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Our Research News pages contain an abundance of research related articles, covering recent research output nad topical issues.
Our researchers publish across a wide range of subjects and topics and across a range of news platforms. The articles below are a few of those published on TheConversation.com.
Wales's tourism problem is down to a disconnect with its own people
Author: Euryn Rhys Roberts, Lecturer in Medieval and Welsh History, Bangor University
Wales is a country bursting with ancient culture and beautiful landscapes. It is home to a vibrant people, who are intensely proud of their heritage. It sounds like the perfect place for many a traveller to visit – so why then, has it long struggled to attract foreign tourism?
In 2017, more than one million trips were taken to Wales by overseas visitors. This very modest 0.5% increase on 2016 was accompanied by a steep drop in international tourists’ spending – down by 17% from £444m to £369m. These figures were in sharp contrast to London (up 14% to £13,546m) and Scotland (up 23% to £2,276m).
Dwelling too much on this disparity – when both London and Scotland are better connected and internationally more visible – would be a self-flagellating enterprise. But Wales may have expected better after a £5m Welsh government spend on a “Year of Legends” marketing campaign. Putting the heritage of Wales – its legends, landscapes and castles – at the fore was meant to highlight some of its unique selling points.
But while the nation tried to market its “Welshness” abroad, at home it was confused as to what this even meant. Proposals including a giant “iron ring” sculpture at Flint Castle and a nostalgic flirtation with marketing Wales internationally as a “principality” were met with anger and accusations that the devolved government had forgotten the very history it was trying to sell.
Sadly, however, none of this is a new problem – Wales has been struggling with foreign tourism for decades – and it is largely down to this disconnection.
Years of failed promises
During the 1970s and 1980s, Wales’s share of the total amount spent by international visitors to the UK never hovered much higher than about 2%. Then as now, focusing on heritage and culture was seen as a way of addressing the changing tastes and trends which had eaten away at the traditional rural and coastal resort market.
Much has been made of the series of themed years which began in 2016 with the “Year of Adventure”. But Wales has also done this before: 1976 was the “Welcome America Year” while 1983 was the “Year of the Castles”. What was intended as an unproblematic tourist promotion, the year of castles actually became a matter of some controversy in Wales – the castles were mainly built by invaders leading some to criticise it as a celebration of the 1282-3 conquest of the native principality of Wales, and its subjection to the crown of England.
Nevertheless, the plan went ahead, with a year-long festival – Cestyll ’83 (Castles ‘83) – at its heart. Though directed and publicised from above, it largely relied on the action of local authorities and voluntary organisations. The only directive was that any activities – from charity pram pushes to medieval pageants – should “take place in or near a Welsh castle”. The Wales Tourist Board would eventually claim that some 200 events in Wales during 1983 were inspired by the festival.
Festival of shame
Using a castle-shaped stand, the festival was launched at the World Travel Market in London in December 1982. This was followed, at the end of February 1983, with a domestic and royal launch attended by Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, at Caerphilly Castle. Like all commemoration it had a whiff of self-congratulation and a gratuitous swagger. It was also all too easy for the Wales Tourist Board to slip in that the festival was a celebration of the seventh centenary of the building of some of Wales’s most famous castles – such as Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech – all of which were built by Edward I to secure his conquests.
As a result, the festival was dubbed a “festival of shame”. Modern grievances were transferred onto Edward’s castles. Weren’t these, questioned some, the first English holiday homes in Wales?
That’s not to say it wasn’t a success – on the commercial side, the increase in visitors and buzz it created played a key role in the establishment of the government’s historic environment service CADW to maximise the tourist potential of the country’s heritage. On the cultural side, it highlighted that the medieval heritage of Wales could not be treated as unproblematic. While making mistakes and forgetting its history might be an indicator that Welsh nationhood is alive and kicking – under French historian Ernest Renan’s famous definition of what makes a nation– the castles of Wales remain saddled, it would seem, with a heritage which is both a blessing and a curse. In the present as in the past, Welsh castles have been a source of conflict and cultural exchange.
