Brightest cosmic explosion of all time: how we may have solved the mystery of its puzzling persistence

First detected accidentally by US military satellites in the late 1960s, cosmic explosions known as gamma ray bursts (GRBs) have come to be understood as the brightest explosions in the universe.

Typically, they are the result of the cataclysmic birth of a black hole in a distant galaxy. One way this can happen is through the collapse of a single, massive star.

Astronomers such as myself working in the field are well aware of the massive energy scales involved in GRBs. We know they can release as much energy in gamma rays as the Sun does throughout its lifetime. But every once in a while, an event is observed that still gives us pause.

In October 2022, gamma-ray detectors on the orbital satellites Fermi and the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory noted a burst known as GRB 221009A (the date of detection).

This quickly turned out to be a record-setter. It was dubbed the Brightest Of All Time, or the “Boat”, as convenient shorthand among astronomers studying and observing the event. Not only did the Boat start out bright, it refused to fade away like other bursts.

We still do not fully know why the burst was so exceptionally bright, but our new study, published in Science Advances, provides an answer for its stubborn persistence.

The burst originated from a distance of 2.4 billion light years – relatively nearby for a GRB. But even when accounting for relative distance, the energy of the event and the radiation produced by its aftermath were off the charts. It is decidedly not normal for a cosmically distant event to deposit about a gigawatt of power into the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Observing narrow cosmic jets of gas

GRBs such as the Boat launch a stream of gas moving at very close to light speed into space. How exactly the jet is launched remains something of a puzzle – but most likely, it involves magnetic fields near where the black hole is being formed.

It is the early emission from this jet that we see as the burst. Later, the jet slows down and produces additional radiation, a fading afterglow of light – from radio waves up to (in exceptional cases) gamma rays.

We do not observe jets directly. Instead, like distant stars, we see GRBs as points in the sky. Nevertheless, we have good reason to believe that GRBs do not explode in all directions equally. For GRB 221009A, this would certainly be unreasonable, as it would involve multiplying the amount of energy detected on Earth by all other directions – amounting to much more energy than any star would have available.

Another indication that GRBs come from jets pointing roughly at us is due to special relativity theory. Relativity teaches us that the speed of light is constant, no matter how fast a source moves at us. But that still allows for the direction of light to become distorted. Thanks to this fun-house mirror effect, light emitted in all directions from the surface of a fast-moving jet will end up focused strongly along its direction of motion.

That said, the edges of a jet heading in our direction will be very slightly curved away, meaning their light is focused away from our direction. Only later, when the jet slows down, do the edges normally come into view and does the afterglow start to fade faster.

But here again, GRB 221009A broke the rules. Its edges never showed, and it joined a select group of very bright bursts that refuse to fade normally. Rather than starting to fade slowly and then disappearing quickly, it is steadily fading over time.

In our work, we demonstrate how the appearance of the jet edges can be obscured in a way that matches the observations of the Boat. The key idea is as follows: yes, a narrow jet was launched, but it had a difficult time escaping the collapsing star, leading to a lot of mixing with stellar gas along the sides of the jet.

From simulation to observation

To test whether this was indeed the case, we took a computer simulation result showing this mixing and implemented it in a model that could actually be compared to the Boat data directly. And it showed that what would normally be a quick turnover to a strongly fading signal, now became a drawn-out affair.

Radiation from the dying star’s shock-heated gas kept appearing in our line of sight, explaining why it stayed so bright. This kept happening all the way up to the point that any characteristic jet signature was lost in the overall emission.

This way, GRB 221009A not only confirms expectations from simulation, but also provides a clue to similarly bright events seen in the past, where people had to keep revising the energy estimate upwards while waiting for a jet edge to show.

We calculated that the likelihood of seeing a burst this bright is about one in a thousand years, so we are lucky to have spotted one. But questions remain. What role do magnetic fields play, for example?

Theorists and numerical modellers will be exploring these matters for years, scouring the Boat data while we stay on the lookout for the next big event to arrive Läs mer…

Messi is heading to the US as Saudi Arabia kicks off bidding war with MLS for aging soccer stars

The announcement on consecutive days that Karim Benzema, the storied Real Madrid and France soccer star is joining the Saudi Pro League and that Lionel Messi, thought by many to be soccer’s GOAT, will play next season in the U.S.‘s Major League Soccer (MLS) may mark the beginning of a new international bidding war for superannuated soccer stars.

MLS has for many years been recruiting aging talent from big European clubs, but the Saudi interest is new. Benzema’s move to Al-Ittihad – costing more than US$200 million – follows the acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo by fellow Saudi club Al Nassr in 2022 for $100 million.

The Benzema announcement on June 6, 2023, furthered speculation that the kingdom is attempting to build a soccer league that will be competitive with Europe’s elite: the English Premier League, La Liga in Spain, Germany’s Bundesliga and Serie A in Italy.

Although it seems unlikely that the Saudi Pro League will make any dent in the popularity of those established European leagues any time soon, the trend of big name signings may be the detriment of smaller leagues – chief among them MLS – who will struggle to compete with the power of the Saudi sporting purse.

A game of money and image laundering

Confirmation of the Benzema move came on the same day that LIV Golf, funded by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, announced its merger with the PGA – prompting comments about “sportswashing,” the use of investment in sports to launder the image of Saudi Arabia’s repressive, brutal and authoritarian regime.

However, there is one important difference between the Benzema story and LIV Golf. Saudi Arabians, in particular – and the Arab peoples of the Middle East, in general – have never shown much interest in golf. It was brought to the region by well-to-do British and American ex-pats, and only took hold among local elites.

Golf Saudi was created in 2018 and launched an ambitious mass participation program as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 project, precisely because few Saudis played the game.

The same cannot be said of soccer. The game is beloved loved across the Arab world, and as soccer writer Simon Kuper and I wrote in “Soccernomics,” the nations of the Middle East would have produced competitive international teams long ago were it not for the region’s longstanding political instability. Some observers have described soccer as “The Second Religion of the Arab World.”

Oldies but goodies

The strategy of buying aging stars from European leagues to promote interest in an emerging soccer nation is a longstanding tradition.

In the 2016-17 season, China made waves when it started spending large sums in the transfer market to attract luminaries such as former Manchester United star Carlos Tevez and the Brazilian midfielder Oscar. The Australian A-League brought in players like Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler and Brazil’s Juninho in its early years, while Japan’s J.League launched in 1993 with aging World Cup legends Zico and Gary Lineker.

George Best dribbles past Pelé in the North American Soccer League.
AP Photo

But the greatest examples of this strategy come from the United States. Back in the 1970s, the North American Soccer League (NASL) assembled what may be the greatest collection of international stars ever to play outside of Europe or South America. Pelé, Johann Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Bobby Moore – sporting legends in their home countries – all played in the league. But it was not enough to save the NASL from collapse in 1984.

Its successor, Major League Soccer (MLS), launched in 1996 with the intention of avoiding some of the high-spending associated with NASL. And in the early years, the league resisted the temptation of bringing in big European stars. But having almost folded in the early 2000s, the league changed course spectacularly with the signing of David Beckham for LA Galaxy in 2007 at the peak of the soccer star’s celebrity – if not footballing – power.

There followed a steady stream of aging international stars entering the league: Italian Alessandro Nesta in 2012, former Chelsea star Didier Drogba and Spain’s David Villa in 2015, English midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in 2016, and strikers Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2018.

David Beckham graduated from player to owner with the addition of the Inter Miami franchise in 2020, and there had long been rumors that he was working to secure the addition of Messi to the MLS roster. Messi’s agreement is a triumph both for Beckham and MLS, but it doesn’t remove the Saudis as a competitor in the long term, and may push up the costs involved for all.

Will the Saudis pop the MLS bubble?

Since Beckham’s arrival as a player, MLS has flourished. In 2007 the league consisted of only 13 franchises, with the newly added Toronto FC paying a $10 million expansion fee to join. In May 2023, it was announced that San Diego would become the 30th MLS franchise for a reported fee of $500 million. According to Forbes, the average value of an MLS franchise is currently $579 million.

This is remarkable, since for that price you could buy almost any football club in Europe outside of the top 20. Forbes also reckons that no less than seven of the 30 most valuable football clubs in the world are in MLS.

It’s also remarkable because the standard of play in MLS is not that high, compared to what is offered in Europe. Statistical research by myself and others has shown that in soccer, you get what you pay for – to the point where the overall team payrolls generate reliable forecasts of long term results.

The website Transfermarkt provides summary valuation of league squads, and currently values MLS players at $1.3 billion, compared to $11.3 billion for the English Premier League, $5.1 billion for La Liga, $4.9 billion for Serie A and $4.6 billion for the Bundesliga. The squad valuations for MLS are closer to those of the Belgian Jupiler League.

The valuation of MLS franchises is not based on the quality of the play, but on the prospects for growth if soccer becomes a mainstream spectator sport in the United States. MLS’s diehard supporters are a forgiving lot, but represent a tiny fraction of the U.S. sports market. Eventually, I believe MLS is going to have to field better players to continue its ascent – and that means competing in the international market.

Messi heading for David Beckham’s Inter Miami.
AP Photo/Francois Mori

The worry for MLS is that they now have a new competitor for the best aging players: Saudi Arabia. MLS wanted Ronaldo and it wanted Benzema, too. Inter Miami and MLS have Messi, but they had to overcome competition from Saudi team Al Hilal.

The Messi move is a great coup for MLS. But the emergence of the Saudis as competitors suggests that future opportunities will be diminished, and that the league will have to pay more for the stars it can attract. Läs mer…

Why we’re searching for the evolutionary origins of masturbation – and the results so far

“Spanking the monkey”, “petting the poodle” and “pulling the python”: all fitting euphemisms for masturbation, and closer to the truth than you might imagine. Self-pleasure is common across the animal kingdom: from dogs humping unwitting teddy bears to dolphins thrusting their penises into decapitated fish (yes, really), animal masturbation is a raucous affair.

In my team’s new paper, my colleagues and I tested the hypotheses that primate masturbation could increase reproductive success and help avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

We focused our research on primates (the group of animals humans belong to) because, if there were a prize for the most inventive onanists in the animal kingdom, they would win.

