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We're working on a more accurate pollen forecasting system using plant DNA

Author: Simon Creer, Professor in Molecular Ecology, Bangor UniversityGeorgina Brennan, Postdoctoral Research Officer, Bangor University

Hayfever.Alex Cofaru/Shutterstock

Most people enjoy the warmer, longer days that summer months bring – but plant allergy sufferers will have mixed emotions. Roughly one in five Europeans suffers from allergic reactions to tree, grass and weed pollen causing pollinosis, hay fever and allergic asthma.

Allergies to substances such as pollen are driven by errors in the body’s immune system, which means it mounts a response to otherwise benign substances from plants. On first exposure to pollen, the body decides if some of the otherwise harmless proteins in the pollen are dangerous. If it decides they are, the immune system produces immunoglobin E (IgE) antibodies in a process called sensitisation.

The next time the body is exposed to pollen, it remembers the proteins and mounts another response. The IgE antibodies detect the pollen in, or on, the body, and cause cells to release histamine and a variety of other chemicals. This results in symptoms ranging from itchy eyes and nose, to production of mucous, inflammation and sneezing fits.

But while we know that “pollen” causes this response, at present we still don’t know all the types of pollen that cause the body to react.

Forecasting hay fever

In the UK, a daily pollen forecast is generated by the UK Met Office in collaboration with the National Pollen and Aerobiology Unit (NPARU), to help allergy sufferers. This forecast is created using data from a network of pollen traps which operate throughout the main pollen season (March to September) and measure how many pollen grains are present on a daily basis.

Sweet vernal, an early flowering grass.Author provided

Pollen from different types of tree can be identified using microscopes, but grass pollen grains all look the same. As a result the pollen forecast for grasses (of which there are 150 types in the UK alone) is based on the broad, undifferentiated category of “grass”. That is despite grass pollen being the single most important outdoor aeroallergen.

We already know that different species of grass pollinate at different times in the year, and allergic reactions can occur at different times throughout the allergy season. What we need to figure out is whether allergies are caused by all species, specific species, or a combination of species of grasses. We also need to learn how pollen grains change in composition in time and space. While pollen is known for being very tough and is often well preserved in sediments, it can be very fragile in certain circumstances, such as bursting when in contact with rain drops.

To find out which grasses are linked to the allergic response, we need to know many things, such as where and when species of grass are releasing pollen. We also need to uncover how the pollen moves through the atmosphere, quantify the exposure of grass pollen species in time and space, and work out how allergies develop across broad geographical and temporal scales.

The #PollerGEN project

Our Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) PollerGEN project team is now working on a way to detect airborne pollen from different species of allergenic grass. We’re also developing new pollen source maps, and modelling how pollen grains likely move across landscapes, as well as identifying which species are linked with the exacerbation of asthma and hay fever.

We’re going to be using a new UK plant DNA barcode library, as well as environmental genomic technologies to identify complex mixtures of tree and grass pollens from a molecular genetic perspective. By combining this information with detailed source maps and aerobiological modelling, we hope to redefine how pollen forecasts are measured and reported in the future.

We have just started the third year of pollen collection and hope to road test the combined forecasting methods over the next year. In the long run, our vision is to be able to provide specific pollen forecasts for grass, and unravel which species of grass pollen are most likely causing allergic responses. More broadly, we also want to provide information to healthcare professionals and charities, who can translate this information to help pollen allergy sufferers live healthier and more productive lives.

In the meantime, if you suffer from pollen allergies, sneeze or wheeze during spring, speak to a doctor or pharmacist to prepare an action plan. You can also get support from Allergy UK, and information about the pollen forecast from the UK Met Office.

The Conversation

Simon Creer receives funding from the Natural Environment Research Council.

Georgina Brennan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Investigation gets underway over Carl Sargeant tragedy and Welsh first minister

Author: Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Law, Bangor University

The circumstances surrounding the tragic, untimely death of former Welsh Assembly member Carl Sargeant in November 2017 are yet to fully emerge. But now that the terms of reference for an independent investigation have been announced, it is hopeful that the truth will be uncovered.

But what will the outcome mean for Wales’s first minister Carywn Jones, in what is being portrayed as something akin to a trial of his actions?

On November 2, 2017, Sargeant – the assembly member for Alyn and Deeside – was sacked as the Welsh government’s secretary for communities and children. He was also suspended from the Labour Party, pending an investigation into alleged “unwanted attention, inappropriate touching or groping”. Five days later, he was found dead at his home in Connah’s Quay, Flintshire.

Since then there has been mounting pressure on the first minister to fully explain the events surrounding Sargeant’s dismissal. Sargeant’s family has claimed that he was deprived of justice and not informed of the details of the allegations against him.

Fellow AMs meanwhile have criticised the way Sargeant was dismissed – calling it“trial by media”. Others have gone as far as saying that Sargeant was bullied by the first minister’s office.

Jones claims, however, that he had no choice but to dismiss Sargeant based on the evidence he had received. Responding to further accusations of a “toxic environment” of bullying within the Welsh Labour party, Jones made a public statement in November 2017 – and referred himself to an independent assessment board. He also agreed to an independent inquiry into his actions.

Despite claims that the first minister caused the Sargeant family considerable distress, Jones has repeated that he has nothing to hide.

What to expect

Last week, the independent investigators, led by public lawyer Paul Bowen QC, announced their remit as being to look into Jones’s “actions and decisions in relation to Carl Sargeant’s departure from his post … and thereafter”.

It is important to note that this is an investigation, not an inquiry. Its legal authority comes from the first minister’s functions, set out in the Government of Wales Act 2006. This is rather than a formal inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.

This distinction means that the investigators will operate on a specifically tailored operational protocol basis, agreed by both the Welsh government and Sargeant’s family. These protocols set out the way information will be shared by the Welsh government and include a provision for confidentiality and the redaction of sensitive information from public reports. These exceptions are not too dissimilar to the restrictions on public access under the inquiries legislation.

However, unlike an inquiry, the investigators will not have the legal power to compel attendance of third parties, or the production of specific documents of interest. While the Welsh government’s permanent secretary Dame Shan Morgan has given reassurances that all staff will fully cooperate and provide all necessary documentation, this is not strictly a legal requirement for those outside the Welsh government.

The investigators have already made an open call for evidence and testimonies relating to events. This extends to the civil service staff– although there has already been concern over the way information is being collected and some of the new evidence that is emerging.

Inside the Welsh government

The most revealing aspects of the investigation are likely to come from the first minister’s communications – including messages sent using his private email addresses to cabinet ministers– which will give insight into the real climate within the Welsh government.

We are also likely to see extraordinary reports as Jones is questioned directly over his actions and scrutinised over his personal leadership and administration. The first minister has already announced his intention to stand down from the role, following his “darkest of times” in office. Nonetheless he has pledged to comply and see the investigations through to their conclusion.

Importantly, if reports that the claims made against Sargeant were aired publicly in the media– before he was given the details of them – are true, such a disregard for justice and due process would also likely lead to wider questions about the fairness of the first minister’s powers. Similarly, there will be concerns over the way allegations are handled within public sector organisations, as well as how the ministerial codes are enforced in Wales.

The Conversation

Stephen Clear does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Eight bedtime stories to read to children of all ages

Author: Raluca Radulescu, Professor of Medieval Literature and English Literature, Bangor UniversityLisa Blower, Lecturer in Creative Writing, Bangor University

Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

Speaking at the 2018 Hay Festival, His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman said: “To share a bedtime story is one of the greatest experiences of childhood and parenthood.” This couldn’t be more true. Besides helping sleepyheads absorb language through the familiar voices that nurture them, understand the complexities of their world, and the reasons behind their feelings, bedtime stories show how childhood can be the greatest adventure of all.

1. Toddle Waddle by Julia Donaldson

Age range: two to five years

Toddle Waddle, by Julia Donaldson.Macmillan Children's Books

Even the youngest child can engage with sound, colour and fun, and this book (illustrated by Nick Sharratt) is filled with bright joy and wonderful onomatopoeia. From the sound of flip-flops to the excitement of slurping a drink at the beach and the music made by different instruments, the sounds, then words, are a wonderful introduction to the intricacies of language.

2. Mr Men & Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves

Age range: three years+

Hargreaves’ colourful 2D characters behaving to type are a wonderful way to identify with basic emotions by interpreting colour as a feeling. As journalist and author Lucy Mangan puts it in her memoir Bookworm: “Of course uppitiness is purple. Of course happiness is yellow.” These are no fuss, easy to follow collectables – and bitesize too, so you can gobble through second helpings before turning out the light.

3. The Lorax by Dr Seuss

Age range: three to eight years

The Lorax, by Dr Seuss.HarperCollins

No child should grow up without The Lorax. They’ll never be the same when they’ve learned about the Swannee-swans, Humming fish, and Bar-ba-loots bears, their Truffula trees being cut by the mysterious and scruple-free Once-ler. While the environmental message of the book is even more urgent now than it was when The Lorax was first published in 1971, the story is just as entrancing, instructive – without preaching – and, above all, as hopeful as ever. A wonderful wise Lorax speaks for the trees, and for all the world’s children, who want to keep the future green.

4. My Big Shouting Day, by Rebecca Patterson

Age range: two to eight years

A funny picture book for younger readers that will resonate with many parents for its keen perspective on patience. It positively encourages under-fours to shout along with grumpy Bella who gets up on the wrong side of the bed. It shows the child that it’s ok to feel angry – heck, they’ll be a teenager soon enough – but it also gives them permission to express it, and reminds them that tomorrow is always a new day.

5. The Moomin books by Tove Jansson

Age range: three to eight years

The Moomins’ home, Moominvalley, is a place of wonder and fun, populated by fairy-like, round creatures that resemble hippopotamuses, but enjoy human hobbies such as writing memoirs (Moomin papa), making jam (Moomin mama), and playing make-believe (Moomintroll and Snork Maiden). Their adventurous side comes out at all opportunities, stirred by friends Little My and Snufkin, or by mysterious intruders.

First published between 1945 and 1970, in recent years the stories have been tailored for both younger (soft and flap books) and older children (hardback storybooks). The Moomin books tell dream-like stories while tackling questions about love, friendships, encounters with strangers, and so on. An all-round winner.

6. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice, by John Tenniel.Wikimedia

Age range: four to 11 years

The first true book written for children about children never fails to bewitch and baffle. Young Alice-like readers can explore the topsy-turvey Wonderland, while the grown-ups reading to them will appreciate the metaphorical Mad Hatter and role of the white rabbit as leader in the adventure in a way they wouldn’t have been able to as a child. Carroll’s book is a celebration of a child’s wonder and curiosity, and fears of growing bigger too. It invites you to talk dreams and nightmares, to accept the weird and extraordinary and, best of all, to conjure up your own adventure down the rabbit hole. It’s a rite of passage, ideal for sharing.

7. Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Age range: five to 12 years

In a world where comic book superheroes and heroines reign supreme, these legends can entrance a young mind forever. This selection of Norse myths brings all the gritty dark stuff about trickster Loki together with tales of hammer-wielding Thor, and the machinations of Asgardean king Odin and goddess of love, battle and death, Freyja. It tickles the imagination of the young and challenges the parent too. Fabulous illustrations by Jeffrey Alan Love accompany Crossley-Holland’s delightful retelling, bringing these ancient stories to life in a way that no other anthology has.

8. Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Age range: eight to 12 years

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl.Penguin Random House

This chocolate wonderland is the perfect read-aloud book, thanks to Dahl’s masterful use of the English language. Amid all the magic and invention is a wagging finger providing moral lessons on the perils of being greedy, or a brat or overly competitive – and that goes for the adult reader too. Thank goodness then for Willy Wonka, the man who really never grew up, and his band of oompa-loompahs who punish the bad, reward the good, then provide reason for it all through song.

In truth, there is no right book to share – there are plenty of them available these days – nor should there be any chronological order to how and what we read. These are just some suggestions on ways to make bedtime a little more magical. But never underestimate how marvellous it can be to reread a childhood favourite to the little one you’re now tucking in to bed. It could inspire a passion for reading and spark an interest that lasts a lifetime.

The age ranges used in this article are mostly based on interest and reading level ratings from Book Trust.

The Conversation

Nothing to disclose.

Lisa Blower does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

From Salad Cream to the Severn bridge, renaming is an emotive issue

Author: Sara Louise Wheeler, Darlithydd mewn Polisi Cymdeithasol (Cyfrwng Cymraeg)/ Lecturer in Social Policy (Welsh medium), Bangor University

Shutterstock

The American food giant Heinz sparked controversy with a recent proposal to change the name of one of its best known products. If it goes ahead, there will be no more Salad Cream in the world’s kitchens. We will have to make do with bottles of Sandwich Cream instead.

The argument for doing this seems logical enough – apparently only 14% of buyers actually use it on salads. This makes sense to me as a consumer, as I’ve only ever used it to make cheese and salad cream sandwiches – a favourite picnic treat in the UK.

But does it really matter what it’s actually used for? After all, it’s been called Salad Cream for more than 100 years since its launch in 1914. Heinz obviously thinks so, though perhaps it didn’t anticipate the depth of feeling which this proposed renaming would provoke.

On social media there has been outrage, disbelief, and comparisons made with previous renaming events – like when Marathon bars became Snickers, and Opal fruits gave way to Starburst.

The depth of feeling surrounding the renaming of these products is interesting to me as an onomastician– someone who studies names. As fellow onomastician Carole Hough explains:

Names are interesting for what they tell us about ourselves and about the people who share or have shared the world with us. The choices we make in giving names to our children, our pets and our homes reflect the things that are important to us.

Names are a phenomenon of interest, hiding in plain sight. They are at the heart of how we communicate with each other, and one of the first things we focus on when learning a new language.

That’s not my name

In my own research, I’ve discussed how I am often unwittingly renamed by strangers, who assume the English pronunciation of “Sarah” (pronounced Serruh), rather than the Welsh (and globally more common) pronunciation of “Sara” (phonetically Sᴂᴂ) with two hard “A"s and a rolling "R”.

While I have personally found this irritating, others have written more harrowing accounts of being renamed by teachers who don’t understand how languages other than English are written, with some letters having accents. María S. Rivera Maulucci, of Columbia University explains:

My parents gave me the name, María, and when I learned to write, my mother taught me to put a slanted line, not a dot, over the letter, i, in my name. Yet in school, what was a source of ethnic pride was erased. I distinctly remember my kindergarten teacher screaming at me: “That is not how you write the letter, i!” She made me erase the accent mark and replace it with a dot. That was when I became Maria.

Meanwhile, during a TV debate ahead of the 2017 UK general election, UKIP’s Paul Nuttall annoyed Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, by twice referring to her as “Natalie” in the space of 20 minutes. Speculation as to why Nuttall made this blunder ranged from confusing her with the actress Natalie Wood, and also the former Green Party Leader, Natalie Bennett. But many on social media saw it as evidence of a lack of respect towards women, in that he couldn’t tell them apart.

This was an interesting angle, since the general election ran parallel to the UK television broadcast of an adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood’s famous novel is the story of a dystopian, patriarchal future, where fertile women are enslaved as “handmaidens”, with every aspect of their former identities removed.

This includes their names, which are replaced by a patronymic made up of the name of their master and the word “of”, to indicate subjugation. The main character’s master is named Fred, so she becomes “Offred”.

A bridge too far

Another recent example of a controversial renaming proposal concerns the bridge in the UK which spans the River Severn – the Severn Bridge, or Pont Hafren, to give it its Welsh name.

Prince of Wales or Gareth Bale Bridge? How about leaving it alone?Shutterstock

This is an important distinction, because all names – whether for products, brands, bridges, or our own personal names – are words which reflect the cultures and languages from which they emanate.

As with all bridges, the Severn Bridge/Pont Hafren, has a foot on two banks. In this case, one in England and one in Wales. Objections to the renaming of the bridge therefore have a cultural and linguistic component, and are linked to the uneasy history between the constituent countries of the UK, particularly the oppression of the Welsh language.

The fact that the bridge will be renamed “The Prince of Wales Bridge” has further emotive connotations, due to the complex political tensions regarding the “British” royal family in Wales.

In response, more than 27,000 people have signed a petition against this new moniker. On the other side, newspaper columnist Rod Liddle reacted by directly attacking not only the Welsh people but also the Welsh language.

His comments were met with astonishment and disdain by the Welsh press and politicians, who pointed out the lack of accuracy of his throwaway comment that the Welsh language has no vowels. It has also been claimed that Liddle’s attack is tantamount to racism.

Then, following the sensational performance of Welsh footballer Gareth Bale’s at the Champions League final, a fresh petition was launched– calling for the Severn Bridge to be named after him instead.

As an onomastician, I will be following the Heinz salad cream debate with much interest. I am firmly in camp “remain”, as I have been on other recent issues, including the renaming of Pont Hafren.

But it is not the first time Salad Cream fans have been worried. There was an outcry in the 1999, when Heinz was reportedly considering calling a halt on production altogether. This generated so much publicity that Heinz relaunched Salad Cream the following year with a £10m advertising campaign. A similar end to this scandal would be a mouthwatering prospect for Heinz.


Read more: Why racism against Welsh people is still racism


The Conversation

Sara Louise Wheeler does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

An invasion of toxic toads threatens Madagascar’s vulnerable wildlife

Author: Wolfgang Wüster, Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Bangor University

Ben Marshall, Author provided

Madagascar is in the midst of a toxic invasion. Since around 2010, an army of invasive Asian toads (Duttaphrynus melanostictus) has gained a foothold in and around the eastern port of Toamasina after they were accidentally introduced from South-East Asia. This has dismayed conservationists who worry about the island’s already beleaguered endemic fauna.

Now, our worst fears have been confirmed by recent findings by a research team led by Bangor University masters student Ben Marshall and including myself. In our new study published in Current Biology, we show that most of Madagascar’s unique native wildlife can indeed be poisoned by the introduced toad.

Invasive species are one of the major drivers of extinction worldwide. Most impact native species by eating them (cats, rats), competing with them (grey squirrels in the UK) or altering local vegetation (rabbits, goats). Invasive toads, on the other hand, primarily affect native predators through their skin toxins, poisoning any animal that takes a toad into its mouth. “True toads”, of the family Bufonidae, synthesise potent toxins in large prominent parotoid glands on their backs. These “bufotoxins” impede the regulation of sodium and potassium levels in cells, leading to rapid heart failure and death.

Madagascar’s tree snakes are found nowhere else on Earth.M Vences, Author provided

Where toads occur naturally, some predators avoid them, but others have evolved resistance to their toxins, allowing them to routinely eat toads. Recent investigations have revealed the mechanism of resistance: two specific amino acid substitutions in the target molecule of bufotoxin, the ATPase sodium-potassium pump, are all that is required to change a dangerously poisonous toad into a potential meal. Remarkably, the same solution has evolved in a diverse array of species, from rats to lizards to the toads themselves, and this appears to be the only way for any vertebrate to resist the toads’ toxins.

The problem for Madagascar’s animals is they developed on an island with plenty of frogs but no toads. Native species therefore had no reason to evolve any resistance to toad toxins nor any sense that they should avoid toads.

Toxic toad making friends in a Madagascar village.Franco Andreone, Author provided

And when toads do invade these previously toad-free areas, it may result in mass mortality among some naive predators. For instance the infamous cane toad invasion of Australia caused larger apex predators, such as monitor lizards, some snakes and the marsupial quolls to become locally rare or extinct. This in turn affected numerous other species in the food web, though some, such as some smaller lizards and snakes, actually flourished due to the removal of the larger predators.

Searching for resistance

So will Madagascar’s predators suffer just like Australia’s? As we now know that there is a single molecule responsible for toad resistance in vertebrates, this gives biologists an invaluable tool: simply examining the relevant gene will reveal whether an animal can eat a toad with impunity or is liable to be poisoned.

In our study, we used this approach on a range of Malagasy predators. The results confirmed our worst fears: out of 29 reptiles, eight mammals, 12 frogs and 28 birds tested, all except one rodent (the white-tailed antsangy) lack resistance to toad toxins.

Toad-proof: the white-tailed antsangy.Joseph Wolf & Joseph Smit

This presents an immediate conservation concern in an already troubled biodiversity hotspot, and has serious implications for the many species that exist only on Madagascar. For instance, all Malagasy snakes tested are vulnerable to toad toxins, and anecdotal reports have already documented snakes dying from eating toads.

