Monthly Archives: May 2015

Exeter pub serves up a Pint of Science

Dr Thomas Constant, Associate Research Fellow in Physics and Astronomy spoke at this week’s Pint of Science festival. He recalls his experience…

It was my immense pleasure to participate in this year’s Pint of Science festival that took place over three nights in Exeter, and concurrently in another forty-nine cities around the world.

The premise was for university researchers to give public talks in pubs, with an emphasis on casual and engaging talks in a far-less stuffy environment than the traditional lecture halls. As an additional incentive, for both attendees and speakers, plenty of beer was available throughout.

I presented at the Ship Inn, near Exeter Cathedral. A very traditional 16th century alehouse which Exeter legend would have you believe was a favorite of Sir Francis Drake. The conditions were intimate to say the least!

Due to the space requirements my colleague, Professor Roy Sambles, and I stood amongst the audience, as we extolled the benefits and the quirky physics that lies behind things as simple as colour, liquid crystals or fluorescent light bulbs.

Such a format was a wonderful catalyst for discussions and questions, and also an enjoyable challenge when demonstrating potentially dangerous experiments using things like lasers, tesla coils and the surprisingly useful and often overlooked scientific apparatus: a pint of G&T.

About thirty people came to listen, quiz and challenge the research I conduct at Exeter, which focuses on the science of light. The United Nations has declared 2015 the international year of light, chiefly to raise awareness of how research into light profoundly affects our everyday lives.

My primary research at Exeter is all about trapping light at the surface of materials. Since 1902, when a rather eccentric scientist named Robert Wood was playing with some scratched gold, we have known that if we shine light on a metal mirror that has some tiny grooves in its surface, sometimes the light doesn’t reflect but ‘hangs around’ on the surface, trapped their as a new type of quantized quasi-particle we call a ‘surface plasmon’.

The advances this discovery are leading towards are not yet fully realised, but we know enough so far to be confident that trapping light in this way will lead to some significant advances we will be seeing very soon in everyday life.

The best sensors in the world already use this effect, and we have now reached the point where just a single molecule of material on a metal surface can be detected. My favorite use of this is in Mexico, where they use sensors like this to detect bootleg tequila. Light hanging around a surface also improves solar cells, a technology at a tipping point of truly becoming a viable alternative to fossil fuels, if only we could push their efficiency a tiny bit further.

There are countless more applications that are just starting to bear the fruit of the global research in these areas, from stealth technologies, anti-counterfeiting products, light generation, quantum computing, and even in one case possible cancer treatments using just light and harmless gold particles.

Whatever the final products that result from our research, our goal is a simpler one: to understand the subtleties of how light behaves. It is a passion our research group shares with many others around the world and now, with a little bit of luck, an additional thirty or so Exeter pub-goers.

Tips for Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on life after leadership

How do political leaders cope after they step down from the top position in their party? Dr Beverley Hawkins, Senior Lecturer in Leadership / Organisation Studies for University of Exeter Business School, has some tips on how to survive life after leadership.

This blog first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo

The hours after the British election saw three party leaders fall in quick succession. Within minutes of each other, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband all announced that they would be stepping down. What happens next for those leaders and MPs who are cast out of their high status, identity-affirming leadership roles?

Leaving leadership requires former leaders to cope with the loss of a prestigious identity, and experience a period of “cold turkey” in which they must overcome any addictions to power, Machievellian cynicism, or altruistic service that can bolster the egos of those occupying high status positions.

Although this will be a time of uncertainty it also opens up opportunities for renewal and transformation. Losing leadership is an experience full of threat and promise, in which previous understandings of ourselves are thrown into question and the individual must find new ways of understanding their place in the world.

The Portillo moment

One notable embodiment of this form of reincarnation is Michael Portillo, the Conservative politician who was first elected to parliament in 1984 and served as minster of defence between 1995-97. The loss of his safe seat in the 1997 general election became known as the “Portillo moment” which defined the Conservatives’ overwhelming defeat, and was later coined by Portillo himself as the moment when he had to eat “a bucketload of shit” on live television.

As an MP, Portillo was often unpopular with the general public, but since leaving the House of Commons for the last time in 2005 he has undergone a surprising transformation into a benign presenter of railway television programmes, assisted by a natty selection of bright linen jackets.

It will be interesting to see which of those who lost their seats in the election make it beyond the inevitable appearance on Have I Got News For You, to redefine themselves in the public or private sphere as someone other than “former member of parliament”.

