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Dr Jonathan Bell from the Department of History wonders why the race to the White House is still too close to call…

‘There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,’ commented Mitt Romney in a video clip recorded at a fundraiser in September.

This was one of the most controversial moments in the current US presidential campaign so far and, despite the fact that Romney recently disavowed the statement and impressed in the first tv debate, should have done irreparable damage to the challenger’s campaign.

With Romney’s further comments that ‘forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax,’ and that his role ‘is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,’ it seems staggering that with under two weeks left until the election, the race to the White House is still too close to call.

So what’s Obama done wrong?

Romney’s attempt in the video to lay out in sharp relief the fundamental gulf between his political worldview and that of President Obama, reveals much about the highly charged debate raging in the United States over the future direction of the country. The fact that in making such a statement Romney did not deliver a self knockout blow demonstrates how powerful notions of individualism and freedom from state control remain despite the economic cataclysm of 2008.

The 2012 election is a referendum on how far government can be trusted to nurture a fairer society, a debate that has been raging for at least a hundred years but which has now reached fever pitch.

In response to a similarly devastating economic depression in the 1930s President Roosevelt set up the modern American social welfare system with the Social Security Act, and won a second term by a landslide despite failing to end the Great Depression. That welfare system expanded gradually through the 1950s and 1960s, notably with the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and Republican Ronald Reagan was unable to curtail government programmes as much as he wanted.

Yet America’s relationship with Big Government remained uneasy and tentative, and notions of the ‘undeserving poor’ were powerful weapons in the Republican arsenal when they took control of Congress in the 1990s. The economic crisis of recent years has only heightened conservative attacks on government, as they see attempts to spend stimulus money or make the state an arbiter of health care provision as reckless extravagant schemes that risk wrecking the US economy on the shoals of fiscal ruin.

But if FDR was able to win a second term despite opponents’ cries of socialism and in spite of the lingering misery of economic crisis, why is Obama having such difficulty painting Romney as uncaring and aloof, happy to cut taxes on the rich while millions of Americans suffer unemployment and job insecurity?

The problem lies in the very success of the New Deal mission over the last eighty years. Most Americans benefit from government aid: through a bewildering array of tax breaks, old age pensions, health care for the elderly and for a majority of mothers and children, farm subsidies, to name a few examples.

But the majority don’t consider themselves part of Romney’s 47 percent. They don’t see their own tax breaks or health care as a handout, but are susceptible to appeals that Democrats want to extend the social safety net to the underserving.

Obama has failed to get across the message that Romney was wrong not because the 47% figure was too high, but because it was too low: corporate America also depends on government, the middle class depend on government, and the poor in many ways get the least from government.

The persistence of the myth, a myth Obama himself cannot quite dare to explode,  that all but undeserving shirkers gain economic security purely from their own efforts, is making it easier to attack Obama than it should be and could lead him passing on the Oval Office keys to Governor Romney.

Dr Jonathan Bell is Head of the Department of History and is interested in the political history of the United States since the Great Depression, in particular the relationship between political ideas and social change. He works mainly on the politics of the post-1945 era, looking at ways in which the theory and practice of liberalism and conservatism changed in the three decades since 1929.

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Dr Julie Hawkins from the School of Biological Sciences discusses recent research which aims to revitalise the hunt for new plant-based medicines.

The earliest medicines were derived from plants, and the first doctors were trained in botany. Today, many societies rely directly on plants and plant knowledge for the health of their people, and a large proportion of pharmaceutical medicines are derived from plants. These pharmaceuticals are often used in ways which reflect traditional use of the species from which they have been derived.