It gets worse: in the past, a loss of snakes has led to booms in rodent populations and fears over public health. Such fears are warranted once again, given that non-native rats are resistant to bufotoxins.

However, rodents appear to be unique in this respect. Among the toad-sensitive mammals are Madagascar’s most charismatic and widely recognised residents. Three representatives from three lemur families are vulnerable. Fortunately lemurs eat plants and sometimes insects, and only rarely prey on small vertebrates, which will likely limit the toad’s impact on them. The same cannot be said for the carnivores of Madagascar: the habits of the enigmatic fossa and others make them extremely likely to encounter and consume the toxic invader.

The cat-like fossa will eat anything from lemurs to lizards.Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

As cane toads in Australia highlighted, it’s tough to predict exactly which species will be most affected by an invader. The sharing of habits and habitats will likely be the biggest factor influencing how much the toad will impact a species, but subtle differences in their interactions can make big differences to the outcome. For instance, small variations in breeding times made large differences in the relative success of native and invasive tadpoles in Australia.

Possible hope comes in the form of animals’ unrelenting ability to adapt. Australia offers many examples of native species evolving or learning quickly to avoid toads, or to only eat the least toxic parts of toads. Whether vulnerable Malagasy species, restricted to much more fragmented habitat patches serving as their final refuges, can display similar resilience remains to be seen.

The invasion of Madagascar by these toads has attracted considerable attention, but initial efforts to eliminate them have faltered. We hope that the confirmation that these toads pose a real threat to native species will reinvigorate efforts to protect native species from the toad’s further expansion.

The Conversation

Wolfgang Wüster does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Business of childcare will fail so long as toddlers are the cash-cows

Author: David Dallimore, WISERD Researcher, Bangor University

Supermarket staples.Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Most of us are used to seeing crazy bargains when we go into the local supermarket, with items such as baked beans, bananas or milk being sold at a price that seems far below what they must cost to grow/make and sell. It’s a well-tried method– “loss leaders” are used to draw us into shops where we are also enticed to buy non-discounted items. So, unless we only plan to eat baked beans, our shopping basket usually gives the retailer an overall profit by the time we get to the checkout.

So, what’s this got to do with childcare? Most childcare providers in the UK, such as day nurseries and childminders, are private businesses that need to make a profit for their owners. But the need to protect children and maintain minimum standards of quality mean that they operate in a highly regulated environment. In particular, the number of staff they employ depends on the number of children they care for, and their ages.

Spilling the beans.Jiri Hera/Shutterstock

For three- and four-year-olds, UK laws state that one member of staff is needed for every eight children. But for children under a year old, one member of staff is needed for every three babies. So it’s easy to work out that with staff being the biggest expense in running a childcare business, the cost of looking after babies is easily more than double the cost of looking after three-year-olds – yet few nurseries pass this higher cost on to parents in full. Why? Because babies are their loss leaders.

Choosing childcare is a complex trade off for parents between emotional and rational factors – including price, access and availability. But, having chosen, parents are usually reluctant to alter their arrangements. By rarely passing on the true cost of a place for babies, childcare is made to seem more affordable and attractive to new customers. As the babies grow up, and staffing ratios and costs go down, toddlers become profitable while three- and four-year-olds become the nursery cash cows.

Free for a price

This business model for childcare has held true for many years, but the introduction of 30 “free” hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds in parts of the UK is creating real problems for the sector. The “free” hours are funded by local authorities at a rate calculated from the costs associated with childcare for the age group, but not taking into account the way that baby places are cross-subsidised.

This means that parents will either end up paying more for babies, or as has been seen across England, childcare businesses are making up the shortfall in other ways, such as charging for “extras” like nappies, meals, trips or registration fees. Some day nurseries and childminders have indicated that they may stop accepting children under the free childcare offer, while others are doubtful that they will be able to stay in business as a result.


Read more: Underpaid and undervalued: the reality of childcare work in the UK


In Wales, the plan to offer 30 hours free childcare is problematic because almost 90% of Welsh three-year-olds are in school for at least ten hours per week where they receive free early education. Few schools in Wales provide any kind of childcare that “wraps around” the part-time early education place making it hard for working parents. It also makes it tough for childcare businesses to make a reasonable profit from providing care just for babies and toddlers. As a result, there is limited choice of childcare in Wales, and it is often difficult for parents to access.

Some have argued that these problems are inevitable when childcare is delivered by the market rather than being a public service, but the current problem lies in it being neither a true market, nor fully publicly funded. In total, there are nine different UK government schemes that can reduce the cost of childcare – some of which can be claimed at the same time as each other, while others cannot – yet UK childcare can still be the most expensive in the world. Meanwhile, childcare businesses are expected to provide services in an environment that fixes the amount of income they get and regulates how they can spend it.

A recent parliamentary report said the system of UK childcare contained “fundamental design flaws”, and that commendable public initiatives are failing against perfectly reasonable commercial imperatives. Further tinkering around the edges is likely to make matters worse.

As growing international evidence makes clear, the best outcomes for parents and children are from universal, state-funded systems. This means quality care and early education that is available and affordable to all, from when parental leave ends to when compulsory schooling begins. Babies are too important to all our futures to be treated like baked beans.

The Conversation

David Dallimore does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Obese people enjoy food less than lean people – new study

Author: Hans-Peter Kubis, Director of the Health Exercise and Rehabilitation Group, Bangor University

YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock.com

Global obesity rates have risen sharply over the past three decades, leading to spikes in diabetes, arthritis and heart disease. The more we understand the causes of obesity and how to prevent it, the better.

We are interested in understanding reward-driven eating. Laboratory experiments have shown that obese people are less rewarded by food than people who are lean. We wanted to know if this held true when people were in a more natural environment – that is, going about their everyday lives.

For our study, we developed a smartphone app to record spontaneous patterns of food wanting and liking as they occurred.

The participants used the app to score the intensity (on a scale of 0 to 10) of how much they wanted food whenever the thought of food popped into their head, regardless of whether they then ate or not. If they did eat, they rated the intensity of how much they liked their food (0 to 10), straight after eating. The app also recorded the time the participants ate and how long they took to eat.

Participants used the app continuously for two weeks. They also completed a questionnaire about their food cravings and attitudes to food, and had their various measurements taken (such as height, weight and body composition).

We grouped the participants according to their body fat. Of the 53 participants, 20 were a healthy weight and 33 were obese. Our analysis showed that obese participants reported slightly fewer food-wanting events per day – an average of five, compared with six in the healthy weight group.

The number of overweight and obese people worldwide is now over 2.1 billion.Ollyy/Shutterstock.com

Both groups resisted about the same proportion of food-wanting (30%) events. And the duration of meal times was about the same: about 18 minutes.

The intensity of the obese group’s food wanting was not significantly different from the healthy weight group’s food wanting, showing that obese people don’t have more frequent or intense food-wanting episodes.

However, obese participants reported significantly less intense food liking than healthy weight participants, revealing that they enjoyed or were rewarded less by the food they ate. There was a strong correlation between wanting events and craving traits measured by the questionnaire, which was not seen in healthy weight participants. Thus, obese participants showed that their decision to eat was strongly driven by cravings and not by hunger.

In the healthy weight group, the intensity of wanting food when people resisted temptation was less than when wanting was followed by eating, as one might expect. And the scores for liking were high after eating. This suggests that, in people with healthy weights, the decision to eat or not to eat is based on the intensity of wanting, and that food enjoyment supported the decision to eat.

This pattern, however, was not seen in the obese group. Their decision to eat, or not, didn’t seem to be driven by conscious wanting intensity, and their food satisfaction did not support their decision to eat. Emotional motivation in connection with cravings seems to be more influential in eating decisions in obese people than in healthy weight people.

Reward, not hunger

We are exposed to food cues many times a day, particularly cues for highly palatable foods high in sugar and fat. A lot of our eating is based on reward, not hunger. Some brain imaging studies have suggested that obese people respond more to food cues, but may respond less to food consumption. Our study is important in demonstrating this reward deficiency in daily life.

A lack of reward could contribute to overeating, as it could result in a greater quantity of food being eaten in an attempt to compensate for the lack of enjoyment. To help people manage their weight, more attention needs to be paid to the reward value of eating.

The Conversation

Hans-Peter Kubis does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Why Wales was right to say yes to the UK's Brexit Bill

Author: Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Law, Bangor University

UK, EU, Wales.alexfan32

Both Wales and Scotland have acknowledged the need to prepare UK laws for EU withdrawal, yet they have taken very different stances on how this can be achieved. While the Welsh Assembly has agreed to the UK government’s proposed Brexit Bill, the Scottish parliament has said no.

The Welsh government has said their position was based on negotiations that “strengthens devolution and protects the UK”. By contrast, Scotland’s refusal was based on the bill being evidence that the UK government could not be trusted with devolution.

Not all in Wales agree with the move, however. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, accused Welsh ministers of “bowing down to the Tories at Westminster and supporting their power grab”. But, despite making a move that isolates Scotland in its fight against Westminster, did Wales actually get it right?

Political possibilities vs. legal reality

There are a few important points to note here. Drawing strict comparisons between the Welsh and Scottish position can lead to artificial discussion. The job of the Welsh Assembly is to represent Wales’s interests, which are not necessarily the same as what the Scottish parliament feels is right for Scotland. The EU referendum result, party allegiances of Welsh Assembly Members (AMs) compared to the Scottish MSPs, and the policies of the SNP compared to Welsh Labour, are all clear evidence of these differences.

The Senedd.Leighton Collins/Shutterstock

In addition, while politically sensitive, Wales and Scotland cannot constitutionally stop Brexit– contrary to some headlines. The unequivocal legal reality is that the powers that devolved legislatures enjoy stem from Westminster. And within all devolution acts, it is made explicitly clear that the UK parliament retains supremacy on constitutional matters.

The relationships between Westminster, Holyrood and the Senedd have, arguably, been one of relative mutual compliance to date, based on respect for legislative competences and political sensitivities. If Westminster had occasion to pass a law affecting a devolved area, then negotiations have traditionally taken place to agree a legislative consent motion (LCM) – not legally binding but politically respected. So the UK parliament could very well proceed with the Brexit Bill without agreement from Wales and Scotland.

In the absence of a legal solution, Wales pursued a political one through negotiation. Their initial concerns related to the “constitutionally insensitiveclause 11 of the bill. This would see 24 powers return from Brussels to Westminster in areas that the Welsh Assembly and Scottish parliament have traditionally had competence over (subject to Brussels’s precedence).

