Monthly Archives: June 2016

The West’s Christian world view is a hindrance to peaceful co-existence

Professor David Horrell, Professor of New Testament Studies in the College of Humanities and Director of the Centre for Biblical Studies discusses the overlaps of race and religion. He goes on to explain the complex ways in which they are linked and the risks that these connections may pose.

This post first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo

David Horrell, University of Exeter

How do you identify yourself within the human race? Religion and ethnicity may both play a part, and at first glance seem to be distinct categories. We may think of religion as a choice we make freely, whereas our ethnicity or race is stamped at birth. But there are complex overlaps between these elements.

What is the connection, for instance, between being Christian and being British or English? In his 2016 Easter address, the British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of the British values he sought to defend as “Christian values”, and of the pride we should feel that Britain is “a Christian country”.

In doing so he connected Britishness with being Christian. It is therefore no surprise that a recent report, which highlighted the overlaps between race and religion in the UK, suggested that some religious groups and communities suffer forms of prejudice and exclusion that “prevent them from seeing themselves as belonging fully to the national story”.

Religion and ethnicity, race, or nationhood are linked in complex ways. The most prominent conflicts in the contemporary world are ones in which religion and ethnicity (or nation, or race) are connected, whether we think they should be or not. White, Western, and Christian are often set in opposition to brown, Arab, and Muslim.

Conflicts of identity. Shutterstock

But this is not a particularly modern phenomenon, and ancient texts are important in understanding the roots of these issues. The Bible in particular and its (mostly Western) interpretations can be implicated in constructions of identity in both religious and ethnic terms.

Scholars often depict Judaism at the time of Christian origins as an exclusive, particular group identity. Judaism is seen as a kind of ethnicity or race from which others were excluded, despite evidence that Jews were often socially integrated into their wider societies and also welcomed sympathisers and converts of various kinds to join them.

These scholarly caricatures of Jews helped to generate violent anti-Semitism, a form of racial and religious prejudice, that most horrifically enacted in the Holocaust. By contrast, Christianity is frequently depicted as a universal, all inclusive movement which welcomes all people, from all races and backgrounds. The Apostle Paul declared: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). This sounds rather like the welcoming, universal message of tolerance and acceptance that modern liberals like to reiterate.

But there is another side to this appealing message, just as there is when Cameron praised freedom and tolerance but insisted that Britain is a Christian country. Saint Paul’s basis for acceptance and belonging demands an allegiance to Jesus Christ. Early Christians, like Jews, described their group identity in ethnic or racial terms. They saw themselves as brothers and sisters, descendants of Abraham, following a common way of life, raising their children in a “Christian” way. They identified themselves as a particular “people” in a world of sinful “pagans”. It is no coincidence that a sense of identity as a Christian people often combines aspects of religious, ethnic, and national characteristics.

Both early Jews and early Christians, in other words, saw themselves as a particular kind of “people”, even though they articulated this in different ways. When Christian interpreters ignore this similarity, and instead depict Judaism as exclusive and closed, and Christianity as all embracing and inclusive, they (perhaps unwittingly) reflect and reinforce the imperial ideology of the white, Christian West. Everyone can live peacefully and tolerantly together, as long as it is under the umbrella of the system of values and practices that we determine and impose – often with overwhelming military power. Religious mission and imperialism stand awkwardly close together.

Unifying? Shutterstock

In the study of race, “whiteness” came to attention only relatively late. Being “white” was, in a sense, the unnoticed, unremarked kind of racial identity – precisely because it was the dominant, default perspective, from which “others” were observed. But what that in turn reflected was the dominant position of the white population, whose racial identity did not need, it seemed, to be examined. Yet such a masked, assumed position of domination was (and is) precisely at the heart of the problem of race and racism.

A similar presumption of dominance that operates in the case of whiteness often also operates in the case of “Christianness”. It is, in effect, the white Christian West which sets the parameters within which others may find their place. It does this, all too often, in ways that conceal the fact that this is a white, Christian programme, which requires others to accept its framework, values, and commitments, or – despite its stress on freedom and tolerance – face its uncompromising force.

Until we can find better paradigms for peaceful coexistence, is it any wonder that those from other ethnic and religious backgrounds feel their own values and identity are being compromised in the process?

The Conversation

David Horrell, Professor of New Testament Studies, University of Exeter

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

Waking up to epilepsy

The University of Exeter Medical School’s Waking up to Epilepsy event took place in  2016; in this review of the day, Dr Bill Vennells gives us an overview of what took place at the event; including knowledge sharing between attendees and presentations.


Awake! For morning in the bowl of night

Has cast the stone that puts the stars to flight.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Waking up to epilepsy

We do wake up to the topic before coming on a course, at first a rather dim awareness that one could know more about the subject.  We draw on stored memories and knowledge.

There were eighty of us in the lecture theatre, nine GPs. We started with a run through the causes and types of epilepsy, generalised or focal, different anatomical sites.

