Category Archives: research

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The year is 2050, the stench of plague fills the air and 10 million people are dying from cuts and grazes due to an enemy that cannot be seen. You would be forgiven for believing that we had entered a dystopian, parallel future, but alas not. This is the current future of mankind if we do not address the ever-growing threat: antibiotic resistance.

Whether we want to face it or not, our antibiotics are failing. Drugs that we have relied upon to so effectively treat bacterial infections are no longer working due to these crafty bugs becoming resistant to them. Over time, bacteria have evolved to survive antibiotics, with this “survival of the fittest” process resulting in populations of menacing “superbugs”. No matter how many different antibiotics we throw at these resistant microbes, some can no longer be killed and so what were once minor infections become fatal.

So how can we fight back!?

One avenue is to discover and develop new antibiotics. However, this has proven to be extremely costly and difficult, so alternative options are being explored. Mankind’s possible saviour: bacteriophages.

Bacteriophages, or simply phages, are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Just as humans get viruses like flu, bacteria suffer from their own invaders which hijack the bacterial cell and turn it into a virus making factory, before killing them. With their large bulbous head and spindly legs (think War of the Worlds alien invader fighting ships), they are perfectly adapted for attaching to bacteria. Phages are the optimal killing machines. Currently, phages are not widely used to treat infections in the Western world as not enough is known about them. If we want to be able to harness the power of these microscopic bacteria killers, then we need to know more about how they work.

Most research studying bacteria and phages use methods that involve growing billions of cells in a test tube, and looking at how fast the population grows and dies on average. But this is not always the most informative. Imagine you want to know how fast humans run 100m. Someone tells you the average time is 15 seconds. Although all humans, not everyone would take 15 seconds. Clearly if Usain Bolt ran the race he would be much quicker, and the man who decided to hop all the way much slower! This also applies to bacteria. Even though they should all be identical, individual bacteria can behave very differently.

My work lets us identify the Usain Bolts and the Hop-Alongs of the bacteria world, as well as many others in between. I want to know which responses occur when we expose bacteria to phages and how this may affect the killing ability of these viruses.

Erin Attrill, Living Systems Institute

I use technology called ‘microfluidics’ that allows me to isolate and experiment on individual bacteria. With ‘micro’ meaning small, and ‘fluidics’ relating to the movement of liquids, I perform experiments on bacteria with equipment no larger than a postage stamp. Using networks of thousands of tiny channels, I can trap single bacteria in their own tiny chamber under a microscope and watch what happens when I add phages. Over the course of a day, I can continually monitor and photograph the same cells and record whether they are growing, dividing and even the exact point at which they lyse – that is, when they burst open releasing hundreds more phages.

I have observed that although all identical, some bacteria die instantly, but others grow much faster and divide multiple times before finally lysing hours later. Perhaps most importantly, some bacteria in the experiments are not killed by the phages at all. These bacteria survive the exposure and fill their chambers with more bacteria offspring. What makes these cells special and able to survive is unclear, and one aim of my work is to use microfluidics to try and understand why.

It is important to understand these differences to be able to optimise how many phages would be needed to eradicate the bacteria in a human as a potential treatment. If most bacteria are killed with two hours of phage treatment, a person may begin to look healthy, but if the “Usain Bolt” variants survive, then they could cause the infection to return. A longer dose or a higher concentration of phages may be required to eradicate the entire population so we need to fully understand how the different cells behave.

There is no need to be afraid of the word ‘virus’ – the good news is that phages cannot infect human cells. These minuscule invaders are the enemy of bacteria and so we should harness their power to defeat our bacterial foes. As stated, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So let’s welcome in the age of the phage.

Erin Attrill, Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter

This article was the runner up in Max Perutz Science Writing Competition 2019.
Read all the shortlisted articles here https://mrc.ukri.org/documents/pdf/max-p-shortlist-articles-2019/

Digital Transformation: how corporate culture responds to the internet

Prepaid business card provider, Soldo, spoke with Prof. Mark Thompson as part of a series, speaking to today’s most influential digital disruptors. Prof. Mark Thompson is Professor in Digital Economy at Exeter Business School, and Strategy Director at the Methods Group.  He is a leading contributor to Digital Leaders, the Digital transformation business intelligence network with over 110,000 subscribers in the UK. Mark was co-author of the 2014 book “Digitizing Government” and the “2018 Manifesto for Better Public Services”. He also serves on the board of TechUK. Previous roles include National Audit Office Digital Advisory Panel, Cabinet Office Data Steering Group and acting as senior adviser to the Cabinet Office on ICT Futures.

