off consumers are particularly price sensitive, and may be disproportionately affected by the lure of takeaways serving large portions at low prices.
This picture of the effects of a disadvantageous unhealthy neighbourhood being compounded by social disadvantage came through clearly in our analysis. People with the greatest exposure to takeaway outlets consumed a third more unhealthy takeaway food per day if they were the least educated than if they were highest educated. These differences would add up over a year to an additional consumption of over 4kg of unhealthy food. By comparison, people with least exposure to takeaway outlets consumed only a fifth more takeaway food if they were least educated.
In the paper, we also compared the odds of being obese for those facing this double burden of individual and neighbourhood disadvantage. We found that those least educated and most exposed to takeaways were three times more likely to be obese than the most educated and least exposed.
So while neighbourhood takeaway food access is important in shaping everyone’s diet and weight, the effects seem to be greater for those with less education. This means that where takeaways are most abundant, inequalities in diet and obesity are likely to be amplified.
What’s the takeaway message?
The good news is that this situation can be addressed. Fixing the food environment alone isn’t going to cure the obesity crisis, but healthier food choices can be better supported by modifying and shaping the geography of food access across our neighbourhoods.
Our results suggest that if we reduce takeaway access in particular, this will not only benefit all social groups, but will also minimise differences in consumption between social groups. Changing neighbourhoods may seem like a radical step, and there may be challenges, but such efforts are currently underway and are endorsed by NICE, Public Health England, the Greater London Authority and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.
Traditional individually-focused efforts, such as improving nutrition knowledge and cooking skills, may also be important but their success will be limited if we continue to live in neighbourhoods that make unhealthy choices the easy and cheap option. The effects of takeaway food outlet access on diet and weight and the implications of this access for social inequalities are now being realised by researchers and public health bodies and constitute a potentially important point of intervention for improving the health of all of us.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.
Thomas Burgoine and Pablo Monsivais (Centre for Diet and Activity Research) discuss how takeaways can make social inequality worse.
The turbulent events that have shaken the European Union over the last few months have been a double-edged sword for Chris Bickerton. He has been writing a book explaining how the EU works. Events, including Grexit, Brexit and the Syrian refugee crisis, have combined to make the EU “a constantly moving target”, but at the same time they have meant that the public is now interested in the EU in a way it never was before.
Bickerton, a University Lecturer in politics at POLIS and a fellow of Queens’ College, says the fact that the EU is now so high up the news agenda has meant writing the book, The European Union: a Citizen’s Guide, was quite a challenge.
“The European Union has long been seen as quite a technical organisation and for some time people have not been that interested in it,” he says. “Since the financial crisis of 2008, that has really changed. On the one hand, it was difficult to write about such a constantly moving target, but on the other hand it is an advantage that people are interested. It makes it easier to write about it.”
The book, which took him six months to write and is published this week, is part of the relaunched Pelican Series and was commissioned to coincide with the UK’s EU referendum, although it is about the broader issue of how the EU functions.
One of its main goals is to try to explain what the European Union is and what it isn’t as well as how it works, where the power lies and how it makes its decisions.
Bickerton says people have for long felt detached from the EU, something he puts down in part to the failure of journalists and academics specialising in the institution to translate its “impenetrable jargon” into terms that the public can understand.
He says: "People have a very good sense that it is important, but it seems too difficult to grasp and not that interesting. It’s not a mystery. There is a way to solve the riddle which is by not using the jargon. I have tried to write the book in an engaging, accessible way. I’ve also tried to paint a picture of the EU as it is, and not as its supporters or critics might wish it to be.”
He says that many myths have grown up about the EU as a result, some of them based on truth, for instance, that it is distant and its decision-making process is not transparent, and some based on false impressions, for instance, that it is a vehicle for German domination of Europe, something Bickerton says there is no appetite for in Germany.
Similarly, he says, there is a lot of misinformation from both sides around the Brexit debate. This has led people to ask for ‘the facts’, as if they will be decisive. However, Bickerton says knowing, for instance, what the UK spends on the EU - 0.5% of GDP, about £8.5 billion a year - will not help people to decide if that is a good investment or even it is a large or a small amount. That will come down to their political views. “The idea that if you give people the facts people will agree is bogus. It’s very frustrating when academics working on the EU suggest that simply giving the public the facts will settle the debate,” says Bickerton, who will be speaking on 30th May in a panel debate on Europe as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival. Other speakers include Dr Madeline Abbas from the Institute of Criminology, Dr Katharina Karcher from the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations.
It is not only individuals who view the EU in different ways according to their politics - different countries approach it in different ways too, says Bickerton. “For Germany it is about rules and limiting the power of government. For Spain it is about modernity and a cultural opening out. In Poland it is about access to markets whereas for the UK and Denmark it is more of a voluntary transactional affair where you can buy into as much or as little as you want,” he says.
Bickerton himself is not optimistic about the future of the EU and says whatever the vote is in the British referendum, its underlying problems will remain. He likens it to a cartoon figure running towards a cliff, who keeps running even when they are on air before they crash to the ground.
“We are very near to that cliff edge and it’s difficult to see where the possibility to stop us falling over it would come from,” he says.
He cites the 2014 elections for the European Parliament which saw a low turnout in spite of the introduction of a system for connecting the result of the elections to the choice of president of the European Commission. After a big increase in votes for Eurosceptic parties across Europe, there were promises of reforms at the time but nothing has changed since.
He states: “Anyone critical is viewed as a Eurosceptic, as wanting to get rid of it. The EU may come tumbling down as institutions can usually only embrace reform if they are confident about their own existence, when the foundations are solid. The EU is not in a situation where its foundations are solid. It rests on the willingness of member states to respect the rules they create. If they are not willing to respect the rules, it will come apart. That said, the EU is so important to the way national governments rule that they will do everything they can to keep it in place.”
He points to the Schengen agreement, which he says is “dead in the water” and to calls from the Dutch for a referendum on the TTIP agreement as examples of member states beginning to break rank. Brexit would be another example and "a devastating but not necessarily a mortal blow".
Bickerton thinks it is time to focus on whether there are alternative forms of cooperation between European states which could work better and be more compatible with national democracy.
He adds: “It was very interesting to write my book at this moment in the EU's history to explain how it works and to provide the foundations for considering whether there might be better ways that European countries can collaborate with one another."
Dr Chris Bickerton's new book aims to explain how the EU works, where the power lies and how it makes decisions in an accessible way.
The study from the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at the University of Cambridge, suggests that policies to improve the food environment in towns and cities could be helpful in tackling social inequalities in diet and health.
Nearly two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese in the UK, and it is thought that this may be due in part to increased takeaway food consumption: the amount spent on takeaway foods over the past decade has risen by almost a third (29%) in the UK, where £28 billion worth of takeaway foods are now purchased annually.
To observe the relationships between neighbourhoods, education, diet and obesity, researchers at CEDAR used data from a cohort of almost 6,000 adults aged 29–62 years in Cambridgeshire. Individuals were asked about their highest educational attainment, eating patterns, were weighed and measured by trained researchers, and had the density of takeaway outlets in their home and work neighbourhoods calculated. The results are published today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
For the first time the researchers observed consistent differences in diet and weight by education at all levels of neighbourhood exposure to takeaway outlets. Furthermore, where exposure to takeaway outlets was greatest, differences in diet and weight across education groups were most pronounced. In other words the availability of takeaways seemed to be amplifying existing social inequalities.
Individuals with greatest exposure to takeaway outlets consumed around a third more unhealthy takeaway food per day if they were the poorest educated (47g per day) than if they were highest educated (36g per day). Over a year, this is the equivalent of over 4kg of extra unhealthy food. The least educated also had the greatest risk of obesity where the exposure to takeaway outlets was highest.