A video from the 80s: German medical students squat, hyperventilate, and then stand up to induce epileptiform seizures in a significant percentage of them. We noted it was a sign of the times that we probably could not expect modern medical students to do anything like this, even while the Daily Mail complains about “political correctness gone mad.”

Non epileptic attacks

Videos of epilepsy and nonepileptic attack disorder demonstrated quite violent movements and sounds which were a bit alarming but also educational. We were invited to consider the fundamental question of whether the patient is “present” or not.

It turned out on a show of hands that 50 per cent of the audience had suffered from another cause of loss of consciousness: syncope. An ignoble episode from my past when I found myself face down on a toilet cistern flashed through my mind: micturition syncope.

Syncope is sub-classified: reflex (situational), orthostatic (volume depletion /autonomic), cardiac, structural (cardiac valve disorders / cardiomyopathy/ pulmonary embolism), or miscellaneous (hypoglycaemia/ pseudosyncope).

Some very practical nuggets of information included the fact that a cut tongue favours epilepsy rather than syncope. Counter-intuitively incontinence of urine can occur quite commonly in both. You do not see cyanosis in vasovagal syncope but you do in syncope associated with arrhythmia. The importance of ECG monitoring in suspected syncope with arrhythmia was emphasised. There is a particular condition where bradycardia can occur during seizures.  A pacemaker should be considered if the heart is beating so slowly that it causes any distress.

A “syncope or seizure” game broke up the presentation.

Captain Barbossa

We apparently share with the pirate Captain Barbossa the spirit behind: “the (Pirate) Code is really what you might call Guidelines”. It appears that if NICE suggest scanning then we do so.  However when scanning may not really be necessary we can rather disingenuously interpret the code and justify a scan to assuage our anxiety.  Not exactly the same motives as Captain Barbossa however.

The presentation on scanning was quite technical, giving an insight into what goes on behind the scenes before reports are generated. The images themselves were interesting, and the concepts of hypertrophic dysplasia and focal cortical dysplasia were worth considering, not being phrases that we often used in our applied fields.

The coffee break was welcome, having assimilated a lot of information. The multi-disciplinary quality of the day now came into its own, our name badges proclaim our respective roles.

Knowledge sharing

I talked to someone from the Royal London Hospital, where I did my training.  He was a volunteer who spent time with patients after their consultations. They often had not understood everything, had misconceptions and anxieties.

I also talked to a pure scientist whose work involved manipulating the chromosomes of fish to induce convulsions, then investigating the effects of anti-epileptic drugs.  Apparently fish are a bit more ethically acceptable then mice and yet do you have metabolism in common with us. I suppose there’s an equation of maximising animal welfare versus benefit to patients, a whole other area of debate.

Refreshed, we return to a presentation by Epilepsy Nurses.  They are a valuable resource in short supply who have a very significant clinical and decision-making, as well as supportive and educational, role.

Patients’ experiences

The nurses’ presentation included patients’ experience, the important issues of transport, IT access of information, and finding one’s way around the benefits’ system. A patient in the audience expressed how crucial the nurses’ contribution had been to her. I felt more patient input would have added value to the day.

The keynote speakers took us back to first principles, starting with my A-level physics, and reminding me of medical school subjects. The knowledge was still there, having been applied in different ways over the years. It is good to be reminded that there is a logical basis for our pragmatic work. It helps the thinking process to go back to these principles.

We covered the basis of wave theory and neurological synapses. The EEG tracing it is not like an ECG – it picks up patterns of oscillations detected on the surface of the scalp from within. Different regions of the brain share information. Similar patterns of oscillation demonstrate areas of the brain that communicate with each other. The thalamocortical system is involved in generalised convulsions, which nevertheless start from a focal point, the focal seizures OFTEN start in the hippocampus.

Brain networks

We were introduced to brain networks: in effect wiring diagrams of brain connections, some being long range connections.

The functional MRI scan also measures activity of networks as do other scanning methods. There are correlations between signals from different brain regions.

A mathematical equation can reproduce the tendency to seizures, a hyper-excitable focus producing a seizure pattern on mathematical modelling, either at foci of the equation or by modifying connections between them. Humbling, to see an aspect of our experience reduced to a quite simple equation.

EEG patterns also obey the rules of graph theory, another mathematical concept. First degree relatives of sufferers show similar patterns. Patterns can predict epilepsy, in silico diagnostics, a possible prognostic tool.

A welcome lunch break, excellent catering, the support to the day was well organised. I found myself in the queue with the patient who had expressed appreciation of the Nurses’s role, and heard about the impact on her life. She appreciated the GPs’ role, but found consultations had to be very focused and could have a sort of clipped, moving-on quality. This is useful learning too, necessary to hear.