Despite the importance of plants to health, however, there is some controversy as to whether new drugs could be derived from them. Recent developments in drug discovery have made use of robotic screening of compound libraries, whist bioprospecting based on traditional knowledge of plant use has fallen out of favour. Some have argued that useful pharmaceuticals are unlikely to be discovered amongst the ‘riches of the rainforests’. There are issues surrounding recognising the intellectual property of the people discovering and using these plants, which is seen as politically complex, and this discourages investment. In addition, collecting traditionally used plants for screening is time consuming and relies on expertise in botany and ethnobotany. Furthermore, some have argued that plant use may not be indicative of bioactivity, so screening plants used by traditional healers may not yield valuable insights.

Research I have been involved in has recently looked at a novel way of evaluating plants used by traditional healers to address this. We considered the phylogenies, or ‘family trees’ of the plants found in three global biodiversity hotspots. By using DNA sequences to work out how plants in these regions were related, we were able to see whether plants usedby traditonal healers in different regions were closely related to each other. The geographic regions we selected for the study were ones unlikely to have exchanged knowledge about traditional plants – Nepal, New Zealand and South Africa. We found that in these regions the same closely-related plants were used by traditional healers, and interestingly were used to treat the same conditions. 

The fact that evolutionarily related plants are used in different regions, even though the same species are not present, strongly suggests an independent discovery of plants which share the same or similar health properties.  This new finding could revitalise the search for valuable plant medicines. Targeted screening of plants with a high potential for having health benefits would reduce the time investment in collecting species, and also make it easier to negotiate fair and equitable distribution of benefits with the originators of the knowledge.

Dr Julie Hawkins works in the School of Biological Sciences and is interested in the application of molecular marker data to determine identity, parentage and provenance of economically important plant species. This research has recently been published in PNAS: Haris Saslis-Lagoudakis, Vincent Savolainen, Elizabeth M. Williamson, Félix Forest, Steven J. Wagstaff, Sushim R. Baral, Mark F. Watson, Colin A. Pendry & Julie A. Hawkins. ‘Phylogenies reveal predictive power of traditional medicine in bioprospecting’ PNAS (2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1202242109.

 

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On world food day Professor Richard Tiffin from the University’s Centre for Food Security discusses the challenges faced when meeting the global demand for food.

The present debate around how best to meet the global demand for food has a tendency to polarise into two camps.  First there are those who argue that the food system is broken and what is required is a return to more ‘traditional’ ways in which food is produced on labour intensive small farms and distributed locally.  In the opposite corner are technologists who argue that the only way that we will be able to meet the predicted increase in demand for food of between fifty and one hundred per cent, is to continue the process of intensification that characterised the development of agriculture during the twentieth century.  Instead of this polarisation however perhaps some cross fertilisation is necessary.

A return to a more traditional agriculture has some appeal.  There is no denying that small scale production gives a better looking countryside and increased rural employment.  Its diversified products also provide a nice contrast to the commoditised food products that dominate the supermarket shelves.  In a more subtle way the greater diversity of the farming system employed on these units may provide us with a greater degree of resilience in the face of increased risk of extreme weather events which climate change brings.  

This is all logical but the problems arise when attempts are made to scale the approach up to meet a much larger part of our food needs.  Increased labour intensity demands more labour and we have to ask where this will come from.  ‘New-lifers’ can only go so far, farms will need to reverse the reality of the labour market in which non-agricultural jobs have better conditions and therefore draw people out of the sector.  It is sometimes overlooked that farm employment is often dangerous, cold, wet, depressing and poorly paid. 

The argument becomes much more dangerous, however, when we apply it to developing countries.  Here the small scale sector is often vital in ensuring short term food security, but to argue that it should remain so risks consigning these countries to a permanently less developed state.  The process of agricultural intensification must be seen as one component of the process of economic development.  Blocking agricultural development will stop the release of labour (and other resources) from agriculture which drives growth in other sectors of the economy.  Without this, growing populations may or may not have enough food, but they will be without the services that are necessary to support their inevitably more urban lifestyles.

