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Corruption at work – the exception that proves the rule?

Recent media coverage has highlighted that corruption in groups of people is an on-going phenomenon. The reporters at The News of the World were put under extreme pressure to bring in sensational stories to boost sales, and a culture had developed in which they resorted to acts that most people would regard as unacceptable. Not only that, the culture permeated throughout the entire organisation, allegedly from the chief executive and the editor-in-chief down.

Many of us know of someone who has cut corners or broken rules to meet business targets, be they time, budgetary or quality control. Pressure does not inevitably lead to a corrupt culture, but if other conditions are right (or rather, wrong), it can be a critical first step along the way. Once such behaviour has taken hold, it is difficult to root out, and is very likely to have disruptive consequences to a business and may affect its brand values.

But, is such culture exceptional? Previous research suggests that corruption in the workplace can occur when employees are put under pressure to meet difficult targets. And my research has shown that given specific conditions, pockets of corruption that contravene company norms and codes of ethics, can happen in any organisation and so is an ever-present and real business risk. Corruption, group behaviour, leadership and stress have all been studied in their own right, but my research brings these concepts together and focuses on small groups within organisations and the relationship between their corrupt behaviour and stress. Social Identity Theory (SIT) with its focus on both inter-group and intra-group behaviour provided a framework for the work.

SIT suggests that to support their group at such times, individuals who identify strongly with it (high identifiers) may be prepared to modify their behaviour. Although, people may find behaving in ways contrary to their normal inclinations stressful, SIT also suggests that high identification with a group can lower stress levels. What was not known was whether these previous findings would apply in the case of corruption, and whether stress is a factor in these acts.

A series of experimental studies was conducted in which the participants had the opportunity to behave corruptly. The results demonstrate that in all cases, this opportunity was taken, whether the participants were students or senior business executives. High identifiers behaved more corruptly than low identifiers and they experienced less stress.

SIT also suggests that effective leaders identify highly with their groups, are considered prototypical members, and so influence their groups’ behaviour. An important finding from this new research was that a leader’s influence extends to corrupt behaviour, implying that where a group operates with norms that are unique to it, the leader must be a fully accepted member of the group. Thus, leadership is contextual and corrupt group behaviour depends on a corrupt leader.

However, it may also be the case that the formal leader of a group is not, in actual practice, the leader in specific situations. The findings of my research showed that appointed leaders did not always influence the behaviour of the team members: in such cases, the participants were talked into corrupt or unethical behaviour by another member of each group. Such leaders not only behaved more corruptly than non-leaders, but they also both influenced and encouraged such behaviour in their team members. Non-leaders followed leaders in corrupt behaviour, even against their personal inclinations.

Although in general women were found to behave less corruptly than men, the behaviour of women leaders was not significantly different from other participants under normal conditions. However, under pressure for their teams to do well, they cheated more, particularly where the issues involved were ‘soft’ unethical ones, rather than where the answers were clear cut: to cheat or not to cheat. Qualitative analysis showed that corruption in groups is accompanied by rationalisation, but that there is no gender difference in its use. Group members accepted explanations suggested by their leaders, in order to justify their choices and decisions.

Therefore, although the initial trigger for corrupt behaviour may be pressure, when group identification is strong in a team, and conditions present the opportunity, corrupt behaviour may occur even without pressure. My research shows that it may even be fun!

So, although The News of the World is in the media spotlight at the moment, as an example of corrupt behaviour in groups of employees, this will not be the last: we only need to think of Enron, WorldCom, Siemens, our own MPs’ excessive expense claims, to mention a few, to remember that such behaviour is not exceptional.

Posted by Dr Katie Porkess (The Business School)

“The riots: A mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar” (Discuss)

Any Politics student from the 70s or 80s should recognise one of Jeff Stanyer’s favourite exam quotes. Events in London on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights were just that. Familiar: the usual refusal of government to accept any link between policy and violent reaction. The unfamiliar: the tactics and mode of organisation used.