Non Epileptic Attack Disorder

Non Epileptic Attack Disorder is associated with past traumas, learning difficulty, and social learning. Traumas are remembered at a muscular and emotional level. They occur because of four Ps:

  • Predisposing: perhaps a strong drive to succeed, plenty of that among us, it was suggested.
  • Precipitating trauma: physical and psychological disaster.
  • Perpetuating: pressing on regardless, for example.
  • Protecting: the other side of the equation, supportive social networks. When things go wrong they can be disrupted though, and isolation aggravates the situation. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

There followed a presentation on EEGs, alpha – fastest, beta, theta and delta – slowest rhythms.

Brain maps are coloured representations of rhythms and are more attractive to those of us who are put off by the conventional wavy lines, but sadly are not so practically useful.

There are quite specific clinical implications and uses apart from the type of epilepsy. The elderly patient who is a bit confused with a preponderance of delta waves is probably hypoxic and needs oxygen. The EEG is a biomarker for types of epilepsy. However it is not very specific: 0.5 per cent of normal adults have ictal changes that falsely suggest epilepsy, nor is it very sensitive: the EEG can be quite normal in a person who suffers epilepsy.

More nuggets of information. A dyscognitive seizure state exists where a patient can obey simple commands and speak. Infantile spasms are a variety of seizure occurring at three – six months of age, that delay a child’s development, as does childhood absences, even though the latter are otherwise benign.

We saw a video of a childhood breath-holding attack, to contrast with epileptic seizures.


A neuropsychiatrist took us from the earliest antiepileptic drug – bromide, from the time of Queen Victoria – to the present panoply of dozens of medications. Barbiturates were also one of the earlier treatments.

This certainly makes sense to me. When I was training as a student you could probably memorise all the anti-convulsant medications. Nowadays that is quite impossible. They literally range from A to Z in the alphabet. From Acetozolamide to Zonisamide. Many are also mood stabilisers, particularly type 2 bipolar disorder where episodes of depression are more prominent. Broadly they fall into two groups, the Gamma Amino Benzoic Acid (GABA) AGONISTS and the anti-glutamatergic drugs.

Dostoevsky suffered epilepsy, and described a state of calm, serene knowledge that can precede convulsions in some, a type of aura. He also suffered a gambling addiction, which is associated with epilepsy, described in his novel, The Gambler.

Depression is also associated with epilepsy. Just as in non-epileptic patients, if antidepressants are used they should continue for at least six months after a first episode, and twelve months after a second one.

We were told of a distressing condition, forced normalisation. In this situation when convulsions are controlled, psychosis occurs, so a choice between uncontrolled fits or psychosis has to be made.

I was really surprised to learn that the earliest versions of the drink Seven-Up contained the mood stabiliser Lithium.

Channel blockers

The concept of channel blockers, gated channels between the inside and outside of cells was presented to us. Sodium, calcium, and potassium atoms all go through these different channels. The concept of physically blocking a channel at a microscopic level is quite remarkable to reflect on. Nature has a way of countering what we do. Drugs that block these channels are opposed at microscopic level, and so become less effective after a while.

NICE guidance recommends treatment for more than one convulsion, or after one convulsion with an abnormal EEG, abnormal imaging, if the patient is at increased risk of convulsions or if there is neurological deficit after a fit.

It seems monotherapy is the best policy, increasing the dosage to the maximum. If the patient is not fit free then a second drug is to be added. The first drug can then be tapered off if this is possible without convulsions occurring

If there are no fits for two years and there is a normal MRI scan, then treatment can be tapered off.

We were reminded that carbamazepine and sodium valproate can reduce serum sodium levels.

Cytochrome 250 enzymes break down and eliminate medications after they’ve done their work. Anticonvulsants really speed up that process, so the liver gobbles up and chucks out anticoagulants, antibiotics and oral contraceptives. We need to be aware of increased dosing and monitoring in these situations, as I suspect the General Medical Council has explained to more than one doctor. I’d rather hear it from Exeter University. In the opposite direction, painkillers and the universal panacea alcohol decrease the fit threshold, another nugget of knowledge to keep the patients and ourselves out of harm’s way. Sodium valproate in particular is associated with neural tube defects, the higher five mg dose of folic acid is necessary in pregnant women or those planning a child, and the issue should be raised with all couples of child-bearing age.

Epilepsy savvy

The “Wake Up to” Exeter teaching is wide-ranging. There were light-hearted apologies for the presentation on syncope, as that this is not actually epilepsy. However I really value the fact that the presentations covered general medicine, psychiatry and pharmacology. That is certainly of value for those of us in primary care. Taking us through to the present state of knowledge from first principles is also very useful. We are now epilepsy-savvy. We go out armed with a better understanding in the world of diagnosis and treatment, paraphrasing Omar Khayyam:

“Awake my little ones and fill the cup

E’re life’s liquor in it’s cup be dry.”

Hooligans and terrorists: the lethal dual threat facing French police

With Wales and England meeting on the pitch this afternoon, 16 June 2016, fans have been urged to ‘behave responsibly’.

Mr Bill Tupman, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Politics department, looks at terrorism, hooliganism and the role of the French police.