Tourism may be about commodifying locations – but if Wales wants its own people on board it needs to ask itself what it wants from the country’s heritage beyond potential economic gain. Locals and long-distance travellers might pay more attention to the country if its public history was known for its debate and controversy – and not as a bland footnote to English and British history.
Either way, Wales needs to come up with a solution that both the Welsh agree with and foreign visitors can engage with. The ongoing disconnect is evidently doing nothing to sell the nation to the world.
Euryn Rhys Roberts 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 ways that natural nanotechnology could inspire human design
Author: John Thomas Prabhakar, Lecturer of Physical Chemistry (Nanocrystals and Nanoparticles), Bangor University
Though nanotechnology is portrayed as a fairly recent human invention, nature is actually full of nanoscopic architectures. They underpin the essential functions of a variety of life forms, from bacteria to berries, wasps to whales.
In fact, tactful use of the principles of nanoscience can be traced to natural structures that are over 500m-years-old. Below are just five sources of inspiration that scientists could use to create the next generation of human technology.
1. Structural colours
The colouration of several types of beetles and butterflies is produced by sets of carefully spaced nanoscopic pillars. Made of sugars such as chitosan, or proteins like keratin, the widths of slits between the pillars are engineered to manipulate light to achieve certain colours or effects like iridescence.
One benefit of this strategy is resilience. Pigments tend to bleach with exposure to light, but structural colours are stable for remarkably long periods. A recent study of structural colouration in metallic-blue marble berries, for example, featured specimens collected in 1974, which had maintained their colour despite being long dead.
Another advantage is that colour can be changed by simply varying the size and shape of the slits, and by filling the pores with liquids or vapours too. In fact, often the first clue to the presence of structural colouration is a vivid colour change after the specimen has been soaked in water. Some wing structures are so sensitive to air density in the slits that colour changes are seen in response to temperature too.
2. Long range visibility
In addition to simply deflecting light at an angle to achieve the appearance of colour, some ultra-thin layers of slit panels completely reverse the direction of the travel of light rays. This deflection and blocking of light can work together to create stunning optical effects such as a single butterfly’s wings with half-a-mile visibility, and beetles with brilliant white scales, measuring a slim five micrometers. In fact, these structures are so impressive that they can outperform artificially engineered structures that are 25 times thicker.
Gecko feet can bind firmly to practically any solid surface in milliseconds, and detach with no apparent effort. This adhesion is purely physical with no chemical interaction between the feet and surface.
The active adhesive layer of the gecko’s foot is a branched nanoscopic layer of bristles called “spatulae”, which measure about 200 nanometers in length. Several thousand of these spatulae are attached to micron sized “seta”. Both are made of very flexible keratin. Though research into the finer details of the spatulae’s attachment and detachment mechanism is ongoing, the very fact that they operate with no sticky chemical is an impressive feat of design.
Gecko’s feet have other fascinating features too. They are self-cleaning, resistant to self-matting (the seta don’t stick to each other) and are detached by default (including from each other). These features have prompted suggestions that in the future, glues, screws and rivets could all be made from a single process, casting keratin or similar material into different moulds.
4. Porous strength
The strongest form of any solid is the single crystal state – think diamonds – in which atoms are present in near perfect order from one end of the object to the other. Things like steel rods, aircraft bodies and car panels are not single crystalline, but polycrystalline, similar in structure to a mosaic of grains. So, in theory, the strength of these materials could be improved by increasing the grain size, or by making the whole structure single crystalline.
Single crystals can be very heavy, but nature has a solution for this in the form of nanostructured pores. The resultant structure – a meso-crystal – is the strongest form of a given solid for its weight category. Sea urchin spines and nacre (mother of pearl) are both made of meso-crystalline forms. These creatures have lightweight shells and yet can reside at great depths where the pressure is high.
In theory, meso-crystalline materials can be manufactured, although using existing processes would require a lot of intricate manipulation. Tiny nanoparticles would have to be spun around until they line up with atomic precision to other parts of the growing mesocrystals, and then they would need to be gelled together around a soft spacer to eventually form a porous network.