Following nearly a year of discussions, Wales has compromised, temporarily agreeing that these powers can be held by Westminster for an intermittent period of time. Their reasons were not to effect UK trade, and to achieve regulatory alignment for the whole of the UK, until a new legal framework is established.

Why Wales was right

The laws and powers governing the relationship between Westminster and Brussels predate the UK’s devolved governments by 26 years. The powers that are allegedly coming back from Brussels, are ones that would not have been previously envisaged when drafting the devolved legislation from 1998 onwards. Owing to Brussels’s oversight, it was not possible – at the time of establishing the devolved parliaments – to have a situation where the UK’s regions could pursue major regulatory differences.

So, as the UK tries to enter new international markets, it is within Wales’s interests to want to protect its key industries within the 24 areas of control (such as agriculture and fisheries) by feeding into a whole UK policy approach.

Alternatively, if the UK government agrees a new relationship with the EU that maintains market access, these internal constitutional disputes may be redundant. If the UK does agree some form of access, it is likely that compulsory regulatory alignment with the existing EU requirements will be a prerequisite for the whole UK anyway (making Welsh or Scottish divergence an impossibility).

Principles of Welsh devolution at stake?

So the question becomes one of principle. Should Wales accept legislative oversight from Westminster in devolved areas in the future (as opposed to Brussels)?

Oversight has always been there for all the devolved regimes. The position that Wales has adopted is a pragmatic one. The undeniable reality of any negotiation is compromise and respect, and for the time being, the Welsh government appears to be content that, politically speaking, London is willing to listen and make adjustments.

That is not to suggest that Wales should concede on all matters within their devolved competence. As David Rees AM, chair of the Welsh External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee put it, Wales should still be cautiously concerned that the Assembly’s ability to pass laws in devolved policy areas could be constrained by the UK parliament in the future. Even where the Assembly has refused consent for constraints to be imposed.

But given the current harshness of the extreme alternative – whereby Wales would have limited legal influence by refusing the LCM – the negotiated agreement and political advantage for Wales, at least for now, does seem the right solution.

The Conversation

Stephen Clear does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Some lizards have green blood that should kill them – and scientists can't work out why

Author: Anita Malhotra, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics, Bangor University

Christopher Austin

If you were to see certain New Guinea skinks lose their tails, you’d notice that their blood isn’t the usual red colour we’re used to but rather a virulent shade of green. What’s even more bizarre is that the substance that’s responsible for the green colour of the lizards’ blood (and bones, tongues, muscles and mucous membranes) would be toxic in other animals if they carried it in such large amounts.

Exactly why these skinks are filled with this toxic substance and why it doesn’t kill them is something of a mystery. But new research published in Science Advances makes an important step towards answering these questions.

Whereas the red colour of most animals’ blood comes from the oxygen-carrying pigment in red blood cells called haemoglobin, the green colour in the New Guinea skink blood comes from a kind of bile pigment called biliverdin. It is formed as red blood cells break down and is held in the plasma, the liquid that makes up most of the blood. In large quantities, it masks the red colour of haemoglobin completely.

Humans and other animals produce biliverdin too, but we excrete it into the intestine where it is eliminated from the body before it builds up to toxic levels. In humans, biliverdin causes jaundice at concentrations 40 times lower than found in the green-blooded skinks, who apparently suffer no ill-effects.

We don’t know how the lizards are able to withstand so much biliverdin in their system. In some fish with green blood, biliverdin is tightly bound to a carrier protein which inactivates it and prevents its elimination from the body.

Scientists have put forward several reasons why it might be beneficial to have so much biliverdin in the body, including making them taste bad to predators, or as an extreme form of camouflage. But most of these ideas are not convincing when applied to the New Guinea skinks. For example, feeding trials using native New Guinea birds and snakes have suggested that they are actually perfectly edible even with the biliverdin.

Biliverdin turns the lizards’ bones, tongues and muscles green too.Christopher Austin

A more plausible explanation is that it may help to control the proliferation of blood parasites such as malaria, which are prevalent and debilitating in lizards. More recent experimental work on other animals has suggested that bile pigments, including biliverdin, may act as antioxidants. These protect the body from damaging molecules known as free radicals and have an important anti-inflammatory effect.

Another way to get an insight into why this feature evolved is to compare the green-blooded animals to close relatives with red blood. This is a challenge as skinks are among the most diverse families of lizards – and these particular skinks come from a relatively understudied set of animals in a remote part of the world.

In fact, it wasn’t even known for certain whether all five species of green-blooded skinks, which had been placed in the same genus Prasinohaema (Greek for “green blood”), really were each other’s closest relatives. Their green blood seems to be the only characteristic that they share. If they are all closely related, then the evolution of green blood would have been a single unique event. This would make it difficult to choose among multiple possible causes and to know how applicable they were to other organisms with green blood.

Repeated evolution

The new research from scientists at Louisiana State University shows definitively that these lizards are not a closely related group. To do this, they built a highly robust evolutionary tree of over 50 species of Australasian skinks using thousands of genetic markers shared by the lizards. This revealed that their unusual characteristic has evolved at least four times independently, and all the related species with normal blood that share a common ancestor with green-blooded species are also found only in New Guinea.

To fully understand how the green-blooded lizards evolved this bizarre condition, we would need more in-depth studies of the specific gene mutations responsible. But now that we know that it has evolved repeatedly it gives scientists more power to disentangle the reasons why. What’s more, it suggests that there is indeed an underlying adaptive advantage for the retention of high levels of biliverdin, as it would be extremely unlikely for such an unusual condition to evolve multiple times by chance.

This conclusion is exciting, partly because it reveals how little we still know of the astonishing diversity of life and its peculiarities. But in addition, given that biliverdin seems to play an important role in some important human problems involving inflammation, including septic shock and wound healing, it suggests that understanding the role it plays in the blood of the skinks may have very direct benefits for us all.

The Conversation

Anita Malhotra does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Sacred sites have a biodiversity advantage that could help world conservation

Author: John Healey, Professor of Forest Sciences, Bangor UniversityJohn Halley, Professor of Ecology, University of IoanninaKalliopi Stara, Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Ioannina

jokki/Shutterstock

Since the dawn of history, human societies have ascribed sacred status to certain places. Areas such as ancestral burial grounds, temples and churchyards have been given protection through taboo and religious belief. As many of these places have been carefully managed for many years an interesting side effect has occurred – the sites often retain more of their natural condition than surrounding areas used for farming or human habitation. As a result, they are often called “sacred natural sites” (SNS).

Today, as many other natural habitats have become degraded, researchers worldwide are increasingly interested in the role of SNS in biodiversity conservation. Most of the world’s belief systems, including Christianity, give places sacred status. In Mediterranean Europe, for instance, the grounds of churches – with their associated ancient trees – have become important SNS.

One of the best examples is in the mountainous region of Epirus in north-western Greece. In the municipalities of Zagori and Konitsa almost every village has one or more sacred grove. These places have been protected through religious belief systems for hundreds of years.

The groves are either protective forests that lie uphill from the village, or groups of mature trees surrounding outlying churches, monuments or other works of religious art. Activities such as the cutting of trees or livestock grazing have been either prohibited or strictly regulated in these places (and disobeying these prohibitions sometimes led to excommunication).

Greek investigation

We have recently been studying these Greek SNS as part of our SAGE (SAcred Groves of Epirus) project. Our team wanted to find out, using a rigorous research approach, whether SNS are more biodiverse than other forest areas, and, if so, what lessons conservationists could learn from this.

To do this, our international and multidisciplinary group has recently completed the world’s first replicated systematic investigation into the claims that areas conserved as SNS are more biodiverse for different types of plant and animal.

For our recently published study, we selected eight SNS in Epirus that covered a wide range of environmental conditions. Each was closely matched with a nearby non-sacred “control” forest which had been managed conventionally – sometimes through natural regeneration. We then conducted a detailed inventory in each site, of eight different groups of organisms. These ranged from fungi and lichens, through herbaceous and woody plants to nematodes, insects, bats and passerine birds.

We found that SNS do indeed have a small but persistent biodiversity advantage. This is expressed in a number of ways, most clearly through the existence of more distinct communities of species among the sacred groves than in the control sites (this phenomenon is known as beta diversity).

The group with the most notably higher biodiversity in the SNS than in control sites were the fungi. These often grow in dead wood or old trees, which usually get removed in conventionally managed forests. Of the species of passerine birds (a group that includes many songbirds) that are designated as having special conservation importance at a European level, we found twice as many species present in the SNS as in the control sites.

Because these sacred sites are often quite small it is often said that their conservation benefits are marginal. But we found that the influence of size is relatively weak – even small SNS can play a significant role in biodiversity conservation.

Conserving sacred sites

But Epirus’s sacred sites are now in peril. The rules that linked belief and conservation that once protected the SNS have become difficult to enforce, due to changing population and land-use. The value of forests which protect from landslides and floods is no longer being recognised.

The value of SNS is not just on the land that is sacred itself, these places can act as a nucleus, around which biodiversity can expand. In Epirus, forests have regenerated around many of the sites we studied over the past 70 years – despite humans farming the land. It should be noted that this can increase risks such as fire, as dense young Mediterranean forest is very flammable.

Evidently the already well-conserved SNS are of great environmental importance across the world. So the next step is to link these sites into conventional conservation schemes. But it is vital that such strategies are closely aligned with the cultural status of SNS. Local communities are often highly motivated to maintain their sacred sites and associated belief systems but lack the resources to do so. A fully collaborative approach between conservation professionals and local communities could offer a solution that conserves both biodiversity and local cultural values.

The Conversation

John Healey receives funding from the European Union (European Social Fund - ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program Education and Lifelong Learning of the National Strategic Framework (NRSF) (Code 379405) - Research Funding Program: THALIS. Investing in knowledge society through the European Social Fund.

John M Halley has received funding from the European Union (European Social Fund - ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program Education and Lifelong Learning of the National Strategic Framework (NRSF) (Code 379405) - Research Funding Program: THALIS. Investing in knowledge society through the European Social Fund.

Kalliopi Stara has received funding from from the European Union (European Social Fund - ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program Education and Lifelong Learning of the National Strategic Framework (NRSF) (Code 379405) - Research Funding Program: THALIS. Investing in knowledge society through the European Social Fund.