Professor Mark Thompson

Professor Mark Thompson, Professor in Digital Economy at The University of Exeter Business School

We hear a lot about digital transformation – what does it mean to you?

Everybody bangs on about digital transformation, but it’s often hugely misleading because these discussions are usually technology led. To me, Digital Leaders’ version of digital transformation comes down to one thing: the arrival of mature services that have been developed around the shared infrastructure of the internet.

This infrastructure element cannot be overstated. Imagine, for example, that we had electricity and understood how to make washing machines and TVs, but we had no National Grid. On every street, it would be completely rational to build our own washing machines and TVs, because there’s no market – people would be using different voltages, current and plugs. Indeed, the birth of electricity was very much like this.  It’s nobody’s fault – the absence of a common infrastructure means everyone’s on their own.

Add the National Grid, and suddenly it’s irrational to build your own appliances – someone else can profitably make devices because they’ll work for millions of people. So the game-changer is the shared infrastructure.

Four decades after the internet’s invention, we finally have online technologies that can meaningfully interact with each other and be joined up and used at scale. Digital transformation is nothing to do with websites or front ends (although they’re important of course); it’s about the shared plumbing.

But that is technology led, yet you said at the outset that a purely tech discussion is misleading…

Very true. What is transformational is what these new technologies mean for businesses and the way they operate – which is both exciting and hugely challenging.

To see why, instead of focusing on innovation, let’s look at what it means to be an incumbent, a legacy business.

A legacy business is any organisation – and the challenges are absolutely organisational –  which grew up in the last century with processes, infrastructure, services, an operating model and, most importantly, a value proposition, defined before the prevalence of the internet. They lived successfully through the online services revolution which created new opportunities to get closer to their customers, without challenging their fundamental value propositions.

Today, however, incumbents face Big Tech like Amazon on the one hand, and startups like regtech, fintech, proptech etc. on the other. Any legacy business in 2019 is surrounded on all sides by challengers to their traditional value proposition.

For example, I was speaking with a pharmaceuticals executive recently who advocated “sticking to the knitting”: he said “We make drugs, and the minute we take our eye of that, we’re dead in the water”. But we now live in a health data economy which focuses on keeping people well rather than curing them when they are ill. Businesses like Amazon are outspending pharma in the healthcare sector exponentially.

So digital transformation is actually the belated response of legacy organisations, in particular, to the arrival of the shared plumbing of the internet. It’s a dawning realisation in modern boardrooms that capitalising on new technology demands a wholesale review of business models and core value propositions based on what you can achieve with digital technology and services; and that the new wave of emerging technologies – AI, virtual reality etc. – will only accelerate the need to throw off the shackles of old practices.

How can boards do that?

Well, above all, don’t do everything yourself. In the old days, billions were spent on in-house development of services, especially back-office functions. That is simply no longer of any value, indeed it’s hugely costly.

Every business is different, but as a matter of general advice:

  • Reconfigure everything you do around the customer – learn from their activity and take datapoints from every interaction to feed back into responsive service design. A good acronym for this is “SMAC”: Social Media, Mobile, Analytics and the C
  • Use digital platforms for the heavy lifting of service delivery. There’s plenty of competition between all the major players – Salesforce, AWS, Microsoft etc. to handle the infrastructure of corporate service delivery.
  • And finally, but most importantly, it will require a dramatic transformation of culture.

Why is culture such a problem?

Because we all find comfort in the status quo, and modern digital businesses demand that we focus exclusively on outcomes and rip apart the comfortable architectures that prevent us achieving those outcomes. Plenty of core and back-office functions will be either removed completely or consumed as-a-service in the pursuit of leanness, efficiency and agility.

Take Transferwise, an upstart in the money transfer business but now a world-leading ‘unicorn’. It’s user-friendly and beautifully designed, it’s disruptively cheap, and yet underneath the hood, they didn’t build it. Much of the key functionality is a white-label version of a different company’s business, Currency Cloud. They have built a $1BN business without reinventing the wheel and minimising their infrastructure investment.