Back in 1980 and 1981, the same old excuses and explanations emerged. Firstly, when in doubt, blame the police. They got the Scarman inquiry, which was predicated on the fact that they had done something wrong and something had to be done to put it right. Even then, there was no attempt to distinguish between what caused the riots and what occasioned them. The occasion for the riots to kick off was a misunderstanding over what the police were doing to a person injured. They were actually trying to help him, but the rapidly gathering crowd assumed that they had injured him. Rumour ruled.

What caused the riots was increasing disgruntlement with the position of what we now call the underclass, but then called the lumpenproletariat [a dangerous Marxist word not to be used after 1985]. A large proportion of this group happened to be Afro-Caribbean, so questions of racism were also involved. The police are the representatives of the state with which people come into contact on the street, and so are most likely to have confrontational contact (although people at the benefits offices also have a tale to tell).

Explanations of rioting were examined in John Benyon’s book, Scarman and After (Pergamon 1984), in particular by Stan Wilson. He argued that there were a number of ideological explanations. Revolutionaries weren’t interested in responding to riots, seeing them as proof that their dream of the final collapse of capitalism was taking place. Imagine if they had, as today, been able to watch riots plus a collapsing stock market. Unconfined joy!

Liberals (Taylor included social democrats in this category) see riots as an indicator of malfunctioning institutions, so the solution is always to be found in tinkering with the system. Sound familiar? Tuesday night the brighter politicians were saying how disgraceful it was, how brave the police were, but the riots were definitely an indication that Scarman hadn’t solved everything, that there was still racism and that Tory (sorry; ConDem) cuts were falling hardest on the rioting communities and youth who had had hope rudely snatched away from them, in the form of the EMA, SureStart, tuition fees etc etc.

Conservatives are living in the best of all possible worlds, so rioting has to be explained in a different way: it’s a conspiracy! They’re doing it for gain. They’re irrational. They’re doing it for fun. Or they’re copycats.

Conspiracy theorists have always argued that rioting will go away once the “leaders” are identified and locked up. Today we have a new version of this: it’s the technology. Lock up Blackberry! Suspicion of the new media, social networking sites, Twitter, Facebook etc can be indulged by Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and turned into the argument that the internet needs policing. Look: it’s causing riots now!

The neo-liberals who have replaced the old conservatives understand the idea of doing things for gain, but it’s not a strategy for the lower classes, old boy. Both agree, though, that deterrence is the only possible answer… but the neo-liberals think that what you have to do is make the price of being caught higher than the gain to be obtained from looting. So fines, confiscation of assets. But unfortunately the perpetrators here don’t appear to have any money… Very well… take away their benefits! The old conservatives believe in locking them up. Problem is that the prisons are full, so where are they going to be put? The police, as personified by their blogs, believe that the problem is that the rioters know there is nothing that they can be punished with and that here lies the nub of the problem.

The big difference from the riots of the 1980s lies in the copycat riots in other cities. Whereas the riots in Liverpool took a familiar path, mostly confined to Liverpool 8, those in Birmingham and Manchester moved out of the ghettoes of Handsworth and Moss Side and attacked the major shopping centres. This is a clear escalation, and has led some commentators to write of the “shopping riots”. Very much a case of rioting for gain and a step in a dangerous direction.

Irrational? Well that can only be dealt with by superior tactics. Prevent crowds gathering, Contain crowds, or kettle them, rely on intelligence and tension indicators and go for water cannon and CCTV to put them in jail afterwards. Same problems as above. Monitor Twitter, Blackberry Messenger and even send warning messages using the same technology as the youth.

Doing it for fun??!! This is a version of irrationality, but somehow involves drug-taking and returns to the war on drugs, but without any resources for rehabilitation. Sir Herbert Gusset would teach them that fun it certainly isn’t.

Copycats? Simple. We just need to control the Media. It’s this 24 hour news business. They’re just doing it so they can watch themselves…and there were people on Tuesday night waving at the cameras… “Hello, Mum!”

