Personal views from University of Bath researchers on the news of the day

Two questions about Brexit

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📥  EU Referendum, Uncategorized

Two things intrigue me about Brexit, although I have not yet seen them discussed.

First, one of the key concerns of the Eurosceptics and of the PM has been to re-assert the sovereignty of Parliament. However, Parliament was allowed no role in endorsing the terms on which the PM sought to negotiate, nor was it asked to give its blessing to the deal he brought back and commend it to the electorate. I did not however hear the Eurosceptics complaining at this. Curious.

Second, it seems to be assumed that if the referendum decides for Brexit, it will be incumbent on Parliament and Government to implement this decision: incumbent in a political - but hardly a constitutional - sense. But that will not mean exit the day after the referendum result is in: there will be a perhaps two-year process of negotiation, to establish the new relationship between the UK and the EU27. After all, the UK will not want to be suddenly without any relationship with the EU (even North Korea is not in that situation).

It is also however widely recognised that the EU might well negotiate a hard bargain, if only to discourage others who might think of heading for the exit. Will the UK  Parliament and Government feel themselves obliged to persist with exit however hard those terms? Or will they realise that under those conditions they would have no alternative but to take back the responsibility - I suppose Cameron might want to call this his 'emergency brake Mark 2' - if only to put the terms on offer at that point to a new referendum?  It is those terms on offer in 2018 that will be far more important in the long run than the terms which Cameron brought back from Brussels to launch the referendum campaign.

We are I suppose unlikely to get that far down the road. The Conservative Party is showing signs of fracture: in the circumstances sketched above, its fabled capacity to hold together, for the sake of retaining power, may prove insufficient. Cameron would in any case be unlikely to survive a vote for exit in June: whoever succeeds him would have to clear up the mess.

Read more comment and analysis from Bath researchers in relation to the EU referendum http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/opinion/category/eu-referendum/.


Mayoral maths: why backing Brexit was the only option for Boris Johnson

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📥  EU Referendum, Public Policy, The Conversation

Like all successful gamblers, Boris Johnson knows how to play the hand he is dealt, clearly calculating the odds of success. The London mayor’s decision to break with David Cameron to become a figurehead of the Leave side in the forthcoming EU referendum is the product of untold hours of calculation.

When Boris tells us that the referendum presents us with “a once in a lifetime chance”, we should believe him. If he has made the right calculations, Boris could become the next British Prime Minister. Let’s have a look at what those calculations might have been.


Reactions: EU Referendum

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📥  EU Referendum

This weekend Prime Minister David Cameron announced that an in / out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union would take place on Thursday 23 June.

Over the next few months in the lead up to the referendum via the Opinion blog you'll hear from academics around the University on what this might mean across a whole host of themes. Here, in this first post, Bill Durodié and Nick Startin from the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies give their initial reactions.

A referendum date on Britain's membership of the EU is now set for 23 June 2016.

A referendum date on Britain's membership of the EU is now set for 23 June 2016.


Making sense of “junk” DNA and RNA “noise”

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📥  Heath Science & Technology


Our DNA is what makes us who we are and the central dogma underpinning genetics is that genes are encoded by DNA, the code is copied into RNA which is then decoded to build proteins.    When the genome was sequenced it was discovered that only a small proportion of our DNA (2%) encodes genes and rest is noncoding and was termed “junk” DNA.

We now know that the “junk” DNA is not inert.  Some of it encodes regulatory information that signals when and in which tissue a gene should be expressed.   Large pieces of noncoding DNA are copied (transcribed) into long bits of noncoding RNA, or long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) and these were similarly regarded as mere transcriptional “noise”.  However, it soon became apparent that this “noise” has a function in regulating the expression of coding genes, but whether this is universally true is still under intense debate.  One reason for this uncertainty has been the lack of experimental methods whereby the functions of lncRNA can be tested.  Our study published in Nature Communications has identified one of these lcnRNAs with a dual function- one that monitors the speed that cells go through their cell cycle and other that maintains the shape of cells.

Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and a protein called Argonaute

To work out what a gene does we can literally knock it out in the lab by using enzymes to cut it out of the DNA.  This ensures that no protein is made and the resulting effect on the cell can be ascribed to the function of the knocked-out gene.  A knockout approach for lncRNA poses a problem because researchers can’t be sure that no other regulatory sequences are also being removed.

A better method is to prevent protein synthesis by degrading the RNA, using a small synthetic RNA molecule. The small interfering RNA (siRNA) approach reduces the amount of RNA produced and is called knock-down (as opposed to knock-out).  A protein called Argonaute 2 (AGO2) is attracted by siRNAs.  It is part of a gang of proteins that chop up and destroy the siRNA-targeted RNA.   We therefore explored whether siRNA could be used to identify functions of a lncRNA known as GNG12-AS1.

Frontend targeting by siRNA inhibits its transcription

Under the microscope GNG12-AS1 RNAs were visible at the site of its transcription and also at various other parts of the DNA. To work out what it was doing at these sites we knocked it down with siRNAs designed to target various regions of the transcript.  We were pleased to find that these siRNAs were remarkably efficient at knocking down GNG12-AS1.  To our surprise we found that siRNAs targeting the frontend of GNG12-AS1 resulted in an increased expression of its neighbouring gene DIRAS3, while siRNAs targeting the middle or tail end had no effect on DIRAS3 expression.  Frontend targeting of GNG12-AS1 recruited AGO2, which chopped up the emerging GNG12-AS1 RNA before it got a chance to complete its transcription.  In contrast backend targeting of GNG12-AS1 allowed it to be transcribed fully, before being chopped up by AGO2.  These results mean that the expression of DIRAS3 gene is normally subdued by its neighbour and when the neighbour is prevented from being transcribed, DIRAS3 can be expressed more readily.  When GNG12-AS1 was chopped up after it had been transcribed, DIRAS3 was still suppressed since it was the transcription of GNG12-AS1 that suppressed it rather that the RNA of GNG12-AS1.

Without GNG12-AS1 cells change shape and migrate faster

Regardless of where we targeted the siRNA to GNG12-AS1, when the level of GNG12-AS1 was reduced, cells underwent morphological changes and started migrating.  By doing a genome-wide expression profile we identified several coding genes that were upregulated when GNG12-AS1 was knocked down/absent.  Bioinformatic analyses predicted that these genes would be involved in tumour metastasis and we confirmed experimentally that the cell migration we observed with GNG12-AS1 knockdown was due to the upregulation of these metastasis-signalling genes.

Coding and noncoding tumour suppressors

DIRAS3 is a well-known tumour suppressor that is often silenced in breast and ovarian cancer.  It suppresses the growth of tumours by slowing the progression of cells through the cell cycle and promoting cell death.  Too much DIRAS3 will prevent normal cells surviving and GNG12-AS1 helps to modulate DIRAS3 at the right level.  In addition to maintaining DIRAS3 levels, GNG12-AS1 has a tumour suppressor role of its own, preventing the expression of a whole network of genes involved in metastasis.  Genes within the metastasis network cause cells to change their shapes, break away from their group and start migrating faster to invade a new site.  So far, we have found that GNG12-AS1 is often silenced or lost together with DIRAS3 in breast cancer.  Next steps will be to see whether this is limited to breast cancer or whether GNG12-AS1 is a tumour suppressor in other cancers as well.  More analysis is required to work out exactly how and where GNG12-AS1 suppresses the network of metastasis genes.

In the near future, so-called transcriptional “noise” may well be exploited to develop more successful, better targeted cancer interventionist therapies.