Scotland’s Brexit Bill rejection could be the start of a new constitutional crisis

Author: Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Law, Bangor University

“Vote leave to take back control” – but control of what, and from whom? The plethora of questions stemming from this Brexit mantra have already threatened to steer the UK towards a new constitutional crisis. And now, in an unprecedented move, the Scottish parliament is expected to, for the first time, refuse a legislative consent motion (LCM) from the UK government relating to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has called it part of Scotland fighting back against attempts to undermine the devolved administrations, and Westminster’s opportunistic Brexit “power-grab”. But it may also just be the first step in a new bid for Scottish independence, and ultimately a constitutional crisis for the whole country.

Sometimes referred to as a Sewel motion, a LCM is a motion passed by the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly or Northern Irish assembly indicating their respective agreement to Westminster passing new laws in areas that they would traditionally have control of – for example health or education.

LCMs operate on the basis that, by convention, the UK legislature will not normally pass laws that either directly affect a devolved subject matter – areas which are typically controlled by the devolved government such as health, or education, for example – , or change the competence, or powers, of a devolved legislature or its ministers, without consent to do so.

However, while these rules exist politically (and have been recognised in the Scotland Act and Wales Act), they are not legally binding. Nor do they limit the sovereign power of the UK parliament.

Devolution disputes

Since 2017, both the Scottish and Welsh governments have disputed the repatriation of powers from Brussels to the UK in areas that are theoretically of devolved importance, but in practice are governed by EU law (which currently takes precedence over domestic rules).

The devolved governments’ concerns relate to 24 retained areas of control, including agriculture and fisheries. At present, the UK government, under the “constitutionally insensitive” clause 11 of the Brexit Bill, states that they should have power to amend “retained EU law”, rather than Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The Scottish parliament.jax10289/Shutterstock

The UK government argues that they need to retain these powers, for an intermittent period of time, so as to create a new UK-wide legal framework to replace EU legislation. It claims this is needed to protect the UK markets, and avoid a direct impact on trade via divergence across the different UK regions.

The Scottish government, however, argues that such action defies the will of the Scottish people who voted in favour of Scottish devolution. Sturgeon has said that the UK government cannot be trusted with devolution, and the principle issue is that “the consent of the Scottish parliament to the removal of any of its powers should be an absolute prerequisite”.

Scotland’s Brexit minister Mike Russell has added that refusing the LCM presents the Scottish parliament with a powerful opportunity to unite together and “protect the powers of devolution”, by sending a signal that Scotland will not accept attempts to constrain their powers.

Although these are both strong political sentiments, refusing a LCM – alone – is less likely to achieve legal impact on the Brexit Bill.

Scotland fronting the challenge

By contrast, following months of negotiations, the majority of Welsh assembly members (AMs) are expected to back the Brexit Bill, and approve the LCM. This is on the basis that the EU powers will be held in Westminster for up to seven years before being devolved back to Wales.

But why the differing opinions over LCMs? It is worth noting the different political climate in Wales compared to Scotland. The majority of Welsh constituencies voted in favour of Brexit. And there are a higher percentage of UKIP and Conservative AMs in Wales compared to MSPs in Scotland.

Furthermore, with the collapse of the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, there is no official government representing Nothern Irish views in these negotiations.

Where next?

The legal reality is, even if the Scottish parliament refuses to approve a LCM, Brexit legislation will not be delayed. Furthermore, the UK government has already indicated that it is willing to challenge Scotland over its recent legislation pertaining to Brexit. But, as in previous cases, it is likely that the Scottish government will similarly want to launch a legal challenge in the Supreme Court. This time relating to new laws that go against the devolved legal competence of Scotland.

However, given UK sovereignty rules, and that the Supreme Court has already stated that LCMs are just political conventions – and that policing their scope and manner “does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary” – it seems unlikely that Scotland will enjoy much success in pursuing such arguments.

But that won’t be the end of things. Instead, the looming constitutional crisis may come politically. There will likely be consequences for Westminster, which will be seen as defying the will of the Scottish people “again”. They voted in favour of devolution after all. Scotland also voted against Brexit, and yet is having to go through with it too. With this backdrop the whole country may very well be heading towards a new constitutional crisis and a second Scottish independence referendum.

The Conversation

Stephen Clear does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Five brain-boosting reasons to take up martial arts – at any age

Author: Ashleigh Johnstone, PhD Researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

Lucy Baldwin/Shutterstock

We are all aware that exercise generally has many benefits, such as improving physical fitness and strength. But what do we know about the effects of specific types of exercise? Researchers have already shown that jogging can increase life expectancy, for example, while yoga makes us happy. However, there is one activity that goes beyond enhancing physical and mental health – martial arts can boost your brain’s cognition too.

1. Improved attention

Researchers say that there are two ways to improve attention, through attention training (AT), and attention state training (AST). AT is based on practising a specific skill and getting better at that skill, but not others – using a brain training video game, for example. AST on the other hand is about getting into a specific state of mind that allows a stronger focus. This can be done by using exercise, meditation, or yoga, among other things.

It has been suggested that martial arts is a form of AST, and supporting this, recent research has shown a link between practice and improved alertness. Backing this idea up further, another study showed that martial arts practice – specifically karate – is linked with better performance on a divided attention task. This is an assignment in which the person has to keep two rules in mind and respond to signals based on whether they are auditory or visual.

2. Reduced aggression

In a US study, children aged 8-11 were tasked with traditional martial arts training that focused on respecting other people and defending themselves as part of an anti-bullying programme. The children were also taught how to maintain a level of self-control in heated situations.

The researchers found that the martial arts training reduced the level of aggressive behaviour in boys, and found that they were more likely to step in and help someone who was being bullied than before they took part in the training. Significant changes were not found in the girls’ behaviour, potentially because they showed much lower levels of physical aggression before the training than the boys did.

Interestingly, this anti-agression effect is not limited to young children. A different piece of research found reduced physical and verbal aggression, as well as hostility, in adolescents who practised martial arts too.

In control.El Nariz/Shutterstock

3. Greater stress management

Some forms of martial arts, such as tai chi, place great emphasis on controlled breathing and meditation. These were strongly linked in one study with reduced feelings of stress, as well as being better able to manage stress when it is present in young to middle-aged adults.

This effect has also been found in older adults– the 330 participants in this research had a mean age of 73 – too. And the softer, flowing movements make it an ideal, low-impact exercise for older people.

4. Enhanced emotional well-being

As several scientists are now looking into the links between emotional well-being and physical health, it’s vital to note that martial arts has been show to improve a person’s emotional well-being too.

In the study linked above, 45 older adults (aged 67-93) were asked to take part in karate training, cognitive training, or non-martial arts physical training for three to six months. The older adults in the karate training showed lower levels of depression after the training period than both other groups, perhaps due to its meditative aspect. It was also reported that these adults showed a greater level of self-esteem after the training too.

5. Improved memory

After comparing a sedentary control group to a group of people doing karate, Italian researchers found that taking part in karate can improve a person’s working memory. They used a test that involved recalling and repeating a series of numbers, both in the correct order and backwards, which increased in difficulty until the participant was unable to continue. The karate group were much better at this task than the control group, meaning they could recall longer series of numbers. Another project found similar results while comparing tai chi practice with “Western exercise” – strength, endurance, and resistance training.

Evidently, there is far more to martial arts than its traditional roles. Though they have been practised for self-defence and spiritual development for many hundreds of years, only relatively recently have researchers had the methods to assess the true extent of how this practice affects the brain.

There are a such a huge range of martial arts, some more gentle and meditative, others combative and physically intensive. But this only means that there is a type for everyone, so why not give it a go and see how you can boost your own brain using the ancient practices of martial arts.

The Conversation

Ashleigh Johnstone receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

How can we communicate all that nature does for us?

Author: Julia P G Jones, Professor of Conservation Science, Bangor University

Nomad_Soul / shutterstock

As a conservation professor I believe people need to understand why protecting nature matters to them personally. Appealing to human self-interest has generated support for conservation in Switzerland, for example, where the government protects forests partly because they help prevent landslides and avalanches, or among communities in Botswana which conserve wildlife partly because of the value of trophy hunting. But this understanding risks being obscured by unhelpful arguments over terminology.

The story starts in 2005, when the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published. This document, the result of five years work by more than 1,300 scientists around the world, demonstrated beyond doubt that global ecosystems were in decline and that this really mattered. Perhaps its most significant legacy was a diagram which presented the ways human wellbeing is influenced by different categories of what it termed “ecosystem services”. For example, maintaining healthy seas is important because of the “provisioning services” provided to fishing communities, while mangrove forests may provide “regulating services” protecting people from coastal storm surges.

The ecosystem services idea has since been hugely influential in mainstream politics and there are now degree courses, textbooks and whole journals framed around the concept.

Growing an avalanche control forest, Switzerland.pkul / shutterstock

Jump forward 13 years and another global scientific effort has produced another conceptual framework. This time it’s IPBES: the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. In a high-profile article senior scientists representing its consortium of 129 countries have replaced the term ecosystem services with what they argue is a new concept: “Nature’s Contributions to People”.

IPBES was one of the global initiatives set up in response to the success of the ecosystem services concept, so for scientists there to reject the term has caused quite a debate. There are two questions to answer: Is the concept of Nature’s Contributions to People substantially new? And, secondly, is it helpful?

Same thing, different language

First, is it new? Proponents of the Nature’s Contributions to People concept argue that while the ecosystem services idea was readily taken up by ecologists and economists, it has failed to engage a range of perspectives from the social sciences and humanities.

For them, there is too much emphasis on services which are easy to quantify, such as the value that insects contribute to agriculture through pollination and pest control (US$57 billion each year in the US alone, apparently). This has resulted in some world views being sidelined in policy debates. It is certainly true that a number of South American governments strongly dislike the concept of ecosystem services which they consider commodifies what are better seen as gifts from “mother earth”.

My sister Katherine Jones works in communications for RSPB Scotland. She agrees that while the term “ecosystem services” can be useful in discussions with British policy makers, it has never resonated with the general public. “When talking to ordinary people”, she told me “it is much more effective to appeal to their innate passion for nature than suggesting that nature provides a service, like a utility company or a bank”.

