Monthly Archives: January 2014

An engaging visit from the EPSRC

We were lucky to recently host a visit from Paul Golby, Chairman of the Engineering and Psychical Science Research Council (EPSRC) – it was a great opportunity to hear more about EPSRC, their concerns and areas of focus as well as enabling us to showcase just some of our leading academics and projects, Charlie Lane, Relationship Development Manager for the EPSRC told us more about the visit…

Research Councils have always played a key role in the effective distribution of public money, and spending on science is well understood as a critical enabler of the current and long term economic benefit of the UK. As the University grows its capacity and capability to attract greater levels of funding for research it is important that we understand and know our funders in more depth.

The vist from Paul always promised to be interesting but it was even more so because he was definitely in listening mode. It is a common complaint that communication with funders is very one sided and so this was a good opportunity to provide feedback on issues the community faces on an everyday basis. To help facilitate this the day was organised into sessions that focussed on career stages, key projects and lab visits with an open session at lunchtime that proved extremely popular.

The open session highlighted the budgetary challenges that EPSRC face and how the expectation is for them to do more with less. The reduction in staff numbers was clearly having an impact on their ability to engage with the community but this is understood and EPSRC are proactively looking at ways of improving this, and are actively looking for suggestions as to how this could be achieved.

The current financial situation with regards to the science budget was echoed in Sir Steve Smith’s welcome address and served to show how intrinsically linked we are.

Paul’s open communication style was reflected in his key messages to academics throughout the day – the main thrust of which is to engage, engage, engage. Paul actively encouraged people to mobilise in communities (such as manufacturing), to participate in processes (such as peer review), to help them make the case for funding by providing case studies, and to contact programme managers with any queries for calls or other applications.

In an economic climate that has placed enormous pressure on research funding it is clear that if we want to ensure our research concepts to realise the benefits that we anticipate they will generate then we need to keep communicating and take up the opportunities that are there for us.

The rising spectre of a ‘plastic ocean’

Plastic refuse could be problematic for the oceans.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The recent high winds, waves and tides across the UK have transformed many of the nation’s beaches, with sand removed, cliffs eroded and properties damaged. Amongst the changes, many people will have noticed dramatic increases in the amount of plastic debris. Ranging from the banal to the curious, these fragments of 21st Century life are the signature of a problem that is threatening our oceans.

Plastic litter is now almost everywhere in the world’s oceans, extending from the coast far out to sea, and down onto the sea floor. Large pieces of plastic such as bottles, plastic bags, cigarette lighters and old toys can be found on most beaches and readily spotted from the decks of ocean-going vessels. And there’s more, microplastic fragments – those smaller than 5mm – and even less obvious nanoscale plastics (less than 1mm in size), are readily detectable in sand, sediment and even in the tissues of marine organisms.

One of the main causes of this global problem is increasing plastic manufacture, with annual production increasing from just 1.5 million tonnes in the 1950s to a staggering 280 million tonnes in 2011.

Despite the ubiquity of plastic in the ocean, our knowledge about the effects of this debris is limited. As if to underline the issue, a recent horizon scan of global conservation issues identified microplastics as a serious emerging global environmental threat.

Numerous organisations have drawn attention to the plastic litter issue, yet the scale of the problem is not widely appreciated by either the public or politicians. And right on cue, research is beginning to show that plastic litter is affecting a number of marine animals, including birds, turtles and invertebrates, with studies also finding plastic fragments in the guts, respiratory structures and tissues of marine species.

Yet few, if any, practical measures have been put in place to manage the situation.

In June of 2013, I was one of over a hundred scientists who met at the University of Siena in Italy to clarify what is known – and what remains to be investigated – concerning plastic litter in the sea.

We discussed several important areas that need further investigation, including the need for answers to questions like: How much plastic is getting into the marine environment each year?; What are the key sources?; Where do the different types of plastic litter accumulate?;

Is plastic taken up by marine organisms?; Is it damaging to them?; What is the extent of economic, environmental and human health costs resulting from the presence of plastic litter in the marine environment?

Identifying questions like these allows us to focus our research efforts as a community, and ensure we’re targeting the right areas with the limited funding that exists.