5. Bacterial navigation
Magnetotactic bacteria posses the extraordinary ability to sense minute magnetic fields, including the Earth’s own, using small chains of nanocrystals called magnetosomes. These are grains sized between 30–50 nanometers, made of either magnetite (a form of iron oxide) or, less commonly, greghite (an iron sulphur combo). Several features of magnetosomes work together to produce a foldable “compass needle”, many times more sensitive than man-made counterparts.
Though these “sensors” are only used for navigating short distances (magnetotactic bacteria are pond-dwelling), their precision is incredible. Not only can they find their way, but varying grain size means that they can retain information, while growth is restricted to the most magnetically sensitive atomic arrangements.
However, as oxygen and sulphur combine voraciously with iron to produce magnetite, greghite or over 50 other compounds – only a few of which are magnetic – great skill is required to selectively produce the correct form, and create the magnetosome chains. Such dexterity is currently beyond our reach but future navigation could be revolutionised if scientists learn how to mimic these structures.
John Thomas Prabhakar 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.
Unused £321m trapped on dormant Oyster cards – and time may be running out to get it back
Author: Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, Professor of Business History and Bank Management, Bangor UniversityPrachandra Shakya, PhD Candidate, Bangor University
It is 15 years since Transport for London (TfL) launched the Oyster card on London’s buses and tube trains, but Oyster hasn’t had a very happy birthday.
Instead of cake, candles and raised glasses, news broke that money trapped on dormant Oyster cards amounts to £321m, a princely sum that has effectively been loaned, interest-free from the public to TfL. This “mountain of cash” exists as credit on cards that haven’t been used for at least a year – either lost, damaged, abandoned, or stashed away.
To followers of Oyster-nomics, this is just one more episode in a marked decline affecting Oyster and similar top-up based systems. More and more cards have been slipping into disuse, while the percentage of journeys using Oyster has plummeted. Where did these troubles come from, and might the so-called cash mountain be the final straw?
Oyster vs Octopus
To understand Oyster’s problems, we need to take a look at its history.
London was not the first world city to introduce labour-saving methods on its public transport, and there have been many attempts to use technology to ease the passage of commuters cramming into buses and trains. In the 1960s, the Japanese launched a cardboard ticket with a magnetic stripe on the back. The system is still used today, including on some British railway lines and the Mexico City metro.
In Hong Kong during the 1990s a diverse group of companies collaborated to develop Octopus – a payment card with a chip that dramatically reduced the city’s use of cash. Initially, the card solely served the city’s vast transport network – a direct forerunner of Oyster – but slowly expanded to include convenience stores, fast food restaurants and more.
By December 2017, more than 10,000 Hong Kong shops and service providers were accepting Octopus payments from 34m cards – accounting for 15m transactions a day. These corresponded to a daily spend of around HK$194m (£18.7m).
The Oyster card seems brittle by comparison. While Octopus morphed into a contactless, stored value smart card capable of online and offline transactions, Oyster remains a glorified travel card. TfL oversees 3.99 billion journeys every year, so have easily had the influence and financial muscle to help develop Oyster if they had wanted. Predominantly, they have chosen not to.
At one stage there were ambitions to expand the Oyster network to Britain’s ATMs, so that customers would be able to top-up at any hole-in-the-wall. But in the course of our ATM research, interviewees in the banking sector suggested it was political infighting in LINK – the sole ATM network in the UK – that kept the plans on the shelf, rather than any technological or commercial concern. A clear missed opportunity for Oyster to develop, Octopus-esque, and establish similar schemes across the country.
As it is, while some global counterparts have evolved to keep up with the new applications of contactless technology, Oyster has been touching in and out the same way since 2003.
Going for gold
Perhaps unexpectedly, the 2012 London Olympics dealt the Oyster card a body blow. Preparations for the games included plans to make Olympic sites “cash-free zones” in a bid to cut queues and stop criminals targeting visitors.
