Wetsuits from wetsuits | update

A Knowledge Transfer Programme between Finisterre and the University of Exeter’s Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing are investigating remanufacturing and circular economy initiatives which address the problem of discarded wetsuits.

Full-time Wetsuit Recycler Jenny Banks gives us an update about what the programme has been up to.

This blog first appeared on Finisterre’s THE BROADCAST.

We’re now three months into the Wetsuits From Wetsuits Programme and have learnt an incredible amount about the potential recyclability of our own Nieuwland winter wetsuit. Our committed wetsuit tester community have been a huge help in providing us with some of our Original Tester suits back from 2014, allowing us to compare the performance of old suits that have had real-lives, with that of a new suit.

THE HURDLES

It actually wasn’t as easy as we thought it might be to get our original tester wetsuits back as nearly all of them are still going strong – which is of course fantastic news! Most wetsuits last around two years before they’re replaced so we’re really happy that our Nieuwland suit is still delivering!

WHERE YOU’LL FIND ME

Splitting my time between Exeter and Finisterre HQ provides me with the perfect balance of influences. Over the last two months in Exeter, I haven’t left the lab. From microscopic surface imaging to tensile (elasticity) and thermal testing, we’re building a vital understanding of how and where the Nieuwland wetsuit changes during its life.

When I’m at Finisterre, all that testing is put into context. Being at the Wheal Kitty workshops – by the sea and amongst the team – reminds me of the real needs of cold-water surfers and ensures that I’m not tackling this challenge inside a bubble. Everyone here is really engaged with the programme and the energy within the team keeps me going if I ever feel over-whelmed by the challenge that lies in front of us.

OUR UNDERSTANDINGS SO FAR

De-constructing the Nieuwland was our first step towards understanding what difficulties we may face when making the world’s first fully recyclable wetsuit.

WETSUITS ARE VERY COMPLEX: ONE SINGLE NIEUWLAND WETSUIT IS MADE UP OF FIVE DIFFERENT TYPES OF NEOPRENE FOAM FOR STRETCH, FIVE DIFFERENT THICKNESSES OF NEOPRENE FOR WARMTH AND FIVE DIFFERENT COMBINATIONS OF FABRICS FOR DURABILITY AND COMFORT.

That complexity potentially poses a challenge for us in terms of wetsuit recycling but it’s not a question of just simplifying the suit – why would we change a wetsuit that we know performs so well?

Thus far, we’ve had some surprising results in the lab. Under the microscope, we can see the difference between our original tester suits and our new suit very clearly. Three years of frigid waters and regular surfing causes the neoprene’s cells to start to buckle (see first image). This change in our neoprene’s cell structure, however, is having next to no effect on the flexibility of our suit, which we really didn’t expect. We will be continuing our testing to verify this but this finding is promising and means we may be able to recycle our neoprene rubber without needing expensive and energy-consuming re-processing techniques.

Now we’re working on finding out whether that same cell structure change is affecting the Nieuwland’s thermal properties.

WE’RE COMMITTED

We want to deliver the world’s first recyclable wetsuit for testing in Autumn this year. Progress is good and we’re now moving into the design phase of the programme. Right now, no idea is a bad idea. We’re being very open-minded and exploring ideas that are far-out as well as those that involve simple, minor tweaks to our current Nieuwland suit.  Watch this space! #wetsuitsfromwetsuits

The behaviour of fat and the impact on how easily obese people can lose weight

Dr Katarina Kos leads the adipose tissue biology group at the University of Exeter and researches obesity-related disorders.

Obesity is one of society’s most pressing concerns. Suggestions for diets and weight-loss regimes are on everyone’s news feed.

The role of psychology and human behaviour is recognised as a key factor for success, but little appreciation is given to the behaviour of fat itself.

This is something that my research at the University of Exeter has begun to address. Studies have found that the way fat behaves can have an impact on how easily obese people can lose weight.

In my role as a clinician working with people who are struggling to lose weight, I know how hard losing those extra pounds can be.

That is why I hope my research into the behaviour of fat will with time offer solutions to help make this easier.  In the first stage of a longer research project, we have identified the type of damage done to fat tissue when overworked and are now studying in more detail which molecules are involved.  Next we plan to explore which drugs might help people to reverse the damage.

The most recent study, Lysyl oxidase and adipose tissue dysfunction looked at a molecule which is impaired when fat is struggling and overloaded with excess calories.

Like human beings, overworked fat ‘complains’ and becomes distressed and struggles to do its job. As fat cells begin to struggle for oxygen and suffocate under the burden of storing more and more energy, the fat becomes inflamed and as a result scarred.

The research by the Exeter Adipose Tissue biology group that I lead examined the molecule LOX in fat tissue which causes this scarring. The paper, drew a good deal of media interest both in the UK and around the world.

Scarred fat tissue is fibrous and rigid and less able to store excess energy. To compensate, the body can drive this energy to other parts of the body including the muscle (see below) and vital organs, such as the liver and heart, which it can cause serious health complications.

Bacon

Above, a picture of bacon where we find fat in the muscle described as mottling.

The study showed that fat scarring may not resolve itself with weight loss. In fact, there is evidence that the more the fat tissue is scarred, the more difficult it can be to lose weight in the longer term.

But this does not mean that people who are obese should lose hope. Not all obese people have scarred fat and even those with scarred fat can shift excess pounds.

In my clinical work, I talk to obese people all the time have tried for years to shift those extra pounds, and, based on my experience, I can offer the following advice.