This applies to legacy businesses too, but they are weighed down by a century of baggage – that they themselves have built. Five years ago, boardrooms fought that realisation; they embraced a certain digital mindset of sorts – open standards, agile development, the Eric Ries doctrine of failing fast etc.; but I think there is now a readiness in some quarters to think the unthinkable in big corporates about the radical changes required to core value propositions and organisational structure.

Now, I say “in some quarters” because there’s also plenty standing in the way of larger legacy businesses. I like to look at the incentives which drive behaviours, and unfortunately many holders of the CXO roles ultimately empowered to upend their organisations to undergo this extremely painful transition are only a couple of years away from the golf course. They are often grotesquely disincentivised at an organisational level from driving change, so there’s a lot of kicking the can down the road.

Furthermore, there’s a marked lack of education for non-technical senior people about these issues. We’re awash with training in technology, and it’s full of buzzwords.  But there’s no safe space for senior executives to join up the buzzwords and assemble them meaningfully in order to consider the effect of digital on their industries, behaviours, cultures, value propositions and service architectures. They can pay exorbitant fees for the major consultancies to develop a strategy, but the consultancies themselves are often incentivised to produce outsource arrangements that don’t necessarily represent the best interests of the company – whose leaders can often shrug off responsibility for understanding it all themselves to ‘the experts’, rather than getting properly to grips with it and owning the change themselves.

What can executives do, then? Because they’re being pushed tactical product by tech firms, endorsed by the analysts, the Gartners and IDCs – and nobody is talking corporate strategy?

Exactly. But we can group the current crop of technologies into some useful groups which senior executives can think about.

  • We’ve already mentioned SMAC, a focus on the front-end, data-driven approach to continuous customer-centric service redesign. It seems to me that at the highest level, you can look at that cluster of social, mobile analytics and Cloud and ask fundamental, often very challenging questions about how a business can reconfigure itself around its customers.
  • Then there are technologies around the back office, for example we talk about Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which is for attacking process-heavy administration. Increasingly, the genie’s out of the bottle because cloud-based services and infrastructure are commoditised and cheap, and creating tools to shorten back-office functions or eliminate repetitive ones is becoming as simple as bolting Lego bricks together: if companies don’t keep up, their own people will start doing it for them – bypassing governance and risk management structures.
  • There’s a third, less sexy consideration. Many large enterprises have grown by acquisition. They find themselves with multiple CRMs or ERPs, a vast hinterland of slow and old-moving technologies. It’s less glamorous, but there’s a huge piece of work in identifying common capabilities and service patterns across large organisations and then executing on the heavy consolidation that needs to happen in order to remain competitive. Without re-architecting into the cloud, you won’t get the interoperability and scalability that makes all this worth while.

That feels like three good clusters of activity, but again they’re all pretty useless unless, as a board, you’ve got some handle on your value proposition; which is going to change because you’re not going to do everything yourself.

One last example to help explain: the Hollywood Studio of the 1930s. It’s a fantastic example of a fully vertically-integrated organisation: the movie mogul owned everybody from the scriptwriters to musicians to set designers, actors and even movie theatres. Move to today’s HBO-type model and you have a sea of niche providers, all sustained by digital infrastructure. Creatives, production teams, aggregators, portals and marketers all operate separately and optimally, focused on a core value proposition and depending on a network of other operators to monetise their own particular service.

It required upheaval to move from the 1930s to today, but the magnitude and velocity of change – and associated transformational challenges – facing today’s incumbents is unprecedented.

 

This article first appeared on Soldo, a solution providing multi-user business expense cards that empowers employees by automating their expenses. You can read more interviews from Soldo’s digital disruptor series here.

Gender equality : « See it to be it » – Professor Janice Kay, Provost

How many women head up the UK’s leading companies? Our research has found that of 350 CEOs, it was just 12, equal to the number of male CEOs called David. And Andrew. And John.

Our expert Professor Ruth Sealy analysed the names of the FTSE 350 CEOs. Of this powerful group, 18 were called David, 13 were named Andrew and 12 called John. Just 12 were women, representing only 3.4 per cent of the group. Are you surprised?

Professor Janice Kay

Professor Janice Kay, Provost

Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day  –a valuable opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women, and to call for gender balance in society. Some people think this job is done, but while we have made strides in equality, this example shows there’s still a long way to go.