This first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo


Bill Tupman, University of Exeter

As Russian, English, Slovakian and Welsh football fans converged on Lille, and warnings of further violence cast a shadow over Euro 2016, a police officer and his wife were murdered by a man claiming allegiance to Isis, in Magnanville, west of Paris.

French police with limited resources have to take decisions about prioritising anti-hooliganism measures or anti-terrorism measures. In the background, protests against Hollande’s labour law measures also demand a police response. With crowds ebbing and flowing, a sophisticated strategy is required to keep Euro 2016 spectators safe while preventing a lone wolf attacker or a terrorist cell sneaking under the radar and creating another Bataclan atrocity.

Knowing that the Abdeslam cell targeted a football match at the Stade de France simultaneously with the attack on the Bataclan concert, police managers will have been prioritising preventing suicide bombers from entering the stadia in which the Euro 2016 competition is being held, as well as “fan zones” which provide terrorists with other targets.

Paris tributes.

So who does pose the greatest threat? The hooligans or the terrorists? The answer appears obvious. Terrorists kill more people than football hooligans, don’t they? But policing football grounds is a delicate business and can have political elements. The Hillsborough inquests have only just finished in the UK, ruling that 96 people died as a result of poor policing decisions in April 1989. These decisions were made by a police force that had become focused on crowd control rather than crowd safety during the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 and led to a cover-up that has only now been exposed.

At the Heysel stadium in Belgium in May 1985, 39 people died and 600 were injured, as a result of what was perceived as a failure to segregate fans properly. In February 2012, at the Port Said stadium in Egypt, 74 people were killed and 700 injured in a riot. The El Ahly fans who were the victims were supporters of the Tahrir square protests, and conspiracy theorists accused the police of deliberately facilitating the attack on them. Both fans and police officers were tried and death sentences on 11 of the accused were confirmed in June 2015.

So football violence can, in fact, lead to death tolls as high as those caused by terrorist attacks. It can also have a political dimension. Violence between Russian and Ukranian fans in present circumstances, would not be a surprise. On the whole though, violence between supporters of the top club sides has a largely ritual element and is confined to confrontations between the hard core fans themselves.

It is supporters in the lower leagues who can be more indiscriminate, attacking bystanders and using weapons. These supporters are also more likely to turn up for national team games. More violence is likely away from home and for this reason, countries such as the Netherlands ban away supporters from matches where trouble is anticipated. But international competitions such as the European and World Cups are both away from home and give the supporters from lower leagues a chance to make a name for themselves.

Fighting violence

Violence between supporters is now more likely outside the stadium than inside. Private security and police are much more successful at keeping weaponry from getting in and this effect is doubled by counter-terrorist strategies and searches. The Marseille attack by Russian supporters on English supporters at the end of the match is an unusual event and may reflect the machismo of the Russians, shunning weaponry and relying on martial arts training.

Lille has experience of English supporters. Everton fans claim to have been attacked by local hooligans in October 2014, prior to a Europa Cup match. The story is now a familiar one. An attack on a bar by an organised group using chairs as weapons. Locals will play a part if violence does develop, engaging in traditional tactics of provocation, hoping to cause conflict between larger groups of fans from overseas and then intervention by the police. The banning of alcohol sales by shops and supermarkets is not going to change the tactic of attacking fans inside and outside bars.

Lille has previous.

From a police viewpoint, terrorism and hooliganism are equally dangerous. The story in the media on day one is always: “Horror: people hurt and some die”. On day two, it is: “Police fail to prevent atrocity”. In translation: they knew it was going to happen and did nothing to prevent it. Some blame the media for sensationalising hooliganism. It has been suggested that Russian hooligan tactics follow Putin’s foreign policy approach of attacking and then retreating.

The Russians are counterclaiming that the UK press is trying to get the World Cup taken away from Russia in 2018. Meanwhile, the French police have to do their best to keep everyone safe. Fortunately, keeping surveillance on the crowds, bars, stadia and fan zones works as well against terrorists as it does against hooligans.

The Conversation

Bill Tupman, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Exeter

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

Let’s not get confused about this: Orlando was a queerphobic attack

Dr João Florêncio, Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture in the College of Humanities, reflects on the tragic queerphobic shootings in Orlando.

This  first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo



João Florêncio, University of Exeter

In the immediate aftermath of the worst mass-shooting in US history, debates in the media are already focusing on what to call the tragic event. Was it a queerphobic attack, yet another instance of Islamist terrorism targeting “the West” – or simply the case of a man who, in the words of his ex-wife, was “mentally unstable”?

Contributing to the heated debate, the father of the shooter told NBC News that his son was “enraged” after seeing two men kissing in front of his family a few months ago. The public discussion eventually escalated to spectacular proportions in the UK when Guardian journalist Owen Jones walked off the set of Sky News, outraged at what he saw as the unwillingness of Mark Longhurst and Julia Hartley-Brewer to accept it as a queerphobic attack.