How the cat got its coat (and other furry tails)

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, The Conversation

From Sylvester in Looney Tunes to Mr Mistoffelees in the 1980s musical, some of the most famous (albeit fictional) cats share a distinctively sharp appearance thanks to their black and white tuxedo-style coats. Cats with skin and fur marked by white patches in this way are known as “bicolour" or “piebald”. Piebaldism is also common in a range of domestic and farm animals including dogs, cows and pigs, deer, horses and appears more rarely in humans. It is caused by a mutation in a gene called “KIT”.

Our team of researchers from the universities of Bath, Edinburgh and Oxford have been working to unlock the mystery of how these animals get their distinctive patterns. We have discovered that the way these striking pigment patterns form is far more random than originally thought. Our findings have implications for the study of a wide range of serious embryonic disorders in humans, including diseases affecting hearing, vision, digestion and the heart.



Tobacco industry activities in Africa uncovered

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📥  Public Policy

Tonight's BBC 1 Panorama reveals evidence of bribery and corruption from British American Tobacco (BAT) in East and Central Africa. Here Professor Anna Gilmore of the University's Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) comments on the significance of the latest revelations.

Following years of rumours to the effect, tonight’s Panorama reveals the first concrete evidence that the industry has been bribing policy-makers and senior government officials in Africa.

The revelations that British American Tobacco (BAT) has used bribery and corruption to influence the political process in East and Central Africa poses serious questions for policy-makers in this country and across Africa. The activities detailed would appear to be illegal under the 2010 UK Bribery Act.

This is not the first time that that BAT has been found to be involved in illegal activities. Its extensive involvement in global cigarette smuggling has previously been widely documented. Yet it managed to silence the government’s inquiry into cigarette smuggling. This time it is essential that a full and public inquiry is held.

Many African countries have shown a massive commitment to implementing tobacco control legislation in order to stall their growing epidemics of tobacco related deaths. Yet they have struggled to make progress. Now we start to understand why.

Over recent years, as tobacco control legislation has been tightened in the developed world, as researchers in this area we’ve observed a definite shift in attention from Big Tobacco to focus marketing and advertising efforts in less developed countries. Africa is key to the tobacco industry’s future and this is particularly the case for BAT, the market leader in the region.

According to the WHO, the tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced killing 6 million people a year. Nearly 80 per cent of the more than 1 billion smokers worldwide now live in low- and middle- income countries where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest.

Members of the TCRG played an advisory role on the programme.

For more on the work of the Group see the Tobacco Tactics website.


How technology can create conflict

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📥  Heath Science & Technology, Public Policy

David Galbreath, Professor International Security within the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, will today give evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’.

The purpose of the All Parliamentary Group is to inform parliamentarians of the activities of the UK Research Councils in response to global security challenges which help governments, businesses and societies to better predict, detect, prevent and mitigate threats to security.

Professor Galbreath will today give evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’.

Professor Galbreath will today give evidence to the House of Commons All Parliamentary Group on ‘Global Uncertainties’.

The nature of conflict has always been connected to the application of technologies. In fact, nearly all social behaviour is. We can understand technology in a broader sense than that of the modern sense of communication or kinetic power. Technology should be understood both in its conceptual forms as well as applied forms. Let us think of the relationship between the way we may seek to broaden horizons on the battlefield and the technologies the give us situational awareness through visual and aural technologies.

The conceptual and applied forms of technologies are non-linear and complex. The reason why it is important to understand the nature of technologies is because the non-linear and complex relationship between concepts and applications has a defining result for conflict whether at the individual or group level. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the ways militaries have sought to detect and destroy them are such examples of how the convergence of science and technologies has a direct impact on a conflict. Techno-science examines this relationship between science and technology and our social behaviour.



Paris terror attacks: France now faces fight against fear and exclusion

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📥  Society, The Conversation

The attacks that took place at a series of venues in Paris on November 13 were the deadliest on French soil since 1945. At least 129 people have been killed in six different places. Reports say that nearly 100 are in a critical condition. Police have reported that eight people believed to have carried out the attacks are also dead – seven by blowing themselves up.