The findings confirm previous studies showing that takeaway food consumption, weight and the likelihood of being obese are all associated with either living or working near high numbers of takeaway food outlets. They also strengthen the evidence showing that eating takeaways and being obese are linked to socioeconomic disadvantage, indicated by a low level of education.
“Neighbourhoods are clearly important in shaping what all of us eat, no matter how educated we are,” explains Dr Thomas Burgoine from CEDAR, part of the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge. “But this effect appears to be much greater for those with lower levels of education.”
Compared to those least exposed and most educated, those most exposed and least educated were over three times more likely to be obese. Dr Burgoine says: “This double burden of neighbourhood and individual level disadvantage goes some way to explaining current UK socioeconomic inequalities in levels of obesity – in other words, why we see more obesity in disadvantaged groups.”
The researchers used low educational attainment as an indicator of individual level disadvantage. Low educational attainment is commonly associated with lacking behavioural and economic resources, such as cooking skills, food and nutrition knowledge, adequate cooking equipment and a shopping budget that affords healthy purchases, which may increase the influence of an unhealthy neighbourhood food environment.
Dr Pablo Monsivais, senior author of the study, adds: “Higher educational attainment brings with it many advantages, including more money to spend on fresh, healthier foods, as well as better knowledge of food and nutrition, and the tendency to dedicate more time to preparing meals at home, which we know are healthier than those bought out of the home. Without these advantages, people may be more vulnerable to their environment.”
The findings suggest that efforts to improve diets and health by regulating the number of takeaway outlets on our high streets might be particularly effective for those of lower socioeconomic status and therefore help to reduce inequalities in diet and obesity. Such policies are already beginning to be implemented in a number of UK regions and in south Los Angeles, for example. In the UK, people living in deprived neighbourhoods are generally exposed to higher numbers of takeaway food outlets.
“Our results suggest that these policies will be effective across socioeconomic groups, but, critically, particularly for the most disadvantaged. This could help to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in diet and health,” says Dr Monsivais. “This is important because attempts to encourage more healthy living at an individual level have largely failed to reduce health inequalities. This failure has been attributed to such initiatives proving especially ineffective among disadvantaged populations.”
The study was funded by the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the NIHR and the Wellcome Trust.
Burgoine, T et al. Does neighborhood fast-food outlet exposure amplify inequalities in diet and obesity? A cross-sectional study. Am J Clin Nutr; 11 May 2016; DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.115.128132
People who live or work near to a greater number of takeaway outlets are more likely to eat more takeaway food and to be overweight, but new research indicates that neighbourhoods that are saturated with fast food outlets may be particularly unhealthy for people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
Scientists from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) scanned participants during testing and found that the areas of the brain responsible for language performed just as well in older adults as in younger ones.
The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that increased neural activation in the frontal brain regions of older adults reflects differences in the way they respond to the demands of the task compared with younger adults, rather than any difference in language processing itself.
“These findings suggest our ability to understand language is remarkably preserved well into old age, and it's not through some trick of the mind, or reorganisation of the brain,” says co-author Professor Lorraine Tyler, who leads Cam-CAN. “Instead, it's through the continued functioning of a well-used language processing machine common to all humans.”
Professor Tyler says cognitive neuroscientists attempting to explain how the mind and brain work typically approach the question with tasks designed to measure particular cognitive abilities, such as memory or language. However, it's rarely as simple as that, she says, and tasks never end up measuring only one thing.
“Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language plus your motivation to do well, plus your understanding of the instructions, plus your ability to focus, and so on,” says lead author Dr Karen Campbell, now based at Harvard University. “These poorly defined tasks become even more problematic when it comes to studying the older brain, because older adults sometimes show increased neural activation in frontal brain regions, which is thought to reflect a change in how older brains carry out a given cognitive function. However, this extra activation may simply reflect differences in how young and older adults respond to the demands of the task.”
Campbell and her Cam-CAN colleagues tried to isolate the effect of the testing by scanning 111 participants aged 22-87 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they either passively listened to sentences or decided if the sentences were grammatical or not.
The researchers found that simply listening to and comprehending language, as we do in everyday life, “lights up” brain networks responsible for hearing and language, whereas performing a cognitive task with the same sentences leads to the additional activation of several task-related networks.
Age had no effect on the language network itself, but it did affect this network’s ability to “talk with” other task-related networks.
The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and is jointly based at the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
Campbell, KL et al. Robust Resilience of the Frontotemporal Syntax System to Aging. Journal of Neuroscience; 11 May 2016; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4561-15.2016
The ability to understand language could be much better preserved into old age than previously thought, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, who found older adults struggle more with test conditions than language processing.
A miniature ancient Egyptian coffin measuring just 44cm in length has been found to contain the youngest ever example of a human foetus to be embalmed and buried in Egyptian society. This discovery is the only academically verified specimen to exist at only sixteen to eighteen weeks of gestation.
This landmark discovery from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is remarkable evidence of the importance that was placed on official burial rituals in ancient Egypt, even for those lives that were lost so early on in their existence. Curators at the Fitzwilliam made the discovery, during their research for the pioneering bicentennial exhibition Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt.
The tiny coffin was excavated at Giza in 1907 by the British School of Archaeology and came into the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum the same year. It is a perfect miniature example of a wooden coffin of the ancient Egyptian ‘Late Period’ and may date to around 664-525 BC. The lid and box are both made from cedar wood. Although the coffin is deteriorated, it is clear that the wood was carefully carved on a painstakingly small scale and decorated. This gave the curators at the Fitzwilliam the first very clear indication of the importance given to the coffin’s contents at this time in ancient Egyptian society.
The diminutive wrapped package inside was carefully bound in bandages, over which molten black resin had been poured before the coffin was closed. For many years it was thought that the contents were the mummified remains of internal organs that were routinely removed during the embalming of bodies.
Examination using X-ray imaging at the Fitzwilliam Museum was inconclusive, but suggested that it may contain a small skeleton. It was therefore decided to micro CT (computed tomography) scan the tiny bundle at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology. The cross-sectional images this produced gave the first pictures of the remains of a tiny human body held within the wrappings, which remain undisturbed.
Dr Tom Turmezei, recently Honorary Consultant Radiologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge collaborated with the Fitzwilliam Museum, alongside Dr. Owen Arthurs, Academic Consultant Paediatric Radiologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, London. The ground-breaking results were based on their extensive knowledge of CT imaging and paediatric autopsy.
Five digits on both hands and feet and the long bones of the legs and arms were all clearly visible. Although the soft skull and pelvis were found to be collapsed the categorical consensus was that inside the bundle was a human foetus estimated to be of no more than eighteen weeks gestation. It was impossible to give a gender to the specimen and it is thought that the foetus was probably the result of a miscarriage, as there were no obvious abnormalities to explain why it could not have been carried to full-term.
From the micro CT scan it is noticeable that the foetus has its arms crossed over its chest. This, coupled with the intricacy of the tiny coffin and its decoration, are clear indications of the importance and time given to this burial in Egyptian society.
"CT imaging has been used successfully by the museum for several projects in recent years, but this is our most successful find so far," Dr. Tom Turmezei explained. "The ability of CT to show the inner workings of such artefacts without causing any structural damage proved even more invaluable in this case, allowing us to review the foetus for abnormalities and attempt to age it as accurately as possible."
Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam Museum said, "Using non-invasive modern technology to investigate this extraordinary archaeological find has provided us with striking evidence of how an unborn child might be viewed in ancient Egyptian society. The care taken in the preparation of this burial clearly demonstrates the value placed on life even in the first weeks of its inception."
