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Friday, 24 June 2016

Cassava virus: Journey from the lab to the field - Learning the ropes

Weeks 2 – 3


It’s been a bit of blur the last two weeks, getting to grips with all the activities that go on at the  National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI). I’ve spent time with Dr. Emmanuel Ogwok (Emmy), learning about the earlier days of Cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) research and how things have developed. Emmy took me on a tour to see the greenhouses where they are growing genetically modified cassava, which shows resistance to CBSD.
Dr. Emmanuel Ogwok demonstrates how to sample infected cassava from the field

Diagnosing the problem


Emmy also introduced to me how they diagnose CBSD infections. We headed out to the field and sampled cassava plants showing CBSD symptoms, processed the samples in the lab and bingo, identified the presence of the virus in all the samples by reverse transcription PCR. This is similar to the processes we follow in the UK. It was great to actually sample the infected cassava from the field myself; in the UK we normally use material which was collected years ago.

It was interesting to learn about challenges, such as getting hold of reagents which can take up to three months! The lab is responsible for testing new cassava varieties for their ability to resist CBSD infection and plays a vital role in improving cassava production.

Processing the infected cassava samples from the field

Communicating the problem


I’ve been working on communication materials to let members of the public know about NaCRRI work at the Source of the Nile agricultural trade show in July. The show will be an opportunity to present and discuss the improved cassava varieties developed by NaCRRI with policy makers, growers and members of the public.

Kampala fun


Outside of work, I’ve been having fun in Kampala; going to arts festivals, watching the football in Ugandan pubs and swimming in the Hotel Africana pool. Next week, I’m planning to visit field sites in northern Uganda, to meet some of the farmers affected by CBSD.

Dancer at La Ba Arts Festival (credit HB Visual)
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This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Katherine Tomlinson from the School of Biological Sciences.  Katherine's area of research is to generate and exploit an improved understanding of cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) to ensure sustainable cassava production in Africa.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Katie's blog Cassava Virus


Katherine Tomlinson
More from this blog series:  

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Calling all Bristol environmental postgrads: Join the Cabot Institute Press Gang!

When my friend told me she was off to a Cabot Institute Press Gang meeting, I tagged along on a bit of a whim to find out what it was all about. After realising what important work the Cabot Institute was doing I decided to get involved as a Press Gang member, and have since attended lots of events and written around 18 articles for the blog. Now I’m writing this post to encourage other graduate students and staff members to join the Press Gang, have your say and develop your science communication skills!

What does it entail?


Being a member of the Press Gang means different things to different people. You can spend as much or as little time as you like performing the main activities of blogging about Cabot-themed news and writing press releases about newly published research from members of the Institute. Blogging is probably the most popular past time of Press Gang members – pick a subject in the news or a recent event or talk you’ve attended and tell the world why it’s important. There are occasional meetings to get together with the rest of the team and talk about potentially interesting subjects or events coming up – usually over coffee and cake!

Events


As followers of this blog will know, the Cabot Institute holds a myriad of events throughout the year covering subject matters relevant to the six Cabot research communities; Global change, natural hazards, low carbon energy, water, food security, and future cities and communities. As a member of the Press Gang, you will often be offered a front row seat to world class events to help with Cabot’s promotion. I’ve attended lectures by popular climate change communicators John Cook and Professor Michael E. Mann, Guardian blogger George Monbiot, Professor Dame Julia Slingo (Met Office), and my favourite science correspondent, Alok Jha!

The Press Gang are privileged to attend special events too; last autumn we visited At-Bristol’s 3D Planetarium to watch ‘Blue Marvel’, a show which examined the solar system and incorporated University of Bristol research to explain what makes Earth so special.

Training


I became a Press Gang member to get more experience in science writing and to try my hand at communicating a range of different kinds of research. As a Press Gang member you can sign up for the excellent training provided by the Cabot Institute and the University of Bristol Press Office. Learning how to communicate complex topics clearly is a critical skill for any researcher, and you will probably find learning how effectively use social media, how to blog or even how to write a press release incredibly useful methods for promoting your own work in the future!

What has the Press Gang done for me?


I’ve really enjoyed writing for the Cabot Institute, and it’s shown me that I’d like to explore a career in science communication/publishing in the future. The work I've done for Cabot enabled me to build the skills I’ll need, as well as a portfolio of work, from which I have already benefited. In my free time, I work as a freelance science writer and editor, and I’m a New Media Fellow promoting plant science with the Global Plant Council. I also spent a month as an intern with the plant science journal New Phytologist, and won a student scholarship to attend and write about the UK Conference for Science Journalists in 2014. In each of these roles, my experience as a Press Gang member helped me both to land the job and to clearly communicate scientific principles to the general public.

I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of the Cabot Institute team, but especially to Amanda Woodman-Hardy, the Cabot Institute Coordinator and leader of the Press Gang. She works extremely hard to coordinate the training and opportunities that you will receive as a Press Gang member, and I am very grateful for all the advice and encouragement she has given me over the years!