Young chimpanzees fashion DIY sex toys from bits of chewed-up fruit. Female Sulawesi crested macaques slap their rumps while repeatedly inserting their fingers into their vaginas. In one study, captive male chacma baboons masturbated while ogling females sporting large prosthetic bottoms, attached by researchers to replicate the natural swellings females develop when at their most fertile.

Female chacma baboons develop sexual swellings, like the female in this picture of hamadryas baboons.
Prashanth Bala/Shutterstock

Despite masturbation being such common behaviour, there is very little research in this area. So – in a career move I did not anticipate when I was growing up – I spent my PhD researching the evolution of masturbation.

In evolutionary terms, masturbation is a puzzler because, by definition, it excludes reproductive partners and it’s hard to think of a scenario in which masturbating could aid survival. Many people have dismissed it as an abnormal and deviant behaviour, or a byproduct of sexual arousal. And masturbation can be costly in terms of both time and energy.

Mapping masturbation across the primate order

My colleagues and I started by compiling a “who’s who” of masturbators across the primate order. We collated every detail we could find from published research, and supplemented this with questionnaires dutifully filled out by accommodating, if slightly bewildered, colleagues who are experienced working with primates.

Rhesus macaques often masturbate several times a day during the mating season.
Matilda Brindle

If you know how different animals are related to one another, you can compare data from living species to infer how a trait may have evolved. We combined information on the evolutionary relationships between different primates (think of it like an extensive family tree) with our new data on their masturbatory behaviours (or lack thereof).

For some analyses, we added information on other traits, such as their mating system and whether the species typically had a high exposure to STIs.

It turns out that masturbation occurs in all age groups, in both females and males, in the wild and in captivity. We discovered that masturbation is an ancient behaviour within primates, and concluded that the ancestor of all monkeys and apes, including humans, probably masturbated. It’s unlikely masturbation is a habit that different species of monkeys and apes have picked up along the way.

Can masturbation increase reproductive success?

Previous research has shown that marine iguanas have an ingenious secret. Bigger males monopolise females, physically separating small males from their partner if they spot them copulating. To get around this, small males masturbate and store their ejaculate in a special pouch at the tip of their penis. Next time there’s an opportunity to mate, they quickly deposit their pre-prepared ejaculate. Amazingly, this method improves small males’ fertilisation success by 41%.

Primates don’t have a special pouch for storing semen, but getting aroused before sex is still a good strategy for low-ranking males, as they are likely to be interrupted by those at the top of the pecking order. Hovering close to orgasm means they can ejaculate faster if they do get the opportunity to mate, before making a speedy exit.

Male masturbation can also keep sperm fighting fit, since ejaculation allows males to replenish their semen with fresh, high-quality sperm that are more likely to outcompete those of other males.

Our study found support for the theory that masturbation increases male – but not female – reproductive success. Mating systems with lots of competition between males have coevolved with masturbation across the course of evolution.

Previous studies have showed that arousal in females increases vaginal pH, creating a more welcoming environment for sperm, while vaginal mucus filters out inferior sperm and fast-tracks high-quality semen towards the uterus. Orgasmic contractions can also help sperm on their journey.

Masturbation as a means of genital grooming

Male Cape ground squirrels masturbate after they’ve had sex – and the more partners they have, the more they do it. If their partner has had a lot of previous sex, they masturbate even more.

It’s thought that, among males, this practice of ejaculating via masturbation after sex is a form of genital cleansing. It’s unlikely that female masturbation evolved for STI prevention, though, because the higher vaginal pH associated with arousal is more hospitable for pathogens as well as sperm.

Our research supports the hypothesis that masturbation can be a pathogen avoidance strategy in males, having coevolved with higher risk of STIs. And in species with a high risk of contracting an STI, once masturbation evolved it was maintained.

So what about females?

At first glance, our data seems to suggest that female masturbation is less prevalent than its male counterpart. We didn’t find evidence for an evolutionary function of female masturbation.

However, I’m not convinced these results reflect what’s really going on. This is in part because female arousal and masturbation are often far less obvious than in males. But it also reflects a broader trend in the sciences – a shocking lack of information on female sexual behaviour and anatomy.

In the past, females have been pushed to the side in favour of research on males, which has the benefit of a back-catalogue of previous scientific effort. We set out to explore the evolution of masturbation in both females and males, but our analyses of females were hampered because we couldn’t collect as much data.

Our research highlights how masturbation is a normal part of the behavioural repertoire of many different species – both in females and males, in the wild and in captivity. Those who condemn masturbation as unnatural or wrong should have a look at our primate cousins, and take a walk on the wild side. Läs mer…

ESG investing has made little impact on the green energy transition so far. Why is that?

As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ramps up its dire warnings about climate change and its subsequent impact on biodiversity, environment, food and health-care systems, the same reports also point out that we have solutions available in the form of clean, renewable energy.

There are a number of challenges in making the transition. One is carbon lock-in, which refers to the amount of money we have already spent on fossil fuel infrastructure compared to the cost of building new systems, like electric vehicle charging stations.

Other challenges include intermittent renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. The challenges of energy storage also loom large.

But beyond these issues is an even more fundamental problem: finance.

Money makes the world go round

All industries and businesses rely fundamentally on finance. Finance is the lubricant that allows markets to work. As we saw during the 2008 financial crisis, when finance dries up, business activity can stall and throw the economy into a recession.

But finance needs regulation to ensure investments, business decisions and contracts are sound. The failure of such regulations contributed to the 2008 crisis. The clean energy transition is now facing a similar problem.

Some governments, such as that of the United States, have already invested in clean energy but our global financial system is still highly dependent on fossil fuels.

The International Monetary Fund estimates subsidies to global fossil fuels amounted to US$5.9 trillion in 2020 — approximately seven per cent of GDP.

Yet the International Energy Agency estimates that governments only spent US$1.34 trillion on clean energy from 2020 to 2023. We need to spend at least US$5 trillion annually if we want to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Slow clean energy transition

Why do governments continue to heavily subsidize oil and gas? The answer is simple: they are powerful lobbyists with deep pockets. The top five companies spend at least US$200 million annually to influence governments.

By contrast, green jobs are more plentiful and growing faster, but are not well-organized and are spread across a variety of sectors. In order to combat this, a number of organizations have moved towards fossil fuel disinvestment in response to pressure from activists.

Read more:
How divesting of fossil fuels could help save the planet

Some organizations are redirecting their funds away from fossil fuels towards so-called ethical investing. Some of the largest private equity firms, like Blackrock, are now involved in sustainable investing.

UBS, a multinational investment bank, has argued that half of all institutional investment — US$60 trillion globally — are purportedly invested in “green and socially responsible stocks.” This would include all the large pension funds.

But despite all this activity, the transition toward clean energy from fossil fuels is happening at a sluggish pace. Why?

Pitfalls of ethical investing

Book cover for ‘The Smoke and Mirrors Game of Global CSR Reporting.’
(Anthem Press)

Over the past three years, I investigated how investment money managers decide what is ethical when it comes to socially responsible investing.

The results of this investigation, and a broader study of corporate social responsibility reporting systems, are discussed in my new book, The Smoke and Mirrors Game of Global CSR Reporting.

I examined the reporting systems of investment firms like MSCI. These firms sell reports that offer assessments according to the four categories of environmental, social and governance investing, as well as a composite scores and peer ranking by industry.

While the approach seems comprehensive, I decided to take a closer look at these systems. I used [third-party databases] to develop my own database of alleged “killings” or “deaths” associated with companies in the electronics, mining and apparel sectors.

I also conducted case studies of major corporate incidents, such as the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh. I anticipated that ethical disasters, like the series of worker suicides that took place in a FoxConn factory in China in 2010, would lead to consequences in the form of ethical investment shifts.

I found that, in some cases, ethical disasters were linked to serious business losses, such as the closing of Barrick’s Pascua-Lama mine in Chile after environmental concerns.

However, there were little to no financial consequences for egregious ethical disasters. In some cases, there was a slight temporary dip in stock prices, but nothing substantial.

Financial reporting failures

Upon closer examination of the reporting systems, a number of sources of failure became clear. First, reporting agencies don’t reveal their methods for their scores, and their methods changed over time.

Second, since there are at least five different scoring indicator categories, a bad score in one category didn’t necessarily result in a bad score in other categories or the composite score.

Third, the few stories and reports about ethical performance were drowned out by the overwhelming amount of financial performance information.

Fourth, since reports are usually done annually, there is no incentive for companies to tackle long-term issues, such as improving working standards or investing in environmental technology.

In fact, no one is paying close attention to conditions on the ground. Reports are based on a few news aggregators, such as the Factiva research platform that captures a lot of events but doesn’t analyze the sources or solutions to complex problems.

Army personnel watch as workers toil in the collapsed garment factory building in April 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

These, and other issues, explain why socially responsible investment has made such little impact on the green energy transition. There is minimal accountability for corporations that violate their ethical commitments.

Towards genuine ethical investing

It’s clear fund managers — including those that oversee pension funds — don’t have the necessary information systems to make ethical investment decisions. Nor do they face any pressure to go beyond avoiding scandals and prioritizing short-term returns on investment, regardless of the consequences to our health or the planet.

Anyone with a pension should carefully review their investment portfolios to ensure their funds are truly being invested ethically. Most investors take it for granted that the stated ethical principles are being upheld, when in reality they are merely grandiose gestures.

Read more:
Why Canadian pension plans must divest of fossil fuel investments

In fact, there’s a good chance investment funds labelled as “ethical” are associated with companies that have climate change, labour or environmental issues.

We should pressure our money managers to shift their portfolios based on neutral party, in depth reporting of company behaviour. This will force organizations to make genuine ethical choices that will benefit everyone in the long run.

If enough of us start paying attention, we can collectively use our financial and consumer leverage to change the world into a more ethical place and avoid climate disaster. Läs mer…

The invisible effects of human activity on nature

Discussions at the recent COP15 biodiversity conference in Montréal highlighted once again the impact of human activities on wildlife. Many species are forced to migrate, are seeing their populations declining, or worse, are finding themselves on the brink of extinction. For example, the populations of woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are declining as a result of the damage of logging on their habitat.

This article is part of La Conversation Canada’s series The boreal forest: A thousand secrets, a thousand dangers

La Conversation Canada invites you to take a virtual walk in the heart of the boreal forest. In this series, our experts focus on management and sustainable development issues, natural disturbances, the ecology of terrestrial wildlife and aquatic ecosystems, northern agriculture and the cultural and economic importance of the boreal forest for Indigenous peoples. We hope you have a pleasant — and informative — walk through the forest!