Tutankhamun’s tomb contained two small foetuses that had been mummified and placed in individual coffins, but these infants were both significantly more developed, at about 25 weeks and 37 weeks into gestation. Very few other examples of burials of miscarried babies have so far been identified from ancient Egypt.
The miniature coffin is currently on display as part of the exhibition Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of ancient Egypt until 22nd May 2016 at the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge.
Inset image: Micro CT scan image of the upper limbs
Tiny coffin excavated at Giza in 1907 is remarkable evidence of importance placed on official burial rituals in ancient Egypt.
A study of tropical butterflies has added to growing evidence that natural selection reduces species’ diversity by moulding parts of their genetic structure, including elements that have no immediate impact on their survival.
The research, by a University of Cambridge-led team of academics, focused on genetic data from South American Heliconius butterflies. It showed that when these butterflies develop a beneficial adaptation through a mutation in their DNA, other parts of the same chromosome – the long strings of DNA that make up the butterfly’s genome – may end up being defined by the fact that they are “linked” to the point where the mutation took place. Natural selection ends up influencing the fate of these linked sites, even though they have no impact on the species’ fitness and long-term survival prospects.
As the adaptation is passed down through the generations as a result of natural selection, this collection of linked genetic sites can be passed on intact, removing genetic variation that previously existed in the population at these sites. This effectively limits the overall amount of variation in the butterfly population.
The study complements similar findings in other species, including humans and fruit flies, which together offer one possible solution to a long-standing paradox in population genetics. This is the fact that while species with bigger populations should be more genetically diverse – because there is more potential for new mutations to occur – in practice they often only exhibit as much diversity as smaller populations.
For example, in the Cambridge-led study, the researchers found that the genetic diversity of Heliconius butterflies is very similar to that of fruit flies, even though fruit flies are far more numerous. They also estimated that the amount of adaptation within Heliconius butterflies caused by natural selection is probably about half that of fruit flies. In other words, because natural selection affects the fruit flies more, reducing variation, they end up exhibiting roughly the same amount of genetic diversity, even though there are more of them.
The researchers stress that this explanation for variable levels of genetic diversity between different species is still, at the moment, a theory. Not all scientists are convinced that natural selection has this effect and argue that the variable diversity of species relative to population size may well have other causes.
Understanding more about what these causes are will, however, help to answer even more fundamental scientific questions – such as how and why species vary in the first place, and when they can really be said to have become distinct enough from their ancestors to represent a species in their own right.
Dr Simon Martin, a Research Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge, who led the study, said: “We will only be able to understand this fully if we can compare results from across different species. Extending our knowledge to butterflies is a step towards explaining these much broader patterns in nature; it’s only by doing this kind of research that we will know whether these ideas are right or not.”
Martin and his colleagues examined a very large data set of 79 whole genome sequences representing 12 related species of Heliconius butterfly. This large-scale data has only become available in recent years, as a result of advances in genome sequencing which have made the process both easier and more affordable.
The study involved scouring the sequences for an apparent pattern of association between particular sites within the genome and low variation. “That acts as a kind of signature,” Martin said. “If you can see that in a genome, then as far as we can tell it is an indication of selection.”
In addition, the researchers compared the number of variations in the parts of the genome where proteins are coded – and therefore may be responsible for adaptations – with the number of variations in other parts of the genome. It is possible to predict what this ratio would be if variations only occurred by chance. The difference between that prediction, and the actual statistics, suggests the extent to which natural selection has shaped species differences.
The study estimated that around 30% of the protein differences between species of Heliconius are adaptations caused by natural selection. In keeping with theories about diversity in the population of other species, this turned out to be about half the number of protein variations in fruit flies – a larger population with less genetic diversity overall.
Intriguingly, the study effectively suggests that natural selection could limit a species' ability to adapt to future environmental change by removing linked variations that, despite having no immediate beneficial impact on the species, could become relevant to its survival and capacity to cope with its environment in the future.
“Variation is a kind of raw material and you don’t necessarily use it all at any one time,” Martin explained. “It’s something that could be used to adapt and change in the future.”
“Something that has turned up during the last few years in research of this kind is a phenomenon where we see that a species has adapted, and we discover, when we look for the origin of that adaptation, that the mutation was not actually new. Instead, it was a variation that previously existed in the population. So while we cannot forecast the future, an emerging idea is that mutations that have no effect on survival today may be a source of beneficial variation in the future.”
The study appears in the May 2016 issue of Genetics.
A study of butterflies suggests that when a species adapts, other parts of its genetic make-up can be linked to that adaptation, limiting diversity in the population.
Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club gained a surprise new crew member in their training session yesterday - tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
Navratilova, in Cambridge to receive an honorary fellowship from Lucy Cavendish College, began with a five-minute masterclass from boat club chief coach Rob Baker in a “training tub” tethered to the bank.
Having got the hang of the basics, it was time to move up to joining this year’s Boat Race squad in the 8-seater used in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race.
Before setting out, Navratilova confessed: “I’ve been in canoes and little old row boats – the usual – and I’ve done a lot on the machine, but this is the first time in one of these!”
Supported from the riverbank by a crowd including Lucy Cavendish President Jackie Ashley and Cath Bishop, Chair of CUWBC, the squad put Navratilova, 59, through her paces.
Full Blue Myriam Goudet, of Lucy Cavendish College, described rowing alongside the former world number one as an inspiration.
She said: “She’s a strong example of how we can be a leader in the world. We are really pleased to have her here.”
Back on dry land, the nine-times Wimbledon champ declared: That’s a blast – the timing has to be just right!”
Turning to her fellow squad members she asked: “Did I pass the test?”
The answer, without missing a beat, from Bishop - “You’re a natural.”
That evening, Navratilova celebrated a bumper collection of Blues and Half Blues achieved by the sportswomen of Lucy Cavendish College – the only Cambridge college for women aged 21 and over – for their participation in University sport at the highest level.
She presented certificates to all students achieving a Blue or Half Blue during a Sports Formal Hall.
The 59-times Grand Slam champ faced one of her toughest challenges - keeping up with the Boat Race squad in her first ever rowing lesson
‘Canine transmissible venereal tumour’ (CTVT) is a cancer that spreads between dogs through the transfer of living cancer cells, primarily during mating. The disease usually manifests as genital tumours in both male and female domestic dogs. The cancer first arose approximately 11,000 years ago from the cells of one individual dog; remarkably, it survived beyond the death of this original dog by spreading to new dogs. The cancer is now found in dog populations worldwide, and is the oldest and most prolific cancer lineage known in nature.
In a study published today in the journal eLife, an international team led by researchers at the University of Cambridge studied the DNA of mitochondria – the ‘batteries’ that provide cells with their energy – in 449 CTVT tumours from dogs in 39 countries across six continents. Previous research has shown that at occasional points in history, mitochondrial DNA has transferred from infected dogs to their tumours – and hence to tumour cells in subsequently-infected dogs.
In the new study, the researchers show that this process of swapping mitochondrial DNA has occurred at least five times since the original cancer arose. This discovery has allowed them to create an evolutionary ‘family tree’, showing how the tumours are related to each other. In addition, the unusual juxtaposition of different types of mitochondrial DNA within the same cell unexpectedly revealed that cancer cells can shuffle or ‘recombine’ DNA from different mitochondria.
“At five distinct time-points in its history, the cancer has ‘stolen’ mitochondrial DNA from its host, perhaps to help the tumour survive,” explains Andrea Strakova, from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, co-first author of the study. “This provides us with a set of unique genetic tags to trace how dogs have travelled the globe over the last few hundred years.”