We have been here before. The answer will ultimately emerge as a mixture of technology, tactics and institutional reform. The big difference this time is going to be: no money. Maybe some for the police, but times are hard. It will be difficult to blame police leadership because most of them ended up resigning over hacking. There really isn’t anyone left to fall on their sword. Enter an American Police Chief, stage left?

Posted by Bill Tupman (Honorary Research Fellow, Politics)

Photo courtesy of Chris JL.

Milgram’s obedience experiment 50 years on: the banality of evil, or working towards the Führer?

Stanley Milgram and his 'shock generator' machine

Stanley Milgram and his 'shock generator' machine

Almost exactly 50 years ago, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on a programme of research that was to change our understanding of the human propensity for evil forever. Participants in the research came into his laboratory at Yale for what they thought was a study looking at the effects of punishment on memory. Does a person learn better if they are punished every time they make a mistake?

To help the experimenter investigate this question, participants were placed in the role of teacher and asked to administer an electric shock to a learner every time he recalled the wrong word from a previously learned list of work pairings. The shocks started at 15 volts but increased every time an error was made, going right up to 450 volts — well beyond a point that would be lethal.

In fact, the learner was an actor who was an accomplice of Milgram and the shocks were not real. But the teachers did not know this. Indeed, the question that Milgram was really investigating was how willing the participants would be to go along with the experimenter’s instructions. Would they stop administering shocks at 75 volts (when the learner let out a cry of “Ugh!”) or 150 volts (where he demanded to be let out, because his heart was starting to bother him), or at 300 volts (where he let out an agonized scream and refused to answer any more)? Thinking about it, how far would you go?

As every student who has just completed their psychology A-level knows, around 10% of participants in Milgram’s baseline study stopped at the 300-volt mark. (90% continued beyond this point. Indeed, a full 65% continued administering shocks right up to the 450-volt point. In other words, they displayed total obedience.)

Milgram’s research is phenomenally important because it shows that normal decent people can engage in acts of extreme cruelty when they are instructed to do so by others. When psychiatrists and members of the public were asked what proportion of people would go to the 450-volt mark they tend to say something like 1% — assuming that only a sadist or a psychopath would go this far. In this, Milgram saw his studies as supporting Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil” — a concept developed upon observing the trial of the architect of the Nazi’s “final solution”, Adolf Eichmann. This suggests that terrible events like the Holocaust might occur because people were concerned more to do their bureaucratic duty than to question the ends towards which that bureaucracy was working.

Milgram’s empirical contribution is as important today as it ever was. Recently, though, historians and psychologists have started to question whether his work has been correctly interpreted. In this regard, in my research with Steve Reicher at the University of St Andrews we have argued that participants’ identification with the experimenter and with Milgram’s scientific project was central to their willingness to administer shocks to the learner.

Rather than simply obeying orders, participants were thus “working towards the experimenter” — working creatively to do what they thought was right with reference to an identity that centred on their belief in the value of science. This process mirrors that of “working towards the Führer” which the historian Ian Kershaw argues explains the dynamism of the Nazi state and the brutality displayed by its functionaries.

All in all, this new understanding suggests that decent people participate in horrific acts not because they are mindless functionaries who do not know what they are doing, but rather because they come to believe — typically under the influence of those in authority — that what they are doing is right. In these terms, the Milgram studies are not about obedience but about leadership. The key question they throw up is not why participants show blind obedience (they don’t) but why they identify with the authority (the experimenter) rather than with the victim, and hence are willing to follow him down the destructive path he sketches out.

Of course, this same question is sadly pertinent to an array of atrocities we see in the world today: the abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib, genocide in Darfur, phone hacking in News International. In all these case, followers proved willing to work towards their leaders not because they were thoughtlessly obeying their orders but because they were responding creatively to the goals of a leadership with which they identified. In all these cases the search for precise orders proves futile, and rather misses the point that brutalising regimes are advanced by engaged followers, not passive zombies. The source of evil is not in the banal workings of passionless bureaucracy, but in the delineated content of a shared identity (a sense of ‘us’ that has no place for ‘them’), which empowers leaders and mobilises followers.