However, the consequences of human activities are not always visible. Before being driven into decline, some species are able to adapt to disturbances in their habitat — but only up to a point. This is particularly true of plants, which cannot move to avoid disturbances in their environment, and as a result, are necessarily subjected to the impact of human activities.

Our work in forest ecology at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) is allowing us to demonstrate the invisible effects of human activities on boreal flora.

Adapting, but not without consequences…

The capacity of plants to adapt is actually a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes it possible to put off a decline in their populations due to human activity. On the other hand, it can lead researchers to underestimate the consequences that human activities are having on the environment.

When a species adapts to disturbances in its habitat, its nutritional and medicinal properties may change. This is because plants respond to these disturbances by producing chemical compounds. Some of these compounds can have harmful effects on the health of the humans who consume them. In the boreal forest, this can take the form of toxins in the seeds of ground hemlock and the leaves of sheep laurel.

However, other compounds are sought after for their benefits to human health. For example, antioxidants, which are highly valued in food for their health benefits, have the primary function of protecting plants from sunlight and various pollutants. One example of these is polyphenols, found in some boreal forest berries, such as blueberries and cranberries.

…especially for Indigenous communities

People whose diet consists of wild plants are particularly affected by the changes in chemical composition that take place when plants are adapting to disturbances in their habitat. This is the case for Indigenous communities, who gather dozens of species in their traditional territories for food and medicinal purposes.

To study how the adaptation of plants affects their chemical properties, we conducted a project in partnership with three Indigenous communities in northwestern Québec. Members of the communities suggested that we work on Labrador tea because of its cultural importance and medicinal uses. Labrador tea leaves are used in infusion to treat many ailments, such as osteoarthritis, diabetes or kidney problems. The leaves contain antioxidants called flavonoids in large quantities.

Labrador tea is an understory plant, 30 to 120 centimetres tall. It is found in moist forest environments in Canada and the northern United States.
(Maxime Thomas), provided by the author

Disturbances have different effects

The members of the communities we met expressed their concerns about the consequences of two human disturbances on their territories: hydroelectric transmission lines and the exploitation of mining sites. The hydroelectric transmission lines create an artificial opening in the forest, which overexposes the plants to the sun. Mining sites generate heavy metal pollution. In both cases, Labrador tea plants adapt by producing flavonoids.

Plants under hydroelectric lines are much more exposed to the sun than in the surrounding forest.
(Maxime Thomas), provided by the author

After analyzing the chemical composition of Labrador tea plants sampled from the territories of three Indigenous communities, we found contrasting effects of human disturbances. On the one hand, plants under hydroelectric transmission lines produced more flavonoids to protect themselves from the sun. On the other hand, plants near mining sites produced less flavonoids, due to a degradation of their metabolism by heavy metals.

However, before jumping to the conclusion that plants under hydroelectric transmission lines are healthier, other factors need to be considered. For example, chemicals potentially harmful to human health, such as triclopyr or glyphosate, may be used to maintain hydroelectric transmission lines.

The flavonoid analysis only tells part of the story, so further analysis of factors such as the content of plant pollutants would be needed to gain a full picture of the effects of human disturbance on plant properties.

Biodiversity is important for the functioning of ecosystems, and also for the services it provides to humans. Indigenous peoples have extensive knowledge of plants and their environment, which should be valued.

Human disturbances affect the plants, the benefits they provide and the Indigenous knowledge that depends on them. Läs mer…

The legal aid sector is collapsing and millions more may soon be without access to justice – new data

The UK government has announced changes to legal aid access in England and Wales, updating means test thresholds to account for inflation. These thresholds are the maximum amount of capital or income that a person can have to be eligible for legal assistance at public expense.

Under these changes, the government estimates that over 2 million more people will be eligible for civil legal aid each year. Eligibility, though, is not the same as access. The reality is that fewer and fewer people have access to civil legal aid advice and representation, because provision is collapsing.

Civil legal aid covers issues like housing, mental health, community care, immigration and asylum, and family law. The scope of these was much reduced by austerity measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012.

I obtained legal aid provision figures from the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid Agency, via a freedom of information request, covering the 12 months from September 2021 to August 2022 (the last full year available). The numbers, combined with publicly available data, paint a picture of a collapsing sector.

There was a 20% reduction in the number of housing legal aid providers in the 18 months to March 2023. The same period saw a 21% loss of legal aid providers for mental health, and a 27% loss in welfare benefits. In immigration and asylum, over 30% of the providers given contracts in September 2018 had stopped doing legal aid work by March 2023.

Providers (private law firms or charities) are given contracts by the Legal Aid Agency to provide legal aid in specific areas of law – but they cannot be compelled to take on cases.

In fact, the current situation is worse than even these figures suggest, because 30% of the housing provider offices (129) did not undertake any new legal aid cases in the year to 31 August 2022. Nine of the 131 geographical “procurement areas” in England and Wales saw no new housing cases opened in that year.

Often, this is because they are unable to recruit any qualified lawyers on the salaries available, or because they cannot afford to take on legal aid cases. Others take on very small numbers of cases because they are at capacity, given the number of lawyers they can afford.

Read more:
Legal aid at 70: how decades of cuts have diminished the right to legal equality

In welfare benefits, a staggering 71% of offices did not report any new legal aid cases in the year, though this is largely because legal aid is now only available for Upper Tribunal and higher court appeal cases.

Even in community care, which was much less affected by the LASPO cuts, 41% of the 127 contracted offices undertook no new legal aid matters in the year, and 17% of offices stopped doing legal aid work in the 18 months to March 2023. Only ten new matters were reported in the north-east of England, and 12 in the south-east (excluding London).

Demand outstripping supply

Importantly, these figures do not indicate a lack of demand for the services of legal aid providers. In asylum, the last year saw at least 25,000 more applicants for legal aid than providers had capacity to take on. This is at least a 45% deficit, and only includes main applicants (not their dependants).

A housing lawyer described having so much demand at her firm that they have to allocate a senior solicitor to triage the most desperate cases, turning away the rest.

There is a clear regional inequality to provision of legal aid. For example, the Legal Aid Agency failed to find any providers at all for 11 areas to deliver its new, court-based early advice scheme to prevent housing loss.

Barristers walked out over proposed legal aid cuts in 2014.
Jeff Moore / Alamy Stock Photo

Legal aid providers report difficulties recruiting across all areas of law, given the loss of lawyers and the overall low fees. Civil legal aid fees have not increased at all since fixed fees were introduced for most work in 2007, and have fallen significantly in real terms.

There is also a huge amount of unpaid admin and bureaucracy imposed by the Legal Aid Agency. There are serious delays in payment to providers because most work is paid for at the end of the case. But lawyers often cannot close and bill their cases because of slow processing by government departments and the courts.

An unworkable policy

Even after the means test changes, in England and Wales the new limits to qualify for legal aid are £7,000 in capital (such as savings and other financial assets) and gross income of no more than £946 a month (£11,352 per year), with additional allowances for dependants. A person might also qualify for legal aid, but have to pay a contribution, if they have a disposable (rather than gross) income of up to £946 per month.

There is no regular review mechanism to update these limits in line with inflation. Critics point out that this consultation, launched in March 2022, was already out of date by the time the response was published in May 2023.

There is greater eligibility in Scotland. The threshold for capital is £13,017 and the disposable income threshold for full legal aid is £3,521 per year. Clients with disposable incomes of up to £26,239 remain eligible to pay legal aid rates rather than private rates, though they may have to contribute more as their income goes up.

The UK’s legal aid capacity crisis has been a long time building, but it has come to a head with cost of living concerns – and is likely to become even sharper with the government’s plans to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda. Civil servants have reportedly warned the government that it will have to increase legal aid fees for asylum work, otherwise it will be impossible for people to access legal advice before being removed.

If the UK government fails to ensure the viability and availability of legal aid, there will be no more lawyers to provide advice and representation for millions of newly-eligible (and desperately needy) people. This is what happens when legal aid is cut too far. The system survives for a period of time on goodwill, and then it collapses. Läs mer…

How Russia is shifting to a war economy in the face of international sanctions

As Russia’s progress in Ukraine has stalled, with enormous losses in material and people, the frustrated head of the Wagner mercenary force Yevgeny Prigozhin has called for Russia to shift to a total war economy:

The Kremlin must declare a new wave of mobilisation to call up more fighters and declare martial law and force ‘everyone possible’ into the country’s ammunition production efforts. We must stop building new roads and infrastructure facilities and work only for the war.

His words echo similar sentiments expressed by the head of Russia’s state broadcaster RT, Margarita Simonyan – an influential supporter of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin – who said recently:

Our guys are risking their lives and blood every day. We’re sitting here at home. If our industry is not keeping up, let’s all get a grip! Ask anyone. Aren’t we all ready to come help for two hours after work?

Already facing western sanctions since its annexation of Crimea and occupation of territory in Ukraine’s eastern provinces in 2014, Russia has had to adapt to life under an increasingly harsh series of economic punishments. And, while Putin had apparently planned for a relatively short “special military operation”, this conflict has become a protracted and expensive war of attrition.

The Economist has estimated Russian military spending at 5 trillion roubles (£49 billion) a year, or 3% of its GDP, a figure the magazine describes as “a puny amount” compared to its spending in the second world war. Other estimates are higher – the German Council on Foreign Relations (GDAP) estimates US$90 billion (£72 billion), or more like 5% of GDP.

But the international sanctions have hit the economy hard. They have affected access to international markets and the ability to access foreign currency and products. And the rate at which the Russian military is getting through equipment and ammunition is putting a strain on the country’s defence industry.

So the Kremlin faces a choice: massively increasing its war efforts to achieve a decisive breakthrough, or continuing its war of attrition. The latter would aim to outlast Ukraine in the hope that international support may waver in the face of a global costs of living crisis.

Equipment shortages

Russia has lost substantial amounts of arms and ammunition. In March 2023, UK armed forces minister James Heappey estimated that Russia had lost 1,900 main battle tanks, 3,300 other armoured combat vehicles, 73 crewed, fixed wing aircraft, several hundred uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) of all types, 78 helicopters, 550 tube artillery systems, 190 rocket artillery systems and eight naval vessels.