Let us, however, call the tragic event for what it was: an attack on Orlando’s queer Latinx club night, Pulse. Regardless of the allegiances the shooter might have pledged, this was, without a shadow of a doubt, a queerphobic attack.

When the lives of a specific group of the population are targeted purely on the basis of their sexual, racial and/or gender identifications, we are talking about a hate crime. And hate crimes must not be co-opted into dominant logics of “us versus them”. This simply serves to feed dominant and dangerously simplistic views of a world that, in positing the “free” West against an “oppressive” Islam, conveniently overlook its political complexities and nuances.

Stigmatising mental health disorders

Other prejudices have surfaced: principally the issue of whether the shooter was mentally “unstable”, as his ex-wife suggested in an interview. Reproducing, without questioning, such a portrayal of the attacker as “a normal being that cared about family” only to then be found to be unstable and “bipolar” is problematic in several ways.

Reducing such a heinous crime to an issue of mental health stigmatises people all over the world who have been struggling with mental illness. Further to that, it also glances over the problems associated with standards of “normality” and the enduring regimes of oppression and segregation that a politics of the “normal” always requires, whether consciously or not.

But perhaps most importantly here, it also uses “mental illness” to cover up all the ways in which queer people have historically been disciplined and controlled by the heterosexual establishment and its definitions of what is “normal” and/or “acceptable”.

This is not to claim that Mateen was not suffering from mental illness. Instead, what I believe is important to stress is that the boundaries between “normality” and “abnormality” are always defined in a social landscape that is always already political. And that, similarly, the power structures that allow an individual, regardless of their mental health state, to target and kill members of a social minority are the same power structures that have, for centuries, operated to classify, discipline, tame, control and, in some cases, even “heal” the bodies of those who identify with that minority.

Mourning queer lives

This leads me to my second and final point: whether the lives of those killed at Club Pulse should be mourned as queer lives or simply as “human” lives. Claiming, like many have been doing, that those were, first and foremost, “human” lives and only then accidentally queer, is yet another example of the complexities of LGBTQIA+ politics in the West.

We are living through a time when the transgender homicide rate has hit an historic high in the US, when more than 1,700 murders of transgendered individuals were reported around the world between 2008 and 2014, and when North Carolina passed a law banning people from using government-owned bathrooms that don’t match the gender they were assigned at birth.

Meanwhile, in Britain, we are still being denied free access to PrEP, a new treatment to prevent HIV infection. Let’s not forget that gay men are still rejected as blood donors and LGB youths are four times more likely to attempt suicide.

So it is telling that it only takes a brown, (supposedly) Islamist “terrorist” for queer lives to suddenly be worth mourning publicly as “human” lives. What this reveals is how the net worth of queer bodies changes depending on who or what threatens their existence, how queer lives are only grieved for when threatened by someone with an even less grievable life – in this case, a brown Muslim.

As philosopher Judith Butler has noted, “[the] differential distribution of public grieving is a political issue of enormous significance”.

It is for this reason that today – in the aftermath of the mass shooting – we must reiterate the queerness of our dead brothers and sisters and refuse to have their lives strategically turned into disembodied, undifferentiated and abstract “human” lives in the name of the “War on Terror”. Only when we do this will we be able to stress that the difference that made those bodies targets in Orlando is the same difference that makes queer people look over our shoulders and fear for our lives on an almost daily basis no matter where we are in the world.

The Conversation

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

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

Using the UK research base to make better policy

As MPs express overwhelming willingness for academic “match-making”, to better inform policy making, our blog investigates the importance of a dialogue between the worlds of research and government..

Professor Andrew Thompson is an Executive Officer for AHRC

Professor Andrew Thompson is an Executive Officer for AHRC

This post was written by Executive Officer of the Arts and Humanities Research Council  (AHRC), Professor Andrew  Thompson and Gareth Davies, Director General for Business and Science, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills; it first appeared on the Civil Service Quarterly blog.


Gareth Davies, Director-General for Business and Science in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, and Andrew Thompson, Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, discuss how academic research can inform better policy-making.

The UK’s world-class science and research base is one of our most valuable resources. In our country’s universities and research institutes, we have experts across the disciplines. We have seen the benefit policy-makers can get from engaging with academics, and are working to build better links between them*. As the emphasis on open policy-making in the Civil Service grows, it’s important that we make better use of the help that they can provide. The barriers between the two worlds of research and government can seem daunting, but dialogue is becoming easier all the time.

Tackling the big issues

Academia has a huge amount to offer, particularly when the issues are new or complex. Here are just a few recent examples.

First, the 2014 floods in the Somerset Levels raised a host of urgent practical issues for the Government.

Ministers needed assurance that everything possible was being done to manage the effects that a prolonged ‘conveyor belt’ of rain fronts had had on the region.

Within 48 hours, the Government Office for Science convened the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to support COBR decisions. It contacted specialists with the most up-to-date expertise on pumping and flood management, as well as the effects of floods on the soil structure and physical infrastructure, like bridges that were never designed for an onslaught on this scale.