Renaissance man. Ben Salter, CC BY

Politicians are of course not the only ones who have to develop post-power identities; a number of factors indicate that leaving leadership is an experience many more of us are likely to face in the coming years. The tendency for heads of department to return to the ranks after a number of years in post, plus recent large-scale redundancy programmes in defence, financial and public services, and general trends towards an ageing population, suggest that we need more understanding of how this process affects both the well-being of individuals, and the economy more widely through the loss of valuable skills.

On this front, academics are still playing-catch up: research on leadership focuses largely on the challenges associated with becoming a leader or doing leadership – not losing it.

Three steps to recovery

A pilot project conducted by leadership researchers at University of Exeter Business School is seeking to address this gap. Findings presented at the 2011 International Studying Leadership Conference have provided fascinating glimpses into the experiences of those transitioning away from power.

Interviews with former leaders from a range of backgrounds who had successfully carved out new roles for themselves indicated that the following advice may be useful for politicians forced out of the limelight:

1) Remember that leadership is itself a good preparation for coping with the uncertainty of transformation. Leadership involves dealing with so-called “wicked problems”, which have no known answer. In this sense, the uncertainty that comes with developing a new identity as “ex-leader” is not a new experience. Leaders might well find that uncertainty is the one familiar element in their transition.

2) Listen to the advice of friends who have gone before. The experiences of those who have already transitioned out of high status positions can help ex-leaders to adapt lessons learned in the pursuit and exercise of power for a new stage of life.

3) Give yourself time – the transition can take longer than expected. Several research participants experienced a number of false starts and wrong moves before they felt comfortable with their place in the world.

Of course, the consequences of leaving leadership positions resonate beyond the individual going through the exit. Such life-altering transformations significantly affect family dynamics, and the skills economy can also suffer if and when expertise built up during leadership roles disappears without trace.

Whether the political parties will hope to retain the skills of some politicians who were unsuccessful in defending their respective roles this May remains to be seen – but it is likely that for some at least, crafting an alternative public identity will be a priority after the humiliation of defeat.

The Conversation

Beverley Hawkins is Senior Lecturer in Leadership/Organisation Studies at University of Exeter.

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

Is social media the answer to getting youth engaged In electoral politics?

The votes have been cast and the results are in.

As we reflect on the results of last week’s General Election, Professor Susan Banducci and her colleagues from VoteAdvice* have been thinking about how engaged the under 25, youth, voters have been with the electoral process.

You can follow VoteAdvice on Twitter.

Voters in Britain had more options than ever this election – smaller parties are a significant part of the electoral landscape.

This might have been particularly confusing for first time voters and younger voters who do not have strong party attachments. In order to help voters understand the positions of parties, they had the option to turn to social media for help. Because young citizens are more likely to get their news, engage in political discussions and try to persuade others via social media, it is thought to be a particularly useful way for this group of voters to become informed.  One way in which they are becoming informed is via the use of Voting Advice Applications (VAA). There are over 10 sites available for voters to help them decide who to vote for in the upcoming British elections such as UK Electoral Compass and TickBox.  Some of these sites had over 1 million users who were trying to find out which parties most closely matched their policy preferences.


Figure 1: Likelihood of Voting in 2015 by Age

Figure 1: Likelihood of Voting in 2015 by Age. Source: Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, and C. van der Eijk (2014) Preliminary British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 4.

According to the British Election Study 2014, the percentage of the under 25 that declare they are “very likely go to vote” (63.7 per cent) is lower than the percentage in any other age group. One reason citizens don’t vote is because they feel they do not know enough about politics or where the parties stand on important issues. Voting Advice Applications then will be particularly useful in helping them to sort out whether and which parties are addressing their concerns. Using these tools may then encourage them to get out and vote.




The idea behind a VAA is that users respond to a series of questions on political issues, and then receive personalised advice as to how their issue preferences compare to the policy stances taken by parties/candidates competing in an upcoming election. VAA sites have been used extensively in other countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden and frequently attract millions of users, and are now a normal part of election campaigns in a growing number of established democracies. For example, the first VAA was Stemwijzer, which was set up for the 1998 Dutch elections and attracted a quarter of a million users. By the time of the 2006 election the same site was accessed 4.7 million times.

Since VAA are a comparatively new political phenomenon, we are still investigating their consequences on electoral outcomes and turnout. We do have limited evidence that the use of one of these online tools during an election encourages users to seek out even more information. One thing we do know is that the typical visitor is younger and it is younger voters who feel particularly disengaged when it comes to parliamentary elections. These younger voters who may be voting for the first time may feel that they do not have enough information to be able to choose a party or they may feel that political parties are not addressing issues of concern to them.