So what are you waiting for? E-mail the Cabot Institute to find out more about joining the Press Gang today!
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Sarah Jose, School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.
Sarah Jose


Why is populism popular? A psychologist explains

This was once a referendum about whether or not the UK should remain in the EU. But not anymore. The referendum has effectively turned into a plebiscite about diversity and tolerance vs divisiveness and hatred: the Leave campaign in particular has largely ditched its long-demolished economic arguments and remoulded itself into an appeal to increasingly shrill and ugly emotion.

How could it have come to that? How could a campaign find so much popular traction by explicitly disavowing rational and informed deliberation?

Some commentators have responded to those questions with bewilderment and resignation, as if right-wing populism and hatred are unavoidable socio-political events, much like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.

Far from it. Populism and hatred do not erupt, they are stoked. The “Tea Party” in the US was not a spontaneous eruption of “grassroots” opposition to Barack Obama but the result of long-standing efforts by libertarian “think tanks” and political operatives.

Likewise, the present demagoguery in the UK against the EU arises at least in part from media ignorance or hostility towards migrants, and a similar well-funded but nebulous network of organisations (often linked to human-caused climate change denial).

Populism is not an inevitable natural disaster but the result of political choices made by identifiable individuals who ultimately can be held accountable for those choices.

Why populism is popular


The public’s willingness to endorse right-wing populism can be explained and predicted by a range of different variables.

Has there been a financial crisis recently, for example? One particularly detailed recent analysis by a team of German economists shows that over a period of nearly 150 years, every financial crisis was followed by a ten-year surge in support for far-right populist parties. It is now eight years since the height of the last global financial crisis.
As the market goes bust, right-wing populism booms. Frank May / EPA
On average, far-right votes increased by 30% after a financial crisis, but not after “normal” recessions (that is, economic contractions that were not accompanied by a full-blown crisis). This may appear paradoxical, but it fits with other research which has shown that support for populism is not directly predicted by a person’s economic position nor life satisfaction. Instead, what matters is how people interpret their economic position: feelings of relative personal deprivation and a general view of society being in decline were found to be the major predictors of populism.

It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s how people feel.

There is now reasonably consistent evidence that populism thrives on people’s feeling of a lack of political power, a belief that the world is unfair and that they do not get what they deserve – and that the world is changing too quickly for them to retain control. Whenever people attribute the origins of their perceived vulnerability to factors outside themselves, populism is not far away.

So what about immigration?


The actual numbers of immigrants are not the sole determinant of people’s attitudes. What matters perhaps even more is how they are being interpreted. For example, in 1978, when net migration to the UK was around zero, up to 70% of the British public felt that they were in danger of “being swamped” by other cultures. Conversely, in the early 2010s, the white Britons who were least concerned about immigration were those who lived in highly diverse areas in “Cosmopolitan London”.

It’s not just immigration, it’s how people feel about their new neighbours.

London hosts lots of migrants – and few residents seem to mind. robertsharpCC BY


Where do we go from here?


On the supply side, politicians and journalists alike must be held accountable for their choices and their words through the media, the rule of law and, ultimately, elections. London voters recently sent a clear signal about their decency when they rejected the fear-mongering of one candidate by resoundingly electing his Muslim opponent.

On the demand side, several recommendations to counter populism have been put forward, although the debate on this is still in its early stages. Two insights are promising.

First, the need to offer a vision for a better society with which people can identify. The Remain campaign has thus far focused on highlighting the risks of an EU exit. Those risks loom large but highlighting them, by itself, does not create a better world.

It would be advisable instead to focus on the many ways in which the EU has contributed to such a better world – how many UK voters remember that the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for transforming Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace? How many realise that the EU is one of the few institutions able to stand up to multinational tax avoidance which appears poised to extract billions from Apple? The list goes on and deserves to be heard.

Second, we know with some degree of confidence that fear of the “other”, and hostility towards immigrants, can be overcome by interaction if certain key conditions are met. This work, mainly at the local level, is essential to heal the wounds of this divisive debate, whatever the outcome on June 23.

Lest one be pessimistic about the possibility of success, we need to remind ourselves how quickly and thoroughly we have tackled homophobia in Western societies: whereas gay people were feared, marginalised and excluded not so long ago, the UK parliament is now the “queerest legislature in the world” and has 32 MPs who call themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual.

And in Germany yesterday, 40,000 citizens took to the streets to hold hands in a gesture against racism. There is a Europe out there that should inspire rather than frighten.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
Steve Lewandowsky

Read other blogs in our Brexit series:
The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law
- Brexit: A climactic decision?

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Brexit: A climactic decision?

In the lead up to the Brexit vote, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
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With barely a week to go to the Referendum, the Environment has singularly failed to make itself an issue in the BREXIT debate. Yet it is impossible to explore any aspect of environmental law in the UK without encountering European Law.  It is therefore no surprise that environmental lawyers and environmental groups have been queuing up to express concerns about the implications of BREXIT - Margherita Piericcini's Cabot Institute blog on the impact on wildlife and habitats is an example.