One flooding expert, Professor (then Doctor) Hannah Cloke, was authorised by Reading University to join the government team for several weeks. She worked side by side with them to ensure that ministers had the real-time advice needed, and provided crucial expertise to help brief the media at a time of intensified scrutiny.

Secondly, when the Cabinet Office and Joint Intelligence Committee wanted a deeper understanding of the Arab Spring, they turned to arts and humanities researchers to provide it. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) helped find the expertise they needed. The council’s project was set up following the 2004 Butler Report into the Iraq war. It served as a basis for a series of briefings to intelligence analysts.

A piece of work by Timo Behr looked at perspectives behind the response to the Arab Spring. He highlighted the need to revisit assumptions on the internal cohesion and unchanging nature of Arab regimes, and the growing force of extra-parliamentary opposition that sometimes bridged secularist and Islamist groups.

Finally, when departments were working to develop the Government’s productivity plan ahead of its publication in July 2015, one of the National Academies, the British Academy, helped by bringing policy-makers together with some of the UK’s leading economists to address aspects of the ‘productivity puzzle’ in a roundtable event. This highlighted issues including the crucial role of women in the economy and the productivity lost due to women working in lower-paid or part-time roles.

Working with academic experts

How to get started? The traditional points of access to the world of academia, publications and commissioned research remain important.

For example, Gareth found Philip Gummett’s history, Scientists in Whitehall (1980), immensely useful in getting to grips with the issues relating to government investment in science and research. The world of policy delivery has changed beyond recognition since its publication, but many of the basic challenges remain the same. The book details the complex history of institutional change at the interface between research and government, helping frame issues that were explored once again in Sir Paul Nurse’s 2015 review of the Research Councils.

Government sponsorship of formal academic research programmes still has the power to drive a fundamental change in thinking. Everyone now thinks about regional policy in terms of ‘agglomeration effects’ – the economic benefits that come when people and businesses cluster together. This hasn’t always been the case. Our current focus on regional growth is partly the offspring of work carried out by the London School of Economics’ Spatial Economics Research Centre, which was initiated by the Department for Trade and Industry in the 2000s.

Making contact

Commissioning new research can take time, and may not always be necessary. More often, a synthesis of the work that is already out there is needed.

We have always been struck by how generous academics can be with their time. Just calling and having coffee with a leading academic can be incredibly helpful. With funding allocation for universities now linked to demonstrable impact for their research, researchers have a bigger incentive than ever to get involved.

Convening groups of experts can also be particularly powerful. As Gareth found in his time at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, which regularly hosted seminars with academic specialists on issues including criminal justice, which, in turn, helped shape the Carter Review of prisons and probation.

Looking back

With increasingly rapid change and turnover inside the Civil Service, academic history is acquiring new importance, helping supplement the corporate memory with the study of policy from the past. It can clarify how we arrived at the situations we confront today, and provide insights from comparable historic situations.

New networks focused on history are developing fast. There was a time when government departments employed in-house historians. These have mostly gone, but different approaches are needed today in any case. The Treasury in particular has been working to establish better academic partnerships to provide a deeper evidence base. One partnership, with the Policy Institute at King’s College London, provides historically focused research and teaching on issues including the development of economic policy and the evolving role of the Treasury within Whitehall.

The Research Councils

The AHRC is one of seven Research Councils – government’s major partners in funding excellent research. Their networks embrace ground-breaking current research across all the academic disciplines. A recent review of the councils stressed the importance of building richer dialogue between these networks and government. With their great convening power, they are ideally placed to broker these connections. This can be a quick and cost-effective way of responding to evidence needs, if you are clear what the ‘ask’ is.

National Academies

Gareth’s Directorate-General in BIS part-funds the four National Academies: independent organisations whose fellows are elected in recognition of their world-leading research. The academies have a track record of major reports that have helped to take policy forward. Their location close to Whitehall allows them to host seminars tapping into deep expertise across the whole policy spectrum.

The Academy of Medical Sciences reviewed the regulation and governance of health research in 2011, and recommended a range of systemic improvements to streamline the way in which the UK initiates and delivers health research. This led to the creation of the Health Research Authority (HRA).

The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering jointly reviewed some of the scientific and engineering issues presented by fracking. They considered the geological risks, including groundwater contamination, and whether these could be effectively managed. In 2012, the Secretary of State for Energy announced that fracking could continue in the UK, acknowledging the review’s role in the decision.


It is not possible to do justice in a single article to the many routes into academia for those looking for the expertise available.

For instance, many universities have set up dedicated units to drive engagement with the world of policy – like the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Science and Policy or the History and Policy Network.

Departments’ own chief scientific advisers and independent science advisory committees are also an excellent starting point if you wish to explore issues internally.

These routes are proliferating, and the incentives for researchers to engage actively and effectively with government are stronger than ever. It is up to us as policy-makers to reach out and engage with this national asset.