But science alone cannot solve the rising possibility of an ocean where beaches of plastic, rather than sand, are commonplace. Public education programmes are needed to increase awareness of the scale and severity of the issue, whilst guidelines and regulations to ensure the safe disposal of plastics need to be developed and enforced. Ultimately, the global community needs to work towards a reduction in the use of plastics and develop environmentally friendly alternatives.

There is clearly much to be done to bring the issue of plastic litter in the seas to the attention of the public, policymakers and politicians. Fortunately, the European Commission and other funding organisations around the world have at last begun to support research work in this area. Nonetheless, as with many environmental problems of our time, the need for positive action to limit the plastic debris in our oceans has become undeniably immediate.

Professor Michael Depledge
Chair of Environment and Human Health
University of Exeter Medical School

Read more about the issue in this review recently published by Professor Depledge.

Green cities provide a mental health boost that lasts

Dr Ian Alcock

Exeter academic Dr Ian Alcock led on recently published research which shows how quickly moving to a greener area can beenfit human health. He discusses his findings in the below blog, first posted on The Conversation.

It’s been established that enjoying green spaces in otherwise grey urban areas can lead to improved mental health for city-dwellers. But new research has revealed how surprisingly quickly those benefits appear, and how long they last.

Research from the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that people living in towns and cities with more parks and gardens tend to report greater well-being than those without. But it also revealed that relocating to a greener part of town led to improvements in their mental health that lasted for at least three years.

There are other life changes that influence mental health, and many of those do so gradually, or else seem to be only short-lived. Job promotion and marriage boost well-being in the short term, for example, and financial windfalls can lead to gradual improvements. But these new findings indicate that simply increasing the ratio of green to grey in urban neighbourhoods is likely to provide benefits that are not only immediate, but which continue to deliver benefits long afterwards.

The research, just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a long-running household survey project, based in Essex. We analysed five consecutive years of mental health questionnaires, answered by people who had relocated to a different residential area between the second and third years.

Two groups of people were tracked: 600 who moved to greener urban areas, and 470 who moved to areas that were less green. While the group who moved to greener suburbs showed significant improvements for all three years after their relocation, there was not a corresponding decline in mental health for those who moved to less green areas. There was, however, a decline in the mental health of these people in the year before they moved. It’s not clear whether this was some degree of dread at the anticipated relocation, or whether it was declining well-being that lay behind the decision to relocate.

Studying people who relocate from one area to another can offer insights into the effects of town planning decisions that alter the make-up of city neighbourhoods. It’s hard to design and carry out experiments that involve the radical “re-greening” and “de-greening” of our cities to see what effects these processes have. But we can get important clues by looking at the average effects that result from the loss or gain of green space after someone has moved home.

Endless cities risk much grey, not enough green. wilhelmja

The benefits we’ve observed have implications for planning policy, which aims to improve public health through urban design. Our findings suggest that improved mental health is not the result simply of the novelty of living in a greener area, which might wear off quickly. Creating parks and green corridors in our increasingly urban landscapes could represent good value-for-money public health services, delivering long term benefits to community health.

How good is green space for urban residents? An earlier study published in Psychological Science estimated the effects on mental health delivered by a 1% difference in urban green space, also working with Household Panel Survey data from England and controlling for the effects of personality. The study found that living in an area with high rather than low green space was equal to roughly a third of the benefit of being married, and a tenth of the benefit of having a job.

Importantly, in estimating the effects of green space, the team accounted for other factors which can influence mental health, such as the individuals’ income, family and employment circumstances. They also accounted for area factors which may overlap with urban greenness, such as the socio-economic profile of the neighbourhood.

Depression and depressive disorders are now the leading cause of disability in middle to high income countries – mental health is a critical public health issue of modern times. And it’s quite possible this trend is related to how quickly the world’s population is moving to the city: in the world’s more developed regions, more than three-quarters of the population live in urban environments, with the reduced access to the natural world that brings.

So while these studies don’t show that relocating to a greener area will definitely increase happiness, the findings fit with other experimental work that shows how short spells in a green space does improve people’s mood, and cognitive functioning. Our findings join those from earlier epidemiological studies that clearly demonstrate the link between health benefits and green space.

Ian Alcock receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. The European Centre for Environment and Human Health is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The Conversation

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