Bzzz! I’m busy contributing to people.kosmos111 / shutterstock

However, the editor of the journal Ecosystem Services responded to the IPBES publication with a scathing editorial in which he argues convincingly that far from being new, Nature’s Contributions to People is simply a non-technical explanation of the same thing. He, and others, suggest that in trying to mark clear water between the two, the authors of the latest paper are wilfully ignoring both the large body of work which addresses issues such as commodification, and the success of ecosystem services in generating political interest in the environment.

Just a fad?

The second question concerns whether it is helpful. Prominent conservation scientist Kent Redford, and colleagues, pre-empted the recent debate when they pointed out some years ago that conservation suffers repeatedly from fads. Concepts or approaches are enthusiastically promoted for a few years then dropped only for a new concept to be introduced – which looks substantially like the old one but with a snappy new name. The risk they highlight is that by regularly rejecting, reinventing and repackaging approaches, the conservation community fails to learn the lessons from the failures of previous approaches as they view the new concept as so completely new that old issues don’t apply.

If Nature’s Contributions to People can help bring more actors to the table and address some of the limitations of ecosystem services, this will be helpful. However, problems and challenges will remain. Take the feeling of wellbeing many people get when they connect with nature, for example. “Cultural services” such as these have often been given less prominence because they are difficult to value – but it is not clear whether framing the issue around Nature’s Contributions will help solve this.

If you have read this far, then you may be wondering why this rather semantic argument should interest you. However, I would suggest that there are few issues more important than communicating to society at large why nature matters. If we need a new concept to keep this point fresh and alive in the minds of politicians and the general public then so be it. But let’s not argue. To paraphrase the classic number sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: you say “Ecosystem Services” and I say “Nature’s Contributions to People”. The point made by both is that destroying nature ultimately harms us all.

You say ‘ecosystem services’ and I say ‘Nature’s Contribution to People…’
The Conversation

Julia P G Jones does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Can a brain injury change who you are?

Author: Leanne Rowlands, PhD researcher in Neuropsychology, Bangor University

MarinaP/Shutterstock

Who we are, and what makes us “us” has been the topic of much debate throughout history. At the individual level, the ingredients for the unique essence of a person consist mostly of personality concepts. Things like kindness, warmth, hostility and selfishness. Deeper than this, however, is how we react to the world around us, respond socially, our moral reasoning, and ability to manage emotions and behaviours.

Philosophers, including Plato and Descartes, attributed these experiences to non-physical entities, quite separate to the brain. “Souls”, they describe, are where human experiences take place. According to this belief, souls house our personalities, and enable moral reasoning to occur. This idea still enjoys substantial support today. Many are comforted by the thought that the soul does not need the brain, and mental life can continue after death.

If who we are is attributed to a non-physical substance independent of the brain, then physical damage to this organ should not change a person. But there is an overwhelming amount of neuropsychological evidence to suggest that this is, in fact, not only possible, but relatively common.

The perfect place to start explaining this is the curious case of Phineas Gage.

Phineas Gage, after injury.Originally from the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus, and now in the Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard Medical School.

In 1848, 25-year-old Gage was working as a construction foreman for a railroad company. During the works, explosives were required to blast away rock. This intricate procedure involved explosive powder and a tamping iron rod. In a moment of distraction, Gage detonated the powder and the charge went off, sending the rod through his left cheek. It pierced his skull, and travelled through the front of his brain, exiting the top of his head at high speed. Modern day methods have since revealed that the likely site of damage was to parts of his prefrontal cortex.

Gage was thrown to the floor, stunned, but conscious. His body eventually recovered well, but Gage’s behavioural changes were extraordinary. Previously a well-mannered, respectable, smart business man, Gage reportedly became irresponsible, rude and aggressive. He was careless and unable to make good decisions. Women were advised not to stay long in his company, and his friends barely recognised him.

A similar case was that of photographer and forerunner of motion pictures Eadweard Muybridge. In 1860, Muybridge was involved in a stagecoach accident and sustained a brain injury to the orbitofrontal cortex (part of the prefrontal cortex). He had no recollection of the crash, and developed traits that were quite unlike his former self. He became aggressive, emotionally unstable, impulsive and possessive. In 1874, upon discovering his wife’s infidelity, he shot and killed the man involved. His attorney pled insanity, due to the extent of the personality changes following the accident. Sworn testimonies emphasised that “he seemed like a different man”.

Perhaps an even more controversial example is that of a 40-year-old school teacher who, in the year 2000, developed a strong interest in pornography, particularly child pornography. The patient went to great lengths to conceal this interest, which he acknowledged was unacceptable. But unable to refrain from his urges, he continued to act on his sexual impulses. When he began making sexual advances towards his young stepdaughter, he was legally removed from the home and diagnosed with paedophilia. Later, it was discovered that he had a brain tumour displacing part of his orbitofrontal cortex, disrupting its function. The symptoms resolved with the removal of the tumour.

Different personalities

Orbitofrontal cortex location.Wikimedia/Paul Wicks

All these cases have one thing in common: damage to areas of the prefrontal cortex, in particular the orbitofrontal cortex. Although they may be extreme examples, the idea that damage to these parts of the brain results in severe personality changes is now well-established. The prefrontal cortex has a role in managing behaviours, regulating emotions and responding appropriately. So it makes sense that disinhibited and inappropriate behaviour, psychopathy, criminal behaviour, and impulsivity have all been linked to damage of this area.

However, changes after injury can be more subtle than those previously described. Consider the case of Mr. L, who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury after falling off a roof while supervising a building construction. His later aggressive behaviour and delusional jealousy about his wife’s apparent infidelity caused a breakdown in their relationship. To her, he was not the same man anymore.

Difficulties with emotion management like this are not only distressing, but are predictive of lower psychological adjustment, negative social changes and greater caregiver distress. Many brain injury survivors also suffer with depression, anxiety and social isolation, while struggling to adjust to post-injury life.

But with a growing appreciation of the relevance of emotional adjustment in rehabilitation, treatments have been developed to help manage these changes. In our lab, we have developed the BISEP (Brain Injury Solutions and Emotions Programme), which is a cost-effective, education-based, group therapy. This addresses several common complaints of brain injury survivors and has a strong emphasis on emotion regulation. It teaches attendees strategies that can be used adaptively and independently, to help manage their emotions and associated behaviours. Although it is early days, we have obtained some positive preliminary results.

From a neuropsychological perspective, it’s clear that who we are is dependent on the brain, and not the soul. Damage to the prefrontal cortex can change who we are, and though people have become unrecognisable from it in the past, new strategies will make a big difference to their lives. It may be too late for Gage, Muybridge and others, but brain injury survivors of the future will have the help they need to go back to living their lives as they did before.

The Conversation

Leanne Rowlands does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Supercontinent formation may be linked to a cycle of supertides

Author: Mattias Green, Reader in Physical Oceanography, Bangor University

Oskari Porkka/Shutterstock

Earth’s crust is made up of fractured slabs of rock, like a broken shell on an egg. These plates move around at speeds of about 5cm per year – and eventually this movement brings all the continents together and form what is known as a supercontinent. The last supercontinent on Earth was Pangaea, which existed between 300-180m years ago.

This collection and dispersion of the continents is known as a supercontinent cycle, and the world now is 180m years into the current cycle. It is predicted that the next supercontinent will form in about 250m years, when the Atlantic and Pacific oceans both close and a new ocean forms where the large Asian plate splits. Because the plates move around, ocean basins change their shape and size. For example, the Atlantic is currently expanding at about the rate your fingernails grow (a couple of centimetres per year), whereas the Pacific is slowly closing.

A vision of Earth 200m years ago.Rashevskyi Viacheslav/Shutterstock

These changes in the ocean basins can have a very large impact on the tides over millions of years. This is because the tide moves around the oceans like a very long wave, with more than 1,000km between two peaks. The way this wave moves is largely controlled by the shape of the ocean basin and its depth, and if the ocean has the right size – if the length of a basin is half that of the wave, or “resonant” – the tides can become very large.

Resonance can happen in any system that swings or oscillates if you force it at its natural period. For example, if you give a child on a swing a small push at the right time, they will swing higher and higher, because you are forcing them at the natural period of the swing. The period of the tide is set by the motions of the Earth, moon and sun – and the natural period of an ocean basin is set by its geometry. For example, today, the north Atlantic is very near resonance because these two periods are almost the same. This is why the tides in the Atlantic are much larger than those in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.

But this has not always been the case. From experiments with computer models which can simulate the tides with great accuracy, we know that the tides were weak for long periods of the current supercontinent cycle, because the shape and size of the basins couldn’t support large tides. In fact, of the past 250m years, it is only the last 2m years or so that have seen large tides on Earth. Since we are approaching the halfway point of the supercontinent cycle, we asked ourselves a question: what will happen to the tides as the next supercontinent assembles in 250m years or so? Is it possible that there is a supertidal cycle linked to the supercontinent cycle?

Using the computer model, we have now found that there is indeed a supertidal cycle linked to the supercontinent cycle. In fact, there are two: we are currently at the start of one “tidal maximum”, a period of time when the tides are very large. They will then weaken significantly, before briefly becoming large again in around 150m years from now. After that, the tides will again drop down to less than half of the energy levels they have at present as the next supercontinent forms. This will happen because the basins go in and out of resonance as their shape changes. The tidal maxima are brief in geological terms and only last 20m years or so. For most of the time, the tides are less energetic than they are today and, over the 400-600m years between the formations of the two supercontinents, the tides are only large for 50m years in total.

Tides are a major energy source for the ocean: the energy pumped into the tide by the sun and the moon is lost, or dissipates, within the ocean. This energy helps stir the ocean – much like a spoon stirs a cup of coffee. In the same way as the spoon moves sugar and milk around in the cup, the tide can drive movements of nutrients, heat and salt between the deep ocean and the surface. Fluxes of heat and salt are key to the large-scale climate controlling ocean circulation and fluxes of nutrients help sustain biological production, especially in shallow seas.

Changes in tides on any timescale can have large effects on the whole Earth system. While the changes described here may not have impact on us in the immediate future, it adds to our understanding of how the tides interact within various disciplines – including plate tectonics, the climate system, nutrient recycling and, eventually, the ocean’s ability to evolve and host life.

The Conversation

Mattias Green receives funding from The Natural Environmental Research Council (grants NE/F014821/1 and NE/I030224/1).