So why has the environment not become a key issue?  I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group’s event ‘A Climactic Decision: Brexit's impact on the UK’s climate and environment' at the Houses of Parliament earlier this month in the hope of finding out why.

Chaired by Mark Mardell, Mary Creagh MP Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and Professor Michael Grubb (UCL) spoke for remaining. Roger Helmer MEP UKIP European Parliament Industry, Research and Energy Committee  and Lee Upcroft spoke for exit on the topic of Staying in the EU is the best way to protect the UK's climate and environment.

The first problem that was manifest is that those strongly engaged in climate change and the environment more generally, are convinced of the role of the EU: in the opening vote at the debate all but one person in the audience were voting remain. Equally for those voting leave, climate change may not be a concern to them: Professor Michael Grubb speaking in the debate referred to the 'twin horns' of climate change and EU membership to argue that remaining in the EU and climate change action have much in common. Both require an acceptance of expert evidence, acceptance of uncertainty and a willingness to work collaboratively across cultures, surrendering some individual independence in the wider good.

The environment is the one place where BREXIT campaigners do not argue that most things from Brussels are awful. Put simply the environmental case for remaining is that just about all of the environmental law that benefits the UK stems from the EU.  Few countries or regional groupings in the world have the sort of comprehensive environmental laws the EU has, or has had them so long.

The BREXIT speakers in the debate sought to argue that the sorts of environmental action that the EU has adopted were 'in the air globally' and the UK would probably have done it anyway.  If that is so, the remain speakers countered, why has the UK ended up in the European Courts so often for not implementing EU environmental law ? All too often when the EU has agreed new laws to protect the environment the UK has had to be taken to the European Court of Justice to secure compliance - for example when the Bathing Waters Directive was adopted, the UK Initially registered fewer bathing beaches than Luxembourg (don't dive for a map it is landlocked, but it registered each cove round its lakes). It took the European Court of Justice to sort that one, and bring the UK into compliance. The same with urban waste water (sewage) where it took the European Court to force the UK to stop discharging untreated sewage into the sea. And the list goes on. So this does not look as if  the UK 'would have introduced all these environmental laws anyway'.

The second BREXIT argument was that as the UK leads the EU on climate change, it does not need the EU.  Climate change and pollution do not respect EU borders, so we need global action not regional action, Remain speakers countered by arguing that it is easier to convince 27 other states of our concerns, and then take joint action. Once the EU takes action it has a strong voice on the global stage. Outside the EU the UK would be but one voice in nearly 200 states, a much harder task to convince 200 than just 27. Michael Grubb put it bluntly - the UK has more influence to achieve action on climate change in than out.

A third argument was about free trade. Here the BREXIT speakers argued that the UK would be free to create whatever environmental rules it wanted on its own or in multilateral partnerships of its choice and to scrap those (unspecified) that count as unacceptable burdens.  But as an expert from the floor who had been involved in UK / USA trade negotiations explained, in his experience the UK alone makes little progress in getting decent terms from the USA, until the EU as a whole throws its weight behind the negotiations. When asked about the impact of World Trade Organisation obligations on this argument, BREXIT speakers claimed nobody had raised this with them before. Put simply, the nostalgic world of a UK free to create whatever rules it wants does not exist, in or out of the EU. The WTO Treaty obligations mean states cannot unilaterally impose what can be seen as trade barriers by setting national rules, without ending up in the WTO courts. Only regional treaty commitments protect environmental rules in restraint of free trade from the WTO court. The EU is the strongest example of that sort of trade treaty.

When it came to energy, the BREXIT argument was that EU membership had kept energy prices high,  particularly through VAT and the Combustion Plant Directive closing our coal fired power stations. Yet energy prices across the rest of the EU are 40% below the UK, because of their longstanding commitment to renewables, and Germany in particular continues to use coal by investing in compliant technology.  UK government decisions were identified as the problem. The harmonisation of the energy market will produce £500m a year energy cost savings to the UK by 2020 - quite apart from energy security and the capacity for us to export surplus energy.  The EU's global muscle has led to reductions in the cost of renewables technical - solar power costs have fallen by 30% as a result for example.

So, after two hours of debate, the remain speakers felt the gains from the EU should be retained, the BREXIT debaters felt that all the good things that have come from the EU would have come anyway, and that there is a world outside of the EU in which the UK will be free to have whatever environmental protections it wants, in a nostalgic world of free nation states. The WTO will have something to say about that - or perhaps the UK will simply scrap so much of its environmental protections in pursuit of deregulation and free trade that we will not trouble the WTO.

You can download a summary of this discussion on the APPCCG website.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Chris Willmore, Senior Academic Fellow in Environmental Law at the University of Bristol.  Chris is also the University lead academic for Technology Enhanced Learning and currently leads the University Green Academy team which is developing education for sustainable development across the University curriculum.
Chris Willmore

Read other blogs in the Brexit series:
The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law
- Why is populism popular? A psychologist explains

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Scanning the horizons: Our changing environment

Image credit: BBC
For the evening of 7 June 2016, the Watershed was transformed into vaults of the Horizon programme as Horizon editor Steve Crabtree and University of Bristol Professor Jonathan Bamber took us on an environmentally-flavoured tour of the show’s history.