So, we are left with a situation in which ‘intensification’ must continue, but we must also learn from the practitioners of ‘traditional’ agriculture.  These farmers are acutely aware of the fact that food production is not an industrial process.  Food is, at least in part, a product of nature.  This is a fact that seems not have escaped the food consumer, where all the evidence points to the fact that ‘natural’ food is valued.  The implication is that we cannot divorce our food production from the ecosystem which supports it.  Changes in our farming system have implications for the other things which our ecosystem gives us, for example biodiversity and carbon cycling.  Equally changes in the ecosystem, for example reductions in the population of pollinators, have implications for food production.

There are some encouraging signs that a middle way may become our focus.

The concept of sustainable intensification is on the agenda.  This recognises that we must not stop the search for new ways of producing food but that we should do so in ways which work with nature rather than in a box apart from it.  We should learn from our traditions but not harp back to them.  By 2050 there will be 2bn more people in the world, 1.9bn of whom will be in developing countries.  We owe it to them.

Professor Richard Tiffin is Director for the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. Richard is an Agricultural Economist and his current research is focused on diet and health policy, in particular the impacts of fiscal policies with the objective of improving dietary health, such as so-called ‘fat tax’.

 

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As the Law Commission publishes its Supplementary Consultation Paper on the financial consequences of divorce, Dr Thérèse Callus, from the University of Reading’s School of Law, argues that the present law on divorce could be said to be uncertain, outdated and inappropriate to today’s couples.

The fate of pre-nups and divorce matters to more than just celebs

A Law Commission Consultation in 2011 considered whether ‘pre-nups’ – pre-nuptial agreements between spouses, as favoured by celebrities and the super-rich – should receive greater weight in English law. While pre-nups tend to be of only minimal interest to the average couple, their status in English law says a lot about how law regulates the consequences of marriage and civil partnership for us all. (The discussion that follows applies equally to civil partners insofar as the law relating to the dissolution of a civil partnership mirrors that applicable to spouses upon divorce). It is for this reason that the Law Commission issued the Supplementary Consultation Paper  ‘Marital Agreements, Needs and Property’ on 11th September 2012.

London is termed the ‘divorce capital of the world’ yet many argue that the law on divorce settlements is uncertain, dated and incompatible with today’s society. Wealthy individuals claim the right to draw up pre-nuptial contracts in order to protect ‘their’ wealth from being divided with an ex-spouse upon divorce. Yet these ‘contracts’ are not legally binding in law. They are simply one of the considerations that a court will take into account when deciding what a ‘fair’ outcome will be for the parties, through the application of an Act of Parliament from 1973.

In the English common law system, there is no equivalent to the continental matrimonial property regimes or contracts which come into effect upon marriage and which provide for property distribution when the marriage is dissolved through either divorce or death. Consequently, in England & Wales, what is gained from a bespoke case-by-case result is lost in the lack of certainty, both for practitioners advising their clients, and for couples about to embark upon marriage but who are concerned to maintain autonomy over their financial situation.

The law is thus unpredictable and unclear.  The Law Commission consultation on pre-nups in 2011 posed different options for reform and in so doing highlighted the controversial and ambiguous notions of ‘non-matrimonial property’ and the ‘needs’ of each spouse following divorce.  It is these wider issues that are of most interest to all couples and the subject of the Supplementary Consultation Paper.

In making an order, the English courts have always concentrated on the ‘needs’ of the claimant spouse. It is obvious that within most marriages, one or other of the spouses may make career – and therefore economic – sacrifices for the benefit of the family, and often to undertake child care. This in turn allows one spouse to continue with their career and earning progression. Upon divorce, the economically weaker spouse finds herself (or himself) at a disadvantage because of the respective contributions during the marriage. Is this merely to be seen as a matter of choice? Or should the law require that the spouse who maintains their earning capacity ‘compensate’ the other for their economic dependence? What of the pre-nuptial contract which stated that no claim should be made on each other? And what about pre-acquired wealth? For example, how should the law separate Paul McCartney’s wealth accumulated during his music career which preceded his marriage to Heather Mills compared to the family business in existence prior to the marriage, but which has greatly increased in value during the marriage, in part because the non-business spouse has looked after the family? These are some of the questions which need to be addressed through the current consultations.