  • Almost everyone can lose weight. Most heavier people succeed in losing some weight, but many put it on again, some very quickly. Our previous research has shown that women with weight problems have managed to drop dress sizes on many occasions and that Yo-yo dieting, and weight regain after weight loss is very common.Research suggests that it may be more difficult for obese people with more scarring of their fat to be as successful with weight loss as those with less scarring. With established scarring and exposure to excess energy, these calories are increasingly stored in unhealthy places, including on the tummy and within vital organs. This can predispose people to health problems including diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, even people with scarring can lose weight, though not necessarily quite as much and most would not expect and want to become a size 0.
  • A person does not need to be clinically obese to have scarred fat tissue. We do not yet understand why some people are more prone to fat tissue scarring than others. Some may have a genetic predisposition similar to the increased risk of diabetes.  We find fat scarring in people with a more extreme but rare condition called lipodystrophy where people have very thin arms, buttocks and legs and a disproportionally large tummy. It could also be that certain foods make us more prone to fat scarring regardless of the amount of energy they contain.  We are embarking on further research to learn more about this.
  • Help your fat tissue by using muscle to cope with excess calories.  Even just a short walk after a meal helps. Any type of calorie, whether from a diet of surplus fat, sugar or protein can be stored as energy in fat tissue once the body has met its energy need. But with a growing amount of fat tissue, it struggles to take up blood sugar into the fat cells and requires more and more insulin to do so. This is known as insulin resistance which can progress to pre- diabetes.  Once the pancreas fails to supply sufficient amounts of insulin and the pancreas is overworked, this can progresses to diabetes Type 2. We are studying when best to use activity breaks in sedentary people to help unburden the fat tissue.  Preliminary research by my team now being pursued has found that a short walk after a meal can have a beneficial effect on lowering blood sugar.
  • Why eating the same amount of calories will not mean you will be of the same weight. Some people seem to eat a lot but never gain weight, while others appear to eat like birds and struggle.  Whether the calories are in excess depends among other things on our metabolism, our age and whether we are fidgety, sedentary or active. There are also big differences in energy needs between men and women. Generally, women require far fewer calories day to day.
  • A lot of the ‘Obesity damage’ can be reversed through weight loss.  Many obesity-related health problems are reversible, especially if their onset is of more recent duration. Studies have shown that even modest weight loss (5% of total body weight) can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and with it also the risk of heart disease.  Fat tissue recovers from inflammation and fatty liver disease can also resolve. Recent studies show also that diabetes can improve or vanish with weight loss. The same type of operations used for weight loss surgery can also be very effective in managing Type 2 diabetes and are thus also called ‘metabolic surgery’.

So what should you do to keep fat happy and allow it not to be overworked?

My tips, based on my experience working with patients with weight problems, are:

  • For those who struggle with their weight, do not despair. Weight loss is possible.  Even for those whose fat tissue is scarred, you may not reach a size zero, but with determination and lifestyle change you can shift those pounds, but it will take commitment. In my experience, people, with the right commitment, manage to lose 5 per cent of their body weight or a stone in six months which is a realistic target.
  • Weight loss will be more easily sustained without the use of radical calorie restrictions, but with changes to well- rehearsed habits.  You can cut your calorie intake by 400-500 calories a day by eating from smaller plates, avoiding refined sugars and junk food and start eating more slowly.  You do not need to give up snacking altogether. Trade crisps and cakes with healthy options such as chopped vegetables and yoghurts, swap ice cream for sorbet and think twice about cream.  Consider also whether you are consuming many liquid calories from alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, as they also count.
  • Do not cut too many of your calories at once. It is the little changes that will become a new, healthy habit.  This is not about being on a diet for a period of time, it is rather about adjusting your lifestyle for a lifetime. This will require commitment and may not always be comfortable. People who find a buddy to join the efforts are more likely to be successful.
  • If your doctor has tested you for obesity- related health complications, or you have been told you have fatty liver disease or diabetes and have a much larger waist than hip circumference, weight loss can make a great difference to your health and turning your life around will make you a healthier person.
  • For those of average weight  – you are not immune from unhealthy fat.  One possible sign of this is if your waist is wider in circumference than your hips.  You may want to follow the advice above.  Regular activity will help you to a healthier body and better fat proportions. As exercise drives oxygen to all your tissues including the brain boosting concentration and decreasing the risk of dementia.
  • For the lucky lean ones: you may have a natural protection from disordered fat, however look at your parents and their health as this is likely to predict your future risk. We tend to increase in body weight as we age.
  • For anyone: avoid big meals to absolute fullness and always consider some light activity e.g. a walk after consuming large amounts of calories.
  • Have breakfast and do not teach your body to go into starvation mode as this will make it more energy efficient which will not help your weight. Smoking will decrease tissue oxygen levels which damages fat and causes scarring. It also increases the likelihood of wrinkles! If you sit at a desk all day, try to break up periods of sedentary work with short periods of activity – whether walking to the copy machine or up some stairs – especially after you just had a meal. Even small activity changes will help your fat tissue and stop it from becoming overworked.

Socialise with activity in mind. Loneliness and boredom does make us seek comfort in food. People who find a buddy to join weight loss efforts are more likely to be successful.  Consider options where you can socialise with sporty activities from a walking group to taking on a challenge of a run with your mates.