The Horizon programme is one of the BBC’s longest running series. First broadcast in 1964, it provides a gloriously honest portrayal of both the evolution of television and of science. The event, organised by the British Science Association in partnership with the Festival of Nature and the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, meandered through the decades of footage providing a simultaneously amusing and sobering window into the progression of thinking in ecology and climate science.


The evening began with two near-identical snippets of footage; both taken from the bow of an icebreaker crashing through Antarctic sea ice but filmed 50 years apart. The older black and white version, broadcast in 1966, depicted the work of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). The fuzzy monochrome pictures of dramatic Antarctic scenery were accompanied by Phantom of the Opera-style organ music and a narrator with an accent so archaically-British it would put the queen to shame.

The program explored the geology of the Antarctic, walking through the stages of continental drift before ending on the vast coal deposits that can be found in the Antarctic. The thought of coal mining in the world’s last pristine wilderness seems slightly mad by today’s standards but 1966, as Jonathan pointed out, was long before the 1991 environmental protocol was signed protecting the Antarctic from mineral exploration.

The clip was preceded by footage aired earlier this year. Apart from the addition of the swanky new Halley Research Station the only differences between the two were the colour and resolution: The Antarctic has preserved its natural habitat thanks to limited human interaction. The two clips were a great way to kick off the event and provided a stark contrast to the fast-changing world depicted in the rest of the Horizon episodes.

By far my favourite episode was from 1971 entitled ‘Due to lack of interest, tomorrow has been cancelled’. The footage taken at Lake Eerie comprised scenes of environmental devastation set to lively jazz. The combination drew a laugh from the audience and the dated feel was certainly comical in the context of today’s CGI mega-productions that air in the prime-time BBC slots.

Despite this, it was surprisingly progressive; even in the 70s the BBC was reporting the long term, global effects of human interactions with the environment with an apocalyptic twist. As someone who grew up in the 90s I felt like the worst effects have only been realised in recent years, yet footage like this reminds me that these issues have been knocking around for decades.

The Horizon clips revealed just how vital the late 60s and early 70s were in the development of the environmental movement- suddenly it was fashionable to be interested in ecology. Jonathan attributed this in part to the 1968 Apollo space mission that took the first photograph of the earth from space. After the mission astronaut William Anders said 
we travelled all this way to explore the moon but the most important thing is that we discovered the earth"
In this era, Jonathan said, we developed a sense of the earth as a single place that we all inhabited; and a place we must look after.
The famous 'Earthrise' photo from Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. The crew entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast, showing pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Image credit: NASA.
In a further Horizon airing in 1971 ‘Vox pops’ (short interviews with members of the public) filmed on the streets of New York revealed the scale of the environmental movement coupled with footage of marches and protests. So prevalent was this voice that in 1970 President Nixon stated that the “price of goods should be made to include the cost of producing and disposing of them without damage to the environment”. How, I wonder, have we regressed so far from these aspirations of 40 years ago?

The 80s were all about energy production. As the decade progressed, the greenhouse effect was gaining recognition and the Horizon content mirrored this. An episode in 1982 revealed impressively large wind turbines built by Boeing in collaboration with NASA as a clean and sustainable energy solution. Rather comically, Britain’s only wind turbine at this time was a slightly decrepit looking windmill which paled into turbine-insignificance in comparison to the highly engineered US turbines. A further episode later in the decade, provided a snapshot of UK’s sources of carbon emissions immersed in a description of the carbon cycle. Despite humankind being in possession of knowledge of global warming for over a 100 years, public interest grew around this time; something that Jonathan attributed to the formation of the IPCC in 1988.
Wind turbine created by Boeing in 1982 with NASA. Image credit: Boeing.
Moving into the 90s and 00s, the television style underwent the change to digital content. As Steve described, special effects were now in the hands of TV-makers, not just big Hollywood producers. The appearance became more recognisable, although episodes in the early 90s definitely had an aged feel to them. The thinking was more modern, working on the assumption that climate change is already happening rather than convincing the audience of its authenticity. An episode in 2003 discussed not just the scientific implications of a changed planet, but the economic, political and social ones. The film, named ‘The Big Chill’, discussed what might happen if parts of the UK began to freeze. Steve commented that the content of the episodes was sometimes motivated by big Hollywood movies; in this case the blockbuster epic ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was due for release the following year.