Last year’s gender pay gap report exposed the grim realities of a national picture in which men are consistently paid more than women, and hold more of the most senior roles. In fact, more than three quarters of 10,000 companies paid men more than women. Just one in three have women among their highest paid earners. Males are paid higher bonuses than females, and earn more than women overall – in every single sector.

Universities are no exception. Undergraduate students are roughly 50/50 male and female, so this should be reflected all the way up the scale. Yet only 15 per cent of senior leaders are women. At the University of Exeter, we acknowledge this problem and we’re on the right track. .We’re really proud of our national Advance HE Athena SWAN silver award – awarded to only 17 universities in the UK to recognise this commitment.

To be clear, men and women who do the same work at Exeter are paid the same salary. The issue around our gender pay gap is career progression. We’re establishing a range of schemes to ensure women aren’t disadvantaged by taking maternity breaks or caring responsibilities – that they’re supported and their expertise is recognised when they return to work, or through flexible working schemes. As women, we all have a role to play in this, whatever our age and stage.  This might be through tangible support such as mentoring. We have to make sure that women have the right opportunities at the right time to progress, and that strong female talent is visibly nurtured. As Billie Jean King said, you’ve got to see it to be it.

At the University, we’ve taken a good look at how our academic career progression works.  The proportion of female Professors has increased from 17 per cent in 2012 to 27 per cent today. The percentage of women on the University’s Executive Group has risen to 29 per cent. It’s not enough, but we’re working on it. The importance of having a balanced senior leadership team is vital in decision-making and signalling our values.

I’m proud of our work to support women’s careers. Female staff were the main beneficiaries of our decision to introduce the Living Wage in 2014. Our policy on maternity and paternity leave and family-friendly benefits is best in sector. We allow new parents to take six months of leave at full pay, followed by a further 13 weeks of leave at statutory pay. The policies are available for employees as soon as they start and parents can choose to share their leave entitlement. Our new menopause policy resulted from consulting female staff members.

We want to do what we can to develop real cultural change that is embedded in the values of our organisation, that avoids tokenism, and in which people of all genders are committed to gender equality. Our policies are supported by outstanding research. Internationally respected work on the phenomenon of the ‘glass cliff’ for female leaders has taken place in Exeter by Professor Michelle Ryan and her colleagues.

Just last month, leading Medical research journal The Lancet published a special edition dedicated to advancing gender equity in science, medicine and global health. Their editorial highlights the fact that systems must change – not just to support women, but to avoid disproportionately privileging men. Executive editor Dr Jocalyn Clark summarised: “Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients. If the fields of science, medicine, and global health are to hope to work towards improving human lives, they must be representative of the societies they serve.”

In the Westcountry, we’re working to inspire, inform and prepare young people to take the best decisions about their future. More than two thirds of the 900 year 9-13s from disadvantaged and under-represented groups who took part in our University of Exeter Scholars programme last year were female.

This article first appeared in the Western Morning News.

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.

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.

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

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.

Who picked British fruit and veg before migrant workers?

Caroline Nye is a PhD student in the Land, Environment, Economics, and Policy (LEEP) institute; her research  focuses on agricultural labour in the UK.

In this blog, Caroline looks at the history of fruit picking and how restrictions of the free movement of Europeans might have an impact on how fruit and vegetables are picked and packed.

This article first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo

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Caroline Nye, University of Exeter

As Britain tiptoes cautiously towards leaving the European Union, there is concern about the impact of Brexit on the farming industry if free movement of Europeans is restricted as part of the negotiations. A whopping 90 per cent of British fruit, salads and vegetables are currently picked and packed by overseas workers.

Yet, Britain’s reliance on migrants to do seasonal agricultural labour is not a recent phenomenon and it’s helpful to look at the history of how British workers turned away from this kind of work to understand the current predicament.

As far back as the 14th century, itinerant Irish migrants were known to travel throughout England and Scotland in search of employment. This became more prevalent by the end of the 18th century when groups such as the “spalpeens” and “tattie howkers”, large travelling gangs of Irish men, women and children, would help bring in the annual harvest. Such migration, not only from Ireland, but also from the Welsh hill counties and Scotland, coupled with itinerant English labourers, was essential to meet the labour demands that the resident workforce alone could not.