After much lobbying, this led to TfL starting to accept EMV payments. “EMV” – “Europay, Mastercard, Visa” – refers to technical specifications which, within specific guidelines, make chips in payment cards and point-of-sale terminals compatible. This allowed contactless bank cards to be used instead of Oyster, initially on London’s 8,500-strong fleet of red buses.
By the end of 2013, London’s entire network of buses, tube trains, trams, metropolitan rail lines, and TfL-operated river boats was open to EMV payments, and in 2014 TfL doubled down by banning cash payment for bus fares. At the time, fewer than 40% of the 96m debit cards and 58m credit cards in the UK were contactless, but by the end of 2017, 70% of all payment cards had contactless capabilities. Similar trends were expected in the wallets of many of London’s 15m or so annual overseas visitors.
Since the London Olympics in 2012, Oyster travel has dropped by 20%, while EMV journeys grew from 79,421 in 2014 to 723,098 in 2017– a factor of more than nine. The number of unused Oyster cards doubled between 2013 and 2017 from 27m to 53m. As for the cash mountain, that’s been growing by an average of 25% per year since 2014, from £123m to the whopping £321m now quoted in the press.
An Oyster with no pearl
In effect, punters have loaned TfL this money, interest-free, and there’s no guarantee it will be fully returned. When breaking the news, Liberal Democrat London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon stated that it was “time TfL devoted far more time and energy telling the public how they can get their own money back.”
But as with energy companies, TfL has no financial incentive to persuade the public to withdraw their balances. Gas bills at least are usually large enough to jerk the claimant into action, whereas Oyster balances are spread across 76m units (73% of which have lain dormant for a year or more), each containing an average of £2.86. One solution would be to imitate airlines and air miles – TfL could set a deadline by which to withdraw dormant money, or lose anything that goes unclaimed.
This dormant money has set off alarm bells across the pre-paid industry, and shows how non-financial organisations can heavily affect the way payment methods develop. In this case the bargaining power clearly lies with the transport operator (TfL) and not the user as, regardless of people’s preferences, they have to conform to the operator’s choice of payment method. Whether Oyster stays or goes will depend on TfL’s strategy, not on benefits to users.
Nevertheless, this is just one narrative in a much wider story: cash transactions are digitising, payment methods proliferating, and top-up systems like Oyster must evolve quickly or face extinction. Advances barely on the horizon a few years ago are now setting the industry standard, and the Oyster card has spent 15 years in stasis. One day soon it may be touching out for good.
Bernardo Bátiz-Lazo has received funding to research ATM and payments history from the British Academy, Fundación de Estudios Financieros (Fundef-ITAM), Charles Babbage Institute and the Hagley Museum and Archives. He is also active in the ATM Industry Association, consults with KAL ATM Software and is a regular contributor to www.atmmarketplace.com.
Prachandra Shakya 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.
Pristine Antarctic fjords contain similar levels of microplastics to open oceans near big civilisations
Author: Alexis Janosik, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of West FloridaDavid Barnes, Data Interpretation Ecologist, British Antarctic SurveyJames Scourse, Professor of Physical Geography, University of ExeterKatrien Van Landeghem, Senior Lecturer in Marine Geology, Bangor University
In the middle of the last century, mass-produced, disposable plastic waste started washing up on shorelines, and to be found in the middle of the oceans. This has since become an increasingly serious problem, spreading globally to even the most remote places on Earth. Just a few decades later, in the 1970s, scientists found the same problem was occurring at a much less visible, microscopic level, with microplastics.
These particles of plastic are between 0.05mm and 5mm in size. Larger pieces of plastic can be broken down into microplastics but these tiny bits of plastic also come from deliberate additions to all sorts of products, from toothpaste to washing power.
Now, with major global sampling efforts, it has become clear that microplastics are dispersing all over the world – in the water column, sediments, and marine animal diets – even reaching as far south as the pristine environments of Antarctica.
While this plastic problem has become more prevalent, one of the most pristine ecosystems on Earth, the fjords of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, have been revealed by retreating glaciers.