In all, the event was a wonderful glimpse into rarely seen BBC archives. While the evolution of thinking on climate change was what carried the discussions, I particularly enjoyed watching the interviews and narration from an era of television long gone. It made me realise what an invaluable tool it is in documenting past generations and I hope we are able to preserve much of the BBC content from the last five decades. As Steve pointed out, TV viewers in 40 years will probably look back at TV from today and laugh at the styles and fashions. Let’s hope they laugh at us from an even more progressive and sustainable future.  
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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Keri McNamara


Monday, 13 June 2016

Cassava virus: Journey from the lab to the field - Settling in to Ugandan life

Katherine Tomlinson from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, is spending three months in Uganda looking at the cassava brown streak virus. This virus dramatically reduces available food for local people and Katherine will be finding out how research on this plant is translating between the lab and the field.  Follow this blog series for regular updates.

I arrived late on Thursday night and spent the weekend getting acquainted with the hustle and bustle of Kampala life. I visited the impressive Gadafi mosque, cathedral, and food markets, which are full of just about every fruit and vegetable you could imagine.

On Friday, I met with my internship supervisor, Dr. Titus Alicai who is the leader of the Root Crops Research Programme at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI); he filled me on some of the exciting activities I’ll be taking part in, including visits to cassava field sites.

I was picked up and taken to NaCRRI in Namulonge on Sunday, stopping off at markets along the way to pick up my food supplies. I am lucky to have Everline looking after me; she’s helping me to settle into Ugandan life. NaCRRI is absolutely beautiful, it’s full of crops including cassava, sweet potato, mango, pineapple, banana, and there are even vervet monkeys running around.
National Crops Resources Research Institute, Uganda… where I’ll be spending the next three months!
At the start of the week , I was given a tour of the institute including the labs where they analyse cassava tubers for nutritional and chemical content; a vital part of the process in developing crops which not only offer maximum disease resistance, and yield but also taste good.

I then visited the molecular biology labs, where they analyse crop samples for the presence of Cassava brown streak disease viruses. This was very familiar with similar equipment to our lab at the University of Bristol. The lab manager discussed the challenges of obtaining all the expensive reagents required and how this affects their work. Other challenges include intermittent power supply, which means they need a stack of battery packs to back up the -80 freezers and PCR machines. I am looking forward to spending some time here, to learn more about the similarities and differences between molecular work in the UK and Uganda.

On Wednesday, I went to the field with some University internship students, who were scoring cassava plants for Cassava brown streak disease and Cassava mosaic disease symptoms. After their training these students will be able to advise farmers about the diseases in their local areas. It was also my chance to see symptoms in the field, where infected leaves showed a distinctive yellowing pattern.
Inspecting cassava plants for disease symptoms with University internship students
I spoke to one student who has a small farm and has experienced Cassava brown streak disease first hand. He mentioned that the disease is very common in his area, and here even tolerant cassava varieties become infected and their tubers ruined.
Characteristic Cassava brown streak disease symptoms on cassava leaves
Today I am meeting with the communications team, to find out about the projects I will be involved with, including an outreach programme with farmers surrounding the NaCRRI site to encourage them to use crop breeds developed by the institute, which offer higher disease resistance.

That’s it for now I’ll be writing another update next week so watch this space! In the meantime if you have any questions please get in touch via Twitter: @KatieTomlinson4.

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This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Katherine Tomlinson from the School of Biological Sciences.  Katherine's area of research is to generate and exploit an improved understanding of cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) to ensure sustainable cassava production in Africa.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Katie's blog Cassava Virus


Katherine Tomlinson
More from this blog series:  

Friday, 3 June 2016

New models of community energy

Credit: Bristol Energy Cooperative
North Yorkshire County Council’s recent decision to approve Third Energy Ltd’s application to begin exploratory fracking in Kirby Misperton (by a majority vote of seven councillors to four) was seen by some as riding roughshod over the democratic process – 36 individual representations were made in support of the application, while 4420 were made against.  

On the same day, closer to home, there was news that Bristol Energy Cooperative would soon become the largest generator of community energy in the UK with the development of a 4.2 MW solar farm in Lawrence Weston.

The two organisations could not be further apart. While Third Energy Ltd is a recently registered private equity company with all shares held in house and likely backed by a parent oil and gas company (Third Energy UK Gas Ltd), Bristol Energy Cooperative is a community owned cooperative that has financed solar developments through community share offers, funding from the local council and ethical banks. Although at this stage we don’t know how Third Energy would finance any fracking activities – there is no reason why it couldn’t make a community share offer – Bristol Energy Cooperative has demonstrated with its existing solar developments a way to generate new electricity generation that is participative and engaging rather than exclusionary and remote.

That is not to say that the cooperative model provides all the answers; questions over who has money and time to invest/participate remain. Given the explosion of energy cooperatives and community benefit societies over the last few years, such models are clearly striking a cord with communities around the UK. Nevertheless, as a result of recent cuts in subsidies, we are now entering a period of uncertainty. Many community energy groups are waiting for prices of technology to fall and/or major planning decisions to be made. However, it is unlikely that that is the last we see of community energy organisations, many are working hard to function in the new harsher environment; devising novel models to develop renewable energy in ways that give communities more say.