 Contact details:

For inquiries regarding the AHRC, contact: 

For the Research Councils as a whole, please email: 

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* Gareth is responsible for the Government’s £5.8 billion budget funding scientific research and infrastructure, and Andrew heads one

Greener in Europe? Four reasons the EU can’t be trusted on the environment

In this #EUReferendum blog, Professor Steffen Böhm addresses the ways in which the EU cannot be trusted on the environment.

Professor Böhm is Professor in organisation and sustainability in the University of Exeter Business School.

This post first appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo


Steffen Böhm, University of Exeter

Those in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union – although strangely not the UK government’s official campaign to remain in – are increasingly highlighting the contribution Brussels has made to protecting the natural environment.

There is some justification for this. During the 1970s and 80s Britain was famously disparaged as the “dirty man of Europe”, a polluting nation only persuaded and coerced into cleaning up its act by a succession of EU regulations. A recent report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee argued membership had been positive for the UK environment and noted that “none of the witnesses to our inquiry, even those who made criticisms, made an environmental case for leaving the European Union”.

I’m not here to argue for Brexit. But the EU’s green record is hardly unblemished. Indeed, in several key areas, European policies have slowed if not reversed the UK’s progress on environmental protection. And a major new EU-US trade agreement just around the corner could threaten much of what has been achieved.

1. Climate change

The UK’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is significantly more ambitious than that required under current European rules. The EU’s pledge at last year’s Paris conference was modest enough that Britain had already effectively promised to cut emissions “at twice the rate of the EU as a whole”.

Given the privileged access that big energy and fossil fuel companies had to the EU’s top climate policy decision makers in the run-up to the Paris gathering, we shouldn’t be surprised by the underwhelming commitment. Should the UK vote to remain, its generous contribution towards Europe’s emissions pledge merely takes the pressure off other member states, resulting in no net global benefit. It’s a point raised in the Commons report itself.

2. Biofuels are not green

The EU is a big supporter of biofuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol. The European Commission’s website describes these fuels – manufactured on an industrial scale in Europe from crops such as rape, sunflower, wheat and maize – as “a renewable alternative to fossil fuels in the transport sector, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the EU’s security of supply”. The EU has set a target that by 2020, 10 per cent of the transport fuel of every member comes from “renewable sources such as biofuels”.

Don’t try this at home. aastock / shutterstock

Burning crops rather than petrol sounds like a good idea. However, these biofuels don’t actually do much to reduce overall emissions, once you take into account the extra land turned over to crop cultivation and the greenhouse gases used in fertilisers.

In addition, much of the biofuel used in the EU is imported from poorer countries, contributing to land grabbing in Africa and other places. Some experts have called this a new kind of biofuel-colonialism.

3. Cars over clean air

The EU’s support for the automotive industry further tarnishes its green credentials. Although Europe is to be congratulated for introducing tough vehicle exhaust emissions limits over the years, the cosy relationship with manufacturers when it comes to enforcement is hardly laudable. For decades carmakers – with Europe’s tacit connivance – have benefited from loopholes in testing procedures allowing vehicles onto the road which emit substantially more “real world” CO2 emissions than the rigged test cycles suggest.

During the Volkswagen emissions scandal documents emerged revealing how leading member states including the UK had just months previously lobbied the commission to carry over these dodgy rules into new test procedures coming in to force in 2017. If VW hadn’t happened, those loopholes may still have been in place.

4. TTIP trades protection for economic growth

But perhaps the greatest potential blot in the EU’s green copybook is its impending monster trade deal with the US. A series of bilateral trade negotiations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership aims to boost the economies of the EU and the US by removing or reducing barriers to trade and foreign investment.

The political establishment and large businesses across Europe largely support TTIP, but critics distrust the secretive process by which it is being hammered out. They’re even more concerned that the deal will negatively affect small businesses and water down a swathe of hard-won social, safety, democratic – and, yes, environmental – protections in the name of economic growth.

Greenpeace protests outside TTIP negotiations in Brussels, February 2016. Olivier Hoslet / EPA

Sometimes, as with diesel emissions, US environment standards exceed those of the EU. But it’s not the norm. With more than 60 per cent of all processed foods in the US containing genetically-modified organisms, American negotiators will be pushing hard to overturn the EU’s current ban on GM food imports, not to mention Europe’s strict pesticide rules and its favouring of the precautionary principle when it comes to assessing potentially toxic chemical substances, as enshrined in the EU’s REACH regulations

A confidential draft of a “sustainable development chapter” of the TTIP negotiations, leaked in late 2015, contained vaguely phrased and non-binding commitments. This is merely paying lip service to the environment.

The EU does have much to be proud of when it comes to environmental and social idealism – and it certainly talks a good talk – but recent history tells us that when the chips are down economic imperatives and big, polluting, businesses take precedence. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when the EU’s precursor organisation was founded in 1951, the environment wasn’t even mentioned. In those days it was known as the European Coal and Steel Community. What could be greener than that?