Being kind to yourself can help weight loss too. Stress increases the risk of overeating and comfort eating and disturbs sleep and we know that a disturbed body clock affects our weight negatively. Find calorie-free happiness instead (a bath, book, music to dance to, chat with a friend, a fun past time which could be anything from knitting to sculpting, from gardening to playing golf).  Do set yourself a realistic target. Having a target or a sporty challenge in mind with a date set will keep you focused. This could be anything from a 5km walk to running a marathon, from climbing the local hill to a mountain, from swimming a length in the pool to crossing the English channel.  And for those with mobility problems sitting exercises, including yoga, may be an alternative. Many people opt for swimming as it is gentler on the joints.

Do not judge yourself on the way you look or your body weight, leanness does not bring happiness. However, people with weight problems are more frequently depressed. Seek treatment which maybe in form of talking therapies or tablets as this will help you to be stronger and to take on the effort and commitment to look after your weight.

Be forgiving to yourself as setbacks are natural, life happens and distractions occur, allow them to pass and get back on track. You can do it!

Here at Exeter we are at the forefront of research into obesity. Our research is optimistic. We are looking into whether the timing of activity can aid weight loss, which types of foods predispose us to fat tissue scarring and which drugs could help improve scarred fat tissue. We are also looking at genes which are linked to healthy and unhealthy fat.

We think obesity is something that can be tackled. But we need the best science to help people fight that unhealthy fat and keep unwanted pounds off. That way we can help tackle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and strokes. Let’s get moving.

By Dr Katarina Kos, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter’s Medical School

Reflections on oceans and human health

Professor Lora Fleming is the Director of the European Centre: Chair of Oceans, Epidemiology and Human Health.

This post originally appeared on the BlueHealth website

As humans slowly wake up to their dependence on a healthy natural environment, Professor Lora Fleming reflects on a research career spanning over 30 years, and ponders where we go next.

Whilst I trained and practiced as a physician in the US, I had always held a deep connection with the natural environment. This personal passion became professional after studying for a doctorate in environmental epidemiology, and I’ve never looked back.

Epidemiology is a discipline that tries to look for the patterns and causes of disease by using large sets of data. But early on in my career, I realised that when thinking about the natural environment, this implied a one-way relationship:

What was the environment doing to us?

The answer was often spreading disease through vectors like mosquitos, poisoning our food with toxins like ciguatera, or causing deaths through extreme weather events. The impacts were always negative, and often depicted the natural environment as a source of hazards that needed to be controlled and mitigated.

I knew there had to be more to this relationship and whilst working at the University of Miami, I began to refine my focus to look at the burgeoning area of oceans and health. The complexity was clear: Here was a huge natural resource that provided food, supported industry, facilitated recreational activities, yet could also kill.

These intricately intertwined connections demanded an interdisciplinary approach, and as a result, my work in the area of oceans and health has been constantly varied and fascinating.

I have learned about ‘pico bacteria’ and ‘marine snow’ – the tiniest organisms in the ocean. I’ve worked with colleagues who use remote sensing to measure ocean temperature from orbiting satellites, and studied how organisms and chemicals in the oceans cause sickness through contaminated seafood. But perhaps most significant of all, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to people describe their love for the ocean and its importance to their cultures, livelihoods, and families.

These experiences have shaped my research, and over the last ten years I’ve been part of a growing group of scientists who are uncovering evidence that suggests interacting with the oceans, coasts, and other ‘blue’ environments can lead to important benefits in physical and mental wellbeing.

Whilst this might sound obvious to those who regularly spend time near or in the water, until recently we had very little research which systematically identified the potential health benefits of these environments – and we’re only really getting started.

Thankfully, in the light of environmental and societal pressures, policy makers across Europe are now taking the area of oceans and human health seriously. My team and I are currently leading two large pan-European research projects, BlueHealth and SOPHIE, which are helping us to understand how to maximise the wellbeing benefits of ‘blue’ spaces across different cultures and societies – while still taking into account the risks. These kinds of projects are vital if we are to convince governments to protect, create and encourage the use of these spaces.

All that I have learned over the past 30 years of researching, teaching, and listening has changed my own relationship with blue environments. I value them more, I am more aware of how fragile and complex THEIR health is, and how bad we are at looking after them.

And so I also worry.

Worry that we will only realise the value of these spaces and the negative impacts of our actions when it is too late.

But I also have hope. For many years, I have regularly visited my family’s house in Maine in the US. Located right next to a tidal river, it is constantly changing. The flow of the water, the sounds and uses of the waterways, the flora, fauna and weather vary over the seasons and years, but the beauty and peace are a constant. Although there are many fewer fish and seals now, the bald eagle has actually returned to this area during my lifetime.

This gives me hope that humans can realise and understand the importance of the natural environment before it is too late. And I hope that the work of my group can help us to live better with the natural environment locally and globally, and appreciate not only their beauty but also our total interdependence.

Professor Lora Fleming is a board certified occupational and environmental health physician and epidemiologist. She is Chair of Oceans, Epidemiology and Human Health at the University of Exeter and Director of the European Centre for Environment and Human Health. Lora is also Emerita Professor at the Miller School of Medicine and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. In 2015 she was awarded the UNESCO Anton Bruun medal for outstanding work in oceans and health.

Startup Weekend Exeter 2017

The weekend of November 17 – 19 saw the University of Exeter Business School transformed into an incubation space for Exeter’s brightest minds and entrepreneurial spirits. Now in its fourth year, Techstar’s Startup Weekend Exeter is a 54-hour startup sprint designed to guide entrepreneurs in shaping their innovative ideas into business realities over the course of just three days. The weekend captures the essence of the entrepreneurial journey; full of energy, hard work, camaraderie, and hours of high-intensity fun as teams compete to determine who wins 1st overall, people’s choice, or best purpose driven idea.