Posted by Professor Alex Haslam (Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology)

Nationalists pose bigger threat than al-Qaeda

Contrary to popular belief, most terrorist attacks in Europe are the work of extremist nationalists.

Anders-Behring-Breivik-007With the death toll nearing 100, Anders Behring Breivik (pictured right) has been arrested and charged with Norway’s worst act of terrorism. His lawyer has indicated that Breivik had planned the attack for some time and would explain in court on Monday why he thought his act of terrorism was necessary.

After a predictable and revealing knee-jerk response by security experts interpreting the massacre at a Labour Party summer camp on Utoya island and a car bomb attack on a government building in Oslo as the work of Muslims inspired or directed by al-Qaeda, it transpires that the real culprit in the case was more likely to be motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.

Significantly, early reports reveal Breivik’s admiration for bigoted groups such as the English Defence League and Stop the Islamification of Europe, which campaign against Muslims and the building of mosques. Similarly, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in Holland appears to win Breivik’s approval because it seeks to protect Western culture from a growing threat of so-called “Islamification”.

While we must await the outcome of police investigations and court proceedings before reaching any firm conclusions about Breivik’s motivation, it will nevertheless be instructive to begin an analysis of a violent extremist nationalist milieu in Europe and the US, and its dramatic shift towards anti-Muslim and Islamophobic thought since 9/11. To be sure, this will certainly be more relevant than an analysis of al-Qaeda terrorism.

At the outset, however, Breivik may have to explain to outsiders why he did not choose to bomb a mosque instead. Surely, for the violent nationalist confluence he represents, that would have been a direct hit on the enemy. Instead, by choosing to attack a government building and a Labour Party summer school, Breivik is drawing attention to what many fringe nationalists see as the political failure of mainstream and left-wing politicians to confront the Muslim threat. So-called appeasers of the “Islamification of Europe” have become as hated as Muslim activists and therefore face the same kind of attacks.

Terrorism is propaganda, not just violence

In addition, Breivik can claim to have followed a long tradition of terrorism target selection that is intended to send a strong message to politicians in an attempt to persuade them to change policy. As leading terrorism scholar Alex Schmid reminds us, terrorism is a form of communication that “cannot be understood only in terms of violence”. Rather, he suggests, “it has to be understood primarily in terms of propaganda” in order to penetrate the terrorist’s strategic purpose.

Breivik appears to understand Schmid’s analysis that terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda. “By using violence against one victim,” a terrorist “seeks to coerce and persuade others”, Schmid explains. “The immediate victim is merely instrumental, the skin on a drum beaten to achieve a calculated impact on a wider audience.” This is certainly the kind of rationalisation that perpetrators of political violence have adopted in many contexts in pursuit of diverse political causes for decades.

Many extremist nationalists in Norway, the rest of Europe, and North America will be appalled by Breivik’s resort to terrorism and in particular his target selection. However, Breivik is likely to argue that he has sent a powerful and coercive message to all politicians in the West that will help put the campaign against the “Islamification of Europe” at the top of their agenda.

Crucial, therefore, for Breivik that he should explain his purpose as publicly as possible so that it is not misunderstood or misinterpreted. He is therefore very likely to want the widest possible audience to know why he has chosen to adopt the established tactic of terrorism so as to win an opportunity to deliver a political message. His innocent victims, he might think, are necessary collateral damage in a war that has to be won.

Breivik may hope that others will take inspiration from his act and seek to emulate him. Terrorism may be repulsive to many who share Breivik’s bigoted anti-Muslim views, but it is a tactic that only requires a small number of adherents to achieve its purpose, whatever the cause. So if even only a handful follow his route, Breivik will count that as a success.

Whether he was acting alone or in concert with others, Breivik stands apart from a significant number of other violent nationalists in the West who share his hostility towards Muslims – but whose plans to commit acts of terrorism have so far failed to reach such deadly fruition. Breivik, by contrast, has demonstrated the skills that are necessary to plan and execute acts of terrorism of any kind, especially crucial when bombs and firearms are involved.