Of course, more than the legal issues at stake are the political risks – no Government wants to be seen to be ‘undermining marriage’ but at the same time, claims for respect for individual autonomy and choice are strong. Yet choice is only real when parties know both the options and their consequences. The Supplementary Consultation Paper thus also highlights the importance of educating couples as to the legal implications of their actions.

The debate is now open not only on how finances should be shared upon divorce and dissolution of civil partnership, but indeed the rationale behind why the law should dictate how parties wish to manage their lives.  In limiting the consultation to marital property, agreements, and needs, the Government has indicated it is not willing to consider wholesale reform.  Although the Law Commission has realistically noted that such fundamental reform cannot be achieved in this current round, it is clear that the stakes for society are such that it is only a matter of time (and political will) before any Government is forced to grasp the nettle.

Dr Thérèse Callus is Senior Lecturer in Law and a member of the Advisory Board to the Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements project to the Law Commission. The opinions expressed in this piece are her own.

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Professor Peter Kruschwitz, from the Department of Classics at the University of Reading, is a Latin scholar with a long-established specialism in Latin inscriptions. One of his current projects aims to collect, edit, translate, and explain the Latin inscriptions, ancient, mediaeval, and modern, from Reading. The Latin term monumentum, from which the English ‘monument’ is derived, is related to the verb monere, ‘to remind’. Monuments are thus tangible, visible manifestations of human memory. Often monuments are inscribed, to aid the memory of those who want to remember, and that of future generations, as to why a certain monument was erected – be it specific to a person, an event, or gnomic, i. e. in the form of some general wisdom. Monuments and inscriptions form a unit that cannot be dissolved, and it is the conjunction of the two that makes for a particularly powerful tool. But what if the language of the inscription cannot be understood by (most or at least some) of the public that it addresses? What happens if neglect allows the monument itself to decay? One could argue that in those cases memory will fade with the monument itself, and neglect will turn into ignorance. The Latin inscriptions from Reading, whether ancient, mediaeval, or modern, provide numerous telling examples for this view. Times are a-changin’Inscription on HSBC building

Vis unita fortior.

Meaning:

“A force united is stronger.”

Why exactly is this on display in Reading’s Broad Street? Older residents of Reading may remember that the building was not always that of HSBC, but was once the location of the Midland Bank. This bank was acquired by HSBC in 1992, and it was rebranded in 1999. The crest, with its freemasonic elements, and the Latin motto was that of the Midland Bank, originally founded in 1836.

It is beautifully ironic in a way that the Latin inscription and the crest alone survive, with a Latin motto that in hindsight seems to suggest that, even for banks, only joining forces is hope for survival.

Voices muffled and vanishing

After just twenty years, it has become difficult to understand the relationship between the Midland Bank motto and its current location. It may also be difficult or in fact impossible for many passers-by to grasp the meaning of the text, even though Latin mottos are, in fact, still frequent in Britain.

Inscription for Edward Dalby

But what if the inscription is closer to 300 years old, substantially longer, yet exclusively written in Latin, and it is not even on display in a prominent spot? The answer should be obvious, and it is depressingly easy to illustrate the point with an example. The following stone now lies in the graveyard of Saint Laurence, just north of the church building. This is the monument of Edward Dalby, once upon a time the Recorder of Reading. It reads thus:

 

Spe resurgendi

Hic prope depositi sunt cineres Edwardi Dalby,

ar(miger) qui obiit 30 Martii, Anno D(omi)ni 1672,

aetatis 56.

Et Franciscae uxoris ejus, filiae superstitis et her(e)dis

Caroli Holloway, ar(miger), servientis ad legem:

Haec obiit 17 Augusti, anno D(omi)ni 1717,

aetatis 90.