Wanted: more modern tanks.
Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Russia has to contend with several important military-industrial challenges. For one, its high technology precision-guided weapons require access to foreign technology.

This is now unavailable – or restricted to sanctions-busting deals which can only supply a fraction of what is needed. Most of the high-tech electronic components used by the Russian military are manufactured by US companies.

So it has to substitute these with lower-grade domestic components, which is probably why the Russian military is using its high-tech weaponry sparingly. But the artillery shells on which it has been relying are running short.

US thinktank the Center for Security and International Studies has reported US intelligence estimates that since February 2022, export controls have degraded Russia’s ability to replace more than 6,000 pieces of military equipment. Sanctions have also forced key defense industrial facilities to halt production and caused shortages of critical components for tanks and aircraft, among other materiel.

Make do, mend – and spend

There are clear signs of increasing efforts to address the shortages. According to a report in the Economist, Dmitri Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, has recently announced plans for the production of 1,500 modern tanks in 2023. Russian news agency Tass reported recently Medvedev also plans to oversee a ramping up of mass production of drones.

The government is reported to be providing substantial loans to arms manufacturers and even issuing orders to banks to do the same. Official statistics indicate that the production of “finished metal goods” in January and February was 20% higher compared to the previous year.

The GDAP reported in February: “As of January 2023, several Russian arms plants were working in three shifts, six or seven days a week, and offering competitive salaries. Hence, they can increase production of those weapon systems that Russia is still able to manufacture despite the sanctions.”

So it appears the Kremlin is playing a delicate balancing act of redirecting significant resources to the military and related industries while trying to minimise the disruption of the general economy, which would risk losing the support of large sections of the population.

There appears to be little shortage of consumer goods in Russia, but shoppers say quality has deteriorated.
EPA-EFE/Maxim Shipenkov

The International Monetary Fund has projected Russia’s economy to grow by 0.7% this year (which would trump the UK’s projected growth of 0.4%). This will largely be underpinned by export revenues for hydrocarbons as well as arms sales to various client countries happy to ignore western sanctions.

Meanwhile diversifying import sources has kept stores stocked. However, Russian public opinion pollster Romir has reported that while most people aren’t worried about the absence of sanctioned goods, about half complained that the quality of substituted goods had deteriorated.

So ordinary Russians – those who haven’t lost loved ones on the battlefield or to exile – remain relatively sanguine about everyday life. But a longer, more intense conflict, requiring a shift to a total war economy, could be a different matter altogether. Läs mer…

How the legal tools to prevent forced marriage can lead to further abuse

Forced marriage – marriage that lacks the consent of one or both parties – is a serious issue which affects 22 million people around the world – predominantly women and girls. In England and Wales, it is a crime that is legally recognised as a form of domestic violence.

In a new report, we paint a full picture of the problem, detailing the experiences of survivors and the challenges in supporting victims of forced marriage.

We interviewed 11 forced marriage survivors and 42 police, domestic abuse and other specialist support providers, analysed 37 court rulings and examined 70 police case files. We found the most common age of women and men subject to forced marriages is 16-21, but girls and boys as young as 11 have also become victims.

Since February 2023, when the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales was raised to 18, any marriage involving a child under the age of 18 also counts as forced.

The majority of victims are women and girls, but people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people are especially vulnerable. Contrary to popular belief, forced marriages are not limited to specific cultural groups, and have taken place in South Asian, Middle Eastern, Irish, Nigerian and Somali diaspora communities, among others.

The most common method of preventing forced marriages is through a civil injunction called a forced marriage protection order (FMPO). A potential victim, a relevant third party, such as a friend or lawyer, or any other person with the court’s permission (or the court itself) may seek an FMPO.

FMPOs were first introduced in with the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which applies to Northern Ireland, England and Wales. Scotland introduced similar laws in 2011.

FMPOs can prohibit perpetrators – usually the victim’s parents – from forcing the victim to marry, or taking them overseas for the purpose of marriage. They can also require perpetrators to return the victim to the UK if they have already been taken abroad to marry. Breaching the terms of an FMPO is a criminal offence carrying a maximum five-year sentence.

Approximately 200-250 FMPOs have been granted annually in England and Wales since 2014. We analysed 107 FMPOs issued between 2014-19 to learn more about how they affect victims. Our findings show that the legal tools currently available fall seriously short of protecting victims of forced marriage from further abuse.

Intersecting abuse

While FMPOs are effective in actually stopping a forced marriage from taking place, they do not do much to combat other forms of abuse and violence that take place in the context of forced marriage.

The majority of victims choose to remain in the family home while seeking protection from being forced to marry. In many situations, seeking an FMPO can increase the risk of “honour-based” violence and other forms of abuse. We found that forced marriage perpetrators commonly resort to emotional pressure, threats, beatings, kidnapping victims abroad, and even torture and rape.

One case we examined in the police files was of a 17-year-old girl of Indian origin. Following her rape, instead of supporting her, her parents blamed her for bringing shame upon them. She was subtly pressured to marry by her father, who told her that she was a burden on their family and marriage was the only way to restore their honour.

She went along with an engagement that she not want to pursue, but subsequently contacted the police. She told them how social services had let her down previously when she reported her rape:

Social services sent me home after keeping me in foster care. […] I am being pressurised to do things I do not want to do like marrying the boy I am engaged to and pressing charges on the boys involved in the [rape] incident last year. […] I have asked for help so many times from my teachers, social workers and police. […] In the past professionals have just gone straight to my parents and told them everything and that just makes things hard for me.

Forced marriage affects millions of young women and men around the world.

In another case recorded by the police, a 16-year-old girl was taken to Somalia by her parents under the pretext of visiting family. Once there, she was held captive in a detention centre to break down her resistance to a forced marriage. Deprived of her diabetes medication, she regularly lost consciousness.

The same case file detailed the story of another detainee held in the same facility under similar circumstances. She and the 16-year-old girl were rescued at the same time. The other girl described how this 16-year old “would not wake up even when hit”. Both girls were regularly beaten, burned, had their feet chained, were exposed to extreme weather as punishment, and were tied up without food or blankets and left to defecate on themselves.

In all of these cases, FMPOs helped to prevent a forced marriage and, in the case of the girls held captive in Somalia, helped secure their return to the UK.

Better protection

Many victims struggle to balance their need for protection with the desire to avoid a complete break from their families. They were seeking the protection of FMPOs while living under the same roof as their abuser. Clearly, treating FMPOs as a solution requiring no further action can expose victims to further, serious harm.

FMPOs also have an expiry date – and we found that after they expire, very often the threat of forced marriage resumed. Despite this there are currently no mechanisms for alerting the police to an expiry.

When the police and child or adult protection services work together after an FMPO has been issued, they can create a protective shield that can support victims to make their own decisions about the best way forward. FMPOs are not enough on their own to address the complex and contradictory pressures that victims of forced marriage face. Securing their safety must involve a deeper understanding of coercion and emotional pressure and more long-term support for victims. Läs mer…

How universities could help whole communities tackle climate change

As centres of learning, universities have the potential to help whole communities learn about and address climate change. Education can lead us to change our attitudes and behaviour. It can also help us deal with the anxiety or fear of doom that can stun us into inaction.

But there are aspects of how universities work that can create a divide between them and the communities that live and work around them. Universities could anchor climate collaboration. While many already take part in outreach work, they need to do more to build community links and use the resources they already have more widely.

Universities can be seen as elite institutions that do not welcome people who are not educated in a particular way, or those who have different ways of thinking about knowledge and beliefs.

Ivory towers

There are barriers to entering a university. These include grade requirements for students, or qualifications for lecturers and researchers who teach and develop new knowledge. It is more difficult for some people, such as those with a disability, to navigate these barriers. Even if events that are open to all are held at a university, it may seem like a closed-off or unwelcoming place for people in the local community.

This means that most people on the planet are not able to engage with or contribute to essential learning and discussion taking place in higher education about the climate crisis.

This separation is extremely unhelpful when dealing with such a multifaceted issue with layers of complexity. It is what is known as a “wicked problem” – addressing one facet of the issue may result in further complications elsewhere. It requires people to work collaboratively to solve local challenges, while also thinking about implications on the global level.

The conversations around tackling climate change are too often fragmented. Researchers and universities discuss technological solutions. Governments focus on social innovation and activists on behaviour change. But we need to collaborate. Working together as planetary citizens is the key to ensuring we can tackle the wicked problem of the climate crisis.

Valuable resources

Universities have the technological, practical, and social resources to support the critical element of collaboration. They have cultural capital, meaning that people will pay attention to events and initiatives launched or developed with a university. They have the clout to spur communities, business, and policy makers to accelerate coordinated action.

They have staff with expert knowledge who can share this knowledge. They have the infrastructure and proficiency to create learning sites and spaces, as well as community engagement. Universities have the physical space to allow people to meet, discuss and learn, and the online learning facilities to do this virtually.

To put this into practice, universities need to do more to build connections with their communities. This could mean involving the local community in their day-to-day practice of teaching and research. Learning can take place beyond the campus, so that university students and staff partner with local communities in the practice of carrying out research.

And universities can – and should – do more to promote learning for everyone. With the advent of online tools, universities have all the ingredients to support lifelong learning focused on collaboration.

Online platforms allow for collaborative learning beyond the university campus.

Higher education institutions could design courses focused on sustainable living. They could train community educators to work with local residents and provide campus events on sustainable living involving people from the community.

The university learning environment is designed to support the development of “epistemic agency”: assuming control of our own learning and the development of our own understanding. Epistemic agency is a fundamental feature of our humanity and a useful tool to be deployed to enhance collective responsibility in tackling wicked problems. Universities could support the epistemic agency of whole communities, not just students.

Universities cannot independently solve the climate crisis. But as custodians and producers of knowledge, universities have the characteristics and resources to support collaborative learning and collective action. Läs mer…

Flavanols are linked to better memory and heart health – here’s what foods you can eat to get these benefits

There are plenty of good reasons to make sure you’re eating enough fruit and vegetables each day. Not only do fruit and vegetables contain many of the important vitamins and minerals our body needs to function at its best, they also keep our gut healthy and may even help maintain a healthy weight.

But some plant foods may be more beneficial for health than others, thanks to a group of compounds called flavanols.

For instance, a recent study I helped conduct showed that people who eat a diet high in flavanol-rich foods may have better memory compared to those who have a low intake. A previous study also found that people with a low intake of flavanols were at higher risk of heart disease. Overall, there’s convincing evidence that consuming enough flavanols has health benefits.