Nationalist terror plots in the UK

In the UK, for example, there have been important convictions in recent years of violent nationalists before they have been able to carry out terrorist attacks.

Robert Cottage, a former British National Party candidate, was jailed in July 2007 for possessing explosive chemicals in his home. The cache was “described by police at the time of his arrest as the largest amount of chemical explosive of its type ever found in this country”.

Martyn Gilleard, a Nazi sympathiser, was jailed in June 2008 after police found nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his apartment, as well as a note in which he had written: “I am so sick and tired of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back … the time has come to stop the talk and start to act.”

Then there is Nathan Worrell, a “neo-Nazi described by police as a ‘dangerous individual’, who hoarded bomb-making materials in his home, and was found guilty in December 2008 of possessing material for terrorist purposes and for racially aggravated harassment”.

And one Neil MacGregor pleaded guilty to “threatening to blow up Glasgow Central Mosque and behead a Muslim every week until every mosque in Scotland was closed”.

As Mehdi Hasan, editor of the New Statesman, has pointed out, figures compiled by Europol, the European police agency, suggest that the threat of Islamist terrorism is minimal compared with “ethno-nationalist” and “separatist” terrorism. According to Europol, in 2006, one out of 498 documented terrorist attacks across Europe could be classed as “Islamist”; in 2007, the figure rose to just four out of 583 – less than one per cent of the total. By contrast, 517 attacks across the continent were claimed by – or attributed to – nationalist or separatist terrorist groups, such as ETA in Spain.

More recently, on January 15, 2010, Terence Gavan, a former soldier and British National Party member, was convicted of manufacturing nail bombs and a staggering array of explosives, firearms and weapons. It was, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said, the largest find of its kind in the UK in modern history. The fact that David Copeland used nail bombs to deadly effect in London in 1999 makes this an especially disturbing case. Gavan had previously pleaded guilty to 22 charges at Woolwich Crown Court:

“Police discovered 12 firearms and 54 improvised explosive devices, which included nail bombs and a booby-trapped cigarette packet, at the home Gavan shared with his mother. He told detectives he had ‘a fascination with things that go bang’, the Old Bailey heard. After the case, head of the North East Counter Terrorism Unit David Buxton said Gavan posed a significant risk to public safety. ‘Gavan was an extremely dangerous and unpredictable individual,’ he said. ‘The sheer volume of home-made firearms and grenades found in his bedroom exposed his obsession with weapons and explosives … Gavan used his extensive knowledge to manufacture and accumulate devices capable of causing significant injury or harm.”

Unlike Lewington, Gavan is reported as having specifically Muslim targets in mind. In particular, he is reported to have planned to “target an address he had seen on a television programme that he believed was linked to the July 7 bomb attacks in London”. In one hand-written note he explained: “The patriot must always be ready to defend his country against enemies and their governments.” Again, like Lewington, he would have posed a threat to Muslim communities throughout the UK, especially those areas such as Bradford and East London most popularly associated with large Muslim populations.

Finally, it is only necessary to recall the circumstances of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to be reminded of extremist nationalists’ bomb-making capacity and target selection. Timothy McVeigh was able to utilise skills and contacts he acquired in his US military service to build and detonate a bomb that killed 168 victims, injured 680 others, destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, shattered glass in an additional 258 nearby buildings, and caused at least $652m worth of damage.

With minimal help, McVeigh was able to inflict more harm and damage with one bomb than four suicide bombers in London operating under an al-Qaeda flag in London ten years later.

Significantly, McVeigh attacked a federal government building for reasons that will make perfect sense to a number of violent extremist nationalists – most especially Anders Behring Breivik.

Posted by Doctor Robert Lambert (Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies)

This post was first published at

Graduating isn’t the end of your time with Exeter – you’re now part of our alumni

Watching everyone graduate this week has brought back loads of great memories of my own Exeter graduation a few years ago, from Floella’s enthusiastic embrace and encouragement and her never-ending smile, to the panic everyone has as their name is read out to go up and see her – will I be the one to trip-up in front of hundreds of people? Should I have worn heels? (I should say that I’ve never actually heard of anyone falling over while meeting Floella!)