Et Elizabethae, filiae eorundem, quae obiit

8 Februarii, anno D(omi)ni 1686, aetatis 23.

“In the hope of resurrection, here are deposited the ashes of Edward Dalby, armiger, who died 30th of March, A.D. 1672, aged 56. Also of Frances, his wife, surviving daughter and heir of Charles Holloway, serjeant-at-law: she died on 17th of August, A.D. 1717, aged 90. Also of Elizabeth, their daughter, who died on 8th of February, A.D. 1686, aged 23.”

The stone, embellished with a significant coat of arms at its top, now exposed to weather, filth, and vegetation, records the life of one of Reading’s foremost dignitaries at the time as well as those of his family: Edward Dalby of the Inner Temple. Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, described him as a man ‘of eminent loyalty and as wise a man as I have known of his rank’. He married Frances, daughter of Charles Holloway, also a lawyer. Dalby became Recorder (or High Steward) of Reading in 1669, replacing Daniel Blagrave, who had to flee the country for his involvement in regicide (as one of the signatories of King Charles I’s death warrant). Their daughter died young. Their son John, not mentioned in this text, continued the legacy of the Dalby family after his father’s death. Only a small street, Dalby Close in Hurst, Wokingham, still preserves the family’s name today.

A small step towards regaining collective memory?

There are well over 100 Latin inscriptions, from ancient to modern, in Reading – some of them well-known to everyone (like the one on the pedestal of the statue of Queen Victoria on Blagrave Street), others rather more cryptic and hidden away. Many of them have fascinating stories to tell, and they all add to the jigsaw puzzle that is the history of Reading. For the Latinist, they are also invaluable documents to understand the spread, role, and legacy of Latin in modern times. It is high time to collect these texts and to make them available to the public, in translation and with appropriate amounts of documentation, so that fading memory, in conjunction with a language barrier, will not soon turn into complete and utter oblivion.

http://www.reading.ac.uk/classics

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Professor Hilary Footitt, from the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, has a major interest in ‘Languages and international NGOs’ (non-governmental organisations) and how research into languages and cultures can support the work of NGOs and aid agencies as they operate ‘on the ground’ in international conflict and crisis zones. It focuses on the language and cultural challenges faced by international NGOs, and the role and status of the local personnel they increasingly employ.

The occlusion of non-military linguists, their apparent absence from policymaking for conflict, is in many ways related to a much more fundamental problem, a classic tendency to ignore the presence of language intermediaries altogether, to deny personal subjectivity to those ‘middle’ men and women who stand between institutions and foreign populations. Two discourses, one from those who employ interpreters, and one from the profession of interpreting itself, arguably contribute to the continued invisibility of the linguist.

For institutions in conflict situations, interpreting and translating are often seen through the lens of logistics. In this perspective, language intermediaries are one element in the overall matériel of war, as interpreters in Bosnia/Herzegovina explained: “That was our favourite briefing for soldiers when they were going on a patrol. Don’t forget your kit. Helmets, body armour. Don’t forget your satellite box, the orange box of the satellite phone. Don’t forget your interpreter…as if I am a tool”; “ …the Americans used to call the interpreters ‘lips’. ‘ Hey, lips’, you know, and the lips would come over and do the interpreting and they were supposed to be invisible.” (Baker b, 2012, 208). Paradoxically, this tendency to deny personal visibility to the interpreter can be reinforced by the traditional discourse of professional interpreting, developed and codified after the Second World War, in which the primary ethical requirement is for the interpreter to be impartial at all times.

Both the notion of the language intermediary as a part of operational logistics, and the neutrality concept of professional interpreting contribute in their different ways to the invisibility of language mediation in accounts of conflict.

http://www.reading.ac.uk/modern-languages-and-european-studies/Research/LINGOs.aspx

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Dr Laurie Butler is a senior lecturer within the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences. One of his research interests concerns the link between nutrition and cognition.