Sponsored by the University of Exeter Business School and SetSquared, many postgraduate students from the 2018 Exeter MBA cohort were in attendance, alongside a healthy mix of undergraduate students and members of the Exeter community. The weekend kicked off Friday evening, with a rousing welcome party hosted by TechStar facilitator David Andersen, followed by inspirational speeches from local social entrepreneur Kalkidan Lagasse and executive coach Ian Hale.

This year’s event centred around business with a purpose, and both Hale and Lagasse represented the power of purpose-led business by recounting their inspirational success stories. Lagasse began her retail business, Sancho’s Dress, as a way to bolster the income of her Aunt, a talented seamstress struggling to make ends meet in Lagasse’s home country of Ethiopia. Lagasse began her business as a student at the University of Exeter, selling her Aunt’s homemade scarves at a booth in the forum. She then engaged with the ThinkTryDo! Student Startup programme, and soon grew her business into a successful brick and mortar shop on Fore Street. Recently, Lagasse has expanded her business to fill a second retail space. She sells organic, cruelty-free clothing, jewellery and accessories.

Now it was time for Friday’s main event: the pitches! Participants were asked to come prepared with a business concept, and had only 60 seconds to present their idea to the Startup Weekend Exeter delegation. In all over 30 pitches showcased an incredible array of creative, innovative and inspiring ideas – from making a wood pulp substitute out of sugar cane, to creating building materials out of used plastic bottles, to stilettos capable of converting into flats by detaching the heels! Once all the pitches were heard, participants cast their votes for the top ideas.  In the end, a total of eight teams were formed, and it was the teams with representation of a variety of demographics and an expansive array of skills, that were most successful.

Once assembled, teams quickly got to work brainstorming on how to bring their ideas to life, and created their agendas for the weekend. The task: ideate, validate, create, and actuate! Typically, ideation begins with an expansive view, then focuses in on a realistic attainment, the creation of a prototype, or minimum viable product (MVP).

On Saturday, teams were expected to validate their ideas in the marketplace. This involved taking to the streets of Exeter, and discovering whether or not consumers would actually be interested in their business. Saturday also featured think tank sessions with an impressive array of mentors from all across the tech and entrepreneurial communities. Mentors conducted individual sessions with each team, offering tech support, logistics advisement, business development expertise, and much more.

Startup Weekend Exeter is a hectic, busy, and exciting time. Teams often find it hard to break away from the work to eat and relax. Thankfully, the amazing organising team had refreshments and relaxation covered with comfy couches, table tennis, and delicious free food all weekend long! Participants enjoyed the delights of Spanish paella, Mexican tacos, and authentic Sri Lankan cuisine, alongside sandwiches from Pret-a-Manger, snacks, and sweets to keep their energy levels up and brains firing on all cylinders.

On Sunday, teams continued their frenetic pace, turning their ideas into action. They finalised their MVPs, put the final touches on their presentations, and squeezed in a few more sessions with the mentors. By late afternoon, the judges arrived and it was time to compete!

Judges for Startup Weekend included:

Antonia Power, General Counsel for Blur Group

Richard Eckley, Senior Investment Analyst for Crowdcube

Christine Allison, Director of Roborough House Associates

Stuart Robinson, Director of the Exeter MBA

Ideas were assessed according to their validity in the market, strength of their business model, and execution and design. The judges then chose the team that had presented the most convincing business and awarded the prize for best purpose driven idea and also handed out the award for the People’s Choice.

In closing the event, TechStars facilitator David Andersen said:

“Startup Weekend Exeter was a really special experience. I think there were some great teams, with great energy and great ideas. Participants here were really open-minded and keen to do new things. Basically, everything we could throw at them, they took on with a positive mindset. It really says a lot about the community here in Exeter, and I would love to see that spread after the weekend. That’s what the Startup Weekend is all about: inspiring the participants to go out and change the world.”

Special thanks to the University of Exeter Business School, the ThinkTryDo Student Startups team, Bunzl catering, Pret-a-Manger, and all of our wonderful mentors, judges, and participants.

Written by Jessica Ilyas

Business support available in Exeter

Being the founder or owner of a start-up or SME (small and medium sized enterprise) can sometimes feel very lonely. Joe Pearce, business support manager for Peninsula Innovations Limited (PIL) – the operator of the University of Exeter Innovation Centre and Exeter Science Park Centre – shares his advice on how to best make use of the support available for businesses in Exeter.

Joe Pearce

Joe Pearce

Value added activity

With small teams, long hours and overwhelming workloads, being the owner of a start-up or SME can be a lonely and isolating experience, with many reluctant to pass the pressure onto others. Finding the right business support is an essential ingredient for ensure success.

Rather than a luxury, business support should be seen as a “value-added” activity, just as important as making sales or keeping up-to-date with accounts – and it is important that organisations get it right from the outset.

Exeter is an outstanding place to start and to grow your company; with a thriving business community, a diverse support network and access to world-class research facilities. People living and working in Devon enjoy an exceptional lifestyle – Exeter ranked as the number one city in the UK for quality of life in the 2017 Tech Nation report.

At PIL, we understand that businesses need support from independent business advisors, to act as confidential and professional sounding boards. Business mentoring, advice and support is available to small businesses at Exeter Science Park Centre and as well as clients of the SETsquared Business Acceleration Centre.

SETsquared is a partnership between the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey, supporting high-tech start-ups. You can find out more about SETsquared in Exeter here.

