Monthly Archives: October 2016

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/))

Abstract Expressionism: how New York overtook Europe to become the epicentre of Western art

João Florêncio, University of Exeter

A new exhibition, Abstract Expressionism, opens at London’s Royal Academy this weekend. It is the first major survey of the movement since 1959. Abstract expressionism is often considered the first artistic movement to shift the centre of Western art from Europe to the US, and more precisely New York. But what is it, and how did this happen?

Associated with a group of artists working in New York in the 1940s, abstract expressionism came to be known as the quintessential American and modern art movement. Heirs to the progressive abandonment of figurative and naturalist painting styles that had been taking place in Europe since the early 20th century, the painters associated with the movement came to be known for their innovative use of new synthetic industrial paints, large scale canvases, and the development of very individual abstract styles.

Some of the most easily identifiable include Franz Kline’s quick and simple brushstrokes, at times likened to Japanese calligraphy; the drips and rapid splatters of Jackson Pollock; Robert Motherwell’s large repeated ovals and rectangles; and Mark Rothko’s large blocks of colour.


Franz Kline, Vawdavitch, 1955.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Despite often being seen as “childish” painting that “anyone could do”, abstract expressionism has a history that is more interesting than we might suspect at first. Because the emergence of the movement in the 1940s and its internationalisation in the 1950s wasn’t only due to the work of its artists. It was also due to both the art criticism and political environments of its time. So much so that we cannot think abstract expressionism without considering the work of critics such as Clement Greenberg and the role of art as a cultural weapon during the Cold War.

A European story

Writing at the same time as the abstract expressionists were developing their signature styles, Greenberg became the critic that most famously endorsed the movement. He claimed it represented the most “advanced” form of Western art. To justify this, Greenberg looked at the work of older European artists such as Manet, Monet, Cézanne and Picasso, arguing that European painting had been progressively moving away from representations of the three-dimensional world outside. According to him, this was also accompanied by a progressive flattening of the pictorial space.

Greenberg argued that this showed an increasing concern with investigating the potential and limitations of the elements that belonged exclusively to the medium of painting: a flat canvas with specific dimensions (length and width) upon which paint is applied. All historic examples of paintings that give the impression of three-dimensional space on canvas, all painting that tries to mimic the world outside of it, were, for Greenberg, paintings that tried to conceal their true nature.


Mark Rothko, No. 15, 1957.
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

What is crucial here is that, by producing this narrative of European art, Greenberg was able to claim that, for the first time ever, the most “advanced” form of Western art was no longer being produced in Europe but instead in New York. For him, it was painters like Pollock, Motherwell, De Kooning, Rothko, Kline, and Newman that were now, thanks to the new abstract languages they were developing, carrying on the work that had begun with the European avant-gardes. European artists, he argued, had not been able to carry this to completion, due, in part, to the weight of tradition, something that America did not have to carry.

So it was in large part due to critics like Greenberg, but also collectors like Peggy Guggenheim, and curators like MoMA’s Alfred H Barr, that abstract expressionism eventually gained momentum among the art glitterati of New York in the 1950s, despite never being popular among the wider American public.


Lee Krasner. The Eye is the First Circle, 1960.
© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Cold War art

But there is also politics to consider. Abstraction had been allowed to thrive in part due to the earlier sponsorship of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which saw an incredible amount of government funds being used to directly employ artists and commission new public artworks in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Most of the works funded by that programme were American regionalist paintings and large social realist murals. But some of the funds were also used to support the early work of some of the artists whose career would eventually progress towards what came to be known as abstract expressionism.


Willem De Kooning, Woman II, 1952.
© 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London 2016

But perhaps one of the most iconic contributors to the dissemination of the movement as the culmination of Western art history was the Cold War. In the 1950s, at the peak of the ferocious anti-Communist sentiment of the McCarthy era in the US, the agendas of institutions like MoMA in New York and critics like Greenberg converged with the political interests of the CIA. Such convergence led to a series of exhibitions that would tour Europe during the Cold War years. The most famous of those was MoMA’s The New American Painting, which came to Europe in 1958-59. This show was responsible for bringing abstract expressionism to all major European capitals, including West Berlin.