In the evolutionary ‘family tree’, the five main branches are known as ‘clades’, each representing a point in history when mitochondria transferred between dog and tumour. By mapping tumours within these clades to the geographical location where they were found, the researchers were able to see how the cancers have spread across the globe. The distance and speed with which the clades have spread suggests that the dogs commonly travelled with human companions, often by sea.
One branch of the CTVT evolutionary tree appears to have spread from Russia or China around 1,000 years ago, but probably only came to the Americas within the last 500 years, suggesting that it was taken there by European colonialists. Conquistadors are known to have travelled with dogs – contemporary artworks have portrayed them both as attack dogs and as a source of food.
Image: 1598 fictional engraving by Theodor de Bry supposedly depicting a Spaniard feeding Indian children to his dogs. Wikipedia
The disease probably arrived in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century, most likely imported inadvertently by dogs accompanying European settlers.
One of the most surprising findings from the study related to how mitochondrial DNA transfers – and mixes – between the tumour and the host. The researchers found that mitochondrial DNA molecules from host cells that have migrated into tumour cells occasionally fuse with the tumour’s own mitochondrial DNA, sharing host and tumour DNA in a process known as ‘recombination’. This is the first time this process has been observed in cancers.
Máire Ní Leathlobhair, the study’s co-first author, explains: “Mitochondrial DNA recombination could be happening on a much wider scale, including in human cancers, but it may usually be very difficult to detect. When recombination occurs in transmissible cancers, two potentially very different mitochondrial DNAs – one from the tumour, one from the host – are merging and so the result is more obvious. In human cancer, the tumour’s mitochondrial DNA is likely to be very similar to the mitochondrial DNA in the patient’s normal cells, so the result of recombination would be almost impossible to recognise.”
Although the significance of mitochondrial DNA recombination in cancer is not yet known, its discovery is now leading scientists to explore how this process may help cancer cells to survive – and if blocking it may stop cancer cells from growing.
Dr Elizabeth Murchison, senior author of the study, said: “The genetic changes in CTVT have allowed us to reconstruct the global journeys taken by this cancer over two thousand years. It is remarkable that this unusual and long-lived cancer can teach us so much about the history of dogs, and also about the genetic and evolutionary processes that underlie cancer more generally.”
The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Society.
Strakova, A et al. Mitochondrial genetic diversity, selection and recombination in a canine transmissible cancer. eLife; 17 May 2016; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.14552
A contagious form of cancer that can spread between dogs during mating has highlighted the extent to which dogs accompanied human travellers throughout our seafaring history. But the tumours also provide surprising insights into how cancers evolve by ‘stealing’ DNA from their host.
New evidence from the largest-yet series of experiments on use of body-worn cameras by police has revealed that rates of assault against police by members of the public actually increased when officers wore the cameras.
The research also found that on average across all officer-hours studied, and contrary to current thinking, the rate of use-of-force by police on citizens was unchanged by the presence of body-worn cameras, but a deeper analysis of the data showed that this finding varied depending on whether or not officers chose when to turn cameras on.
If officers turned cameras on and off during their shift then use-of-force increased, whereas if they kept the cameras rolling for their whole shift, use-of-force decreased.
While researchers describe these findings as unexpected, they also urge caution as the work is ongoing, and say these early results demand further scrutiny. However, gathering evidence for what works in policing is vital, they say.
“At present, there is a worldwide uncontrolled social experiment taking place – underpinned by feverish public debate and billions of dollars of government expenditure. Robust evidence is only just keeping pace with the adoption of new technology,” write criminologists from the University of Cambridge and RAND Europe, who conducted the study.
For the latest findings, researchers worked with eight police forces across the UK and US – including West Midlands, Cambridgeshire and Northern Ireland’s PSNI, as well as Ventura, California and Rialto, California PDs in the United States – to conduct ten randomised-controlled trials.
Over the ten trials, the research team found that rates of assault against officers wearing cameras on their shift were an average of 15% higher, compared to shifts without cameras.
The researchers say this could be due to officers feeling more able to report assaults once they are captured on camera – providing them the impetus and/or confidence to do so.
The monitoring by camera also may make officers less assertive and more vulnerable to assault. However, they point out these are just possible explanations, and much more work is needed to unpick the reasons behind these surprising findings.
In the experimental design, the shift patterns of 2,122 participating officers across the forces were split at random between those allocated a camera and those without a camera. A total of 2.2 million officer-hours policing a total population of more than 2 million citizens were covered in the study.
The researchers set out a protocol for officers allocated cameras during the trials: record all stages of every police-public interaction, and issue a warning of filming at the outset. However, many officers preferred to use their discretion, activating cameras depending on the situation.
Researchers found that during shifts with cameras in which officers stuck closer to the protocol, police use-of-force fell by 37% over camera-free shifts. During shifts in which officers tended to use their discretion, police use-of-force actually rose 71% over camera-free shifts.
“The combination of the camera plus the early warning creates awareness that the encounter is being filmed, modifying the behaviour of all involved,” said principle investigator Barak Ariel from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.
“If an officer decides to announce mid-interaction they are beginning to film, for example, that could provoke a reaction that results in use-of-force,” Ariel said. “Our data suggests this could be what is driving the results.”
The new results are the latest to come from the research team since their ground-breaking work reporting the first experimental evidence on body-worn cameras with Rialto PD in California – a study widely-cited as part of the rationale for huge investment in this policing technology.
“With so much at stake, these findings must continue to be scrutinised through further research and more studies. In the meantime, it’s clear that more training and engagement with police officers are required to ensure they are confident in the decisions they make while wearing cameras, and are safe in their job,” said co-author and RAND Europe researcher Alex Sutherland.
Ariel added, “It may be that in some places it’s a bad idea to use body-worn cameras, and the only way you can find that out is to keep doing these tests in different kinds of places. After all, what might work for a sheriff’s department in Iowa may not necessarily apply to the Tokyo PD.”
Preliminary results from eight UK and US police forces reveal rates of assault against officers are 15% higher when they use body-worn cameras. The latest findings, from one of the largest randomised-controlled trials in criminal justice research, highlight the need for cameras to be kept on and recording at all stages of police-public interaction – not just when an individual officer deems it necessary – if police use-of-force and assaults against police are to be reduced.
An international team of researchers has produced a detailed picture of the latter stages of the outbreak in Sierra Leone, using real-time sequencing of Ebola virus genomes carried out in a temporary laboratory in the country.
While the study did not suggest that unconventional transmission was more common than previously thought, the authors describe several instances including a mother who may have transmitted Ebola to her baby via breastfeeding, and an Ebola survivor who passed on the virus sexually a month after being released from quarantine.
The research, published today in the journal Virus Evolution, suggests that rapid sequencing of viral genomes in the midst of an epidemic could play a vital role in bringing future outbreaks under control, by allowing public health workers to quickly trace new cases back to their source.
Sierra Leone was the most widely affected of the three West African countries worst hit by the Ebola epidemic, with 14,124 cases and 3,956 deaths to date. Without effective vaccines or treatments for the infection, bringing the epidemic under control relied largely on public health measures such as the rapid identification and isolation of Ebola patients, contact tracing and quarantine, as well as encouraging safe burial practices.
By mid-2015 cases in the three most-affected countries had declined, but isolated cases of the disease continued to appear, even though all known transmission chains were thought to be extinguished.
Researchers led by the University of Cambridge and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute began investigating these cases in a temporary genome sequencing facility set up by Professor Ian Goodfellow. Based in a tent at the Ebola Treatment Centre in Makeni, Sierra Leone, the facility provided in-country sequencing capability to process samples from patients in Makeni and surrounding areas in real time, without the need for sample shipment out of the country.