Over the last five years I have been lucky enough to have been working on research which lies at the boundary between modern psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. The question itself is a deceptively simple one – to what extent can nutrition slow or even reverse cognitive decline?

In my blog I hope to give you a sense of some of the issues, findings and challenges involved.

Blueberries

Factors affecting likelihood of cognitive decline

We know that there are a host of factors which influence our rate of cognitive decline. Aside from age, we know that IQ as a child and education levels are important predictors, as are various socio-demographic and genetic factors. Interestingly, we also know that cardiovascular function and physical fitness are important as is keeping mentally fit (eg doing crosswords, sudokus etc.). What is becoming increasingly apparent though is that what we eat and drink is important too. I’m going to focus here on Omega 3 fatty acids and flavonoids.

Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids found in large quantities in oily fish are frequently in the news and a lot of people take fish oil supplements. Omega 3 fatty acids are interesting because they are highly concentrated in the brain and they have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and neuroprotective properties. Interestingly, although the recommended daily intake for a healthy, non-pregnant adult is around two portions per week (140g per portion), current intake is only 0.3 of a portion with 70% of adults eating no oily fish at all. Having said that, if everyone on the planet met this recommendation that we would have to double the available fish oil (the topic for another blog…).

Flavonoids

What do tea, fruit and vegetables, citrus fruits, berries, red wine and cocoa (among others) have in common? They all contain flavonoids of one type or another. There are over 6,000 different flavonoids, a number of which have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier, affect proteins involved in neuronal growth/survival, and stimulate new neurons. We do a lot of work on flavonoids here at Reading – for example, if you read a report in the media on blueberries and cognitive performance it is likely to be us!

Measuring cognitive function

At its simplest, as psychologists we ask whether intakes of omega 3 or flavonoids have an effect on cognitive function. How do we do this though? One relatively quick way is to use a global measure of cognitive function. One example is called the Mini Mental State Examination or MMSE which poses a series of short questions on language, memory and orientation. However, it is not really very sensitive – it might help to determine if someone has pathological cognitive decline but is not so sensitive to decline in the normal range.

So you need to use more sensitive tests for age-related decline. The good news is that some cognitive functions such as general knowledge, verbal ability and some numerical abilities are relatively preserved as we age.  However, some cognitive functions are more sensitive to decline than others. For example, speed of processing (ie the speed at which cognitive functions can be carried out) actually starts to decline in your 30s.

Experimental designs

OK so we have our nutrients and we have some cognitive tests – what do we do next?  Well there are two major types of experimental design.  The first is an observational design, whereby, for example, I might invite a large group of people to complete a questionnaire designed to assess dietary flavonoid levels and measure cognitive performance. The problem with this sort of design is that you cannot say anything about cause and effect (ie that flavonoids are definitely causing the improvement in cognition). To do this you need to use a randomised controlled trial design (RCT) whereby some people are allocated to a control condition and some to your nutritional intervention condition.

The evidence

So how good is the available evidence for the effects of flavonoids and omega 3 fatty acids on cognition? Well at the moment it seems to depend on the type of design you look at.

For observational designs, there is some really compelling data. For example, a Norwegian study by Nurk et al (2007) showed that older adults with a higher daily fish intake (up to around 80g per day). displayed better cognitive performance relative to those with lower fish intake. Similarly, for flavonoids, Letennuer et al (2007) found that a group of older adults with the highest flavonoid levels in their diet (up to 36mg) showed the best MMSE outcome at baseline and also showed the slowest cognitive deterioration over a ten-year period.

However, when using randomised controlled trial designs, the evidence gets more patchy.  Of the available omega 3 fatty acid studies, most have failed to detect effects on cognitive function in healthy or abnormal aging to date.  For flavonoids, there is some RCT evidence of benefits, particularly the benefits of blueberries on pre-dementia patients (Krikorian et al 2010). In our work, we have shown some beneficial effects of single acute doses of cocoa and blueberries on cognitive performance in both young and older adults.