Whether or not these exhibitions were funded or facilitated by the CIA, as some have convincingly argued, they were certainly responsible for cementing the perception of America as the legitimate heir of European aesthetic and political values. Against a USSR perceived as totalitarian and oppressive, with state-sanctioned socialist realism coming across as kitsch and formulaic propaganda, abstract expressionism, with its variety of individual voices and painterly styles, would eventually become a symbol of the autonomy, liberty and creative freedom allegedly enjoyed by all in the West. These were values that, from then on, became manifest in the generalised perception of the US as the ultimate beacon of Western culture.

The Conversation

João Florêncio, Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, University of Exeter

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

Three ways Sports Direct can rebuild its reputation

Dr William Harvey, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies for the University of Exeter Business School takes a look at the three ways with which Sports Direct can rebuild its reputation.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

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Will Harvey, University of Exeter

Sports Direct has had a turbulent time of late. Investigations into the working conditions at the retailer’s warehouses led to criticisms from unions, MPs and its own law firm about its labour and governance practices.

Even an attempted PR move to change the company’s image – a Sports Direct “open day” for journalists and members of the public to look around its warehouses – ended in controversy after boss Mike Ashley pulled a wad of £50 notes out of his pocket during a security check.

In a bid to restore confidence in his company, Ashley appeared on prime time news in a rare television interview and agreed to an independent review of its working practices and corporate governance. Will this be enough for Sports Direct to put criticism behind it and move on?

Sports Direct is neither the first nor the last company to face a reputation crisis. To weather these storms, research would suggest three important actions, some of which the company have already put into action.

1. Proactively address critics

Proactively addressing the criticisms the company has had around its labour and governance practices is an important first step in rebuilding confidence. This shows that the company is serious about how it treats its employees and how it is organised.

There have been major shifts in how other organisations in the UK engage with and treat their labour and in how seriously they take the issue of corporate governance. Empowering employees in the workplace through involving them in strategic decisions and ensuring a diversity of skills and backgrounds on company boards are two recent trends.

The challenge for Sports Direct will be to show its staff, shareholders and the public that it takes both issues seriously – not as a knee-jerk reaction to external pressure, but because they are an important part of the company’s values. This takes time to achieve and should be more than a tick box exercise.

For Sports Direct, agreeing to an independent review, instead of using its own law firm, is a step in the right direction.

2. Top-down, bottom-up

Inevitably, when a company does seek to change its reputation, there is both resistance and scepticism from certain quarters within it. This is why such change must be both top-down and led in this case by Mike Ashley and Sports Direct’s chairman, Keith Hellawell. But it must also be bottom-up, with champions leading the change across the entire company.

Too often, attempts at change lead to major disconnections between leaders, managers and the rest of the workforce. This was a problem at food producer Beak and Johnston, which historically had a hierarchical approach to managing workers in the context of a tough working environment of meat processing. Over time, however, this multi-million dollar company has empowered workers to be accountable for line performances and provide input into company strategy, which has transformed the company’s culture and financial performance.

Sports Direct staff need to be brought on side.
Joe Giddens / PA Wire

A disconnect between leaders and workers not only creates tension internally among the workforce, it also raises questions externally among analysts, unions, journalists and others around the authenticity of the change process.

3. True values

Most organisations make grandiose claims about their values. However, when a company faces major questions about its reputation then those values come under greater scrutiny. What is particularly interesting about Sports Direct is that there is very little information on the company’s website about its values. Much more is said about its strategy, business model and operations.

Clearly, writing a set of values does not imply sound labour and governance practices, but their absence might suggest too great an emphasis on economic performance. Sports Direct should consider embedding a strong set of values which are meaningful to its members. To be clear, this should not be a window dressing exercise for its website, but an opportunity to much more closely engage with its core internal and external stakeholders such as employees, customers, investors, unions and regulators.

It won’t be easy, but Ashley’s presence this morning on BBC Breakfast is an important first step, as demonstrated by the boost in the company’s share price that followed it. But it must be about more than just PR soundbites. Other important steps include more directly engaging with key employees and shareholders who are concerned not only about the short-term turnaround, but also the company’s long-term reputation and survival.