Tucked between islands and the mainland, the coast along the Western Antarctic Peninsula has long, narrow inlets created by glaciers. During the last 50 years, these fjords have physically changed, due to reduced sea ice cover and because nearly 90% of glaciers have retreated in this region. These processes have exposed the ocean floor of many of the fjords for the first time.
The potential for microplastics to impact this environment and its marine life is huge – and we’re now working to figure out the depth of the effect that microplastic pollution is having on the newly colonised habitats. Any microplastics recovered in the Southern Ocean, particularly in newly formed ecosystems, raise alarm. They not only indicate that the area has been affected, but that plastic pollution is increasingly ubiquitous too.
In November 2017, our multidisciplinary UK-Chile-US-Canada research team – known as ICEBERGS – joined the RRS James Clark Ross (an ice strengthened research ship) and headed to Antarctica’s northernmost fjords. Our goal was, and still is, to gain a better understanding of how the environment and organisms evolve in newly emerging and colonising habitats in Antarctica. We are particularly interested in the marine ecosystems on the ocean floor, so have been looking at areas such as Marian Cove and Börgen Bay on the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where communities have only developed in the last few decades – due to the retreating glaciers.
Thriving marine ecosystems can act as climate regulators. When ice retreats, new, pristine fjordic habitats are revealed and phytoplankton blooms occur. These help to counteract climate change because they take carbon dioxide gas out of the atmosphere. New productive seabed habitat also becomes available for the diverse shallow water fauna that eat this algae, and store the carbon long term. Not counteracting climate change, however, is the fact that new open water absorbs heat faster, in contrast to ice that would have reflected it.
The animals colonising the exposed fjords face challenging conditions. The sediment and fresh water flowing in the glacier melt runoff make it very difficult for many organisms to survive. And, if exposed to them, microplastics can be a serious concern for many marine animals, especially filter-feeding organisms (for example krill, and other zooplankton). As these creatures filter water to obtain food, they may ingest microplastics which can clog and block their feeding appendages, limiting food intake. Ingested microplastics may be transferred to the circulatory system too, which can cause an increased immune response.
Microplastics may also bring in new bacteria and chemical pollutants attached to them too. So, because many filter-feeding organisms support the entire food web, any impact on them should be expected to have cascading effects on the ecosystem.
In newly revealed habitats, creatures are less likely to have been impacted by marine pollutants previously so they can help us learn about more recent changes in an environment. To our knowledge, microplastics have not been found in the Antarctic fjords before now, but our preliminary results have already found an alarmingly high presence – similar to those found in the open water of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, near big civilisations.
These results came from samples taken directly from the fjords, and we are now looking further at the evidence of how micro-organisms are being affected by microplastics. During the next two Antarctic summers, we will be collecting more geophysical, physical oceanographic, sedimentological and biological data from these pristine sites in the same locations, so we can compare the changes over time in the habitats that colonise new ocean floor in Antarctic fjords.
Only after such rigorous data collection and analysis will we be able to tell the true impact of microplastics on pristine environments. Until then, we can all do our bit to cut down on potential pollution and protect what may very well be the last pristine environments on Earth.
David Barnes receives funding from Natural Environment Research Council grants.
James Scourse received funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council and CONICYT for this research.
Katrien Van Landeghem acknowledges the financial support provided by the Welsh Government and Higher Education Funding Council for Wales through the Sêr Cymru National Research Network for Low Carbon, Energy and Environment, and she receives funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council for this research.
Alexis Janosik 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.
Why football may still be coming home... to France
Author: Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, Bangor University
When England hosted the 1996 European Championships, a song by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds inspired the popular chant: “football’s coming home”. Ahead of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia, many fans were again talking about football coming home. But were they right to do so? After all, there is a chance that football will still be coming home – despite England’s elimination.
Given their team’s recent performances and their country’s role in the history of football, the French also have reason to feel that football may soon be “coming home”. This idea may be hard to swallow for some English fans, not least those who are getting the lyrics wrong.