The team generated 554 complete Ebola genome sequences from samples of blood, buccal swabs, semen and breast milk collected between December 2014 and September 2015 from Ebola isolation and treatment centres in the north and west of the country. These were combined with 1019 samples sequenced by other groups to create a picture of the viral variants present in Sierra Leone.
They found that during 2015 at least nine different lineages of the virus were circulating in Sierra Leone, eight of which evolved from a single variant that introduced Ebola to the country in June 2014. The remaining viruses came from a separate, geographically distinct lineage that originated in Guinea.
Starting in mid-2015 samples from all new Sierra Leone cases were rapidly sequenced in the facility. The data, combined with the growing reference set, helped field workers locate the source of infection for some of the final Ebola cases in Sierra Leone. This work revealed that some cases were acquired through unconventional transmission chains and supports a growing body of evidence that the Ebola virus can be found in fluids such as semen or breast milk and may persist beyond the standard quarantine times.
Senior author Professor Ian Goodfellow, from the University of Cambridge, said: “During the initial part of the Ebola epidemic several teams were sequencing samples, but the delays caused by shipping the samples out of West Africa made it difficult to use the sequence data for investigating new chains of transmission. Often by the time the data was published the samples were six months old. To be able to rapidly identify the source of new cases we need to sequence samples and release data in real-time, share samples and share data as it’s produced.”
Dr Matthew Cotten, joint senior author, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute added: “During the epidemic combining our Ebola virus genome sequences with data from other groups provided insight into how the virus was evolving and contributed to an important reference for tracking the source of new cases. As the outbreak progressed, our data also show that quarantines, border control and checking methods were effective, as movement of the virus within and between countries ceased.”
The sequencing facility set up by the team has now been moved to the University of Makeni, where it forms the focal point of the new UniMak Infectious Disease Research Laboratory. The facility is providing world-class training to local students and scientists, which has proven crucial to sequencing the recent new cases of Ebola when no international staff were present.
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “Close contact with an infected individual is still by far the most common way for Ebola to spread, but this study supports previous research suggesting that the virus can persist in bodily fluids for a long time after recovery. These unusual modes of transmission may have contributed to isolated flare-ups of infections towards the end of the epidemic.
“The success of this innovative project shows how important it is to carry out genome sequencing within the affected countries, and for the data to be shared in a rapid and open way as part of the epidemic response. Strengthening laboratory and surveillance facilities where they are currently lacking will also aid early detection, making the world better prepared for infectious disease outbreaks.”
The research was funded by the Wellcome Trust and is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute with support from the University of Edinburgh and Public Health England. The Ion Torrent sequencing machines were supplied by Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Armando et al. Rapid outbreak sequencing of Ebola virus in Sierra Leone identifies transmission chains linked to sporadic cases. Virus Evolution; 18 May 2016; DOI: 10.1093/ve/vew016
Press release from the Wellcome Trust
Some of the final cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone were transmitted via unconventional routes, such as semen and breastmilk, according to the largest analysis to date of the tail-end of the epidemic.
The controversial theorist Thomas Robert Malthus did not much enjoy travelling. Invited by his friend and fellow political economist, David Ricardo, to stay at the country house of Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire, he declared that “that part of the world” was simply too far from his home near London, and wrote that he’d resolved “not to make distant excursions more than once a year”.
Now new research confirms that Malthus travelled vicariously all over the world, immersed in the accounts of voyages to the new lands being explored and colonised by Europeans. Malthus’s journeying through the medium of print to far-flung shores in the Americas and Pacific informed the theories on human development, population, and land use (and the precarious balance among them) for which he quickly became famous.
Professors Alison Bashford (Cambridge) and Joyce E Chaplin (Harvard) explore this under-researched aspect of Malthus’s life and works. The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus reveals that the contentious theorist raised profound and prescient questions about the nature of people worldwide – and, in particular, about the collision of interests that resulted when white settlers claimed territories inhabited by indigenous communities.
The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus radically re-casts the famous economist’s ideas from a British and European context, to a world and imperial one. The book is already hailed, by scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, as a stunningly distinctive contribution to interpretations of Malthus. One scholar calls it “the most important new reading of the life and work of Malthus in a generation”.
The seventh child in a well-off family, Malthus was born 250 years ago on 13 February 1766. His father’s social circle included some of the best-known philosophers of the time, including David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Like many younger sons of the gentry, Malthus took orders in the Church of England and, after an education at Jesus College, Cambridge, became a curate who corresponded widely. He began to publish pamphlets on topical issues in the stormy last decade of the 18th century.
Though cast as ‘parson Malthus’, for most of his life he was in fact a professor of political economy at the East India Company College in Haileybury. Bashford explains: “This put him at the centre of the imperial world, for several generations educating young men for service as Company clerks in India.”
Malthus is best known for his Essay on the Principle of Population, which first appeared in 1798. In the thesis, both respected and vilified for the past 200 years, he argued that while population multiplies exponentially, food supplies increase only arithmetically. The oscillating mismatch between the two would spell disaster when ‘checked’ by nature through famine or disease, or by humans through war or infanticide.
The most troubling aspect of Malthus’s essay is his interpretation of poverty. While a generation of utopians was imagining a brighter and better future for all, Malthus proposed a much bleaker picture. Some poverty, he argued, was inevitable. As population increased when times were good, so the poorest would perish when times were bad. Disease and famine served as natural checks to over-population. These uncompromising views led Malthus to be much disliked or even hated.
Yet Malthus also thought the number of people on that poverty line could and should be reduced. “Despite assertions that Malthus blamed only the poor for producing too many children, for being the problem, he was in fact at least equally critical of the behaviour of the privileged,” Chaplin points out. “He argued that when the rich had large families, the poor disproportionately suffered any material shortages, therefore wealthier people were morally obliged to produce fewer children.”
Historians have consistently set Malthus within a European context. But Bashford and Chaplin show that his Essay was about the Atlantic and Pacific new worlds as well. It was written within the tradition of ‘stadial’ theories of economic development; these ‘universal histories’ sought to understand all cultures in all places and times. Using Jesuit travel accounts, 18th-century journals of Pacific voyagers, and the writings of new world settlers, Malthus wrote a world history.
Bashford and Chaplin initially approached Malthus from different chronological perspectives. Chaplin had written extensively about English interpretations of colonisation and population, also on Benjamin Franklin’s influential population thesis, which was a key inspiration for Malthus. Meanwhile, Bashford had examined modern theories of population and of 20th-century Malthusianism. They began to talk about population, and Malthus, while Bashford was a visiting professor at Harvard University.
“Several years ago, I opened the 1803 edition of Malthus’s Essay and was entirely surprised to see the name Bennelong,” explains Bashford. “Well known to Australian historians, Bennelong was an Aboriginal leader in the earliest years of British colony of New South Wales, a cultural interlocutor who spent several years in London in the 1790s. But what was he doing in Malthus’s famous Essay?” The need to re-interpret Malthus’s work in the light of colonial and imperial history was clear.
Chaplin then discovered that Franklin’s and Malthus’s works on population had been produced by the same London publisher. “That seemed more than coincidental,” Chaplin says. “Together, the two authors — American and British — and their two books show that new world colonies and the imperial centre were neither topically distant or theoretically distinct.”
Many of the books Malthus used to research and write his world history are in the Old Library at Jesus College. The Malthus Collection includes volumes that belonged to his father, his brother, his learned cousin, Jane Dalton, and Malthus himself. Among them are copies of Benjamin Franklin’s essays, Cook’s journals from the South Sea, and Jesuit accounts of New France and New Spain – all owned by Malthus.