Figure2: UK Election Compass Users by Age Group Source: Krouwel, A., et al, (2015), “UK Election Compass”, data collected by the Kieskompas Voting Advice Application, Amsterdam

Figure2: UK Election Compass Users by Age Group
Source: Krouwel, A., et al, (2015), “UK Election Compass”, data collected by the Kieskompas Voting Advice Application, Amsterdam


The data collected by the UK Election Compass VAA for the General Election 2015 show very clearly that the under 25 were the top users of this VAA. In fact, the 27.2 per cent of the users were in the age group 18-25 years old.   Those over 45 make up almost 30 per cent but this slightly larger proportion is most likely due to this particular VAA being promoted by local and regional newspapers where the average reader tends to be older.



Figure 3: Twitter Users by Age Group Source: Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, and C. van der Eijk (2014) Preliminary British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 4.

Figure 3: Twitter Users by Age Group
Source: Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, and C. van der Eijk (2014) Preliminary British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 4.

Use of online tools by young people for political information would appear to be an extension of other social media activity. Data collected by British Election Study shows that that 18-15 year olds are the largest group of users of both Twitter and Facebook. They were only slightly more likely to look for information about parties and candidates on Facebook (15 per cent compared to 9 per cent for 26-35 year olds) and Twitter (25 per cent compared to 22 per cent for 26-35 year olds). However, they were no more likely to share political information on Twitter and Facebook than older respondents in the survey. Therefore, despite greater use of social media in general, younger citizens are not that much more likely to use it for political discussion than older users of social media. One note of caution, the data reported here was collected in March 2015. As election-day approached, the information seeking of younger citizens may have increased and they may have turned to social media more often than older voters.

Figure 4: Facebook Users by Age Group Source: Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, and C. van der Eijk (2014) Preliminary British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 4.

Figure 4: Facebook Users by Age Group
Source: Fieldhouse, E., J. Green., G. Evans., H. Schmitt, and C. van der Eijk (2014) Preliminary British Election Study Internet Panel Wave 4.

Our data from the UK Election Compass shows younger people made up a large share of users. However, despite being the largest group of social media users they are only slightly more likely to use social media for obtaining political information and no more likely to share political information via Twitter and Facebook. Therefore, while parties and candidates need to communicate to younger citizens via the mediums they use (social media); it still seems there is work to be done in engaging you in the political process by speaking about issues that are important to them.

* VOTEADVICE is a four year project funded by the European Commission, led by Professor Susan Banducci (Politics & Exeter Q-Step Centre).  The co-investigators are: Professor Daniel Stevens (Politics), Dr Gabriel Katz-Wisel (Politics), Dr Samuel Vines (Sport and Health Sciences), and Dr André Krouwel (Kieskompas). Claudia Zucca, Raluca Popp and Laszlo Horvath are the VOTEADVICE early career researchers. VOTEADVICE examines how new technologies and social media influence political and social behaviour. In order to achieve this aim we develop and apply techniques for the analysis of online information tools and opt-in samples. 

The politics of Thomas Hardy

Professor Angelique Richardson, an Associate Professor of English and member of the Centre for Victorian Studies and the Centre for Medical History, takes a look at Thomas Hardy’s politics, the release of the film version of the novel Far From the Madding Crowd and a new online resource examining the role clothing played in Hardy’s fiction…

Committed to social justice, Thomas Hardy tired of London political talk, ‘of when the next election would be – of the probable Prime Minister’ (Hardy, Life and Work). He thought politicians were by and large ineffective and unconcerned about real welfare of the people, too prone to rushing through ill-considered and uninformed legislation – ‘The offhand decision of some commonplace mind high in office at a critical moment influences the course of events for a hundred years’ (Life and Work) and he believed novels were capable of bringing about deeper social changes.

His own radical politics and acute class-sensitiveness are to be found in his fiction, from his treatment of the rural poor to his far-reaching interventions in the gender debates of his day.

Hardy’s first novel, ‘The Poor Man and the Lady; By the Poor Man’, which he described as ‘socialistic, not to say revolutionary’, was turned down as too radical to publish, and when a version of it appeared as ‘An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress’ it contained an epigram from Thackeray’s Book of Snobs (1848) ‘Come forward, some great marshal, and organise equality in society’, from the passage in which Thackeray denounced ‘hereditary-great-man worship’ as a humbug and affront to the Free Press.