So as far as flavonoids and omega 3 fatty acids are concerned the jury is out…more data needed.

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Michael Garratt, from School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, tells us why we should care about insects as National Insect Week approaches.

Since I picked up my first ladybird as a child, insects have fascinated me. Now 25 years on I am a professional entomologist. This is fun to research and worthwhile, especially encouraging the public to realise how important insects really are. During my MSc, my PhD and working at the University of Reading I have been lucky enough to be involved in outreach projects and activities that get the public interested in scientific research. When chatting to adults and children alike, I invariably get asked those dreaded questions! “What is the point in wasps?”, “Why do we have flies?”, “What are beetles for?”. I could give the facetious answer to this question by saying “What is the point in humans?”, but other than maybe getting an eight year -old to question their existence, this does little to answer the question.

I have worked on projects related to agricultural pest insects, including aphids infesting barley and caterpillars eating cabbages, and their existence, in any human terms, are hard to justify. So to avoid being too philosophical, my usual response to these tough questions typically referred to an insect’s place in the ecosystem, the complex interactions between species and their role in food webs. My current role at the University of Reading, however, sees me working on crop pollination by insects and I am delighted to say the answers to these questions are now far easier!

Insect, including bumblebees, solitary bees, honey bees and hoverflies, help pollinate 84% of European crop species. Recent research at Reading has shown that the service these insects provide is worth at least £510m to UK agriculture. Crops pollinated by insects include fruit like apples and strawberries and field crops such as beans and oilseed rape. Clearly the importance of pollinating insects cannot be overstated – they provide much of our food. Here comes the bad news: many species upon which we rely for pollination are showing widespread declines in abundance and diversity. In the UK in recent decades we have seen some bumblebee species become less widespread and both solitary bee and hoverfly diversity has fallen. Furthermore, the number of honey bee hives kept in the UK halved between 1985 and 2005. Despite their importance to UK agriculture, there are still many unknowns in insect crop pollination research, including which pollinators are actually important for pollinating many crops and how best we can manage farmland to support healthy and effective pollinator communities.

The University of Reading is part of a major UK research programme called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, aimed at understanding and addressing the decline in pollinating insects. The University is involved in several projects in this programme.  I and my team are working on ‘Sustainable pollination services for UK crops’. We have been gathering data on the importance of pollinating insects to common crops, including apples, strawberries, beans and oilseed rape. We are now starting to understand the true importance of insect diversity to food security and their contribution to crop yield and quality. Importantly we will be testing how best we might mitigate against pollinator losses or try and arrest the declines all together. As part of any research project today it has become increasingly important to make results more accessible to the public and policymakers – this is not just an issue for researchers but for wider society. With the advent of National Insect Week, this provides us with an invaluable opportunity to ‘spread the word’ and get the public behind us.

National Insect Week is led by the Royal Entomological Society and in 2012 begins on the 25 June. Hundreds of events will be running across the country from butterfly walks to public lectures at venues such as the Oxford University Natural History Museum and the University’s own Harris Gardens. Our research team will be attending lots of events with our crop pollination roadshow and I encourage everyone to come along. After all, with public support comes financial and political support and we can then start securing crop pollination services for future generations!

For further information on National Insect Week or our research at the University of Reading see links below or contact me on M.P.Garratt@reading.ac.uk.

http://nationalinsectweek.co.uk/

http://www.reading.ac.uk/caer/

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This Saturday (23 June) the School of Systems Engineering will be staging the famous Turing Test to mark the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, mathematician and code-breaker. Turing100 takes place at Bletchley Park and visitors can see if they are able tell the difference between a computer and a human.

Cybernetics professor, Kevin Warwick, Chair of the School of Systems Engineering’s Turing100 project, writes about what the Turing Test says about us.