There were a number of reasons for this shortage of labour. From the end of the 18th century until the mid-19th century, labour requirements in agriculture were increasing, due to more labour-intensive crops, such as turnips and potatoes, and the adoption of a new crop rotation system. At the same time, the number of full-time farm workers was shrinking, as they were either pulled towards jobs created by industrialisation, or pushed out by mechanisation. On top of this, groups who could have previously been relied upon to help out at harvest time, such as those working in rural textile industries, began to move away from rural areas towards factory work in towns.

Child labour and gangs

Prior to the introduction of the Gangs Act in 1867, a large proportion of those performing seasonal work were women and children who provided cheap labour to both gang masters – a term still used today for individuals who organise and employ groups of workers for casual work on agricultural land – and farmers. This new law forbade children under the age of eight from working the land, after the 1860s witnessed a rise in public concern over the exploitative nature of “ganging”. A series of new education laws soon followed, making school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of five and 12, drying up a significant source of seasonal labour. As more women began to move into the service sector towards the end of the 19th century, there was also a decline in the supply of female agricultural labourers

The British Women’s Land Army cropping beetroots in World War II. British Ministry of Information/Wikimedia

But numbers of workers needed for harvesting remained high, especially following the Irish famine in the mid-19th century, which saw migrant numbers contract significantly. Some of that work, especially hop-picking, was carried out by townspeople, working class families often coming from London or the Black Country for their summer holidays. Many of these people continued to work alongside soldiers, prisoners of war or the Women’s Land Army during both world wars. In the early 20th century, agricultural gangs also employed British people, shipping them from Yorkshire to the East Midlands, for example. But gradually these workers became less willing to travel so far.

Post-war reliance on migrant workers grows

In response to labour shortages following World War II, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) was introduced in 1945, allowing foreign nationals to temporarily reside in the UK in order to harvest fruit and vegetables. The bulk of SAWS workers were Eastern European or from the former Soviet Union. Although initial quotas were low, farms quickly began to rely on these workers, causing quotas to steadily increase to 21,250 in 2009. In 2013, the scheme was scrapped due to the increasing availability of workers from within the EU.

Number of SAWS work cards issued by nationality, 2004 to 2012. For 2012, data are only up to September 30. Migration Adivsory Committee analysis of UK Border Agency Management Information

Despite this, it was only after the 1990s that British agriculture became heavily dependent upon international migrant workers. This was sparked by power becoming more concentrated among a small number of large corporate retailers. This meant that the bargaining power of farmers became greatly reduced, resulting in fast declining margins.

This power shift largely transformed agriculture as an industry, rapidly moving away from farming as a “culture” to a more intensive industry. Where technology has not stepped in, many farms have had to extract greater efficiency from their workers, at a lower cost, just to survive. This has resulted in a move away from the more paternalistic role of farmers to their workers, to one that is more distant and bureaucratic, further dissuading locals from wanting to do the work.

Back to the land?

Positions left empty if EU migration is restricted following Brexit could theoretically present a solution to high unemployment rates in the UK. But the fact is that many British people simply do not want to carry out seasonal labour because incentives for doing so are very low. Changes in the composition of rural populations mean that areas of high unemployment are often located at significant distances from the farms offering work. Seasonal jobs are also known to be low-paid, hard work, with long hours, and are often associated with unfavourable conditions and diminished social status. Domestic residents prefer permanent employment or complete withdrawal from the labour market onto the social security system.

Migrant workers are less likely to perceive the work as “dead end” and rather see it as a temporary step allowing them to earn an income that has more worth in their home country.

Schemes to encourage British workers back to the land have largely failed. Where they have tried, some farmers state that after several days of work, many do not return. But question marks hang over rhetoric arguing that Brits are too lazy, unavailable, or incapable of doing the work, or that they have an inferior work ethic to overseas workers.

The use of technology so far has proved challenging in the harvest of fragile soft fruits and vegetables, but it is likely that the future will see a gradual move towards the use of robots. Until then, unless food prices change or new systems emerge encouraging domestic workers to pick our fruit, British farms are likely to remain highly dependent on overseas workers.

The Conversation

Caroline Nye, PhD candidate, University of Exeter

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

How Ross Poldark was a victim of Cornwall’s changing industrial landscape

Dr Joseph Crawford, English lecturer in College of Humanities, takes a look at hit BBC series Poldark. He asks if the main character, Ross Poldark, was victim of the changing face of industry in the South West.