With experts in residence, who have personal experience in owning, running and growing businesses, we can provide feedback, guidance and advice to businesses in the region looking to grow and thrive. Companies have access to a mentor from a pool of entrepreneurs and businesspeople, who can help them to connect with professional partners in relevant industries.

Being part of the business community is another benefit of being located in Exeter. The city is home to a host of fast-growth, innovative businesses, presenting ample opportunities for collaboration and networking.

So, as a business within the Science Park Centre – whether you are a tenant or have a hot-desk – not only are you part of the SETsquared hub, you can also build relationships with someone you trust to offer good advice, ultimately helping your business to flourish. Businesses outside these facilities can access support through organisations like the Heart of the South West Growth Hub.

For more information about the support available for businesses at Exeter Science Park Centre, visit our ‘Why Exeter’ page or for information on shared working space, laboratory and office accommodation, call the Science Park Centre on 01392 249222.

Impact – the new driver for engagement with business

Exeter has rethought engagement with business and other external partners and established a new team to support impact and partnership development across different sectors and themes.  The new team called Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) aims for pro-active co-creation with business and other organisations; building strategic partnerships with key global players; fostering innovation and entrepreneurship amongst our staff and students; and driving place-based research and innovation to help build a South West Powerhouse.

Delivering high quality impact will become increasingly important in universities and will transform the way in which universities go about external engagement and knowledge transfer. Despite Stern’s apparent relaxation of the rules in the next REF there is still a need to submit excellent case studies for each Unit of Assessment – and the impact element will be worth at least 20 per cent of the total income. It is astonishing to note that in the 2014 REF, a 4* case study was worth over 20 times the value of a 3* journal article or publication – up to £500K over five years.  There aren’t many business engagement activities that can guarantee that level of future income.

What success looks like

Exeter has been asking academics to think about the potential future impact of their work.  Over 400 possible areas for development have been identified across all our disciplines.  For the first time in my career, academics are telling business engagement professionals what success looks like for them and the IIB team is taking the hint.

The kinds of things needed to deliver impact are key to the offer of the new Innovation, Impact and Business Directorate – such as building strong partnerships with sets of communities, supporting research collaboration, consultancy, commercial ventures, licensing, training programmes or significant regional engagement. We will also be looking to support policy developments, cultural projects, jointly offered degrees and any number of public engagement initiatives.

Taken broadly, impact activities can act as the glue around which all the normal mechanisms of business engagement can coalesce.  If impact becomes a key currency of success, the IIB team will be helping academics build engaged and long-term collaborations with external partners rather than focusing on short-term income generation.  If we build the impact and prove our value then the income will surely flow.

IIB Taking a thematic approach

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The top priority for Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) is to help Colleges increase impact and diversify income. Each College and Institute has an IIB Business Partner to advise on its ambitions and develop implementation plans with senior staff members.

We believe that the best way to deliver College plans is through a cross-college thematic approach and teams have been established in the following areas:

  • Manufacturing, Materials, infrastructure, energy.
  • Environment, Sustainability, Food security.
  • Healthcare and Biotech.
  • Culture.
  • Government and Society.

Initially targeted areas include: mining and minerals, water, cultural protection, language translation, defence and security, digital and creative industry, food security, clinical trials, medical devices, legal and policy developments, data analytics and many more.

The thematic teams will build broad engagement and market development with organisations in their themes and create networks of contacts.  They will also support specific projects between the University and industry.

This approach aims to:

  • Accelerate industrial engagement in each thematic field by developing the brand of the University as a  Centre of Excellence.
  • Build a community of industrial and governmental clients.
  • Improve pathways to impact and income generation.

The thematic approach enables teams to connect academics more effectively to the right businesses and identify multidisciplinary, cross-college opportunities.  We also have a group of around 60 External Associates who can add very specific expertise where it is needed.  We can also cluster academics to provide multi-disciplinary solutions for business  and identify stimulating research questions.

Aphantasia: 10,000 people make contact over visual imagery

'Heartbeat 1', Susan Aldworth 2010

‘Heartbeat 1’, Susan Aldworth 2010

Since we coined the term ‘aphantasia’ in a brief scientific paper last year (Cortex 2015; 73:378-380: Read manuscript), there has been a remarkable surge of interest in the extremes of the human experience of visual imagery: both in those of us who lack the ability to visualise at will – with aphantasia – and in those with superabundant imagery – hyperphantasia. When asked to visualise a sunset, for example, people with aphantasia are unable to conjure any kind of image to mind, and will often have assumed that terms like the ‘mind’s eye’ are purely metaphorical. At the other end of the spectrum, people with hyperphantasia describe imagery so vivid that they can find it difficult to be sure whether an image was perceived or imagined. Coverage in the press, on TV, radio and the web throughout the world, including the BBC’s on-line vividness questionnaire, has led to over 10,000 contacts from interested individuals, most of them falling at one or other extreme of the vividness spectrum. We are tremendously grateful to the several thousand people who have by now completed and returned our questionnaires: these paint a much more detailed picture of these phenomena than we could provide before. Thank you so much for doing this!

The final analysis of this wealth of data will take a while, but some patterns have already emerged. A first reaction, which came as a welcome surprise, was gratitude: people with aphantasia, in particular, were glad to have a handy term to describe this subtle but distinctive feature of their experience. Many participants have told us how they found it hard to explain this to others: they often met with disbelief. The new term seems to be useful.