It was not as though France had not prepared itself to face such a tragedy. Anti-terrorist measures have been at their highest level in Paris since January, when two brothers attacked the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12.

This was obvious to any bystander over the past few months. Armed soldiers have become part of the Paris experience. Yet the government’s security plan, the plan vigipirate, was not enough to stop what is so far believed to be the most organised and coordinated attack Islamic State has perpetrated outside its territory. Details are still thin on the ground, but IS has claimed responsibility. President François Hollande has blamed the group and made it clear that he sees this as an act of war.

As scenes that were indeed reminiscent of war spread across the centre of Paris, Hollande declared a state of emergency. He announced a series of radical measures such as re-establishing border controls. Schools and universities have been closed.

Meanwhile, there was the blizzard of unconfirmed information that’s to be expected in such a situation. The climate of fear was reinforced by the 24-hour news media’s tendency to not only relate the facts – as messy and incomplete as they are – but to encourage speculation.

Even as the attacks were still underway, commentators could be heard discussing what could happen next and what type of attacks we could, or indeed should, expect. The sense of panic only intensified with the proliferation of amateur videos on social media.



What now following the Paris Attacks?

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📥  Public Policy

Professor Bill Durodié is Chair of International Relations at the University and Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

Professor Durodié comments on events in Paris.

Professor Durodié comments on events in Paris.

The shooting and killing of innocent people in Paris yesterday evening is both a terrible tragedy and a heinous crime. It is too early to speculate about the perpetrators but, if there are any parallels with other incidents across the Western world of late, it would be that they lack clear motives beyond a highly distorted sense of persecution. Accordingly, what we can say at this time is that any commentator talking of supposedly understandable grievances is acting as an apologist to terror.

Inequality and exclusion are not new phenomena in our societies. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that these are any worse today than in the past. Rather the opposite in fact. It is high time for many pundits and well-meaning liberals to stop indulging disoriented youths in their deadly fantasies. We know of schools in France where educators avoid teaching about the Holocaust for fear of it being rejected and they’re even being laughed at. In this country some publications advise cultural sensitivity and even avoidance when broaching challenging subjects such as the Crusades.

The consequence and real challenge is that we now have in our midst a generation of young people who have effectively been protected from any intellectual challenge and even been accommodated to in their un-interrogated beliefs and presumed sensitivities. One action that will have to emerge from these incidents among the cacophony of noise demanding ever more security will be a search closer to home for the social drivers of moral capitulation and cowardice in our own midst and an attempt to confront those who are searching for something to belong to and to believe in but simply cannot find it here.

EU environmental meeting takes GLAMURS project to next level

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📥  Low carbon futures, Uncategorized

Participants involved in our EU-funded GLAMURS project met for the third Consortium meeting the second week in October here in Bath. The project has an ambitious goal to investigate the prospects for and obstacles to the adoption of more sustainable environmentally-friendly lifestyles. Involved in GLAMURS are 11 partner institutions from right across the continent.

Opening the meeting, Professor Colin Grant, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Internationalisation) reminded participants of the timeliness of our project, in view of the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change, to be hosted in Paris from 30 November – 11 December, as well as pressing questions over individuals’ own environmental behaviours.

EU GLAMURS project looks to shift people's environmental behaviours. Image credit: NASA

EU GLAMURS project looks to shift people's environmental behaviours. Image credit: NASA

Promoting a shift and tipping point in environmental thinking

Regulation on environmental matters has changed considerably over the years, responding to the issues and reflecting the ability of policy-makers to address environmental pollution. This has focused mostly on the large polluters, where emissions at source are relatively easy to observe, yet as the world’s population expands and the demand for better living standards rises around the globe, how individuals conduct their own lives with regard to the environment will be increasingly in focus.

Through GLAMURS, we are looking at how seemingly small individual behaviours – not recycling or turning off lights for instance - can have significant adverse impacts when scaled up across a country, region or global population. On a global level, climate change is a case in point.