There’s always the worries that accompany being seen in public with your family and about how your robe will look. And then there’s the weather to consider – we’re never guaranteed sunshine during the summer in the UK, even if Exeter normally does pretty well for it. It’s been a mix this year, but we’ve had some good sunshine, and even when it’s rained it hasn’t dampened spirits.

But all those worries melt away after Floella’s greeting, and once you’re out of the hall you can relax a bit, enjoy the Pimm’s tent and the College receptions across campus. It’s a wonderful chance to introduce your family to the close friends you made while you were here – and for them a chance to put faces to names at last. Celebrating together is wonderful, even if it can be a little poignant at times, coming to the end of an era.

I loved my time at Exeter so much that I now work here, and seeing the other side of graduation I realise how much effort the University puts in to make it such a special occasion. It’s a time of year that staff love too – watching students who have worked so hard really celebrate and mark their achievements. The atmosphere across the campuses during the whole week is terrific.

In Alumni Relations, where I work, it’s my job to make sure that though you may have graduated you never really leave the University community and the friends you made here behind. We look after a community of over 75,000 people in more than 170 countries. Our alumni include internationally-recognised businesspeople and lawyers, inspirational politicians and teachers, and critically-acclaimed journalists and artists. Every year we run a host of events to keep our alumni in contact with each other, from academic lectures on specific subjects like science and technology, to quiz nights and meet-ups for drinks in London pubs. Our next one is on August 4th – come along if you can make it!

So though you may have graduated this week and be heading off into pastures new, you’re still a big part of the University. If you want to find out more about how to stay in touch, have a look at our website or join us on Facebook, and be sure to let us know what the future holds for you.

Posted by Rachael Magee (English and Film, 2008; Development and Alumni Relations Office)

Regional science research collaboration


The other Friday (July 8th) a group of academics and PhD students from our College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences came together with similar groups from the universities of Bath and Bristol, along with industry representatives, to discuss a new partnership and idea that we’ve been considering: a graduate training alliance.

This mixed group of physicists and engineers had two things in common; firstly, a shared interest in physics-based ‘-onics’ – photonics, plasmonics, magnonics, spintronics, electronics, etc (hence the name Onyx), and secondly, a desire to engage more effectively with, and prepare our PhD students more effectively for, business and industry.

We have three aims for our nascent alliance: to bridge the innovation gap between universities and business more effectively in order to benefit the economy, to offer students a richer PhD experience and better preparation for entering the workplace after graduating, and to provide a forum for developing regional research collaborations.

The day was effectively a brainstorming session; after a presentation from Myrddin Jones of the Technology Strategy Board (“Funding for innovation is complex. We need to build a more effective environment for innovation & reduce risk for business in research”) we split into four action groups and discussed the issues and how the Onyx alliance might address them.

Discussion was lively and several important topics were brought up. These ranged from timing issues for PhD students, to confidentiality needs of the industry partners, and the inherently different needs and ideas of universities and industry – for example, PhD students like the idea of two month internships, while business would prefer them to last closer to two years. Likewise industry also wants to recruit students who are broad, flexible, with transferable skills, and who can apply themselves to a range of tasks and areas; PhD-level research necessarily focuses people very tightly – are these incompatible?

Over lunch we had an extended poster session from the PhD students, which enabled a more detailed discussion of the findings presented than is normally the case at workshops. The afternoon saw us delve more deeply into the idea of stakeholder engagement and industry relations, before summing up and deciding what the best way to move forward might be.

With the aim of getting things going as quickly as possible we’re already talking about running a conference event in the Autumn term so we can start to develop just what the Onyx graduate teaching alliance can and should offer.

Most of all we want to see how we can develop added value by bringing the Universities closer, in conjunction with forging stronger, relevant relations with business.