What these new models might look like is still very much up in the air. With the introduction of Bristol Energy Company and Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, it might be that we see more collaboration between community energy groups and local councils (or their energy companies) drawing on both their relative strengths to leverage the necessary finance and public support, or we might see larger community energy organisations refocus their efforts by offering direct energy connections (private wire developments) to high energy consumers. There may also be a trend towards scaling-up and turning themselves into energy supply companies or cooperative services providers, and then there are partnerships taking place with traditional energy supply companies.

Whichever models come to thrive in the coming years, there is a growing acceptance that communities should have more, not less, say over how energy is generated at the local level. And with the introduction of Neighbourhood Plans (through the Localism Act 2011) there is a potential regulatory channel that local communities can employ to continue to pursue transparent and open decision-making. If such devolution continues, it seems likely that we will see more active, not less active, communities in all things energy in the years to come.

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This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Jack Nicholls, a PhD student in Law and Sociology, Policy and International Studies (SPAIS), who researches renewable energy development at the local scale. He has no financial interests in either Bristol Energy Cooperative or Third Energy Ltd.  
Jack Nicholls
This blog has also been featured on the Big Green Week blog.   Big Green Week runs from 11 June in Bristol and there are lots of exciting events to attend.  Check out the official website

The Cabot Institute is hosting a special Big Green Week event on 15 June on Nicaragua's progress towards 90% renewable energy. Full details and tickets can be found online.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Getting ready to go… cassava virus hunting!

Katherine Tomlinson from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol Cabot Institute, is spending three months in Uganda looking at the cassava brown streak virus. This virus dramatically reduces available food for local people and Katherine will be finding out how research on this plant is translating between the lab and the field.  Follow this blog series for regular updates.

It’s just three days until I set off on my trip to Uganda, where I’ll complete an internship with the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Namulonge. I’ll be working for three months with their Communications team to learn how research is translated between the lab and the field.  I am currently a BBSRC South West DTP PhD student at the University of Bristol, researching how cassava brown streak disease viruses spoil cassava tubers and dramatically reduce available food for local people.

Image above shows Katherine inspecting cassava plants for cassava brown streak disease symptoms in the School of Biological Sciences GroDome.
Cassava plants produce carbohydrate rich root tubers and are a staple food crop for approximately 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. After rice and maize, cassava is the third most important source of carbohydrates in the tropics. Unfortunately, cassava is prone to viral infections, including cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), which can render entire tubers inedible. CBSD outbreaks are currently impacting on the food security of millions of cassava farmers in east Africa; it appears to be spreading westward, threatening food security in many countries.

Spoiled cassava tubers due to cassava brown streak disease (photo credit: Dr. E. Kanju, IITA).
Working the lab, I regularly infect plants with CBSD viruses to study how they replicate, move and prevent plant defence responses. However, in the field there is a much more complex interplay of different viral strains, cassava varieties, white fly population dynamics and environmental conditions which all contribute towards the disease. It’s vitally important that information about all of these contributory factors is shared between scientists and farmers to help control the disease and inform future research.

I’m looking forward to assisting with field trials where different cassava varieties are being tested for resistance and meeting the farmers who face the challenges of controlling the disease. I hope to learn how information is shared and distributed and get some research ideas for when I return. I’ll be blogging my experiences on my personal blog and for the Cabot Institute blog.

NaCRRI is in Namulonge, in the Wakiso district of Uganda (photo credit: Slomox, Wikimedia).

Preparation, preparation, preparation…


At the moment, there are a lot of ‘to do’s; making sure I’ve had all the necessary vaccinations, packed factor 50 sun cream, mosquito net, DET and a massive first aid kit! It seems a little over the top at the moment but should stand me in good stead for the adventure ahead…

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This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Katherine Tomlinson from the School of Biological Sciences.  Katherine's area of research is to generate and exploit an improved understanding of cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) to ensure sustainable cassava production in Africa
Katherine Tomlinson

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

From the depths of a PhD to the heights of the Royal Society: my first month…

The Royal Society
Back in autumn 2015 I applied for an RCUK Policy Internship. At first I was hesitant. Would it mean time lost in data collection for my PhD? Would I fall behind? And would it actually be useful for me beyond the PhD?

Well, the internship is only three months long, and due to it being RCUK-funded I get an extra three months added onto my PhD deadline. So no time lost!  Another thing that swayed me was the opportunity to broaden my horizons and gain lots of skills that I wouldn’t  have had the opportunity to gain while slogging away at the PhD.

Coming from an AHRC-funded PhD, I had the choice of internships with a whole host of organisations including the British Museum, British Library, the Society of Biology, Government Office for Science (GO-Science) and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). With my interests in archaeology (geophysics, soil science, geochemistry), agriculture, new technologies, the environment, and the role of strong independent science advice, I decided to go for the Royal Society, the UK’s national science academy.

At the beginning of March 2016 I arrived at Carlton House Terrace, London, to dig deeper into what strong science policy advice actually is, and how the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre provides it.