It was crucial to Hardy’s politics to bring the regions to the centre, to give a strong and distinctive identity to the counties of Wessex, the ‘partly real, partly dream-country’ stretching from Land’s End as far north as Oxford, that he first named in 1874 in Far From the Madding Crowd.

Costumes worn by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, in the wedding scenes of the recent film, Far from the Madding Crowd, on display at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, until 8th June 2015. in the film. There is the smart dress and hat of the runaway wedding day, the gold striped silk dress and embroidered silk jacket of her homeward journey, and a dress worn at the wedding party. Jonathan North / Dorset County Museum © 2015

Costumes worn by Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, in the wedding scenes in the recent film, Far from the Madding Crowd, on display at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, until 8th June 2015. There is the smart dress and hat of the runaway wedding day, the gold striped silk dress and embroidered silk jacket of her homeward journey, and a dress worn at the wedding party.
Jonathan North / Dorset County Museum © 2015

Thomas Vinterberg’s new film version of the novel, out this month to critical acclaim, will transmit to new and enthusiastic audiences the fascinations of Wessex, from the minute and loving detail with which Hardy painted the landscape, to the unusual independence of his woman-farmer, Bathsheba Everdene, who remarks: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Through Wessex, Hardy would bring the plight of the agricultural poor to the attention of his London-centric middle- and upper-class readers, opening their eyes to the fascinations of a world outside their knowledge and experience, and challenging what he would call, in a piece he wrote for the popular London Longman’s Magazine in 1883 on ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’, the view from the ‘Olympian heights of society’.

Wessex also gave Hardy scope to expand on what lay at the heart of his politics – the individual differences that flourished away from what he saw as the homogenising tendencies of London and which for him were leading to such regrettable changes as the rural working class exchanging their colourful clothes for drab London fashions: ‘Like the men, the women are, pictorially, less interesting than they used to be. Instead of the wing bonnet like the tilt of a waggon, cotton gown, bright-hued neckerchief, and strong flat boots and shoes, they (the younger ones at least) wear shabby millinery bonnets and hats with beads and feathers’ (‘The Dorsetshire Labourer’).

Like the philosopher and Liberal MP John Stuart Mill, for whom Hardy had the greatest admiration, considering his 1859 treatise On Liberty, particularly his chapter on ‘Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being’, to be one of ‘his cures for despair’ (Life and Work), Hardy believed that the well-being of the country could be gauged by the number of people who were able to defy convention and think for themselves. Indeed, one of the reasons Hardy gave for returning to the South West was precisely that he thought his writing was becoming, as he put it, ‘mechanical and ordinary’ in the metropolis (Life and Work).

Hardy was a self-declared Liberal.  Siding with the marginal and oppressed, and lending public support to Liberal attempts to enfranchise the rural poor in the 1880s, one can speculate that, in today’s climate, he may have voted Green, given his commitment to the importance of place and environment and his life-long championing of animal welfare – ‘What are my books but one plea against “man’s inhumanity to man” – to woman – and to the lower animals?’ (William Archer, Real Conversations).

At Exeter this week we are launching the Thomas Hardy and Clothing prototype online resource, which my PhD student Jonathan Godshaw Memel and I are working on in collaboration with Dorset County Museum, supported by current and recent Exeter students, including PhD graduate and Honorary University Fellow Dr Demelza Hookway  (the database has been funded by the Annual fund). Clothing is crucial in Hardy’s fiction for indicating a character’s profession, social and economic status or role, for bringing colour to local scenes, for indicating moods and character, and for expressing but often subverting custom and transgressing gender norms.

Bathsheba flouts Victorian convention, not least dress code, by not riding side-saddle in the opening scenes of Far From the Madding Crowd, when she also allows her hat to fly off, in disregard for propriety: ”It went over the hedge, I think,” she remarks. She is often associated with the colour red, which signals her feistiness – she wears ‘a rather dashing velvet dress’; on another occasion Hardy points out ‘the red feather of her hat’.

The database will show for the first time what such attire looked like and by whom it was worn, providing a further insight into the politics and social complexities of Hardy’s Wessex that continue resonant in the twenty-first century.

When Far from the Madding Crowd was released earlier this month Professor Richardson appeared on the Today programme speaking about Hardy and the West Country. She also has a letter in this week’s Times Literary Supplement on Hardy’s politics.

Professor Richardson is giving a public lecture on Hardy at Dorset County Museum on 28 May 2015 and a research paper on Hardy and the scientific imagination for the University College London Science and Literature Seminar Series on 2 June 2015 .