But while research shows that flavanols have many health benefits, it’s important for consumers to know that not all flavanol-rich foods contain the same amount of flavanols – meaning some may be more beneficial to health than others.

Plant compounds

Flavanols are a group of compounds that are found in many plants – including apples, berries, plums and even beverages such as tea.

There are two main groups of flavanols, with many different subgroups. Each plant will contain different combinations of flavanols, as well. These compounds each have different structures and different effects on the body. That means that not all flavanols are created equal.

For example, a portion of blueberries and a cup of tea may contain the same amount of total flavanols – but they are made up of completely different types of flavanols, which may have completely different health effects.

So in order to investigate the health effects of flavanols, it’s therefore important to use a source which includes a wide range of different types. This is why flavanols extracted from cocoa are an ideal model, as they contain the two main types of flavanols. It also allows researchers to calculate which other foods are likely to have benefits based on how similar the compounds they contain are to cocoa flavanols.

Since foods such as cocoa, berries and tea contain a combination of many types of flavanols, it’s currently not clear which individual compounds generate health benefits. But some research has linked the specific flavanol epicatechin with better vascular function. Cocoa and tea both contain epicatechin.

Many different types

Another thing to know is that even if a food contains flavanols, it may contain lower amounts compared to others.

To better understand how flavanol intake affects health, a few years ago we developed a test that uses urine to measure flavanol intake. The test is based on the way the human body processes flavanols and tells us whether someone has eaten large amounts, small amounts or no flavanols at all.

Using this test, we were able to show that people with high flavanol intake had lower blood pressure and better memory than those with lower intake.

When we developed the urine test, we also investigated how it is affected by different types of flavanols and foods. This allowed us to estimate what amount of different flavanol-rich foods a person needs to consume to achieve approximately 500mg of flavanols per day – similar to the amount used in studies, which has been shown to have clinical benefit.

Number of servings needed from different flavanol-containing foods to obtain 500 mg per day.
Gunter Kuhnle, Author provided

According to our research, only two-and-a-half cups of green tea are needed daily to get the recommended 500mg of flavanols. Just under a cup of millet (sorghum grain) can also provide you with the recommended daily amount.

But if you were to try and get your flavanols from one type of fruit and vegetable, our research shows you’d need to consume large amounts of each to achieve the recommended amount. For example, you’d need to consume nearly 15 cups of raspberries alone to get 500mg of flavanols.

As such, the best way to get enough flavanols daily is by consuming a combination of different fruits and vegetables. For example two apples, a portion of pecan nuts and a large portion of strawberries can achieve the 500mg target – or a salad made with millet and fava beans.

It’s also important to note that while the flavanols used in many studies were extracted from cocoa, unfortunately chocolate (even dark chocolate) is a very poor source of flavanols – despite what some headlines might claim. This is because these flavanols are lost during processing.

Although there’s still much we don’t know about flavanols – such as why they have the effect they do on so many aspects of our health – it’s clear from the research we do have that they are very likely beneficial to both memory and heart health. Läs mer…

How cashless societies can boost financial inclusion — with the right safeguards

Cashless societies, where transactions are entirely digital, are gaining traction in many parts of the world, particularly after a pandemic-era boom in demand for online banking.

Improvements in digital payment infrastructure such as mobile payments, digital currencies and online banking, make it more convenient for people and businesses to buy and sell things without using cash. Even the Bank of England is looking into how a digital pound might work, showing the potential for a significant shift from physical cash to digital payments in the UK.

Read more:
How a digital pound could work alongside cryptocurrencies

Fintech companies have accelerated the transition towards cashless payments with innovations including mobile payment apps, digital wallets, cryptocurrencies and online banking services. The COVID pandemic was also a tipping point that created unprecedented appetite for digital transactions. Fintechs emerged as a life line for many during lockdowns, particularly vulnerable populations that needed emergency lines of credit and ways to make and receive payments.

By 2021, approximately 71% of adults in developing countries had bank accounts. But this leaves nearly 30% of the population still needing access to essential financial products and services. Fintechs can provide more affordable and accessible financial services and products. This helps boost financial inclusion, particularly for the “unbanked”, or those without a bank account.

In the UK, around 1.3 million people, roughly 4% of the population, lack access to banking services. The government and financial institutions have worked together to promote the adoption of digital payments, and the UK’s Request to Pay service allows people and businesses to request and make payments using digital channels such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

But other countries are moving faster towards a cashless society. In Sweden, only about 10% of all payments were made in cash in 2020. This move towards cashless payments in the country has been facilitated by mobile payment solutions like Swish, which people can use to send and receive money via mobile phone.

Boosting financial inclusion

India has gone even further. In less than a decade, the country has become a digital finance leader. It has also made significant progress in promoting digital financial inclusion, mainly through the government’s flagship programme, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY).

India’s banks also participate in mobile payment solutions like Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which can connect multiple accounts via one app. India’s digital infrastructure, known as the India Stack also aims to expand financial inclusion by encouraging companies to develop fintech solutions.

Many developing economies are using digitalisation to boost financial inclusion in this way. Kenya introduced its M-Pesa mobile money service in 2007. While microfinance institutions that provide small loans to low-income individuals and small businesses were first introduced in Bangladesh in the 1970s via the Grameen Bank project.

Digital lending has also grown in India in recent years. Its fintechs use algorithms and data analytics to assess creditworthiness and provide loans quickly and at a lower cost than traditional banks.

These innovative platforms have helped to bridge the gap between the formal financial system and underserved populations – those with low or no income – providing fast access to financial services. By removing barriers such as high transaction costs, lack of physical branches and some credit history requirements, fintech companies can reach a wider range of customers and provide financial services that are tailored to their needs.

It’s the tech behind these systems that helps fintechs connect with their customers. The increased use of digital payment methods generates a wealth of data to gain insights into consumer behaviour, spending patterns and other relevant information that can be used to further support a cashless society.

Helping the UK’s unbanked

Countries like the UK could also promote digital financial inclusion to help unbanked people. But this would require a combination of government support, innovation and the widespread adoption of mobile payment solutions.

There are some significant challenges to overcome to create a true – and truly fair – cashless economy. For example, a cashless system could exclude people who do not have access to digital payment methods, such as the elderly or low-income populations. According to a recent study by Age UK, 75% of over 65s with a bank account said they wanted to conduct at least one banking task in person at a bank branch, building society or post office.

Providing more cashless options could also increase the risk of cybercrime, digital fraud such as phishing scams and data breaches – particularly among people that aren’t as financially literate.

There is a dark side to fintech: algorithm biases and predatory lending practices negatively affect vulnerable and minority groups as well as women. Even major financial firms such as Equifax, Visa and Mastercard can get compromised by data breaches, creating valid concerns about data security for many people.

Cross-border transfer of personal data by fintech companies also concerns regulators, but there is still a lack of internationally recognised data protection standards. This should be addressed as the trend towards cashless societies continues.

Paying with cash.
Nieves Mares/Shutterstock

Building guardrails

Regulations affect how fintech companies can provide financial services but ensure they operate within the law. Since fintech companies generally aim to disrupt markets, however, this can create a complex relationship with regulators.

Collaboration between regulators and fintech companies will boost understanding of these innovative business models and help shape future regulatory frameworks. Countries like India have shown the way in this respect. An innovation hub run by UK regulator the Financial Conduct Authority is a good start. It supports product and service launches and offers access to synthetic data sets for testing and development.

Fintech can help finance become more inclusive. But it needs policies and regulations that support innovation, promote competition, ensure financial stability and – most importantly – to help protect the citizens of these new cashless societies. Läs mer…

COVID has highlighted the connection between spirituality and vaccine scepticism

In the two and a half years since the first COVID vaccines were administered, anti-vaccination sentiment has grown exponentially. Scepticism about vaccines has been voiced, in particular, in religious communities across the world, from South Korea and New Zealand to South Africa, the UK and prominently among white evangelicals, in the US.

In my own church, people have expressed disbelief and denial. Some have claimed the pandemic is a lie and that the solutions proffered are proof of governmental population control and the formation of a “new world order”.

This clearly isn’t the case for all religious people. But research confirms there is a strong correlation between spirituality and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, scepticism, and outright rejection. Among some religious and spiritual groups, the scepticism about vaccination is rooted in low faith in science. Among others, it overlaps with wider conspiracy theories.

An antivax protest on January 22 2022 in Christchurch, New Zealand.
SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

Low faith in science

Between late 2020 and the summer of 2021, psychologists conducted a series of studies online in the UK. In the first two studies they surveyed 296 and 289 participants respectively, almost all of whom (456) then took part in a follow-up study.

This research found that people who were more spiritual were more hesitant or indecisive about getting the COVID vaccine. The researchers identified low science literacy and, particularly, low faith in science as causes.

To explore these issues in a different religious and non-Western context, the authors of that research conducted a subsequent study in Greece. There too, they found a similar relationship between low faith in science and vaccine scepticism.

Another study conducted in the Netherlands found also a strong connection between contemporary, non-religious forms of spirituality and distrust in science. The distrust, however, was not applied to all aspects of science. Participants voiced little doubt about climate change. But they did strongly question the COVID vaccine.

An antivax protest on September 26 2020 in London, UK.
Guy Bell/Alamy

In some instances, this spiritually informed scepticism of vaccine efficacy has been rooted not only in low faith in science but wider conspiracy theories.

In a 2011 paper entitled “The emergence of conspirituality” conspiracy theory experts Charlotte Ward and David Voas detailed what they described as a new, hybrid system of belief. They called it “conspirituality”, a word borrowed from a Canadian hip-hop group of that name, famous for their radical, politically conscious lyrics.

Ward and Voas defined conspirituality as marrying “the female-dominated New Age (with its positive focus on self) and the male-dominated realm of conspiracy theory (with its negative focus on global politics)”. They said:

Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.

As far as the COVID-19 vaccine is concerned, conspiratorial antivax campaigners across the globe cite government, ‘big pharma’ companies and western medicine as the objects of their mistrust. They posit that the body and its immune system is sacred. They see the supposedly toxic materials they claim are in vaccines as posing an existential threat.