Jules Rimet – the World Cup founder mentioned in the chorus of Football’s coming home – was French. So was Henri Delaunay, who is generally seen as the brains behind the European Championships. So was Gabriel Hanot, the L'Equipe journalist credited with founding the European Cup (now Champions League). Indeed, football’s world governing body the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, was founded in Paris in 1904 and its first president was another French journalist, Robert Guérin.
France has had a long history of establishing international sports tournaments and organisations. This in part stems from influential Frenchmen in the late 19th century such as Philippe Tissié, Paschal Grousset, and Pierre de Coubertin who became convinced of the educational and physical benefits of sport.
De Coubertin is best-known as the founder of the modern Olympics and he initially wanted the first games to take place in Paris, to coincide with the city’s 1900 Exposition Universelle. For De Coubertin and others, the development of international sport provided France with an instrument of soft power.
England were at this time somewhat suspicious of international sporting organisations, as the football sociologist John Williams has mentioned. It didn’t send a team to the World Cup until 1950, fully 20 years after the first tournament in Uruguay.
Nonetheless, England is often perceived as the home of football due to its role in the early development of the game. Sheffield FC (founded 1857) is heralded as the world’s first football team. The Football Association (FA), established in 1863, is the oldest national football association in the world and it is the FA that helped create the basis for the rules of football that exist today.
France’s oldest football team Le Havre were in fact created in 1872 by Englishmen working in the city’s port. Their sky blue and navy halved shirts represent the alma mater of the club’s founders, namely the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Le Havre’s club anthem even adopts the same tune as “God Save the Queen”.
However, Williams was right that it is not easy to define where football’s true home is to be found. The line “football’s coming home” appears to hint at a sense of entitlement and ownership when it comes to England’s relationship with football.
Yet football is a global game. Its governing body FIFA may have been founded in Paris, but its headquarters are now located in Zurich, Switzerland. England is no longer home to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that is responsible for the laws of football. Its headquarters are now also in Zurich.
‘Never understood anything about football’
Given the role that France has played in football becoming a major international sport, are many French people talking about football potentially “coming home” this summer? In short, they’re not. This is largely due to football occupying a very different place in French as opposed to English culture.
France has a larger population than England, but less than half as many professional football teams. Prior to the launch of cable channel Canal Plus in 1984, relatively little domestic football was shown on French television. Nevertheless, hosting and winning the 1998 World Cup led to increased interest in football.
Since then, high-profile failures in several major tournaments have led to France’s leading footballers facing lots of criticism back home over their bad attitudes. In 2012, French football magazine So Foot hit back and claimed that France was a “country that has never understood anything about football”. These comments appeared in a special issue on “Why France doesn’t like its footballers”. France was also described in the title of a book that year by the journalist Joachim Barbier as “This country that doesn’t like football”, or Ce pays qui n'aime pas le foot, subtitled “why France misunderstands football and its culture”.
At a time when France has faced economic challenges and an increased threat from terrorism, football has the potential to boost the national mood. This year’s World Cup Final will take place the day after a national holiday that marks Bastille Day. A victory by Les Bleus would give France good reason to claim le football revient chez lui two decades after its iconic 1998 World Cup victory.
More evidence-based articles about football and the World Cup:
Jonathan Ervine 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.
Theresa May was right to reimpose collective ministerial responsibility – it's the only way to govern
Author: Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Law, Bangor University
It lasted for 48 hours. Two days after Theresa May told Conservative ministers that they must adhere to the convention of collective responsibility and support the agreed Brexit plan, the prime minister had to accept the resignation of her Brexit secretary, David Davis, and foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
In his resignation letter, Davis wrote that he did not support the new agreed strategy and was following the collective responsibility convention in resigning.
Collective responsibility only concerns ministers in government serving within the cabinet. Dating back to the 18th century, it is a constitutional convention which holds that members of the cabinet should support all governmental decisions. While it’s a convention rather than a legal requirement, ministers are nonetheless expected to show a “united front” for all government actions and policies.