Bashford and Chaplin’s research reveals that, as white settlers began to claim new territories, Malthus occasionally questioned the morality of colonisation, very unusual for his time, and almost unique among his political economy contemporaries. As early as 1803, he anticipated and deplored the fate he foresaw awaiting the inhabitants of the new world as settler populations increasingly claimed lands that seemed to offer almost limitless resources.
Anticipating formal policies for the removal of indigenous people in North America and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), he wrote: “The right of exterminating, or driving into a corner where they must starve, even the inhabitants of these thinly populated regions, will be questioned in a moral view.”
The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus also explains Malthus’s views on the slave trade. His Essay, written and rewritten between 1798 and 1830, coincided with the height of the abolitionist campaigns, first against the slave trade and then against slavery. He asked William Wilberforce to inform the House of Commons that he was against the slave trade, in large part because quite a few slave traders were using his Principle of Population in their own defence.
“Yet Malthus spoke out against the slave trade somewhat reluctantly,” argue Bashford and Chaplin, “and he never spoke out against slavery itself.” This diffidence is evident in his famous books, analysed in terms of slavery and abolition, for the first time. While it was common at the time to consider slavery in terms of reproduction and population, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus explains why and how Malthus sidestepped the issue.
The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus analyses, for the first time, the reception history of the work in the very places Malthus examined. He was read and discussed in new world sites that ran from Lexington in Kentucky to Hobart in Tasmania. So eager were new world people to read him that his text appeared in a pirated edition produced in the United States. His ideas entered public discourse: settler populations, for example, debated his key statement that they should neither exterminate nor drive into ‘a corner’ indigenous populations.
Malthus was bolder than many of his European and American contemporaries and, in terms of continuing arguments over the rights of different global populations, his text remains deeply resonant today.
The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus is published by Princeton University Press.
Thomas Robert Malthus, who was born 250 years ago, became notorious for his ‘principle of population’. He argued that, because poverty was inevitable, some people would not find a seat at ‘nature’s table’ and would perish. In a new book, historians at Cambridge and Harvard set the life and work of this contentious thinker within a wider context – and look in particular at his engagement with the world beyond Europe.
Why are some people severely obese? According to Dr Giles Yeo, Director of Genomics/Transcriptomics in the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, it is all to do with the brain. “The more we find out about obesity the more we begin to realise that whenever you deal with obesity it invariably comes down to food intake and you invariably end up in the brain,” he says.
Dr Yeo will be presenting a BBC Horizon programme in June/July 2016 on the science of obesity and how biology dictates that some people just feel hungrier than others. It will cover the latest research in epigenetics, particularly drugs which change the gut hormone profile and trick the stomach into reacting as if it has had bariatric surgery without people having to actually go through it.
Dr Yeo’s own research investigates how the brain responds to circulating hormones which reflect the body's nutritional status. His ultimate goal is to devise treatments that work for all the different subsets of obese people. Currently, the only solutions are exercise and diet, for instance, eating food that takes longer to digest; bariatric surgery, which reduces stomach space and is major surgery, only appropriate for the most serious cases; and drugs that have side effects such as depression and high blood pressure, mainly because the brain is so complex and they are not targeting the right neurons.
The Horizon programme came about after Dr Yeo took part in a BBC three-part special on personalised dieting last year. “The idea for the programme was whether by looking at a person’s biology we could tailor fit something that would work better than the standard diet,” he says. He participated in the programme in his capacity as a genetics expert and took part in the Cheltenham Science Festival as a result. There he took part in a Q & A about the programme. The editor of Horizon was in the audience.
Dr Yeo, who will also be delivering a talk about his research as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival on 4th June, believes it is important for scientists to engage with the public about what they are doing. He says: “I know some people who think public engagement is of little value, but just a tiny fraction of the population will look at my research papers. I am paid by the Medical Research Council and 99.9% of people will not know about my research, but they are paying my salary. At a time of austerity people might ask why should my money go to researching obesity when there are other more immediate diseases. The common assumption is ‘don’t fat people just have to eat less’.”
They need to understand, he says, that the question is not about why some people get fat and others don’t. It is why some people eat more than others. "Obese people are judged all the time and portrayed as greedy, lazy and having a lack of willpower, but nothing is further from the truth. They are fighting a biology which means they are more hungry than other people. It is no challenge to stop eating when you are not very hungry. It is much harder when you are hungry. Obese people tend to feel hungrier all the time.” The environment we live in, where we are surrounded by cheap sugary, fatty fast food at all times doesn’t help, he adds, but the environment can be changed. People’s biology cannot.
Dr Yeo backs the sugar tax on fizzy drinks because of the way sugary drinks are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, but he is against a general sugar tax, saying that scientists and health workers need to work with the food industry to promote change. “Sugar is not bad. It is the amount of sugar we eat that is bad,” he says.
He adds that just telling obese people that they are not bad, that they are just fighting their biology, can have a huge motivational impact. “Eating is a complex behaviour and like all complex behaviour it has biological underpinnings,” he says.
Dr Giles Yeo will present a BBC Horizon programme in the summer on the science of obesity and is speaking about his research at the Hay Festival.
An international team of astronomers have found evidence of ice and comets orbiting a nearby sun-like star, which could give a glimpse into how our own solar system developed.
Using data from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), the researchers, led by the University of Cambridge, detected very low levels of carbon monoxide gas around the star, in amounts that are consistent with the comets in our own solar system.
The results, which will be presented today at the ‘Resolving Planet Formation in the era of ALMA and extreme AO’ conference in Santiago, Chile, are a first step in establishing the properties of comet clouds around sun-like stars just after the time of their birth.
Comets are essentially ‘dirty snowballs’ of ice and rock, sometimes with a tail of dust and evaporating ice trailing behind them, and are formed early in the development of stellar systems. They are typically found in the outer reaches of our solar system, but become most clearly visible when they visit the inner regions. For example, Halley’s Comet visits the inner solar system every 75 years, some take as long as 100,000 years between visits, and others only visit once before being thrown out into interstellar space.
It’s believed that when our solar system was first formed, the Earth was a rocky wasteland, similar to how Mars is today, and that as comets collided with the young planet, they brought many elements and compounds, including water, along with them.
The star in this study, HD 181327, has a mass about 30% greater than the sun and is located 160 light years away in the Painter constellation. The system is about 23 million years old, whereas our solar system is 4.6 billion years old.
“Young systems such as this one are very active, with comets and asteroids slamming into each other and into planets,” said Sebastián Marino, a PhD student from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy and the paper’s lead author. “The system has a similar ice composition to our own, so it’s a good one to study in order to learn what our solar system looked like early in its existence.”
Using ALMA, the astronomers observed the star, which is surrounded by a ring of dust caused by the collisions of comets, asteroids and other bodies. It’s likely that this star has planets in orbit around it, but they are impossible to detect using current telescopes.
“Assuming there are planets orbiting this star, they would likely have already formed, but the only way to see them would be through direct imaging, which at the moment can only be used for very large planets like Jupiter,” said co-author Luca Matrà, also a PhD student at Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy.
In order to detect the possible presence of comets, the researchers used ALMA to search for signatures of gas, since the same collisions which caused the dust ring to form should also cause the release of gas. Until now, such gas has only been detected around a few stars, all substantially more massive than the sun. Using simulations to model the composition of the system, they were able to increase the signal to noise ratio in the ALMA data, and detect very low levels of carbon monoxide gas.
“This is the lowest gas concentration ever detected in a belt of asteroids and comets – we’re really pushing ALMA to its limits,” said Marino.