The Conversation

Steffen Böhm, Professor in Organisation & Sustainability, University of Exeter

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

What a Brexit would mean for Europe’s television channels

Professor Alison Harcourt is Professor of Public Policy, in the College of Social Sciences and International Studies. Her research specialism is regulatory change in communications markets. 

In this blog, Professor Harcourt looks at the way in which a Brexit might impact television channels.

This post first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo


Alison Harcourt, University of Exeter

The UK is an attractive base for broadcasting channels targeting other European countries. The domestic market is large, creative skills sets are high, and there is good availability of post-production facilities and satellite uplinks for broadcasters.

Yet, without Europe’s single market, these channels would not be able to operate across Europe. The European Union’s television regulation has consolidated the UK as a major hub for television services. A UK exit from the EU could pose problems for cross-border broadcasters who are based in Britain.

European television regulation began back in the 1980s when signals began to cross borders. Back in 1989, the European Community agreed on the Television Without Frontiers (TWF) Directive under its single market programme. This EU law was strongly supported by the UK under the Thatcher government. It enabled channels to broadcast to other European countries without being subject to local licensing rules. For example, Disney broadcasts to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria with licenses from the UK regulator, OFCOM.

The UK as a springboard

Many companies relocated or set up headquarters in the UK because the directive enabled them to take advantage of a British base and, at the same time, broadcast abroad. Sky relocated to the UK from Luxembourg in 1990. In 2003, the company launched Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland in 2009. Today, Sky broadcasts to the UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Austria with over 20m customers across Europe and employs 25,000 people in the UK and Ireland. It feeds the downstream sector in content production and hardware supply: the company Pace, which operates out of Salts Mill in Bradford, provides set-top boxes for Sky across Europe.

Sky’s move was followed by the establishment of other companies in the UK in the 1990s including a number of large operators with multi-channel packages such as AMC networks, Disney, Discovery, Turner, Viacom and Viasat. The Modern Times Group (MTG) currently broadcasts 60 channels in 36 countries from the UK. It is the largest commercial operator broadcasting in Scandinavia and the Baltics, and has broadcasting operations in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia and the Ukraine.

Former domestic providers such as the BBC and ITV now broadcast and provide programming across Europe. Today, the UK is a base for 1,523 out of 5,141 television channels operating in the EU, 65% of which target other EU countries. Many companies operate channels in different languages simultaneously such as AXN Europe (Sony), Disney, Discovery, National Geographic, Turner (Boomerang, Cartoon Network, TCN, TNT) and Viasat (Modern Times Group). Recent increases in the number of pan-European channels can be seen in entertainment, culture, child, sport and high definition services.

In 2010, Europe’s television directive was updated with the Audiovisual Media Services Directive to include other services, such as video-on-demand and catch-up services over digital terrestrial television, cable, satellite, internet protocol television channels or online. By 2014, 515 of the 2,563 such services on offer in Europe were operating out of the UK representing a 20% share of the market.

Controls on advertising

European broadcast rules mainly focus on advertising. Films, news and children’s programmes are limited to advertising breaks every 30 minutes and no advertising is permitted during religious services. Advertising is limited to 20% of programming time per clock hour and to not more than 12 minutes. European rules also permit teleshopping and product placement in films which used to be banned in the UK.

The UK also applies British rules to programming on top of EU regulation. For example, in the UK, there are strict rules on watersheds for children – meaning violent content can’t be shown before 9pm and alcohol advertising cannot be shown to audiences under the age of 18.

Don’t tempt the kids. urbanbuzz /

The UK also bans product placement of tobacco, alcohol, gambling, escort services or weapons. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar and medicines and baby milk are also not permitted in product placement. For example, an advert for McDonald’s would not be shown on a UK-based channel showing children’s cartoons.

Change on the horizon

The television directive is expected to be revised within the next two years. If the UK does vote to leave the EU, negotiations are likely to take two years, so the revision of the directive might possibly be decided during the UK presidency of the Council of the EU in 2017.

But the revisions might not be favourable to UK interests. For example, some European states want to introduce exemptions for channels broadcasting “hate speech”. This could be interpreted differently by member states particularly in central and eastern Europe which have historically had stricter interpretations than the UK. There could also be a change in location of regulation based upon editorial control which could affect operators such as MTG or AMC networks which take editorial decisions on programming in other European states.

Another exemption proposed by the Nordic states could introduce local licensing for children’s programming. UK based channels aimed at children could lose their UK licenses as a result which could make the UK less attractive as a base for companies’ operation. Another suggested change could introduce local licensing for children’s programming, making the UK less attractive as a base.

A UK vote to leave the EU might have negative effects on investment and capital flight with the departure of some broadcasters to other EU countries. At the same time, it could shift the forum for Europe-wide agreement on certain aspects of broadcasting policy, perhaps returning them to the Council of Europe, which used to be a key forum for agreement for common rules prior to 1989.

This article is co-published with the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

The Conversation

Alison Harcourt, Professor of politics, University of Exeter

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