In practice, this means that decisions taken by the cabinet are binding on all its members. While a minister may disagree in private, they must still publicly support the agreed position. According to the Cabinet Manual, should a minister feel they cannot abide by the public “united front” requirement, then they must resign.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the convention in practice was the resignation of Robin Cook in 2003 as leader of the House of Commons for Tony Blair’s Labour government. Under the collective responsibility rules, Cook was unable to publicly speak out about his objections to the war in Iraq. Following the tenets of the convention, he resigned from his office, and spoke from the backbenches of his disagreement with the government’s position.
Such a principled approach to collective responsibility saw Cook receive a standing ovation. Nonetheless, such resignations over not toeing government lines are rare, as more often than not individual ministers want to hold on to government office.
While it is largely up to the prime minister to enforce the convention, it is seen as more politically honourable – and better for the party – for a minister to resign when they want to speak out against the government’s collective position.
Agreeing to differ
The Cabinet Manual makes it clear that collective responsibility applies in all instances, “save where it is explicitly set aside”. As the Labour prime minister James Callaghan remarked in 1977: “I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce it does not.”
The suspension of collective responsibility – otherwise known as an “agreement to differ” – is rare. Within the UK, it has only been implemented on six previous occasions– ranging from the first on the issue of tariff policy in 1932, to proposals for alternative voting systems during general elections under the 2010 coalition agreement.
Both referendums pertaining to the European Union – the first in 1975 on UK membership of the European Economic Community, and the second on the 2016 Brexit referendum– carried a temporary suspension of collective responsibility on the specific issues.
Since David Cameron gave his cabinet freedom to differ over Brexit, there has been a progressive (and very public) weakening of cabinet collective responsibility.
Even before his resignation as foreign secretary, Johnson had repeatedly criticised the government’s approach to Brexit. The treasury minister, Liz Truss, has openly criticised “male macho” cabinet colleagues. In particular, the perceived “hot air” coming out of the Department for the Environment – with the suggestion that “wood burning Goves” are trying to tell us how to live our lives.
Cameron only gave his ministers freedom to differ over Brexit. However, reinstating collective responsibility has been a significant challenge for May’s administration. And she has now lost two ministers who could not adhere to it.
Why it must now endure
For May’s administration to survive, collective unity – alongside confidence and trust – is now needed. Remaining within the cabinet, and publicly speaking out against an agreed direction, weakens unity, causes confusion, and undermines the leadership of the prime minister.
The convention is crucial as it is the government that leads the policy and direction of the country. Its requirements are based on the foundations that unity is needed to deliver the government’s agenda, and projects stability, strength and leadership both domestically and overseas.
A united front among ministers is necessary for political stability. Without such, the lack of unity has consequences for the UK’s ability to negotiate with the EU, while also carrying economic and trade implications.
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.
Why we explored an undisturbed rainforest hidden on top of an African mountain
Author: Simon Willcock, Lecturer in Environmental Geography, Bangor UniversityPhil Platts, Research Fellow, University of York
Atop Mount Lico in northern Mozambique is a site that few have had the pleasure of seeing – a hidden rainforest, protected by a steep circle of rock. Though the mountain was known to locals, the forest itself remained a secret until six years ago, when Julian Bayliss spotted it on satellite imagery. It wasn’t until last year, however, that he revealed his discovery, at the Oxford Nature Festival.
We recently visited the 700 metre-high mountaintop rainforest in an expedition organised by Bayliss, in collaboration with Mozambique’s Natural History Museum and National Herbarium. As far as anyone knew (including the locals), we would be the first people to set foot there (spoiler: we weren’t).
Since the rainforest’s discovery, Lico has received worldwide attention. That it captured the public’s imagination speaks volumes about how rare such places are. Humans are nothing if not adventurous, pushing our range boundaries like no other species can. But when almost every corner of the planet now shows signs of human activity, how do conservation scientists justify visiting and publicising these last bastions of untrodden nature?