New styles of strikes and protest are emerging in the UK

Author: Emma Sara Hughes, PhD Candidate in Employment Relations, Bangor UniversityTony Dundon, Professor of HRM & Employment Relations, University of Manchester

The image of strikers picketing outside factory gates is usually seen as something from the archives. Official statistics show an almost perennial decline in formal strikes. In the month of January 2018 there were 9,000 recorded working days lost due to strikes – a tiny fraction of the 3m recorded in January 1979.

Yet there has been a noticeable increase in private sector working days lost from strike action. In January 2018, the figure stood at 231,000 working days lost. That is 146,000 more days than in January 2017 and 166,000 more than than January 2016.

And it’s not just those on the left who are striking. Workers are also agitated in modern and union-free enterprises. For example, Ryanair was forced to bargain with trade unions after pilots across Europe threatened industrial action, despite its flamboyant CEO, Michael O’Leary, once proclaiming that“hell would freeze over” before his company recognised a union. McDonald’s workers in Cambridge and London also went on strike over pay and zero-hours contracts late last year, with talk of more action to come.

Working days lost in the UK (cumulative 12-month totals, not seasonally adjusted).Labour Disputes Inquiry, Office for National Statistics

The beginning of 2018 witnessed some high profile strikes in key sectors: at a number of railways over safety; at water company United Utilities over pay and working conditions; at IT giant Fujitsu over job losses; and thousands of lecturers across more than 60 universities have been striking over pensions.

What’s all the fuss about?

People are worried about their pay, working conditions, future earnings and security at a time when the world of work is changing.

University lecturers are angered not only at the reduced pension deal being offered by their employers’ group, Universities UK. Views are mixed but many are also aggrieved at their own union, the University and College Union, for recommending an offer that some local activists and members view as falling short on their demands.

Lecturers on strike.Chris Bertram/flickr

Evidently conflict has not been eradicated from modern workplaces. Employees in multiple sectors also protest in other ways such as absenteeism, minor acts of defiance, mischief or sabotage. The Centre of Economic and Business consultancy reports year-on-year increases in absenteeism since 2011. Short disputes and other types of protest are excluded from official strike statistics – hence, many go unnoticed.

Newer patterns of resistance include social media campaigns over precarious zero-hour contracts, “lunchtime protests” such as those at HM Revenue & Customs and Bentley cars, government lobbying by workers at engineering firm GKN over a takeover, or worker sit-ins as staged by hundreds of Hinckley Point power station workers over pay. Meanwhile students have occupied university premises in solidarity with striking lecturers.

The shadow of Brexit

Predicting cause and effect for social phenomena is difficult. Protests are often attributed to employment and economic cycles, combined with changing social values of younger people.

The emergent wave of dissent may indicate we are approaching what some economists call a long-wave “Kondratieff cycle” – named after the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff. Here economic cycles can stretch over longer periods – say ten, 20 or 40 years.

If the mid-1990s was an “upswing”, slumping with the 2008 financial crisis, growing dissent may signal another long-wave turning point, fuelled by fears of the UK’s fragile future. For instance, in July 2017 the UK’s fiscal watchdog warned that Britain’s public finances were worse than on the eve of the financial crash. Coupled with the Conservatives losing their majority in government, it may be that the real effect of Brexit is only now materialising and compounding the ill effects of austerity.

Another reason may be because real wages have plummeted, while unemployment is at its lowest since the peak of strike activity in the mid-1970s (now 4.3%), thereby giving workers a greater degree of confidence in pressing their demands.

Changing social values

Another possible explanation is that people now expect more and want immediate change. This is exemplified in shock votes for Donald Trump in the US, Brexit or even Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity.

A new moral consciousness may even have replaced a former industrial working-class ideology. Younger and female labour market participation rates have burgeoned but so too has the gender pay gap and inequality. Multiculturalism, social inclusion, global employment issues are all catalysts for pioneering human rights values for businesses.

People are not satisfied with this status quo and are calling for change. So, as well as the more traditional style of organised action, some workers are expressing this new potential moral consciousness with subtle active protest such as the lunchtime protests, worker sit-ins and social media campaigns.

Analysis also points to “conflict benefits”: for example striking lecturers report lower stress levels, renewed energy and an enjoyment of the solidarity that comes from protest. Research also shows that conflict can support creativity and open disagreement can incite productive outcomes.

Whether we are entering a Kondratieff upswing or witnessing a new active moral consciousness is unclear. Nevertheless, it may be that protest can produce positive outcomes not only for workers, but also help companies to better engage with their workforce.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

AI like HAL 9000 can never exist because real emotions aren't programmable

Author: Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

HAL 9000 is one of the best-known articifical intelligence characters of modern film. This superior form of sentient computer embarks on a mission to Jupiter, along with a human crew, in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is currently celebrating its 50th year since release.

HAL is capable of speech production and comprehension, facial recognition, lip reading – and playing chess. Its superior computational ability is boosted by uniquely human traits, too. It can interpret emotional behaviour, reason and appreciate art.

By giving HAL emotions, writer Arthur C. Clarke and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick made it one of the most human-like fictional technologies ever created. In one of the most beautiful scenes in sci-fi history, it says it is “afraid” when mission commander Dr David Bowman starts disconnecting its memory modules following a series of murderous events.

HAL is programmed to deliver optimal assistance to the crew of the spaceship Discovery. It has control over the entire vessel, and staggering intelligence to aid it in its task. Yet soon after we become acquainted with HAL, we cannot help feeling that it is worried – it even claims it is experiencing fear – and that it has an ability to empathise, however small. But while there is nothing to preclude the idea that such an emotional AI could see the light of day, if such depth of feelings were to be included in real world technology, they would have to be entirely fake.

A ‘perfect’ AI

When, during the film, Bowman starts to manually override HAL’s functions, it asks him to stop, and after we witness a fascinating obliteration of HAL’s “mental” faculties, the AI seemingly tries to comfort itself by singing Daisy Bell – reportedly the first ever song produced by a computer.

In fact, viewers begin to feel that Bowman is killing HAL. The disconnection feels like a vengeful termination, after witnessing the film’s earlier events. But though HAL makes emotional statements, a real world AI would certainly be limited to having only the ability to reason, and make decisions. The cold, hard truth is that – despite what computer scientists say– we will never be able to program emotions in the way HAL’s fictional creators did because we do not understand them. Psychologists and neuroscientists are certainly trying to learn how emotions interact with cognition, but still they remain a mystery.

Take our own research, for example. In a study conducted with Chinese-English bilinguals, we explored how the emotional value of words can change unconscious mental operation. When we presented our participants with positive and neutral words, such as “holiday” or “tree”, they unconsciously retrieved these word forms in Chinese. But when the words had a negative meaning, such as “murder” or “rape”, their brain blocked access to their mother tongue – without their knowledge.

Reason and emotion

On the other hand, we know a lot about reasoning. We can describe how we come to rational decisions, write rules and turn these rules into process and code. Yet emotions are a mysterious evolutionary legacy. Their source is the source of everything, and not simply an attribute of the mind that can be implemented by design. To program something, you not only need to know how it works, you need to know what the objective is. Reason has objectives, emotions don’t.

In an experiment conducted in 2015, we were able to put this to the test. We asked native speakers of Mandarin Chinese studying at Bangor University to play a game of chance for money. In each round, they had to take or leave a proposed bet shown on the screen – for example, a 50% chance of winning 20 points, and a 50% chance of losing 100 points.

We hypothesised that giving them feedback in their mother tongue would be more emotional to them and so lead them to behave differently, compared to when they received feedback in their second language, English. Indeed, when they received positive feedback in native Chinese, they were 10% more likely to take a bet in the next round, irrespective of risk. This shows that emotions influence reasoning.

Going back to AI, as emotions cannot be truly implemented in a program – no matter how sophisticated it may be – the reasoning of the computer can never be changed by its feelings.

One possible interpretation of HAL’s strange “emotional” behaviour is that it was programmed to simulate emotions in extreme situations, where it would need to manipulate humans not on the basis of reasoning but by calling upon their emotional self, when human reason fails. This is the only way I can see that real world AI could convincingly simulate emotions in such circumstances.

In my opinion, we will not, ever, build a machine that feels, hopes, is scared, or happy. And because that is an absolute prerequisite to any claim that we have engendered artificial general intelligence, we will never create an artificial mind outside life.

This is precisely where the magic of 2001: A Space Odyssey lies. For a moment, we are led to believe the impossible, that pure science fiction can override the facts of the world we live in.

The Conversation

Guillaume Thierry does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The English language is the world's Achilles heel

Author: Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

Filtering information.pathdoc/Shutterstock

English has achieved prime status by becoming the most widely spoken language in the world – if one disregards proficiency – ahead of Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. English is spoken in 101 countries, while Arabic is spoken in 60, French in 51, Chinese in 33, and Spanish in 31. From one small island, English has gone on to acquire lingua franca status in international business, worldwide diplomacy, and science.

But the success of English – or indeed any language – as a “universal” language comes with a hefty price, in terms of vulnerability. Problems arise when English is a second language to either speakers, listeners, or both. No matter how proficient they are, their own understanding of English, and their first (or “native”) language can change what they believe is being said.

When someone uses their second language, they seem to operate slightly differently than when they function in their native language. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “foreign language effect”. Research from our group has shown that native speakers of Chinese, for example, tended to take more risks in a gambling game when they received positive feedback in their native language (wins), when compared to negative feedback (losses). But this trend disappeared – that is, they became less impulsive – when the same positive feedback was given to them in English. It was as if they are more rational in their second language.

While reduced impulsiveness when dealing in a second language can be seen as a positive thing, the picture is potentially much darker when it comes to human interactions. In a second language, research has found that speakers are also likely to be less emotional and show less empathy and consideration for the emotional state of others.

For instance, we showed that Chinese-English bilinguals exposed to negative words in English unconsciously filtered out the mental impact of these words. And Polish-English bilinguals who are normally affected by sad statements in their native Polish appeared to be much less disturbed by the same statements in English.

In another recent study by our group, we found that second language use can even affect one’s inclination to believe the truth. Especially when conversations touch on culture and intimate beliefs.

English is one of the most studied languages in the world.spaxiax/Shutterstock

Since second language speakers of English are a huge majority in the world today, native English speakers will frequently interact with non-native speakers in English, more so than any other language. And in an exchange between a native and a foreign speaker, the research suggests that the foreign speaker is more likely to be emotionally detached and can even show different moral judgements.