This post first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo

Joseph Crawford, University of Exeter

In July 2016, the BBC announced the commissioning of a third season of costume drama Poldark, months before the second series was even due to be broadcast. This represents an impressive vote of confidence in the series, especially as season two will apparently not be repeating the famous “topless scything” scene which won the National Television Awards’ prize for TV Moment of the Year.

The real pivotal moment depicted by Poldark, however, is one of historical change in south-west England. In the mid-18th century, Cornwall and Devon were major commercial and industrial centres. Cornwall’s tin and copper mines were some of the largest and most sophisticated in Europe, while the profits from the Cornwall and Devonshire wool trade helped make Exeter one of the biggest and richest cities in England.

By the mid-19th century however, much had changed. The rise of the mechanised cloth industry in England’s North and Midlands sent the south-western wool trade into serious decline. And while Cornwall’s mining industry survived well into the 20th century, it experienced repeated crises from the 1770s onwards. This was primarily due to newly discovered tin and copper mines elsewhere in the world, leading to the large-scale emigration of Cornish miners to countries such as Mexico, Australia and Brazil.

The era depicted in Poldark shows the region on the very tipping-point of this transition. Ross Poldark’s struggles to keep his mine open and profitable are symptomatic of the economic difficulties experienced by the region as a whole during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As south-western towns lost their traditional role as centres of trade and industry, their focus shifted increasingly to tourism. This was especially true during the long years of the Napoleonic Wars which form the backdrop to the later Poldark novels. Cut off by war from their favoured resorts in France and Italy, a generation of English tourists began taking holidays in Devon and Cornwall instead.

By the late 18th century, writers in Devon were praising their native county for its natural beauty and its ancient history, rather than for the wealth and industry of which their parents and grandparents had been so proud. By the mid-19th century, the same was increasingly true of Cornwall.

This economic shift led, in turn, to the development of the Victorian mythology of the “romantic South-West”, still beloved of local tourist boards today.

This mythology is built upon a version of the region’s history which emphasises its remote and wild character, playing on associations with Merlin and King Arthur, druids and witches, smugglers and wreckers and pirates.

Like most costume dramas, Poldark’s primary concern is with the travails of cross-class romance. But it is also a narrative about de-industrialisation, and about the struggle of local businesses to remain competitive and economically viable within an increasingly globalised economy – a story which has some resonance in early 21st-century Britain.

The poverty of the Cornish miners with whom Ross Poldark identifies is not simply the result of gratuitous oppression. Instead they are the victims of a new economic order which has little interest in preserving local industry for its own sake.

Wild West

The show has certainly not been shy about making lavish use of the beauty of its Cornish setting, and has already triggered something of a tourism boom, with visitors flocking to the region to see for themselves the moors, cliffs, and beaches which Poldark employs to such dramatic visual effect.

Industry by the sea.
Shutterstock

But it also depicts the historical struggles of the region’s inhabitants to preserve the South West as something more than just a pretty place for other people to visit on holiday. In this sense, it is rather symbolic that season one of Poldark ends with Ross being falsely accused of wrecking. The legend of the Cornish wreckers, which reached its definitive form in Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, is founded on extremely slender historical evidence, but it persists because it fits in so neatly with the Victorian mythology of the South West in general, and Cornwall in particular: a mythology which viewed it as a lawless and desperate land, filled with crime and adventure, and remote from all true civilisation.

In Poldark, the looting of the wrecked vessel is motivated by hunger and poverty, which have in turn been caused by the economic depression besetting the region. But after spending the whole season struggling against Cornwall’s industrial decline, Ross finds himself in danger of being absorbed into a new kind of narrative about the South West – one which will have no place for men like him, except as picturesque savages.

Of course, in this respect, Poldark rather wants to both have its grain and (shirtlessly) reap it, too. Ross Poldark and Demelza appeal to their audience precisely because they embody the kind of romantic wildness which, since the Victorian era, has been the stock-in-trade of the south-western tourist industry.

They are passionate, free-spirited, and dismissive of class boundaries and social conventions: hardly the kind of people that the self-consciously respectable merchants and industrialists of the 18th-century South West would have wanted as their representatives or champions. But by setting its story of class antagonism against the backdrop of this crucial turning-point in the history of the South West, Poldark does serve as a reminder that the quietness of the region, which has proven so attractive to generations of tourists, is not the natural state of a land untouched by commerce or industry. It is the silence which follows their enforced departure.

The Conversation

Joseph Crawford, Lecturer in English, University of Exeter

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