Disaster spirituality

In May 2020, a journalist, a cult researcher and a yoga expert launched the Conspirituality Podcast, aiming to dissect where the wellness industry overlaps with new age cults and conspiracy theorists. Episodes have covered everything from QAnon to Robert F. Kennedy Jr as the antivax candidate of US presidential campaigns.

They provide listeners, as one reviewer has noted, with updates on “disaster spirituality” and interviews with guests “who have either been part of, or are experts on, online cult-like communities where a desire to live more naturally has become a form of paranoia”.

An antivax protest on October 2 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Yuri Arcurs/Alamy

Though people holding these conspiratorial views generally criticise scientific authority, they nonetheless cite supposedly “scientific” findings as supporting evidence for their claims.

They appeal for individual sovereignty and consciousness. They claim they are breaking away from mind control by the world’s elite. This dualistic outlook sets “us” (the entlightened) against “them” (the politicians and corporations).

Researchers at Deakin University in Australia have identified 12 characteristics of what they term the “(con)spirituality of religious extremism”, including COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy or refusal.

The researchers say (con)spiritualists, in common with adherents of many other religious extremist movements, uphold “exclusive religious and spiritual narratives which frame them as being exceptional and privy to the real, hidden, one and only truth and as more enlightened than mainstream society”. They bracketed the word (con) in order to underline the complexity of the issue.

They explain that some people within spiritual and wellness circles actually question modernity in legitimate and informed ways. Others, though, are out to con their followers, spreading disinformation that “poses significant risks to society, sometimes for financial gain”.

Spirituality is a complex, multi-faceted thing. And people are sceptical of science for all kinds of reasons, not only spiritual ones. But in order to adequately prepare for the next pandemic, we need to be able to address diverse opinions wisely. We need to understand where people’s spirituality and science scepticism overlap – and why. Läs mer…

Current emissions targets could keep the planet below a 2°C temperature rise but a turbocharged effort is needed

In the landmark Paris Agreement, adopted at the 2015 United Nations climate change conference (COP21), 196 countries decided that the world must limit global temperature increases to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels – and to 1.5°C above current levels if possible.

Individual nations were to set national emissions targets with this overall goal in mind but, at the time, none were considered sufficient to realise a Paris Agreement-aligned future. Nonetheless, countries have since kept ramping up their emissions ambitions.

The COP26 talks in Glasgow in November 2021 saw considerable breakthroughs. More than 120 countries upgraded their 2030 targets. And, critically, major emitters representing over 70% of global CO₂ emissions announced or even adopted commitments to transitioning to climate-neutral economies.

Leading this race, both the European Union and the United States have committed to reducing their emissions to net zero (an overall balance between planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions produced and removed from the atmosphere) by 2050. Other top emitters have committed to later targets – China by 2060 and India by 2070.

Our new, comprehensive analysis published in Nature Climate Change suggests that, if fully implemented, these net-zero commitments could be enough to stabilise global warming to around 1.7-1.8°C within the century. This would likely be in the vicinity of the Paris Agreement’s “well below 2°C” target, even if 1.5°C would still remain out of reach.

Although this does sound like relatively good news, we also caution that achieving net-zero pledges in decades from now would involve turbocharging mitigation action today.

We evaluated to what extent energy and climate policies currently in the implementation or planning phase are aligned with 2030 and longer-term targets at the national level, and how attainable the decarbonisation trajectories are that are required to meet the pledged targets, in terms of the socioeconomic, technological, and physical challenges.

Our analysis of the impact of policies and pledges from the world’s leading economies explicitly suggests that delivering on their long-term promises requires decarbonisation efforts at unprecedented speed and scale.

A long list of boxes to tick

In projecting the temperature outcomes of policies currently in place, 2030 targets (Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs), and longer-term targets (including net-zero pledges), the study first breaks down the total climate action gap in three individual gaps:

An implementation gap, which captures the temperature difference between current policies and NDCs.
A long-term ratchet gap, which shows the temperature difference between NDCs and longer-term targets.
An ambition gap, which instead captures the difference between the temperature outcome of longer-term targets and the ultimate 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.

The climate action gap broken down into implementation, long-term ratch, and long-term ambition gaps.
Author provided

The study finds that current ambition levels signalled through implemented policies are on track to increasing global temperatures to 2.1-2.4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, depending on the model used. Also, ambition levels stated in present NDCs slightly limit this increase to 2.0-2.2°C.

In both cases, warming is projected to continue after 2100, as global CO₂ emissions would not have yet reached net-zero levels by then. If countries also comply with their stated long-term goals after meeting their current NDC pledges in 2030, temperature increase could be further limited and stabilise around 1.7-1.8°C.

Taking into account the uncertainty in how emissions affect global temperatures, this translates to a 75% chance that global temperature increase stays below 2°C, arguably compatible with the “well-below 2°C” goal from the Paris Agreement.

We also perform deep dives into selected regions. For instance, we find that the USA and Japan have submitted ambitious NDCs, but at the same time their policies lag behind (the US Inflation Reduction Act was too recent to be included in this study), while countries such as China, India, and Russia display little ambition in their 2030 goals. As a frontrunner in climate efforts, the European Union is instead found to have ambitious policies already in place.

Temperature assessment of the modelled scenarios from the 4 different models.
Author provided

Walking the talk

Our analysis suggests there exist different “optimal” pathways towards net-zero, while each of these pathways would confront different hurdles and at different points of time between now and 2050.

For example, one route to net-zero could feature a significant challenge in ramping up diffusion of renewables to the required extent, while others appear to confront more challenges in terms of socioeconomic burdens. As expected, some paths to net-zero require – and therefore present dominant challenges in terms of – ramping up sustainable bioenergy supply and carbon capturing technologies.

What is interesting, though, is that different major economies are up against largely different challenges in delivering on their otherwise shared goal of holding average global temperature increase to well-below-2°C.

Indicatively, India and Japan are up against long-term bioenergy and carbon storage limitations in the long run, the United States would find it hard to achieve the necessary energy consumption cuts in the longer run, while the European Union should find ways to power-boost the deployment of clean tech within this decade.

This shows us that there really is no one-size-fits-all policy or technological approach to ensuring that the Paris Agreement goal is kept alive around the globe.

Fossil CO₂ emission pathways and feasibility challenges for reaching the announced targets of China, the US, and the EU for the three scenarios in this study: current policies (CP_EI), NDCs (NDC_EI) and NDCs with long-term targets (NDC_LTT).
Author provided

New grounds in the climate debate

A positive note is that climate action seems to bear fruit. In our previous similar study, two years ago, we had found a 2.3-2.7°C temperature increase as a result of current policies. That has decreased, implying climate policies have been dramatically strengthened in the past few years.

The more depressing finding though is that, while we no longer need to worry about governments’ low ambitions, we should probably start worrying about empty promises and shift away our focus from demanding bolder pledges. Evidently, ever since the COP26 Glasgow process, the most relevant factor to avoid a climate disaster is to secure the implementation of the existing country pledges. Läs mer…

Paramilitaries in the Russia-Ukraine war could escalate and expand the conflict

The war in Ukraine continues more than a year after Russia’s invasion and shows no signs of abating. An attack on a Ukrainian dam is just the latest development in a long and drawn-out conflict.

In the coming months, Ukrainian forces hope to make impressive inroads into Russian-occupied territory.

This war, by most analyses, is a conventional conflict. While there have been unconventional elements in the war, such as the weaponization of refugees, the focus of both states remains on their regular armed forces.

Read more:
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine fuels a refugee crisis that could help Putin win the war

As the war progresses, however, we are witnessing more irregular elements — in particular, paramilitary groups — enter the conflict. Critically, they don’t appear to operate under the direct control of either Ukraine or Russia.

While these units give both parties tactical advantages they otherwise would not possess, the loose nature of their control also means they can undermine their respective war efforts.

Approaches to war

War often creates elements that its practitioners could not, or did not, account for at the outset of the conflict.

For Russia, the war has not gone according to plan. Russia’s determination for the conflict to end in some semblance of victory alongside Ukraine’s desire to resist that by any means, however, is creating a potentially dangerous dynamic.

Both sides, from the outset, have employed non-traditional assets. Before the current phase of the conflict, Ukraine fully integrated the Azov Assault Brigade, a far-right military regiment, into its armed forces. Russia, meanwhile, has made extensive use of forces not directly affiliated with the army — most notably the the Wagner Group, which is among several paramilitary organizations it’s employed.

A mother and son grieve at the coffin of an Azov Assault Brigade soldier who died defending the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in April 2022 against the Russians.
(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Following orders

While these forces aren’t traditional armies, many of them have been following state directives.

The Azov Brigade attempted to hold Mariupol in the initial phase of the war.

The Wagner Group is still operating in a manner consistent with conventional army methods and goals, even though it employs tactics many find morally questionable, including human-wave attacks that involve relying on sheer and overwhelming numbers of front-line attackers to subdue another force.

Paramilitaries have long been employed in conflicts. By their nature, paramilitaries operate outside the standard army chain of command. Their removal from direct army hierarchy often creates ambiguity about who issues orders to them.

The Wagner Group, for example, has a documented fraught relationship with the traditional Russian armed forces.

This ambiguity has military and political advantages. Specifically, paramilitaries can perform actions in which states do not want to be held complicit. In a world where the standard of proof is quite high when it comes to justifying military attacks due to the consequences of war, paramilitaries largely fail to meet this standard.

While paramilitaries can be useful for states at war, their ambiguity can also create complications for the states employing them. Questions will always surround how much control a state possesses over them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent incursions of forces loyal to Ukraine in the Belgorod Oblast in eastern Russia.

This handout photo released by the Belgorod governor’s Telegram channel shows damaged houses in Russia’s western Belgorod region in May 2023.
(Belgorod governor Telegram channel via AP)

An alliance of convenience

Soldiers recently crossed the Ukrainian-Russian border to attack Russian villages in the Belgorod Oblast. Two Russian paramilitary groups operating with the Ukrainian Army, the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

While these forces are aligned with the Ukrainian government, they have their own agenda. Staunchly opposed to Russian leader Vladimir Putin — making them allies of convenience to Ukraine — both groups also have neo-Nazi connections.

This is problematic given Russia’s repeated efforts to falsely portray Ukrainian authorities as Nazi sympathizers.

Read more:
Decrying Nazism – even when it’s not there – has been Russia’s ’Invade country for free’ card

The Ukrainian government claims the two groups acted independently. In fact, it’s likely the groups operated without explicit orders from the Ukrainian government. That is standard operating procedure for paramilitary groups.