“The amount of gas we detected is analogous to a 200 kilometre diameter ice ball, which is impressive considering how far away the star is,” said Matrà. “It’s amazing that we can do this with exoplanetary systems now.”
The results have been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
S. Marino et al. ‘Exocometary gas in the HD 181327 debris ring.’ Paper presented to the Resolving Planet Formation in the era of ALMA and extreme AO conference, Santiago, May 16-20, 2016. http://www.eso.org/sci/meetings/2016/Planet-Formation2016/program.html
Inset image: ALMA image of the ring of comets around HD 181327 (colours have been changed). The white contours represent the size of the Kuiper Belt in the Solar System. Credit: Amanda Smith, University of Cambridge.
Astronomers have found the first evidence of comets around a star similar to the sun, providing an opportunity to study what our solar system was like as a ‘baby’.
App-based ride company Uber has been battling the “establishment” around the world, from traditional black taxi drivers in London to regulators in Australia. But Uber is far from the first upstart travel company to rock the status quo. More than 150 years ago, in Victorian Britain, the Thomas Cook travel agency faced vilification before skilfully winning over its critics.
So how did the original travel disruptor pull it off? The circumstances behind the rise of both companies are vastly different, but there are lessons in the way a former cabinet maker and temperance preacher navigated his company from outcast to mainstream in about 15 years, not only by dulling criticism, but by actually winning the public over to his side.
Having started from modest beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Cook’s travel agency brought continental European travel to the middle classes through what we now call package holidays. This enraged the elite, who indulged in “Grand Tours” of European capitals that often lasted months, and who called themselves “travellers” rather than mere “tourists”.
Leading newspapers condemned Thomas Cook as an “unscrupulous man” and branded his customers “barbarian hordes”. They were cheered on by an upper crust who worried about pristine attractions being overrun by people who were, according to Blackwood’s Magazine, “low-bred, vulgar and ridiculous”.
Thomas Cook refused to be vilified, and effectively fought back against this scaremongering by defending both his business model and his customers in a manner that was steely but not abrasive. He was unapologetic about his activities and set out to show that they were far from harmful to British society.
Cook used his monthly journal, The Excursionist, to depict his opponents as a “misguided minority” who lacked “genuine nobility” because they sought to deny other people a form of cultural enrichment. He said his tours helped to improve peaceful global relations through closer contact among nations. And Cook argued that his tours allowed respected but poorly paid professions, such as clergy and teachers, to travel abroad:
There is no class of men to whom a good tour could be more beneficial than to hard-working ministers.
He also adopted some of the practices of the “Grand Tours” – including offering greater freedom to customers by allowing them to check into hotels individually rather than as a group.
Steadily and rapidly, the “stigma” and bad press attached to Thomas Cook and his customers evaporated. In return, Cook helped the media by providing valuable news tips – gleaned from his customers – about countries that seem so close now, but were then so far away.
So just a decade after the Daily News condemned Cook’s “swarm of followers” and “barbarian hordes”, the newspaper batted down rumours that the Danube had been closed to passenger traffic by reporting:
Messrs. Thomas Cook and Son have received the following telegraphic reply: ‘Danube route open. No fear of its being closed.’
Before long, newspapers began praising Cook for offering “invaluable services” and joining the ranks of public benefactors.
Turning Enemies into Allies
Today’s disruptors, of course, don’t face identical challenges to those handled so deftly by the arriviste Thomas Cook. Not all of Cook’s tactics will transfer successfully to the internet age. Yet we’ve already seen some recent moves that have echoes of those used by Cook a century and a half ago.
This month, Uber appointed former EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes as an advisor to work more closely with governments around the world to advance its arguments. Thomas Cook, sought support from high places, too; his son John even organised a package tour of the Holy Land for Prince Edward and Prince George.
In another echo of Cook, Uber argues that its service brings simplicity and democratisation to a highly structured system that served a privileged few. Previously, a limited number of licensed taxi drivers and people lucky enough to find a cab in a downpour could prosper; now many drivers and customers can, in theory, benefit from more choice and competition. Like Cook, Uber could try to be more collaborative, too; to present its services as an innovative alternative to licensed taxis rather than their replacement. An Uber that is part of a complementary taxi ecosystem will combat the image that it presents a mortal threat to the black cabs of London or the yellow taxis of New York.
Thomas Cook is now listed on the London Stock Exchange, and is part of the FTSE 250 index as one of Britain’s largest companies. It has become part of the establishment it once challenged. In the end, that kind of success boils down to staying power. After successfully shedding its stigma, Thomas Cook was able to show good long-term value for money, and Uber will need to do the same.
Uber already has taken some steps towards fostering a gentler image, using its ride sharing service to donate clothes for refugees, and suspending surge pricing during a big US snowstorm early this year. If the stigma is to be entirely removed, Uber probably needs to offer a convincing answer to criticism of that system, which allows fares to skyrocket during periods of peak demand in what some see as a grave exploitation of customers.
Just seven years after it was founded in San Francisco, Uber’s history is still being written. But there is an intriguing parallel with the journey of Thomas Cook and his once-upstart travel agency, and it is now playing out with a new high-profile disruptor in a new century.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.
Christian Hampel (Cambridge Judge Business School) discusses Thomas Cook travel agency's battle with Victorian Britain's status quo.
Adolescence is a key time in an individual’s development, and is a period where some teenagers begin to show signs of major depression. One of the major risk factors for depression in adolescence is childhood family adversity, such as poor parenting and lack of affection, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, family financial problems or the loss of a family member. Another major risk factor for depression is bullying by peers – and the combined experience of childhood family adversity and peer bullying is associated with increased severity of depression symptoms.
Studies suggest that friendships and supportive family environments may help protect adolescents from depression if they have experienced peer bullying and childhood family adversity. However, no study has simultaneously examined the complex interplay of early life adversity, bullying, family support and friendships on later adolescent depression.
Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge studied almost 800 teenagers (322 boys and 449 girls), and used mathematical modelling to examine the impact of friendships and family support at age 14 on depressive symptoms at age 17 in adolescents who had previously experienced childhood family adversity and primary school bullying.
“Teenage years can be difficult for everyone, but we found that this is particularly the case for those teens who have had a difficult family environment,” explains Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen, the study’s first author. “Adolescents who had experienced negative family environments are more likely to be bullied at school, and less likely to receive family support in adolescence. We also found that children who were bullied in primary school were less likely to have supportive friendships in adolescence.
“In fact, we found a strong relationship between having a negative family environment and being bullied at primary school. This puts teens at a double disadvantage and means they are more likely to experience more severe symptoms of depression in their late teens.”
Boys who had been bullied were less likely than girls to develop strong friendships in adolescence, which the researchers suggest may be because boys experienced more severe bullying or were more sensitive to bullying.
Crucially, the researchers also found that supportive family or friends in early adolescence could help reduce depressive symptoms in later teenage years. It is not clear from the results how social support influences later life mental health. However, the researchers suggest several possibilities, including that supportive friends and family environments may help enhance children’s ability to cope with adverse situations by improving their self-esteem and offering stress-relief and through helping them develop effective interpersonal skills.
“Our work really shows how important it is that children and teenagers have strong support from their family and friends, particularly if their childhood has been a difficult one,” adds Professor Ian Goodyer, senior author. “It also suggests a role for interventions such as helping parents in at-risk families develop their parenting and support skills or helping bullied teens build their confidence and social skills to help find and maintain friendships.”
The research was funded primarily by the Wellcome Trust and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.
Van Harmelen, AL et al. Friendships and Family Support Reduce Subsequent Depressive Symptoms in At-Risk Adolescents. PLOS ONE; 4 May 2016; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0153715
The importance of friendships and family support in helping prevent depression among teenagers has been highlighted in research from the University of Cambridge. The study, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, also found that teenagers who had grown up in a difficult family environment were more likely than their peers to be bullied at school.