Working on the above with a strong and committed board, senior management team and group of employee representatives will help to rebuild the company’s reputation from within. And this, over time, will be recognised externally.

The Conversation

Will Harvey, Director of Public Policy Research Cluster, Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, University of Exeter

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

How to win friends and influence people – using robots

How we connect to others in public, how gestures and gaze convey information about intentions and feelings and how touch can shape the sense of trust – Professor of Social Psychology, Professor Mark Levine, explores human-robot interactions.

This post first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

A male robot thinking about something. Isolated on white background.

A male robot thinking about something. Isolated on white background.

Mark Levine, University of Exeter

Despite being trapped in Moscow, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden often ambles through meeting rooms and conference halls in New York City. He does so using the same technology that lets 11-year-old Lexie Kinder, housebound with an incurable heart condition, wander around a South Carolina school and take classes with her peers.

Advances in tele-operated robots are now allowing people who are confined by circumstance to have a presence at a whole range of public events. They attend weddings and funerals, enjoy conferences and festivals and even, at a more mundane level, commute to work without ever leaving their homes.

At the moment, these robot representatives are really just screens and cameras on wheels – driven remotely by users with keyboards and joysticks. The wheels allow the screen to be moved around, and the camera allows the user to see and hear others.

However, as anyone who has ever used Skype to attend a meeting will tell you, while having your face on a screen can certainly give you a presence, it’s not the same as actually being there. At the very least, the experience is somewhat disembodied. No hands to gesture with or to touch. Limited sensory channels for experiencing a real connection with other people.

Being There, a recent research project has been looking at how we can draw on developments in digital technologies to enhance the experience of being there in public space. We have explored the psychology of how we connect to others in public; of how gestures and gaze convey information about intentions and feelings; and how touch can shape the sense of trust in humans and technology.

Our research seeks to improve the quality of interactions between the robot proxy and the humans it comes into contact with as well as to allow the user to trust robots more when they act as our representative. Using telepresence technology with the Nao robot platform that includes the capability for gesture and touch, we have been looking at how we might improve the human-robot experience in public spaces. This could work by developing technology which means the robot recognises human non-verbal behaviours, expressions and personality, picking up gestures, visual cues and body language.

Robots and high society.
PA

In doing so we have also been developing capabilities in remote emotion sensing and in tracking objects in public space. Both of these are important technologies for allowing a remote robot operator to participate effectively and to experience events to the full. If we can capture and analyse the emotions of people in public spaces in real time and convey that back through the robot to the remote operator we can enhance the experience of being there in person.

If the robot knows where it is in relation to other objects with a high degree of accuracy, it can navigate with confidence and promote safety and security. Giving robot proxies the ability to sense the environment on our behalf raises all sorts of interesting ethical and privacy questions. When we think about robots we can easily conjure up a dystopian future where autonomous machines replace or enslave us.

Controlling the controllers

However, the far more pressing danger comes from what we are prepared to reveal about ourselves. The data that can be leveraged to enhance the performance of a robot proxy can also be used in ways that threaten our privacy and security. Our robot proxies will, as a matter of course, be gathering data about us and about the environments they find themselves in. The danger comes not from the robots, but from the way the technology itself is engineered.

Perhaps the most obvious concern is the one where the teleoperation system is compromised and people use the robot proxies to wander around places that they should not be able to access. Then there is the question of the kinds of information that a robot proxy could or should be allowed to collect about others.

Finally, there is the question of what robot proxies can know about the people who use them and who that information might be shared with. This complex set of questions has been at the heart of our interdisciplinary project.

Digital technologies can be used to enhance the public realm by creating new ways to participate for those who might be excluded, and improving the experiences of “being there” in public space for all. However, each potential advance is accompanied by a corresponding question about its ethical implications.

As robot technology becomes increasingly versatile, and able to represent us in new and more sophisticated ways, so we will need to think through what the limits to the trade off between utility and privacy should be.