What I've learnt


Science policy advice is about communicating new and existing science to decision makers. Decision makers often lack technical expertise or awareness in some of the areas they cover, thus it’s crucial that they can access good advice from the people closer to the research. Decision making and policy advice also both have a crucial time component which can make or break whether advice is well received and useful, or wasted and forgotten. The challenge is to provide excellent and authoritative advice in a flexible and timely manner amongst an ocean of other competing priorities and other advisors trying to do the same thing.

The Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre is a key player in providing strong independent advice, drawn from experts in all areas of science. Experts come from not only the 1645 Fellows and Foreign members of the Society, but also from all relevant fields of research in academia and industry.

In my first month here I've experienced a fast-paced and engaging workplace, with a mix of great people  from a whole variety of different backgrounds. Unlike the PhD, work here has to cover huge topic areas such as energy, environment and climate change. These topics are immensely unwieldy but it’s essential that you  can get up to speed on current and future issues as well as the past dynamics of these topic areas to be able to understand the science and policy demands.

The other interesting side to this work is understanding the wider landscape of these topic areas. It’s not just about considering how academic research can be communicated to decision makers, but also how research feeds into a much wider process that policy needs to cover. How will decisions made affect the private sectors? How do policies impact people and the environment through space and time? Crucially how ‘successful’ are policies and what will policies of the future look like?

Stay tuned


It is an exciting time and so far shaping up to be a great experience! I will be writing a post for each month spent at the Society so look forward to more on horizon scanning techniques, prioritisation, and values within science!

(Views in this blog post are my own and do not represent those of the Royal Society.)
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This blog is by Cabot Institute member Henry Webber, from the School of Arts at the University of Bristol.  His research focusses on the integration of archaeology and precision farming.
Henry Webber


Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Why we need to tackle the growing mountain of 'digital waste'

Image credit Guinnog, Wikimedia Commons.
We are very aware of waste in our lives today, from the culture of recycling to the email signatures that urge us not to print them off. But as more and more aspects of life become reliant on digital technology, have we stopped to consider the new potential avenues of waste that are being generated? It’s not just about the energy and resources used by our devices – the services we run over the cloud can generate “digital waste” of their own.

Current approaches to reducing energy use focus on improving the hardware: better datacentre energy management, improved electronics that provide more processing power for less energy, and compression techniques that mean images, videos and other files use less bandwidth as they are transmitted across networks. Our research, rather than focusing on making individual system components more efficient, seeks to understand the impact of any particular digital service – one delivered via a website or through the internet – and re-designing the software involved to make better, more efficient use of the technology that supports it.

We also examine what aspects of a digital service actually provide value to the end user, as establishing where resources and effort are wasted – digital waste – reveals what can be cut out. For example, MP3 audio compression works by removing frequencies that are inaudible or less audible to the human ear – shrinking the size of the file for minimal loss of audible quality.

This is no small task. Estimates have put the technology sector’s global carbon footprint at roughly 2% of worldwide emissions – almost as much as that generated by aviation. But there is a big difference: IT is a more pervasive, and in some ways more democratic, technology. Perhaps 6% or so of the world’s population will fly in a given year, while around 40% have access to the internet at home. More than a billion people have Facebook accounts. Digital technology and the online services it provides are used by far more of us, and far more often.

It’s true that the IT industry has made significant efficiency gains over the years, far beyond those achieved by most other sectors: for the same amount of energy, computers can carry out about 100 times as much work as ten years ago. But devices are cheaper, more powerful and more convenient than ever and they’re used by more of us, more of the time, for more services that are richer in content such as video streaming. And this means that overall energy consumption has risen, not fallen.

Some companies design their products and services with the environment in mind, whether that’s soap powder or a smartphone. This design for environment approach often incorporates a life-cycle assessment, which adds up the overall impact of a product – from resource extraction, to manufacture, use and final disposal – to get a complete picture of its environmental footprint. However, this approach is rare among businesses providing online digital services, although some make significant efforts to reduce the direct impact of their operations – Google’s datacentres harness renewable energy, for example.

It may seem like data costs nothing, but it how software is coded affects the energy electronics consumes. 3dkombinat/shutterstock.com

We were asked to understand the full life-cycle cost of a digital operation by Guardian News and Media, who wanted to include this in their annual sustainability report. We examined the impact of the computers in the datacentres, the networking equipment and transmission network, the mobile phone system, and the manufacture and running costs of the smartphones, laptops and other devices through which users receive the services the company provides.

In each case, we had to determine, through a combination of monitoring and calculation, what share of overall activity in each component should be allocated to the firm. As a result of this, Guardian News and Media became the first organisation to report the end-to-end carbon footprint of its digital services in its sustainability report.

But what design approaches can be used to reduce the impact of the digital services we use? It will vary. For a web search service such as Google, for example, most of the energy will be used in the datacentre, with only a small amount transmitted through the network. So the approach to design should focus on making the application’s software algorithms running in the datacentre as efficient as possible, while designing the user interaction so that it is simple and quick and avoids wasting time (and therefore energy) on smartphones or laptops.