Posted by Professor Bill Barnes (Professor of Photonics, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences)

New group spearheads innovation in Exeter

ExIST Launch BB MP sm

I’m pleased to be able to tell you that the University of Exeter is supporting ExIST – the Exeter Initiative of Science and Technology, a new scheme spearheaded by the Exeter Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is also supported by Exeter City Council.

The initiative brings together a number of leading technological businesses from across the city, including Flybe, South West Communications, Graphic PLC, South West Metal Finishing, Landmark, TCL Global, the Met Office, Select Statistics, Sands Engineering and Ashwoods Automotive.

We’ll be looking to increase interaction and communication between members so that we can identify supply chain opportunities and raise awareness of Exeter’s position as a leading centre for science and technology.

ExIST’s chair, Robert McIlwraith, said ‘Exeter has a wide range of businesses that are working at the forefront of innovation: the ExIST group will not only heighten awareness that these companies already exist in this area, but will push this to the next level by encouraging high business growth in this industry and incoming investment to Exeter’.

The initiative will also be working with education providers to ensure that their students are equipped with the skills needed by business, which will improve job opportunities for young people in the city.

Around 100 members of the business community attended a lunch event to launch the initiative, organized by Exeter Chamber of Commerce and Industry, at the city’s Southgate Hotel last Friday (July 15th).

With work progressing well on the Exeter Science Park, another key citywide project the University is involved in, it’s an exciting time for science and technology based businesses in Exeter.

If you’re a local science and technology focused businesses and want to find out more about ExIST, please email

Posted by Sean Fielding (Director of Research & Knowledge Transfer)

Pictured are (left to right): Sara Randall Johnson, Flybe; Martin Kadhim, Ashwoods Automotive; Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter; Robin Jackson, Innovation Centre; Derek Phillips, Exeter Chamber; Sean Fielding, University of Exeter

Studying sea star sperm in Sweden

boy-urchinsHow many people would travel to one of the most beautiful coastal tourist destinations in northern Europe, at the height of summer, and spend three weeks sitting in a 10 degree cold room with their eyes glued to a microscope? Not many, I’d guess, but it’s exactly what I’ve done by visiting the Kristineberg Marine Station in Sweden.

I’ve swopped my tent on the Arctic ocean for another wonderful place to come and work, but yet again am nose to a microscope all hours of the day. Most of the world’s top marine biology stations are set in truly beautiful surroundings, but are generally full of people far too busy working to get out and enjoy the surroundings properly.

The Kristineberg Marine Laboratories, part of Gothenburg University, is situated in a really pretty part of the Swedish fjords, and is a fantastic place to come and do marine research as it has wonderfully clean seawater and an amazing array of marine species live here. I’m here to continue my ocean acidification research, looking at how the change in seawater pH caused by increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere might affect the reproduction of small marine invertebrates, or more specifically, how it might impact the performance of their sperm.

Marine invertebrates makes up over 80% of the oceans biodiversity, and many of these small creatures reproduce by simply shedding their eggs or sperm straight into the water, often in synchronised spawning clouds, so that fertilisation happens ‘by chance’ in the open sea. This is often referred to as a fertilisation ‘lottery’, as the chances of sperm and egg meeting seems so small, yet these small animals have adapted to maximise the chances of this happening in numerous clever ways.

One such adaption shared by many species is the ability of the sperm to sense the egg and then swim towards it. But, how might a change in pH affect this swimming ability? That’s the main question I’m asking with my research, and I’m looking at a whole range of animals to see how their sperm ‘performance’ might be affected by future ocean conditions. By measuring sperm swimming speeds, respiration, and viability of sperm under future ocean conditions, I’m giving the sperm a future health check. So I’m basically doing the kind of tests that an IVF clinic would do, except on mussels and sea stars under future ocean conditions!

So how do you get a mussel or sea star to spawn and provide the valuable sample to be analysed? Well actually it’s pretty easy; most marine invertebrates store their eggs and sperm for a while before spawning, so that they can all release them at the same time and increase their odds in the fertilisation lottery. They then use a number of environmental signals to tell them all when to spawn, so all you have to do is mimic these signals to get them to spawn in the lab. Normally a good shake to mimic the tide coming in and some warmer seawater is all they need, but we can also use a small hormone injection to start spawning for some species. Sperm have a pretty short life span so it’s a mad dash to get as many measurements made as possible. I’m finding different species are showing quite different responses to the ocean acidification conditions, and it’s now my aim to understand why this is.