Mark Levine, Professor of Social Psychology, University of Exeter

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

Brexit: why uncertainty is bad for economies

Professor Kevin McMeeking, Associate Professor of Accounting in the University of Exeter Business School, takes a look at how the post-Brexit economy is faring.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. Conversation logo

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Kevin McMeeking, University of Exeter

The predicted economic blow of a Brexit vote was core to the Remain campaign before Britain’s referendum on EU membership. Since the vote, the lack of an “Armageddon” has been held up as an example of these fears being overblown. In reality, it is likely to vary significantly across society, affecting people and businesses in different ways. In particular, there is the more nebulous, long-term effect of uncertainty to take into account.

For example, one immediate affect of the vote was a fall in pound sterling to the US dollar – from an average of US$1.42 in the six months prior to the referendum vote to the US$1.30 mark. The evidence of previous plunges in sterling, such as in the wake of Black Wednesday in 1992, suggest that net exporters of goods in the UK will benefit but net importers of goods will suffer.


GBP/USD exchange rate before and after Brexit.
xe.com

Any gains here, however, could be offset by the increased levels of uncertainty surrounding the UK’s relationship with the EU as a result of the vote. The governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has argued that political, economic, regulatory uncertainties will persist while the UK redefines its openness to the movement of goods, services, people and capital.

A market for lemons

That uncertainty is bad for business is a well-established theory in economics. In a seminal paper, Nobel-prize winner George Akerlof created a scenario where buyers couldn’t distinguish between high quality cars and low quality cars (which he called “lemons”) in a second-hand market. Buyers would only pay a fixed price that averages the value of the high quality and the “lemons”. Sellers (with the information advantage) responded by removing good quality cars from the market, only selling “lemons”. This resulted in exchanges that could benefit buyers and sellers being lost and an inefficient market. This information asymmetry, Akerlof showed, also led to a degradation of the quality of goods traded.

Significant resources are invested to mitigate against this information problem in businesses. Companies offer guarantees, warranties and refunds to consumers. Consumers and companies review services before buying them. Annual reports are long and detailed. Company management liaise extensively with interested parties such as analysts and institutional investors. Firms also invest large amounts in derivatives to try to reduce uncertainty and manage their risks. But the government will be hard pressed to use similar strategies.

If British suppliers pass on increased costs that are a likely result of Brexit uncertainty to consumers then UK sales are likely to fall. This is bad news for an economy that is already struggling to boost spending. Early evidence suggests that petrol prices have risen, travel company bookings have fallen and the housing market has slowed. Less visible effects might follow such as a delay to investments from overseas or the removal of services like “roam-like-at-home” rules on phone calls and texts in the EU.


Mark Carney: no lemon.
Twocoms / Shutterstock.com

The Bank of England’s response has been to cut interest rates to 0.25% – the first cut since 2009 – and to also expand its quantitative easing programme to try to get people spending. The effects of this will take time – and there is, as yet, no guarantee that they will work – but this does not leave the Bank of England with many more fiscal cards left to play.

Lessons from Canada

To assess the actual economic impact of Brexit uncertainty, Canada offers some lessons and the sovereignty movement in Quebec (which almost won a referendum in 1995). Uncertainty here prompted a rise in ten-year bond rates and an adverse reaction from stock markets. Undiversified low-growth firms, with transactions focused in the local markets were the worst affected.

Independence from Canada would be costly for Quebec in three main ways – increased levels of debt, increased tariffs and financial transfers. Brexit might benefit the UK by reducing the costs of regulation and reduced payments into the EU, but it is inconceivable that the UK can enjoy the same trading relationship with its European partners without paying for the privilege – as Norway and Switzerland do.

Uncertainty also affects individuals. If they choose to leave for more stable futures, this could impact the broader economy. This would be particularly damaging for niche high-tech markets and government organisations, companies or industries that rely heavily on EU immigrants for large numbers of employees such as the NHS. A brain drain would leave a skills gap that British employees cannot service leading to a decline in trade. UK universities are concerned that they might see a significant decline in tuition fee income and the loss of academic talent in the short to medium-term.

The overall economic effects will take time to materialise and likely vary across the country. The businesses (and people) that are the least diversified; with little or no access to alternative income streams are likely to be the most at risk during these uncertain times.

Kevin McMeeking, Associate Professor of Accounting, University of Exeter

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

Multiple sclerosis survivors swear by hyperbaric oxygen – but does it work?