On the other hand, a video streaming service such as BBC iPlayer or YouTube requires less work in the datacentre but uses the network and end-user’s device far more intensively. The environmental design approach here should involve a different strategy: make it easier for users to preview videos so they can avoid downloading content they don’t want; seek to avoid digital waste that stems from sending resource-intensive video when the user is only interested in the audio, and experiment with “nudge” approaches that provide lower resolution audio/video as the default.

With the explosive growth of digital services and the infrastructure needed to support them it’s essential that we take their environmental impact seriously and strive to reduce it wherever possible. This means designing the software foundations of the digital services we use with the environment in mind.
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This blog is written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Chris Preist, Reader in Sustainability and Computer Systems.
Chris Preist

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

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

The EU, Brexit and nature conservation law

In the lead up to the sold out Brexit debate at the University of Bristol on Friday 29 April 2016, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
The EU plays a fundamental role in shaping the environmental law regimes of its Member States and that of the UK is no exception. A significant proportion of current domestic environmental law derives from EU Regulations (that automatically become part of English law) and EU Directives (that are implemented through national legislation).

Nature conservation law, i.e. the legal regime used to protect environmentally significant habitats and species, is a case in point and the focus of this blog. Conserving nature is key not only from a purely biodiversity standpoint but also from an ‘ecosystem services’ perspective. Ecosystem services are the benefits nature brings to the environment and to people, including supporting services (e.g. nutrient cycling), provisioning services (e.g. food), regulating services (e.g. carbon capture) and cultural services (e.g. recreation)

Site designation and management is a favoured technique of nature conservation law. The well-known Natura 2000 network, would not be there if it were not for EU Directives, namely the Habitats (92/43/EEC) and Wild Birds Directives (2009/147/EC), implemented in the UK by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. Under Article 3 of the Habitats Directive, Member States are indeed required to set up the Natura network composed of Special Areas of Conservation (sites hosting the natural habitat types listed in Annex I and habitats of the species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive) and Special Protection Areas (sites for the protection of rare and vulnerable birds as listed in Annex I of the Wild Birds Directive and for regularly occurring migratory species). 
Greenfinch by Mschulenburg - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
In the UK, there are a substantial number of European protected sites: 652 Special Areas of Conservation (including candidate Special Areas of Conservation[1] and Sites of Community Importance[2]) and 270 Special Protection Areas, covering a total of 8,013,467 ha (JNCC statistics as of 28 January 2016).

Has the establishment of Natura 2000 made a difference to biodiversity protection? 


As part of its Smart Regulation Policy, the Commission has initiated a fitness check of the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives to evaluate their effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and added value. Though the final Commission report on the results of the fitness check will be available only later this year, the draft emerging findings prepared by a consortium of experts do suggest that the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives have substantially contributed to the conservation of nature and to meeting the EU’s biodiversity target.

It is fair to note that, prior to the EU Directives on nature conservation, the UK did have its own system for habitat protection, most notably based on the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Introduced in the post-war period by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the law governing SSSIs has been strengthened over the decades by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended by Schedule 9 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. However, the management measures in place for SSSIs are not as stringent as those for the protection of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. 
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were introduced in the post-war period in the UK to help manage habitat protection.
It is also fair to note that in the marine environment, the UK has taken important steps domestically: the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 in England and Wales (and similar Acts in the devolved administrations) has brought in new domestic marine conservation zones that contribute to the establishment of an ecologically coherent network in UK waters. But the building of such a network is not so disentangled from EU law, considering Art 13(4) of the EU Marine Strategic Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) requires the formation of marine protected areas’ networks in the marine environments of Member States.

Clearly therefore, EU law has contributed much to the development of nature conservation in the UK. Moreover, being part of the EU means that the Commission can exercise its power to bring infringement proceedings against Member States for incomplete or ineffective implementation of EU law, thereby exercising an external check on implementation (for nature conservation, see Commission v UK, Case C-06/04 [2005]  ECR I-9017).

What would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law?


What is unknown however is what would Brexit mean for the future of nature conservation law in the UK because much depends on the type of post-Brexit EU-UK relationship and the agreement that will be negotiated. However, it could be argued that compared to other environmental sectors (such as waste and water) nature conservation may be more at risk.  

Indeed, even in the not-too-radical scenario in which the UK chooses to stay within the EEA, the future of nature conservation law will depend on whether there is political willingness to continue to abide by existing commitments, rather than legal obligations stemming from the EEA agreement. This is because, though the EEA agreement does contain many environmental provisions, nature conservation is excluded (Annex XX of the EEA agreement excludes the Habitats and Wild Birds Directive). Consequently, the future of nature conservation law is very uncertain in a post-Brexit world, even in the event of EEA membership.





[1] Candidate Special Areas of Conservation are sites that have been submitted to the European Commission, but not yet formally adopted.
[2] Sites of Community Importance are sites that have been adopted by the European Commission but not yet formally designated by the government of each country.
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This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Dr Margherita Pieraccini, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol. 
Margherita Pieraccini