The problem is when paramilitaries work against a supposed ally’s interests. Ukraine’s current interests and focus are on attacks against occupied Ukraine, not on Russian citizens on Russian soil.

Ukraine needs the continued support of western countries. Despite Russian claims that the West wants to escalate the conflict, outside countries’ ad-hoc, material support of Ukraine indicates they want to prevent the conflict from expanding.

Consequences beyond Russia

While it’s true that Ukraine has had some success with attacks on Russian soil, they’ve primarily been aimed at military installations. Airfields and supply depots have been focal points as they advance the Ukrainian war effort.

The recent attacks by the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion, however, lack such focus.

Russian Volunteer Corps fighters gather for a break after a news conference near the Russian-Ukraine border in May 2023.
(AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Even before the recent attacks, Russian government officials blamed the United States and its allies for Ukrainian-backed attacks on Russian soil. Officials in the U.S. and Europe, however, have been hesitant to provide arms that could be directly used against Russia.

The fact that both paramilitary organizations used equipment initially supplied to Ukraine by western donors is likely to aggravate such concerns.

These attacks are likely to become commonplace as time progresses. Drones of unknown origin recently managed to strike several Moscow buildings.

Although Ukraine denies responsibility for the Belgorod attacks, and at this stage there is no reason to doubt this claim, the country’s employment of paramilitaries and other groups make it difficult to prove otherwise as well. Läs mer…

Algorithms can be useful in detecting fake news, stopping its spread and countering misinformation

Fake news is a complex problem and can span text, images and video.

For written articles in particular, there are several ways of generating fake news. A fake news article could be produced by selectively editing facts, including people’s names, dates or statistics. An article could also be completely fabricated with made-up events or people.

Fake news articles can also be machine-generated as advances in artificial intelligence make it particularly easy to generate misinformation.

Damaging effects

Questions like: “Was there voter fraud during the 2020 U.S. elections?” or “Is climate change a hoax?” can be fact-checked by analyzing available data. These questions can be answered with true or false, but there is potential for misinformation surrounding questions like these.

Misinformation and disinformation — or fake news — can have damaging effects on a large number of people in a short time. Although the notion of fake news has existed well before technological advances, social media have exacerbated the problem.

A 2018 Twitter study showed that false news stories were more commonly retweeted by humans than bots, and 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. The same study found that it took true stories approximately six times longer to reach a group of 1,500 people and, while true stories rarely reached more than 1,000 people, popular false news could spread up to 100,000.

The 2020 U.S. presidential election, COVID-19 vaccines and climate change have all been the subject of misinformation campaigns with grave consequences. It is estimated that misinformation surrounding COVID-19 costs between US$50-300 million daily. The cost of political misinformation could be civil disorder, violence or even erosion of public trust in democratic institutions.

Detecting misinformation

Detecting misinformation can be done by a combination of algorithms, machine-learning models and humans. An important question is who is responsible for controlling, if not stopping, the spread of misinformation once it’s detected. Only social media companies are really in the position to exercise control over the spread of information through their networks.

A particularly simple but effective means of generating misinformation is to selectively edit news articles. For example, consider “Ukrainian director and playwright arrested and accused of ‘justifying terrorism.’” This was achieved by replacing “Russian” with “Ukrainian” in the original sentence in a real news article.

A multi-faceted approach is needed to detect misinformation online in order to control its growth and spread.

Communications in social media can be modelled as networks, with the users forming points in the network model and the communications forming links between them; a retweet or like of a post reflects a connection between two points. In this network model, spreaders of misinformation tend to form much more densely connected core-periphery structures than users spreading truth.

My research group has developed efficient algorithms for detecting dense structures from communication networks. This information can be analyzed further for detecting instances of misinformation campaigns.

Since these algorithms rely on communication structure alone, content analysis conducted by algorithms and humans is needed to confirm instances of misinformation.

Detecting manipulated articles takes careful analysis. Our research used a neural network-based approach that combines textual information with an external knowledge base to detect such tampering.

Users form connections by interacting with each others’ posted content.

Stopping the spread

Detecting misinformation is just half the battle — decisive action is required to stop its spread. Strategies for combating the spread of misinformation in social networks include both intervention by internet platforms and launching counter-campaigns to neutralize fake news campaigns.

Intervention can take hard forms, like suspending a user’s account, or softer measures like labelling a post as suspicious.

Algorithms and AI-powered networks are not 100 per cent reliable. There is a cost to intervening on a true item by mistake as well as not intervening on a fake item.

To that end, we designed a smart intervention policy that automatically decides whether to intervene on an item based on its predicted truthiness and predicted popularity.

Countering fake news

Launching counter-campaigns to minimize if not neutralize the effects of misinformation campaigns needs to factor in the major differences between truth and fake news in terms of how quickly and extensively each of them spreads.

Read more:
As provinces open up, trust erodes when what we experience differs from what institutions tell us

Besides these differences, reactions to stories can vary depending on the user, topic and length of the post. Our approach takes all these factors into account and devises an efficient counter campaign strategy that effectively mitigates the propagation of misinformation.

Recent advances in generative AI, particularly those powered by large language models such ChatGPT, make it easier than ever to create articles at great speed and significant volume, raising the challenge of detecting misinformation and countering its spread at scale and in real time. Our current research continues to address this ongoing challenge which has enormous societal impact. Läs mer…

Keir Starmer hasn’t really called time on North Sea oil and gas – here’s why

Keir Starmer recently announced that the UK will grant no new licenses for oil and gas firms to drill in the North Sea if Labour wins the next election.

It’s a decision that would terminate the UK’s 60-year policy of offering up new areas of the North Sea for fossil fuel extraction. The Labour party has promised to clarify its energy policy later this month.

The plan has been criticised, for different reasons, by oil industry figures, union officials and politicians. But how consequential is it?

Labour’s challenge to the offshore industry is part of a broader public debate in the UK about what a desirable future looks like with a worsening climate emergency and after half a century of domestic extraction.

Longstanding principles of offshore oil and gas policy – such as maximising the recovery of hydrocarbon fuels which it is cost-effective to pump – are being challenged in court. Opposition parties and trade unions demanded oil and gas companies pay a windfall tax while consumers are saddled with high energy prices.

The independent Climate Change Committee, which advises the UK government on meeting its emissions targets, supports the end of oil and gas exploration – and the Scottish government has embedded a similar position in its draft energy strategy.

Denmark, France and Ireland have already declared a halt to licensing and pledged a managed phase-out of oil and gas production. The International Energy Agency found that no new oil and gas fields (beyond those already approved for development) are required to meet demand under a scenario in which the world reaches net zero emissions by 2050.

Evidence of the need for rapid cuts to the amount of fossil fuels being extracted and burned is mounting. There is even a financial case for it, as fossil fuels and the infrastructure that produces them risk becoming massively overvalued stranded assets as demand falls and prices rise in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Labour’s reported position on licensing, then, is not a bolt from the blue. Starmer said in January, while on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, that oil and gas would play its part during that transition – “but not new investment, not new fields up in the North Sea, because we need to go towards net zero, we need to ensure that renewable energy is where we go next”.

What’s in the pipeline?

Labour’s plan would draw new licensing to a close, but it would not end oil and gas production. There have been 33 licensing rounds since the mid-1960s, the primary means by which oil and gas companies gain access to the seabed on the UK’s continental shelf. The most recent opened in October 2022 and its outcomes have yet to be declared.

Large reserves of oil and gas are already covered by existing licenses and await decisions by the companies who hold them on whether to develop them. A Labour spokesperson has clarified that it would not touch this substantial pipeline of projects, and that “existing licences will continue and using existing wells sensibly is baked into our plans”.

For anyone concerned about climate change, this is a major problem. Pressure from Greenpeace and allied climate campaigners is building on the regulator, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA), to withhold consent – especially for large-scale projects such as Rosebank and Cambo. From the Scottish government’s perspective, declining production in the North Sea offers a glide path for a “just transition” from a fossil fuel economy.

Labour would not revoke existing drilling licenses.
Jane Barlow/PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Will Sunak go for broke?

The immediate question is whether the government will seek to drive a big licence giveaway to lock in as many new fields as possible before a future Labour government ends licensing.

It’s possible. The UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has described the idea that the UK will not develop further offshore oil and gas fields as “economically illiterate”. When the current 33rd licensing round opened in October, Liz Truss called for 100 licenses to be made available and 115 bids were received from 76 companies. The NSTA is expected to announce very soon what licences will be awarded.

It’s worth noting that the licences on offer are in what the NSTA calls technically mature but undeveloped cluster areas. That is, areas which have known reserves, are close to drilling platforms, but which are not currently pumping any oil and gas. These sites were selected to enable expedited production, particularly of gas.

Changing licensing structures to suit company needs and encourage development could be another possibility. NSTA has done so in the past. But any such measures are bound to come under scrutiny.

Scheduling a further licensing round before the general election seems unlikely. The process is protracted and absorbs substantial resources at the NSTA, which is also managing a new licensing programme for carbon storage.

What if Labour wins?

The more interesting question is what an NSTA under Labour could look like.

Established in 2015, NSTA (previously called the Oil and Gas Authority) was deliberately conceived as a different kind of regulator – one with the expertise and powers necessary to stand up to the oil majors but, at the same time, a co-creator of value working closely with industry and government. This was partly enabled by setting it up as a company fully owned by the government. Starmer winning the 2024 general election would place the NSTA under the control of a Labour government for the first time.

At the core of NSTA’s work is an obligation to achieve the greatest possible net economic value from oil and gas extracted in the North Sea. This is an objective also embedded in the 1998 Petroleum Act, which has now been paired with an effort to support the country’s net zero committment.

At the moment, meeting net zero emissions from North Sea oil and gas primarily means reducing direct and indirect operating emissions (scope 1 and scope 2), for example, by running drilling platforms on electricity from renewables, such as offshore wind, and reducing gas flaring and venting, as well as investing in carbon capture, use and storage.

Significantly, it leaves scope 3 (supply chain and customer use of products) and the underlying objective to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas untouched. Scope 3 emissions account for roughly 70% to 90% of the total emissions from extracting, refining and consuming oil products and 60 to 85% of those from fossil gas.