Dr Paul Eggleton, Senior Lecturer in Immunology in University of Exeter Medical School and Visiting Professor University of Alberta writes about the use of oxygen therapy for patients with MS.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.  Conversation logo

Paul Eggleton, University of Exeter

There is no cure for multiple sclerosis (MS) yet. As a complex neurodegenerative disease of the brain, it is incredibly difficult to treat. Despite the development of new and sophisticated therapies to control the inflammation and physical symptoms of the disease, these treatments don’t work for everyone. This is because MS comes in many guises and one treatment does not fit all. Perhaps for this reason people with MS are turning to alternative means of controlling their condition.

Many of the 100,000 people with MS in the UK have taken charge of managing their treatment. With the assistance of 60 or more independent charitable MS therapy centres, people with the disease regularly enter a chamber and breathe oxygen under moderate pressure (hyperbaric oxygen). Some people have done so for more than 20 years.

The air we breathe contains 21% oxygen, but 100% oxygen is considered a drug and is prescribed in hospitals to aid people’s recovery. In the case of MS, people self-prescribe the hyperbaric oxygen, which is delivered to them by trained operators. But does breathing pure oxygen under pressure on a weekly basis do them any good?

The idea to use oxygen as a treatment for MS began over 45 years ago. In 1970, two Romanian doctors, Boschetty and Cernoch, treated patients with brain injuries with pressurised oxygen to help more oxygen enter their tissues – oxygen helps protect nerve cells from damage and maintains the integrity of the blood-brain barrier. In a study of MS patients, they found that symptoms in 15 out of 26 volunteers improved. This led to further interest in the use of hyperbaric oxygen to treat MS specifically.

Since Boschetty and Cernoch’s discovery, around 14 clinical trials have been conducted. The trials have been on relatively small numbers of people and have reported conflicting results, ranging from great improvements to none at all. This has led to a dilemma: should clinicians endorse the use of hyperbaric oxygen for MS or not?

Not officially sanctioned

The clinical regulatory bodies in the US and the UK, the FDA and NICE respectively, do not feel the clinical trial evidence is strong enough to endorse the procedure, yet thousands of people in the UK and elsewhere continue to treat themselves with hyperbaric oxygen. Between 1982 and 2011, over 20,000 people with MS in the UK used hyperbaric oxygen over 2.5m times.

Multiple sclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the brain. It is usually diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 40. Lesions in the brain develop as a result of inflammatory autoimmune cells crossing the blood-brain barrier and destroying the protective protein coat (myelin) that surrounds the axon of some nerve cells. Over time MS develops into a neurodegenerative disease, leading to problems with vision, bladder control and mobility.

The brain’s ability to repair some of this damage helps people with MS to feel better for a while before relapsing once more. Eventually the disease becomes chronic and the ability to repair the damage and undergo remission declines. Most conventional treatments focus on the early phases of the disease. Unfortunately, there are few treatments for the later stages of MS.


Perhaps the inability of prescribed drugs that work for all people with MS, or indeed work for some but produce unpleasant side-effects, has driven people to seek other treatments. Despite the scepticism of some doctors, many people with MS claim that hyperbaric oxygen therapy has benefits. The benefits include improvements in mobility, bladder control, pain relief and gait. However, since the treatment is transient, regular exposure to pressurised oxygen is required to sustain any benefit.

The increase in oxygen to the brain may lead to a number of effects such as speeding repair to damaged tissue, or inhibiting the ability of immune cells to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause damage. These possibilities are being investigated.

Poorly designed trials

So why are many clinicians sceptical of hyperbaric oxygen? The main reason is various MS disability-status scores are used to judge improvement. In the former clinical trials, hyperbaric oxygen was not used over a sustained periods of time (only a few weeks) and often people with irreversible damage were used, so no or very little improvement in scores was seen.

So are poorly controlled clinical trials to blame for the conflict of opinion? Probably, yes. Until we understand more at the molecular level about how oxygen under pressure can make sustained changes to various biological processes in the brain, people with MS will continue to use the treatment and the majority of the medical community will remain unconvinced of its merits.

The Conversation

Paul Eggleton, Senior lecturer in Immunology, University of Exeter

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