Some sub-groups have come to light. The scientific literature already spoke of a link between low imagery vividness and prosopagnosia – difficulty, often lifelong, in recognising faces. This link is a recurring theme in the questionnaires. We were not too surprised by a second association: a small proportion of participants have described a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder (asd). Alterations in the ability to imagine have long been regarded as a key feature of asd, and visualisation is a key ingredient of imagination (though not an indispensable one, as we will see).  A third sub-group also makes good intuitive sense: many folk with aphantasia report that their autobiographical memory, for personal events like holidays and weddings, is less rich that that of their friends and relations: for most of us visualisation is a big part of recollection. But none of these associations is true for everyone: there are many shades of aphantasia.

These shades have some other expressions. Some people with aphantasia, probably the majority, dream visually: but others do not. Some can ‘imagine’ in other modalities, hearing with the mind’s ear for example, but others can’t. Does this make a nonsense of the notion of aphantasia? We think not. We know that the brain activity involved in visualisation is complex and ‘distributed’, involving a widespread network of brain areas. Given this complexity, it is not too surprising that visualisation can be disrupted in a wide variety of ways. In particular, it is understandable, in neurological terms, that dreaming and wakeful imagery can behave differently in aphantasia.

We are learning other fascinating things from our participants. While most people with aphantasia describe this as a lifelong characteristic, others have reported the loss of imagery, due to brain injury or to psychological factors: we are very keen to learn more about these. We also hope to learn much more about the large group of highly creative individuals who have contacted us: I had not anticipated so much pleasure from looking at the art of aphantasic painters or from reading the prose of aphantasic novelists. Visualisation is clearly not a prerequisite for creativity.

Much has been written and broadcast about aphantasia over the past year. Our website gives links to several of these outputs . My personal favourites include James Gallagher’s original BBC broadcast, two personal accounts written by highly creative people with aphantasia, Blake Ross’s Facebook post (A personal account by Blake Ross) and Dustin Grinnell’s article in New Scientist (Dustin Grinnell in New Scientist) and a recent radio portrait by Sarah Jane Hall (The Mind’s Eye – BBC Radio 3 ‘Between the Ears’ programme).

So far most of our knowledge of aphantasia has come from first person testimony. This is the right (and really the only) place to start the exploration of this topic, but we are keen to ‘triangulate’ our knowledge by correlating first person evidence from questionnaires with data from neuropsychological tests – of autobiographical memory or face recognition for example – and from brain imaging techniques. We have begun a pilot study with local participants who are within striking distance of Exeter. We hope to have some preliminary answers over the coming year. At present the project is relying heavily on the enthusiasm of a small group of academic colleagues and undergraduate interns who have kept the project on the road: thanks to you, also! We are applying for research funds that will enable us to extend this work. We are considering a crowd funding appeal – you may be hearing from us 🙂

We have one further plan: at our Eye’s Mind project conference in May this year, in addition to a lively group of imagery researchers, we had probably the largest ever gathering of people with aphantasia from around the world, from Finland to the States. There was enthusiasm for a meeting dedicated to aphantasia: we hope to organise this sometime next year.

This research depends entirely on the generosity of those who are sharing their experience and time. This blog is an opportunity to report back on recent progress, and to thank you for your contributions. We aim to write regular updates as the story develops.

Why do we need stronger links with business?

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Over the past ten years Exeter has been hugely successful, growing research income, building student numbers, moving strongly up the league tables.  But one element has remained stubbornly fixed – our income and partnership with business. And when we talk about business we mean all the different kinds of external partners that require special approaches eg museums, local authorities, hospitals, NGOs, government departments.  That’s not to say that there aren’t lots of connections – but these are generally not turning into valued partnerships.  As a result, we rank 104th in the UK in the proportion of our research income that comes from industry; we had the lowest Impact score in the Russell Group in the last REF; our income from CPD, consultancy and intellectual property is low; and the employability of our students is suffering.

Does this matter? With flat cash for RCUK income, a threatening picture on EU funding, TEF with a strong requirement for employability and a new Government department responsible for UK research that has the words ‘Business’ and ‘Industrial Strategy’ in its title we think that we need to embrace this world or risk being left behind. Already over half of all research projects have some form of collaboration with business or other external organisations and we think this is likely to grow.  And the government’s challenges over Brexit are likely to lead to a stronger regional investment policy.

New team

We know that this kind of work can be challenging and time consuming for academics.  We have therefore established a new team – Innovation, Impact and Business – to help academics generate research impact; to connect with new partners; to help create opportunities for collaborations; and to build place-based innovation.  The aim is to enable the University’s world-class research and education to make a real difference in society.

The team will focus mainly on: building partnerships for research projects (working closely with the new Research Service); supporting impact development across the University; managing major strategic relationships with business; generating income and partnership in the region; and supporting innovation for our staff and students.

We are looking forward to working with you.

Sean Fielding, Director Innovation, Impact and Business

Aurel Sari: Biting the Bullet: Why the UK Is Free to Revoke Its Withdrawal Notification under Article 50 TEU

aurel-sari‘There is no going back.’ These were the words of Lord Pannick, uttered before the High Court in response to the question whether the United Kingdom could rescind its notification to withdraw from the European Union once issued under Article 50 TEU (Santos and M v Secretary of State for Exiting The European Union, uncorrected transcripts, p. 17). The claimants and the Government appear to agree on this point and accept that the UK cannot reverse its notification of withdrawal.

It is easy to see why this position should be attractive to both parties. For the Government, it means that once the notification has been issued in accordance with the UK’s constitutional requirements, it would be shielded from any subsequent domestic legal challenge. For the claimants, the irreversibility of the withdrawal notification is of ‘vital importance’ (uncorrected transcripts, p. 14). It is this irreversibility which, in their submission, pre-empts the powers of Parliament if the Government were to issue the notification without first obtaining the Parliament’s authorisation to do so.