Read more: Why native English speakers fail to be understood in English – and lose out in global business


And there is more. While English provides a phenomenal opportunity for global communication, its prominence means that native speakers of English have low awareness of language diversity. This is a problem because there is good evidence that differences between languages go hand-in-hand with differences in conceptualisation of the world and even perception of it.

In 2009, we were able to show that native speakers of Greek, who have two words for dark blue and light blue in their language, see the contrast between light and dark blue as more salient than native speakers of English. This effect was not simply due to the different environment in which people are brought up in either, because the native speakers of English showed similar sensitivity to blue contrasts and green contrasts, the latter being very common in the UK.

On the one hand, operating in a second language is not the same as operating in a native language. But, on the other, language diversity has a big impact on perception and conceptions. This is bound to have implications on how information is accessed, how it is interpreted, and how it is used by second language speakers when they interact with others.

We can come to the conclusion that a balanced exchange of ideas, as well as consideration for others’ emotional states and beliefs, requires a proficient knowledge of each other’s native language. In other words, we need truly bilingual exchanges, in which all involved know the language of the other. So, it is just as important for English native speakers to be able to converse with others in their languages.

The US and the UK could do much more to engage in rectifying the world’s language balance, and foster mass learning of foreign languages. Unfortunately, the best way to achieve near-native foreign language proficiency is through immersion, by visiting other countries and interacting with local speakers of the language. Doing so might also have the effect of bridging some current political divides.


Read more: What will the English language be like in 100 years?


The Conversation

Guillaume Thierry has received funding from BBSRC, ESRC, AHRC, British Academy, and ERC

We're mapping wartime shipwrecks to explore the past – and help develop green energy projects

Author: Michael Roberts, SEACAMS R&D Project Manager, Centre for Applied Marine Sciences, Bangor University

The wreck of the British merchant ship SS Apapa, sunk by a German U-boat off Wales in 1917.Author provided

Wartime shipwrecks such as the USS Juneau– recently discovered in the Pacific Ocean by philanthropist Paul Allen and his team – are of great interest to both military historians and the general public. The USS Juneau was holed by a Japanese torpedo off the Solomon Islands in November 1942, and sank in more than 13,000 feet of water with the loss of 687 lives. Its discovery offers a hugely valuable insight into the fate of both the ship and its crew.

Many such wrecks lie in extremely deep, relatively clear waters and are the legacy of naval battles fought far out to sea. But some of the technologies and methods that are being used to locate and identify such sites are now being employed by scientists in shallower, sediment-rich UK waters for similar – and very different – purposes.

During both world wars, Britain relied heavily on shipping convoys to supply the nation via well-established maritime routes into major ports such as Liverpool, Cardiff and Bristol. But these busy marine “corridors” were also well known to enemy forces, and losses due to German U-boat attacks, mines and collisions due to enforced “blackouts” in the Irish Sea were significant throughout both conflicts. There are more than 200 such wreck sites around Wales and many have yet to be examined in any great detail.

Since 2014, via the SEACAMS project funded by the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO), scientists from the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor University have been using their research vessel Prince Madog– which is equipped with state-of-the-art multibeam sonar technology – to locate and survey vessels from both world wars. And in the Irish Sea alone, there are plenty to choose from.

How it works

The modern multibeam sonar systems on the Prince Madog generate very high resolution, three-dimensional models of the seafloor as the research vessel moves through the water over it. Depending on conditions and the specific systems used, these models can allow surveyors and scientists to identify objects at near centimetre scale. In water depths of 100 metres, typically found in the Irish Sea, researchers are generating models and images of wrecks that can help marine archaeologists to confirm their identity and even provide evidence of their demise. So far, more than 70 individual sites have been studied and it’s hoped that the project will survey around 100 new wreck sites this year.

While these wartime relics can provide valuable information to historians and archaeologists, they may also help lead to the birth of a new industry. The data being collected are providing scientists with unique insights into how these wrecks influence physical and biological processes in the ocean and this information is now being used to support the ambitions of the marine renewable energy (MRE) sector via research and development projects with developers such as Minesto in North Wales and Wave Hub in Pembrokeshire.

A number of MRE projects –– some being planned, some already underway – aim to capitalise on Wales’ excellent wave and tidal resources to create a sustainable energy supply. To assist in this, scientists at Bangor are now using shipwrecks as models and laboratories for predicting what will happen when key MRE-related infrastructure, such as foundations, turbines and cabling, are placed on the seabed at various locations.

Wrecks provide information on how the tide and currents have removed or deposited sediments and how the presence of these structures on the seabed have influenced these processes over time. Researchers are also looking at how these structures can act as artificial reefs, potentially increasing the number of fish in an area and attracting whales, dolphins and diving birds. Through repeat sonar surveys, the research is also examining how different wrecks are degrading and how these vessels may ultimately pose a risk of pollution to nearby coastlines.

The data gathered will be hugely useful to those behind MRE projects, allowing them to better predict how green energy infrastructure will effect – and be affected by – their undersea locations.

Looking deep

As with the surveys underway in the South Pacific, such as the one that discovered the USS Juneau, the research being conducted in the Irish Sea is also driven by a desire to improve our understanding of past conflicts.

The Heritage Lottery funded project, Commemorating the Forgotten U-boat War around the Welsh Coast, 1914-18, for example, is being led by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales in partnership with Bangor University and the Nautical Archaeology Society. It aims to highlight the fact that not all World War I battles and losses occurred along the Western Front – indeed, many raged within sight and sound of the UK coastline.

Image of the German U-87 submarine, lost after being rammed by HMS Buttercup on Boxing Day 1917 off Bardsey Island, Wales. All 43 crew members were lost.Author provided

They were also truly international incidents. Many of the ships sunk were British, French, Irish, Norwegian, Portuguese and Russian – with crews from all over the world. Many German vessels were sunk, too.

The surveys are also solving scores of mysteries. Of the shipwreck sites in the Irish Sea examined so far, we have found that 40% of the vessels have been incorrectly identified on maps and charts. Using the detailed models produced by the sonar technology – as well as naval archives, shipyard records and a little detective work – we hopefully can ensure these mistakes are corrected and that we know exactly what was sunk where. This will give us a far clearer picture of what now lies beneath the waves – and what such wrecks can tell us about the turbulent past of these oceans.

The Conversation

Michael Roberts receives funding from Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) via the SEACAMS2 project and through the Heritage Lottery Fund via the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales led 'U-Boat project'.

A great year for signed languages in film – and what we can learn from it

Author: Sara Louise Wheeler, Lecturer in Social Policy (Welsh medium), Bangor University

Joanne Libby

Looking back at the films released in 2017, and those honoured at the Oscars, it is quite remarkable to note the prominence of signed languages. Three films in particular stand out for their sensitive portrayals of signed languages as bona fide languages: Baby Driver, The Shape of Water and The Silent Child. Two of these films, Baby Driver and The Silent Child, also make an important contribution – both onscreen and off – towards recognising and respecting Deaf culture, identity, and community; they both have Deaf actors playing characters that demonstrate the importance of signed languages in their everyday lives.

Baby Driver

Baby Driver – which had two of its three 2018 Academy Award nominations for sound editing and mixing – contains a beautiful portrayal of American Sign Language (ASL) and its role in everyday life. Central character Baby/Miles and his Deaf foster father Joseph, discuss relationships, Baby’s involvement in criminal activity, and the slightly more mundane topic of preparing dinner to Joseph’s liking.

Baby Driver is also a landmark film because actor CJ Jones, who plays the role of Joseph, is Deaf and native to ASL. Studios often cast hearing actors in Deaf roles, but writer and director Edgar Wright stated that, having auditioned Jones, he found watching hearing actors pretend to be Deaf “difficult”. This is an interesting point in terms of cultural appropriation of Deaf identity and has been the subject of campaigning, including #DeafTalent. Meanwhile, Ansel Elgort, who played Baby/Miles, undertook lessons in ASL in order to “do it justice”.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water, which took four of the 2018 Academy Awards including best picture, is a magical realism tale, which follows a janitor at a government laboratory as she falls in love with a humanoid amphibian creature being held there. While protagonist Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) is not deaf, she is unable to verbalise. So Elisa communicates exclusively through ASL with her co-worker Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer), neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her amphibian lover (Doug Jones) who also cannot verbalise.

Through the unfolding love story, and her conversations about it with her friends, the power of ASL as a full and vibrant language is demonstrated. Elisa befriends the creature and teaches him ASL, as one would any language. She begs and convinces Giles to help her rescue the creature, conveying the depth of her emotional attachment and love. Having copulated with the creature, Elisa confides in Zelda the intimate and explicit details of the encounter. All of this complexity of everyday life is conveyed through ASL.

In an interview, Hawkins explained that Elisa’s signed language was a deliberate mixture of period-specific ASL and an “amalgamation of things Elisa would have cobbled together "because of where she’d probably have learnt it”. This is a good representation of the reality of many signers in this period and beyond. Signed languages were historically suppressed worldwide, in favour of lip reading and use of voice.

The Silent Child

The Silent Child, which was awarded best live action short film at the Oscars, conveys the isolation and dissociation of a profoundly deaf child, Libby, living with her hearing family, who assume she “follows things really well”. However, as we witness a family meal through Libby’s eyes, we can begin to appreciate that this is far from being the case. The situation improves with the arrival of a social worker, Joanne, who teaches Libby British Sign Language (BSL), enabling her to communicate and express herself. However, the film ends on an uncertain and emotional note, as Libby’s parents decide to cease her BSL sessions.

The film’s main character, Libby, is played by six-year-old Deaf actor Maisie Sly, a native to BSL. Rachel Shenton, who wrote and starred in the film as Joanne, made her Oscar acceptance speech in BSL.

The Silent Child is pro-BSL, while still illustrating the tensions between hearing and Deaf cultures, as BSL is still seen by many parents as a threat to family communication.

So, the films of 2017-18 have placed signed languages centre stage and generated much debate. But while attitudes towards them and Deaf culture may be improving, there is still a long way to go before anything nearing equality is achieved. It is thus gratifying to learn that the team behind The Silent Child are planning a full-length movie follow up, amid campaigning for children to be taught BSL in schools. Let’s hope that the momentum from this year can be maintained and built upon.

The Conversation

Sara Louise Wheeler does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.