The Turing Test not only asks questions about machine communication, machine consciousness and how a machine thinks – it also causes us to ask important questions about human communication, human consciousness and how a human thinks. The test is merely a challenge that causes us to compare the two – from a human perspective.

As a result it leads to another interesting feature and that is – how human interrogators can be easily fooled not only by other humans but by machines. Even after an interrogator has been so fooled it is then difficult to persuade them that they have been. It was Mark Twain who said “it is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”.

Perhaps the most important point here however is that people tend to over-value humans and how they communicate. The test considers a comparison between machines and ALL humans – however many humans have little of importance to utter and even then they make many mistakes when they do so; as Agatha Christie put it “Man is an unimaginative animal”.

The largest set of Turing Tests ever, at Bletchley Park on June 23, will give us an insight into how far the best machines have come. But maybe they will tell us even more about ourselves as humans than they do about their own individuality.

 

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Peter Gregory is Professor of Global Food Security and contributes to building research programmes in the University’s Centre for Food Security. One of his research focuses is in global environmental changes and food security. Throughout his career Professor Gregory has been engaged with issues of increasing crop yields especially in drought-prone, rainfed environments.

After many decades in which food security has not been an issue of much interest to many in the developed world, suddenly it’s back on the political and scientific agendas. The sudden spike in food prices in 2008/09 awakened interest once again in the issue, and the realisation that our insatiable demand for more food in response to a growing population with higher average incomes provides many social and scientific challenges.

This was some of the background to the session on food security that I organised with my co-organisers Mike Bushell of Syngenta and Ken Cassman from the University of Nebraska at the Planet Under Pressure conference held from 26-29 March in London as the scientific prelude to the Rio+20 Conference which will commence later this month. The session explored how the agronomic yield gap interacts with economic and nutritional ‘gaps’ to produce food insecurity and what interventions might correct this.

The session attracted the second largest number of contributions in the conference, but the limited time meant that we could hear only five oral contributions with the remaining forty or so as posters. Dr Marianne Banziger of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center gave the opening keynote in which she outlined the global challenges facing producers. She noted that publicly-funded agricultural research in developed countries is now only 25% of its level in the 1980s despite the threats posed by a changing climate and the increasing scarcity or costs of natural resources such as land, water and energy.

Other presentations demonstrated the nutritional paucity of many current crops produced in sub-Saharan Africa especially for vitamins A and C, potassium and other minerals, and the skipping of meals, especially by females, as a means of adapting to hardships such as flooding. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, livestock are an essential component of the agricultural system. A village-level survey in 96 villages across nine different countries in these two regions confirmed that crop residues are valuable sources of animal feed, fuel and construction materials; this limits their use for longer-term ecological services such as mulch for soil protection, water conservation and potential carbon sequestration. Households were most vulnerable where pressure on biomass was greatest. In Indonesia, a study of food availability and incidence of malnutrition showed that the two were not directly related; rather malnutrition was determined by food intake pattern which was a reflection of socio-cultural behaviour.

The session elicited a great deal of discussion about how the vulnerability of groups at risk of malnutrition might be alleviated. Three interesting observations were: i) the more we delay investment in food research, the steeper the challenge of meeting demands will become; we have to increase production of wheat, rice and maize by about 30-40% faster than we currently are; ii) cell phones provide a new possibility for getting locally targeted and up-to-date information to farmers and markets in rural areas; and iii) food security needs to pay greater attention to the nutritional value of food and not focus so much on the yield and calorific value of cereals.

I shall be following up these presentations and other food-related sessions at the conference as we develop the international programme of work associated with the Centre for Food Security at Reading. I am currently writing a paper on Soils and Food Security as part of a special publication by The Royal Society of Chemistry that arose from the London meeting, and am working with a colleague at Oxford University to take forward a potential international programme of work on sustainable intensification of food systems in temperate regions. There’s much to be done!

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