The significance of this point was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice. He declined an invitation by counsel to assume that the withdrawal notification was irreversible and insisted that it was ‘absolutely essential’ for the Court to decide whether it was irrevocable or not (uncorrected transcripts, p. 192). In response, Lord Pannick confirmed that it was his position, as a matter of law, that there is no power to revoke the notification.

Earlier, Lord Pannick illustrated his position with the following analogy (uncorrected transcripts, p. 19):

I say my case is very simple. My case is that notification is the pulling of the trigger. And once you have pulled the trigger, the consequence follows. The bullet hits the target. It hits the target on the date specified in Article 50(3). The triggering leads to the consequence, inevitably leads to the consequence, as a matter of law, that the treatise cease to apply and that has a dramatic impact in domestic law.

Unfortunately for Lord Pannick, the analogy does not withstand closer scrutiny.

The applicable rules of interpretation

Whether a withdrawal notification is reversible or not is a question that turns on the interpretation of Article 50 TEU. Since Article 50 TEU forms part of an international agreement, its interpretation is governed not by English law, but by the rules of international law. Of course, as is well known, the Court of Justice of the European Union adopts a teleological approach to the interpretation of the EU’s founding Treaties which differs from the general rule of treaty interpretation laid down in Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). In particular, the Court lays greater emphasis on the aims and objectives of European integration than Article 31 VCLT might warrant (see Gardiner, Treaty Interpretation, pp. 136–137).

Leaving aside the longstanding doctrinal debates about the autonomous nature of the EU legal order, the fact remains that the founding Treaties of the EU are instruments of international law. It is therefore perfectly appropriate for a domestic court to construe Article 50 TEU by applying the rules of interpretation set out in the VCLT. In fact, this seems even more appropriate in the light of the subject matter of Article 50 TEU. It is no coincidence that the German Federal Constitutional Court interpreted Article 50 TEU against the background of the relevant provisions of the VCLT in its judgment in the Lisbon case (para 330).

What, then, are the applicable rules of interpretation? According to Article 31(1) VCLT,

A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.

Article 50(2) TEU stipulates that the Member State wishing to withdraw from the Union must notify the European Council of its intention. However, the text is silent as to whether a Member State subsequently may revoke its notification. In the absence of express terms, we have to consider whether an answer emerges from the text, context and the object and purpose of the treaty by implication.

The purpose of Article 50 TEU

According to Article 1 TEU,

By this Treaty, the HIGH CONTRACTING PARTIES establish among themselves a EUROPEAN UNION, hereinafter called “the Union”, on which the Member States confer competences to attain objectives they have in common.

It is difficult to find a more succinct statement of the object and purpose of the TEU: the establishment of an organisation upon which the Member States confer certain competences to attain certain shared objectives. These objectives are set out in greater detail in Article 3 TEU, while the scope of the EU’s competences is defined in Articles 3–6 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Article 5 TEU declares that the Union must act within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States and that competences not conferred upon the Union remain with the Member States. In Declaration 18 made appended to the Lisbon Treaty, the Member States recall these points and add that it is for them to increase or reduce the competences conferred upon the Union.

What emerges from these provisions is that the Union’s competences are based on the consent of its Member States and that the authority to increase or reduce these competences (sometimes described as Kompetenz-Kompetenz) remains firmly within their own hands. Article 50 TEU takes the principles of consent and conferral to their logical conclusion and confirms the right of a Member State to withdraw from the Union. In the words of the German Federal Constitutional Court, the ‘right to withdraw underlines the Member States’ sovereignty… If a Member State can withdraw based on a decision made on its own responsibility, the process of European integration is not irreversible.’ (Lisbon case, para 329). Against this background, we may conclude that the purpose of Article 50 TEU is to confirm in express terms the Member States’ ability to withdraw from the EU and to lay down the procedures for doing so.

The arguments against revoking the withdrawal

In his submissions before the High Court, Lord Pannick relied on three arguments to suggest that the UK would not be able to revoke its withdrawal notification once issued (uncorrected transcripts, p. 16–17):

Article 50 is deliberately designed to avoid any such consequence. There is no mention of a power to withdraw. And the very possibility of a power to withdraw a notification would frustrate, again, Article 50(3), which sets out in the clearest possible terms, what the consequences are of giving the notification under Article 50(2).

It is convenient to consider these arguments in reverse order.

  1. Frustrating the procedures

First, Lord Pannick suggests that revoking the withdrawal notification would frustrate the consequences attached to the notification by Article 50(3) TEU. According to that provision,