From our perspective, the answer depends on what expeditions like this can teach us about the natural world, our place in it, and how to shepherd the wildest of places through the Anthropocene. Standing back and crossing our collective fingers is not always a winning strategy. This expedition formed part of a long-standing research programme into these mountains, that aims to provide evidence to legally protect Mozambique’s mountain forests. Currently none of northern Mozambique’s mountains are formally protected, either nationally or internationally. Finding new species is one way to highlight the importance of such sites and justify their protection.
As well as exploring Mount Lico, the expedition was the first to undertake a biological survey of nearby Mount Socone. Every bit as majestic and species rich as the iconic Lico, Socone highlights the threat faced by many forests in Mozambique, Africa and elsewhere. Globally, one football pitch worth of forest is lost every second, driving countless species to extinction. The removal of trees from mountain slopes also leads to soil erosion, flooding in the wet season and water shortages in the dry season.
On our first day on Socone, we set out to locate the middle of the forest using a satellite image and GPS. However, the difference between what this image was telling us and what we could see was vast. As we walked towards what the image showed as the heart of lush rainforest, we could see the warm glow of the African sun. Soon enough, we emerged from beneath the canopy and into newly established farmland. Without the protective cover of the forest, heavy rains will pound these exposed mountain soils, fresh cuts will need to be made, and so the cycle repeats. Media attention on neighbouring Lico, and the new species descriptions coming out of both sites, help to bring these conservation and livelihood issues to the world’s attention.
Our brief footsteps on Lico will soon be overgrown, and the plants and animals that live there will continue to be protected by the same towering cliffs (more than 125 metres high) that have saved them up to now (without the help of world-class climbers, our expedition would not have been possible).
But the impact of people goes far beyond where we have actually managed to set foot. Since the industrial revolution, humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels higher than at any time in the past 400,000 years, increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns. Despite being situated on a fortress of rock, Lico’s forest is vulnerable to climate change, like every other ecosystem on the planet.
The contrast between protection from direct human activities but exposure to climate change means that Lico has a lot to teach us. Most forests experience both of these processes simultaneously, and so it is difficult to unravel their relative and interacting impacts. Through the data collected on Lico, Socone and other forests worldwide, we gain a greater understanding of how human disturbance affects the ability of forests to respond to environmental change.
Lico is a rare data point on this map: millennia of climate change and ecological response, played out in the absence of direct human disturbance. Reconstructing this history meant digging a two metre-deep pit in the forest, so that we could sample the layers of soil in the order that they accumulated. We tried to minimise any lasting effects on the forest (the hole was filled and topsoil replaced) but nonetheless, reasonable objections can be made against our disturbing this previously pristine site.
What we gained were a series of time capsules: each little tin of soil contains information on the plants that grew, the fires that burned and the water that flowed, data that will be shared in open access repositories, allowing people worldwide to investigate this unique site without the need for further disturbance. What we learn from Lico will help the world understand how forests might be affected by future changes in climate.
So were we really the first humans on Lico? Well, not quite. To everyone’s surprise, we found ancient pots, ceremonially placed near the source of a stream that flows to a waterfall down the side of the cliff. Were these placed there during a time of drought, as the waterfall ran dry and the crops failed?
Archaeologists and climate scientists are investigating. Given the pots pre-date local knowledge, the incredible inaccessibility and lack of any other signs of human activity, Lico’s forest remains one of the least disturbed on the planet. One thing’s for sure though – humans really do get everywhere.
Simon Willcock received funding for this expedition from Bangor University. The expedition was part-funded by the TransGlobe Expedition Trust, Biocensus, the African Butterfly Research Institute, DMM Climbing, and Marmot tents.
Phil Platts receives funding from the University of York's Environment Department. The expedition was part-funded by the TransGlobe Expedition Trust, Biocensus, the African Butterfly Research Institute, DMM Climbing, and Marmot tents.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Hans-Peter Kubis ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de parts, ne reçoit pas de fonds d'une organisation qui pourrait tirer profit de cet article, et n'a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son poste universitaire.
Why Wales was right to say yes to the UK's Brexit Bill
Author: Stephen Clear, Lecturer in Law, Bangor University
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.
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 insensitive” clause 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Anita Malhotra 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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.