How we can break free from sexism in science

The peer review process is a cornerstone of academic research but what happens when the system experiences a widespread bias which threatens to damage an academic’s research?

In this blog post, Environment and Sustainability Institute Research Fellow, Dr Amber Griffiths, looks in more detail about what happened when two women had their research paper rejected, based on a sexist review.

This blog first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo


Two women recently had their research paper rejected by a science journal based on an incredibly sexist review of their work – an event that has caused outrage on social media. While the journal, PLOS ONE, has apologised and given the authors a second chance, not everyone is as lucky.

The case provides an opportunity for journals to adopt an open peer-review system – a process in which scientists evaluate the quality of other scientists’ work – so that reviewers cannot hide behind anonymity. But it also shows it is time to get tough on the widespread biases in universities.

Peer-reviewed publications are the main currency for academics. It is through such publications that academics tell the world about their latest research findings. Decisions about hiring – and academic career progression – are also made largely on an academic’s publication record. The main purpose of peer review is to act as quality control, making sure the work is technically sound before a paper is made available to the public.

Peer review is clearly something that we need to get right. Ask any researcher though, and you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t had an unhappy review experience.

Unreported numbers?

Occasionally we see dramatic examples of malpractice. In the most recent case, a paper that investigated gender biases in academia based on a survey of PhD students in the life sciences was rejected by PLOS ONE on the basis of a single review. The review was a tirade of undisguised sexism, which suggested that the authors had misinterpreted the results because they are women. It concluded: “It would probably also be beneficial to find one or two male biologists to work with … in order to serve as a possible check against interpretations that may sometimes be drifting too far away from empirical evidence.”

In this case, multiple aspects of the peer-review system failed. The academic editor assigned to the paper was an immunologist, whereas the paper was in the social sciences, bringing into question the editor’s expertise and ability to choose suitable reviewers. Another problem was that only a single review was obtained – usually two or three reviewers are sought to try to obtain balance. It also seems that the editor had not carefully read the review and/or paper, as the review was forwarded without criticism. The editor’s rejection note read:

The qulaity (sic) of the manuscript is por (sic) with issues on methodologies and presentation of resulst (sic). A precise bibliographic search will be useful to improve the manuscript. A clear summary of the issues concerning the quality of this manuscript is given by one reviewer.

Rightly, the journal has issued an apology, the paper is back under review and the original editor and reviewer are no longer on the books.

There may be a number of unreported cases out there.

But while this case was corrected, many are not. A similar level of online rage was directed at the Royal Society which earlier this year awarded only two of 43 fellowship grants to female applicants. By their own admission, this bias appears to be getting worse each year.

The bigger picture

These recent examples speak of gender biases that are routinely found in academia, whether in grant allocation, hiring, mentoring, reference letters, salaries, invited journal articles or even student feedback.

We also know that gender biases are only the tip of the iceberg – in particular remarkably little attention is given to racial discrimination. There are substantially fewer studies on racial bias in academia, but there are similar examples of dubious peer review and there is evidence of racism in article citations and willingness to mentor students simply based on name.

We must use these cases to look at how we can improve the situation. Many journals (including PLOS ONE) operate a single-blind review system where the reviewer can see the authors’ names, but the authors never see the reviewer’s name. In some disciplines double-blind review is standard, where the authors’ names are hidden from the reviewers.

This approach does address some of the problems, but in practice it is often possible to guess who the authors are. Some journals now offer open review, where reviewers sign their comments with their name and/or the review is made publicly accessible. A further step still is to have post-publication review, where all articles are first published and then peer review occurs in public. Indeed PLOS ONE recently announced that they are aiming to move towards open review.

Besides innovations in the peer-review system, we must also all look in the mirror. The system is made up of individuals. It is us who are biased. Studies show that women are no less likely to discriminate against women – and those of under-represented races are no less likely to have racial biases.

Cognitive biases are so numerous and universal that at the very least we should make ourselves aware of how deeply they can run. Online tests of implicit bias are a great way to start gaining some self-awareness. Institutional training and national programmes to address biases will undoubtedly also help.

In academia, strong hierarchies and nepotism compound problems associated with biases. For faster change, each and every one of us need to act as exemplars – admitting to our own mistakes, calling out those of others and monitoring biases in journals and institutions.

The stakes are higher than most of us realise. Biases in academia distort research outcomes – and can even damage human health. If we continue to ignore our biases then we will continue to stifle the insight we could be gaining from a more diverse set of collaborators. Ultimately we all suffer.

The Conversation

Amber Griffiths is Lecturer in Natural Environment at University of Exeter.

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