This kind of information will add another important piece to the puzzle in terms of our understanding of climate change impacts in our oceans, and really help us understand which species are going to be most susceptible to ocean acidification and which ones might be less affected. I have a lot of sperm to count and analyse for now though, whilst gazing out the window at the beautiful fjords. Still at least it’s not -40⁰C this time, and I can go and jump in the sea at the end of the day.

Posted by Dr Ceri Lewis, NERC Research Fellow (College of Life and Environmental Science).

Follow Ceri’s updates from Sweden via her Twitter feed @CezzaLew

Exeter nominated at PraxisUnico Impact Awards


Dr Dawn Scott, Research Development Manager for the College of Engineering, Mathematics, and Physical Sciences in Research & Knowledge Transfer, and David Billington, of Great Western Research (GWR), a project promoting innovative research collaborations between University groups in the South West and businesses across the UK, were both nominated at the recent PraxisUnico Impact Awards.

PraxisUnico is an educational not-for-profit organisation set up to support innovation and commercialisation of public sector and charity research for social and economic impact.

Dawn was nominated because of her work developing the University’s contract research portfolio and leading on a number of high profile environmental knowledge transfer initiatives. GWR was nominated in the collaboration category for its outstanding success in bringing together different research groups and institutions with businesses to promote economic growth in the South West.

Dawn said: “It was great to be nominated for the KT Achiever of the Year award, and to enjoy an evening of good food, company and thought provoking speeches at the PraxisUnico Impact Awards dinner in Glasgow. I may not have won, but at least I got to meet Maggie Philbin!”

Find out more about the GWR project at their website.

Posted by Nick Southall (Research & Knowledge Transfer).

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

I spent yesterday afternoon (Saturday 5 February) taking in the Chinese New Year celebrations across the city as the year of the rabbit began.

Starting at the Buffet City restaurant at the top of Fore Street, a procession featuring a giant traditional Chinese Dragon and an energetic traditional Chinese Lion, plus dozens of dancers and musicians, worked its way up to Bedford Square in Princesshay, before heading for the recently-completed new Business School building.

At the new Business School building there was an even grander Dragon and Lion dance, plus a wealth of indoor activities (this is the South West, after all, and one needs to plan for inclement weather – which we luckily avoided for the most part!), from Chinese food to face-painting (allegedly for the kids, but I saw some suspiciously older-looking painted faces), plus origami, Tai Chi, Chinese knots, Chinese tea-making, and much, much more. The day was rounded off with a spectacular fireworks display and a Chinese variety performance at the Northcott Theatre.

Professor Neil Armstrong, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International), gave a short address highlighting the increasing importance of Exeter’s Chinese community to both the city and the University. It’s worth noting that the entire event was presented by the Chinese Student Scholars Associations (CSSA), whose volunteers did everything from the impressive Dragon and Lion dancing to manning stalls, ushering the audience, painting faces, and, well, everything else.

A big audience in the city centre swelled through the afternoon to become several hundred strong by the main procession outside the new Business School building (the whole of the new plaza area between Streatham Court and XFI was thronged with people, and the inside activities were very busy at the same time), and included students both international and domestic, and University staff and their families. People directly connected with the University through work or study were far outnumbered, though, by members of the local community; a heartening sight which really reinforced the things Professor Armstrong had said about the value our Chinese students bring to the wider city as well as the University itself.

I can’t praise the enthusiasm, friendliness, and energy of our Chinese student community enough. My friends and I had a great day, thanks entirely to their efforts, and I’d thoroughly recommend going along next year if you can; I know I will be (for the pork dumplings as much as the Dragon and Lion dancing!).

Check out pictures from the day in this Flickr group that anyone can add to.

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Posted by Nick Southall (Web Team)