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

Once notified, the withdrawal is inevitable, says Lord Pannick. That is the point of his bullet analogy: once fired, the bullet has to hit its target, either upon the entry into force of the withdrawal agreement, two years after the date of withdrawal notification or at the end of any extension period agreed between the UK and the European Council. There are two flaws with this reasoning. First, the completion of the procedures described in paragraphs (2) and (3) of Article 50 TEU is conditional upon the withdrawal notification. There is no logical reason why that withdrawal notification may not be revoked before those procedures are completed. To use Lord Pannick’s analogy, nothing prevents the UK from firing a blank round. Second, the procedures listed in Article 50(3) TEU need not reach their end point. Article 50(2) TEU imposes an obligation on the Union to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the withdrawing Member State. No corresponding duty is imposed on the withdrawing Member State itself. At first sight, it might seem reasonable to assume that such a duty must be implied. However, for the purposes of the withdrawal agreement, the withdrawing State is essentially treated as a ‘third country’ (cf Article 218(1) TFEU), as evidenced by the fact that pursuant to Article 50(4) TEU, the withdrawing State shall not participate in the discussions or decisions by the European Council or Council concerning the negotiation and conclusion of the withdrawal agreement. Consequently, it would be absurd if the withdrawing Member State were thought to be bound by the principle of sincere cooperation under Article 4(3) TEU in these matters. In any event, the terms of Article 50(3) TEU make clear that at most, the withdrawing Member State is under an obligation to negotiate, but not necessarily conclude, a withdrawal agreement with the EU (in other words, the duty is for a pactum de negotiando, not a pactum de contrahendo). This is so because Article 50(3) TEU envisages that the withdrawal agreement may fail to enter into force at all, which is precisely why it provides for the two-year time period as a fall-back solution. However, that two-year time period may be extended by the mutual agreement of the withdrawing Member State and the European Council. The extension is not subject to any conditions. Consequently, the two sides may agree to an indefinite extension of the two-year period if they so wish. To use the bullet analogy again, the target may keep on moving indefinitely and the bullet may never hit home.

Notifying an intention to withdraw from the Union does not necessarily mean that the procedures triggered thereby have to be completed. Nor do these procedures inevitably have to lead to the termination of the applicability of the Treaties to the withdrawing Member States.

  1. No express power to revoke

Lord Pannick also relies on the fact that Article 50 TEU does not provide for the power to revoke the withdrawal notification in express terms. This argument is unconvincing. The competences of the EU depend on the consent of the Member States. Competences not conferred upon the EU remain with the Member States. Consequently, in so far as Article 50 TEU recognises the unilateral right of a Member State to withdraw its consent, that withdrawal can only be subject to those conditions which are expressly stipulated in Article 50 TEU. Put differently, the burden of proof is not on the withdrawing Member State to demonstrate that it has the legal capacity and authority to retract its withdrawal notification, but on the EU or its remaining Member States to show that it lacks that capacity.

At this point, it is once again necessary to recall that the Treaties are instruments of international law. As the European Court of Justice has acknowledged, the EU must respect international law in the exercise of its powers (Case C-286/90, Poulsen and Diva, para. 9). Pursuant to Article 68 VCLT, a notification to withdraw from a treaty in accordance with its provisions may be revoked ‘at any time’ before the notification takes effect. In the present case, this means that the UK would be able to revoke its withdrawal notification before the withdrawal agreement it may conclude with the Union enters into effect or before the two-year time period or the extension period agreed with the European Council runs out. The EU is not a party to the VCLT and as such it is not directly bound by Article 68 VCLT. Whether the rule forms part of customary international law, which would be binding on the EU as such, is subject to debate. However, it is worth noting that the International Law Commission, which drafted what later became Article 68 VCLT, took the view that ‘the right to revoke the notice is really implicit in the fact that it is not to become effective until a certain date’ (Draft Articles on the Law of Treaties with Commentaries, p. 264). This point applies with full force to Article 50 TEU.

State practice offers several examples of States revoking their decision to terminate their membership in an international organization, though the exact legal characterisation of some of these examples is open to discussion (see Wessel, You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But Can You Really Leave?, p. 6). Nevertheless, the practice of the International Labour Organisation in particular suggests that the possibility to retract a withdrawal notice before it takes effect is accepted. It is also useful to point out that States may withdraw their intent to be bound by an international agreement, as the United States did in relation to the Rome Statute, or withdraw their application to become members of an international organisation, as Switzerland recently did in relation to the EU. Of course, one should be careful not to read too much into these examples, even by way of analogy. However, they do underline that States enjoy a wide measure of discretion to withdraw instruments and notifications they make in relation to treaty actions.

  1. The design of Article 50 TEU

Finally, Lord Pannick argues that Article 50 TEU was deliberately designed to avoid the possibility that a Member State might revoke its withdrawal notice. There is no evidence to support this view. The preparatory work of the intergovernmental conference which drew up the Treaty of Lisbon is not in the public domain. However, Article 50 TEU reproduces verbatim, subject only to minor editorial changes, Article I-60 of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. The negotiating history of that provision establishes very clearly that the right to withdraw from the Union was intended to be unilateral. Amendments attempting to tie this right to substantive conditions or to the successful conclusion of a withdrawal agreement were rejected (see CONV 672/03, pp. 10–12). As a note from the Praesidium of the European Convention explained, ‘it was felt that such an agreement should not constitute a condition for withdrawal so as not to void the concept of voluntary withdrawal of its substance’ (CONV 648/03, p. 9). This desire was reflected in the very title of Article I-60, which read ‘Voluntary withdrawal from the Union’.

The significance of this negotiating history is that it fully confirms the interpretation and conclusions reached earlier. The unilateral nature of the right to withdraw means that it is for the United Kingdom to decide both when to notify the European Council of its intention to withdraw and whether or not to revoke that notification. This position may please neither the claimants nor the defendant, but this is where the law stands.

Aurel Sari is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter, specializing in public international law. His work focuses mainly on questions of operational law, including the law of armed conflict, the legal status of foreign armed forces and the application of human rights law in deployed operations. He is a Fellow of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

(Suggested citation: A. Sari, ‘Biting the Bullet: Why the UK Is Free to Revoke Its Withdrawal Notification under Article 50 TEU’, U.K. Const. L. Blog (17th Oct 2016) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/))