Right across the bird and animal kingdoms, the colour red is used for communication, often to attract mates, and zebra finches are no different: the males have a distinctive red beak, which is a sexually selected trait - as females prefer males with redder beaks.
New research on zebra finches has identified for the first time the genes that allow some bird species to produce the red pigment that plays such a critical role in attraction and mating.
The genes belong to a wider family of genes that also play an important role in detoxification, suggesting how heightened redness may be a sign of mate quality: it indicates a bird's ability to cleanse harmful substances from its body.
This could explain what's known as 'honest signaling': where an evolved trait is a genuine sign of better, fitter genes - in this case the ability to better deal with anything toxic.
The research is published today in the journal Current Biology.
Birds such as the zebra finch obtain yellow pigments, known as carotenoids, from their diet of seeds, or insects in the case of other bird species.
Prior to the latest findings, it was known that such birds must have a way of converting these yellow dietary pigments into the red pigments - the ketocarotenoids - that colour the beaks, feathers or bare skin of many species. However, the mechanism for this process was unclear.
Nick Mundy from Cambridge's Department of Zoology, along with colleagues including Staffan Andersson from the University of Gothenburg and Jessica Stapley from the University of Sheffield, compared the gene sequences of wild, red-beaked zebra finches with captive finches that had a mutant, recessive gene causing yellow beaks.
They identified a cluster of three genes in the wild finches that were either missing or mutated in this genetic region in the 'yellowbeak' birds.
These genes encode enzymes called cytochrome P450s, which play an important role in breaking down and metabolising toxic compounds, primarily in the liver of vertebrates. In humans, these enzymes are well-studied, as they are strongly associated with drug metabolism.
"It was known that birds have an unusual ability to synthesize red ketocarotenoids from the yellow carotenoids that they obtain in their diet, but the enzyme, gene or genes, and anatomical location have been obscure," said Mundy. "Our findings fill this gap and open up many future avenues for research on the evolution and ecology of red coloration in birds."
Red colour in birds is thought to signal individual genetic quality, and the researchers argue that one way it can do this is if the amount of red colour relates to other beneficial physiological processes, such as detoxification.
"Our results, which link a detoxification gene to carotenoid metabolism, shed new light on this old hypothesis about the honesty of signalling," said co-author Staffan Andersson.
The researchers found the specific expression of one or more of the identified 'red' gene cluster in the tissues where the red pigments were deposited: the beak, the tarsus in the bird's feet - as well as in the retina.
The structure of retinas in the eye includes cone-shaped photoreceptor cells. Unlike mammals, avian retinal cones contain a range of brightly-coloured oil droplets, including green, yellow and red. These oil droplets allow birds to see many more colours than mammals.
Mundy says that the newly-discovered genetic links between red beaks and feathers and the internal red retina droplets suggest that producing red pigment evolved for colour vision before it developed a function for external display - as, while red oil eye droplets are ubiquitous across bird species, external reds are only patchily distributed.
"It was quite a surprise that the same genes are involved both in seeing red colours and making red coloration," said Mundy.
Mundy says he and his colleagues are now working on the genetics of red coloration in African widowbirds and bishops, which show "spectacular differences among different species."
Latest research suggests a new mechanism for how sexual displays of red beaks and plumage might be ‘honest signals’ of mate quality, as genes that convert yellow dietary pigments into red share cofactors with enzymes that aid detoxification – hinting that redness is a genetic sign of the ability to better metabolise harmful substances.
What will you be doing on June 23 this year? Perhaps you’ll be packing your tent and donning your wellies, ready for the start of Glastonbury. Or maybe you’ll be celebrating the end of your A Levels, or preparing to graduate. Otherwise, you may just be taking it easy, slipping into the long summer vacation.
But of course, June 23 is also the date when voters will make one of the most important decisions of their lives: whether they think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, or leave. The campaigns offer two very different visions for the future: one where the UK has access to a single market and shared decision-making in a reformed EU, and one where the nation has greater control over its own rules.
I’m guessing most of you didn’t bother with the recent police and crime commissioner elections. Londoners will perhaps have voted to choose a new mayor. But no poll – not even a general election – will have such a profound effect on this country’s future as the EU referendum: especially for young people, who will have the longest to live with the consequences.
Yet survey evidence shows that 18 to 24-year-olds are the least likely citizens to be registered to vote – let alone actually go to the polls.
The problem has been made worse by a recent rule change on voter registration. Once, universities and colleges could register all of their students to vote en masse. Now, students (or their families) have to register themselves – an extra task to fit in alongside busy exam schedules and last-minute essay writing. And even those who have registered might encounter problems: according to a new poll commissioned by Universities UK, only 56% of students who are registered at their term-time address say they are likely to be there when the referendum takes place. This means that they need to get a postal vote – another demand on their time.
The timing for the EU referendum could not be worse. High summer is inevitably accompanied by a range of attractions and distractions, each seemingly more important for an individual than a vote on the future of the UK in or out of Europe. If survey evidence, cited by the Guardian, is correct, just over half of people aged 18 to 34 years old (52%) said they were certain to go out and vote. And only 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds actually voted in the 2015 general election.
Research from the Electoral Reform Society suggests that the EU referendum campaign has not engaged young people. Only 21% of 18 to 24-year-olds say they are “very interested” in the EU referendum, compared with 47% of those aged over 65.
If young people do not register to vote – and then actually vote – they may find themselves with an outcome they do not want. The decision will have repercussions for many years to come, and will have a huge role in shaping young people’s lives. So, let the result – whichever way it goes – be down to choice, not the byproduct of apathy.
Universities have a role to play in all this. Monday 16 to Friday 20 May is student voter registration week. Universities UK is working with a range of partners, including the National Union of Students, the Cabinet Office, and the Association of Colleges to promote a major registration drive at universities campuses and FE colleges across the UK.
Activities will range from on-the-spot registrations with tablets, to reminders in lectures. Various organisations, such as the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme (in which I am involved), requires its fellows to engage with the public as much as possible – in a strictly non-partisan way – informing them about the EU. This has involved everything from schools events, to town hall meetings, which attract more mature audiences.
A common complaint we hear is that the issues involved in the debate are so complicated that people feel ill-equipped to make a decision. Decades of failure by the education system to inform students about the basics of what the European Union is, and does, is coming home to roost. “What does Brexit mean?” is currently one of the most frequent Google searches about the EU.
The town hall audiences often ask for facts: clear, unvarnished, non-partisan facts. Yet this appetite for “the facts”, for greater knowledge and for understanding of the pros and cons of a debate is often drowned out by the noise of the campaign. There is a deep mistrust of politicians, and of both the leave and remain campaigns. Both sides have made hyperbolic claims – whether it be that there is a greater risk of war in Europe if the UK leaves the EU (Stronger In) or that violence will be the next step if immigration is not controlled (Vote Leave) – which have confused people further.
Yet there are plenty of sources available, many of which come with input from academics who have spent years researching the nuances of the UK’s relationship with Europe. The non-partisan, fact-checking charity Fullfact is a good source, as is the UK in a Changing Europe’s own website, and The Conversation’s EU Referendum page.
Ultimately, the way you vote is a matter of judgment: do you think that the UK is, on balance, better off outside the EU or in it? The more facts that are available to you, the more it will help you to make your decision. But if you do not register to vote you will not have your voice heard. And it is easy to register: there is a simple online form to complete. Why don’t you fill it out right now?
Catherine Barnard (Faculty of Law) discusses why it's so important that young people vote in the EU referendum.