Labour putting the climate at the heart of a new UK North Sea policy would imply a fundamental reimagining of existing regulatory obligations. NSTA already has the power to revoke licences if licensees do not meet regulatory requirements, although this is not often used (first time in May 2023 when a company defaulted on its share of decommissioning costs).

Removing the maximum economic recovery obligation from NSTA would probably require rewriting or unmaking the Petroleum Act. This is a step more profound and more laborious than the pragmatic decision to stop licensing. But it is one that could open up a more extensive public deliberation on the future of the North Sea.

Don’t have time to read about climate change as much as you’d like?
Get a weekly roundup in your inbox instead. Every Wednesday, The Conversation’s environment editor writes Imagine, a short email that goes a little deeper into just one climate issue. Join the 20,000+ readers who’ve subscribed so far. Läs mer…

Foetal alcohol syndrome: facial modelling study explores technology to aid diagnosis

Foetal alcohol syndrome is a lifelong condition caused by exposing an unborn baby to alcohol. It’s a pattern of mental, physical and behavioural symptoms seen in some people whose mothers consumed alcohol during pregnancy. Not all prenatal alcohol exposure results in the syndrome; it is the most severe form of a range of effects called foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

South Africa has the highest reported rates of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders in the world: 111.1 per 1,000 population. The disorders may affect seven million people in the country. The number could be higher because of under-diagnosis.

Foetal alcohol syndrome can’t be reversed. But confirmed diagnosis can have benefits. It can lead to early intervention and therapy (physical, occupational, and speech, among others), and a better understanding from parents and teachers. Diagnosis can also ensure that adults are eligible for social services support.

Clinicians use a range of methods to diagnose foetal alcohol syndrome, including assessing abnormal growth and brain function. A key part of the process is looking at the individual’s facial features. Typical features are small eye openings, a thin upper lip, and a smooth area between the nose and upper lip.

But visual examination of the facial features can be subjective and often depends on the clinician’s experience and expertise. Another challenge arises in low-resource settings when there aren’t many doctors specially trained to do this.

A more objective and standard way to detect foetal alcohol syndrome early would therefore be useful.

One method that’s being used to aid diagnosis is three-dimensional (3D) surfaces produced by devices that scan the face. The technology is costly and complex. Two-dimensional (2D) images are easier to get – it can be done with a digital camera or smartphone – but are not accurate enough for diagnosis.

Our study sought to explore whether it was possible to use normal 2D face images to approximate 3D surfaces of the face. We showed that it was. Our method involved using 3D models that can change their shape based on a variety of real human faces, combined with 3D facial analysis technology.

We argue in our paper that our findings show the technology can improve early detection, intervention and treatment for people affected by foetal alcohol syndrome, particularly in low-resource settings.

We hope to contribute to the global effort to prevent and manage the lifelong consequences of the syndrome and disorders.

How it would work

We constructed a flexible 3D model that can alter its shape based on a variety of real human faces. The changes are guided by statistical patterns learned from a dataset of high-quality 3D scans from 98 individuals. This international open-source dataset was carefully curated to represent different demographic groups.

We didn’t have access to image data of individuals affected by foetal alcohol syndrome. We therefore used 2D and 3D images of individuals without this condition to develop and validate our approach. We nevertheless reasoned that our method should work equally well for any scenario where the model and the test subjects are closely matched.

We then set out to develop and validate a machine learning algorithm for predicting 3D faces of unseen subjects, from their 2D face images only, using our 3D model.

This was a pioneering step in our research, where we aimed to create a “smart” tool that could bring flat images to life in three dimensions. The results of the study were encouraging.

Our 3D-from-2D prediction algorithm performed well in three ways:

capturing facial variations
representing unique features
summarising information of faces from 2D images.

Since we had actual 3D face scans to use for comparison, we were able to calculate the average difference between these scans and the face shapes predicted by our model. This allowed us to measure the error in our fitting, which we found to be in line with other studies.

We particularly focused on specific regions of the face: the eyes, midface, upper lip, and philtrum (the groove between the nose and the top lip). These regions provide crucial information for clinicians when examining the facial markers of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Facial regions associated with foetal alcohol syndrome on a normal face.
Tinashe Mutsvangwa

We could accurately predict these facial regions, and concluded from this that our method could form the foundation of an image-based diagnostic tool for foetal alcohol syndrome.

Our study also showed that the quality of our predictions was independent of skin tone. This is a crucial finding. Certain 3D scanning technologies have been known to struggle with accurately capturing darker skin tones. This issue is being addressed. Nevertheless, our findings gave us confidence that there was additional potential for use of our approach in diverse populations.


We did identify some limitations. Access to 3D data of individuals with foetal alcohol syndrome remains a challenge. Future research could focus on reducing reconstruction errors to acceptable clinical standards by collecting and analysing larger datasets, including data from underrepresented populations.

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Remembering Tania Douglas: a brilliant biomedical engineer, academic and friend

Our study is a continuation of the work carried out in collaboration with the late renowned South African biomedical engineer, Tania Douglas of the University of Cape Town. Läs mer…

Oklahoma OKs the nation’s first religious charter school – but litigation is likely to follow

U.S. courts have long wrestled with the extent to which government funding can be used at private religious schools. And on June 5, 2023, Oklahoma’s five-person Statewide Virtual Charter School Board pushed this much-debated question into new territory by approving plans for a religious charter school – the first in the nation.

Under the proposed charter, St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School plans to open in the fall of 2024 with up to 500 K-12 students from across the state. The school would be run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Diocese of Tulsa, but, like all charter schools, would be paid for with taxpayer dollars.

School choice advocates have won key cases at the Supreme Court in recent years, opening up more ways for public dollars to support faith-based education. A charter school – privately operated, but publicly funded – would be the most dramatic of these challenges to how the separation of church and state applies to education.

“The approval of any publicly funded religious school is contrary to Oklahoma law and not in the best interest of taxpayers,” Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond said in a statement after the Monday vote, warning that the board and state will likely face legal challenges.

The key question is not whether a charter would help or harm local education, but whether explicitly religious instruction at charter schools is constitutional, given the First Amendment’s protections against government establishment of religion. Moreover, Oklahoma law requires charter schools to be nonsectarian.

Recent trend

Advocates of expanding public funding to faith-based schools have been encouraged by three recent Supreme Court cases that upheld greater aid to their students.

All three of these cases relied on a legal idea I have written about called the “child benefit test.” Essentially, according to this concept, it is constitutional under some circumstances to provide public funds to students who attend faith-based private schools or their parents – but not directly to the schools, as would happen with Oklahoma’s charter school.

The first of these decisions, 2017’s Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, dealt with a private Christian preschool that was denied public grants to update its playground. School administrators sued, arguing that denying generally available funding constituted religious discrimination in violation of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of religion. The high court agreed.

Three years later, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue further opened up government aid to private religious school pupils, relying on Trinity Lutheran. A 5-4 court ruled that Montana’s tax credit program for parents sending their children to independent schools must apply even if those schools are faith-based.

Heading to a religious school or a secular one?
Stephen Simpson/Stone via Getty Images

In 2022, the court extended this perspective in a case from Maine, Carson v. Makin. Maine, with its low population density, pays parents in areas lacking their own public schools to either transport their children to nearby public schools or a secular private school. The Supreme Court found that this program should apply to parents without a local public school who wish to send their child to a religious school as well.

Rethinking church and state?

By expanding the boundaries of permissible aid, these three cases have boosted proponents’ hopes for even greater public funding for faith-based schools.

Yet, it is important to keep in mind what likely prompted these changes in the first place: new faces on the Supreme Court. A majority of today’s justices tend to favor an “accommodationists” interpretation of the First Amendment, meaning they largely reject the idea that it demands a “wall of separation” between church and state, so long as the government is not privileging one faith over another.

New justices, new views.
John Baggaley/Moment via Getty Images

Nevertheless, the parameters of the “child benefit test” often used to justify greater public funding has been evolving for years. The concept – one that legal scholars use to describe the Supreme Court’s arguments, not a term the court has used itself – first emerged in a 1947 dispute from New Jersey, Everson v. Board of Education. In Everson, the court upheld a state statute that allowed local school boards to transport students to faith-based schools – mostly Roman Catholic ones – reasoning that the students, not the schools themselves, were the primary beneficiaries of state aid.

In another illustrative case, 2002’s Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court allowed parents whose children attended Cleveland’s public school system, which was then failing state standards, to use public vouchers to attend faith-based schools instead. A majority of justices upheld the program’s constitutionality because, again, students were the primary beneficiaries, not the religious schools themselves.

Eyes on Oklahoma

Today, in what may be the largest expansion of the child benefit test, legislators in various states are considering laws to expand how parents can participate in public education fund programs even if their children attend private religious schools, such as by broadening voucher or tax-credit programs. However, the Oklahoma proposal was the first to consider establishing a charter school with religious instruction and standards.

Charters, which trace their origins to Minnesota in 1991, are publicly funded and part of local school districts, yet free from many regulations, such as standards about curricular content and teacher qualifications. The idea of faith-based charters has attracted proponents for more than 20 years, but they have had little success until Oklahoma’s – which may never materialize, given the potential legal challenges. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has already announced it will “take all possible legal action to fight this decision and defend the separation of church and state that’s promised in both the Oklahoma and U.S. constitutions.”

Even the board that eventually approved St. Isidore, which is responsible for approving the state’s charter schools, was initially skeptical. On April 11, 2023, members unanimously voted to reject the original proposal. However, the board gave organizers 30 days to revise the proposal and try again. The second attempt in June succeeded in a 3-2 vote.

If other states authorize faith-based charters, the new schools will likely be a boon to their religious organizers by facilitating students’ ability to attend. Proponents of charters, whether traditional or faith-based, support them as part of the larger school choice movement that seeks to give parents in failing districts opportunities to move their children into better schools without paying private school tuition.

Faith-based charters are likely to raise headaches for their supporters, too. Because charters must still comply with some state standards, faith-based charters could be subject to greater government oversight about issues such as policies on LGBTQ+ students and staff – a longtime sticking point – or accepting students with disabilities. And it remains to be seen whether proponents of a Catholic charter school would be as supportive if a minority faith group proposed one.

While this legal battle is just heating up, I believe it has the potential to reshape public education as we have known it.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 17, 2023. Läs mer…

Ama Ata Aidoo: the pioneering writer from Ghana left behind a string of feminist classics

Prolific author and former Ghanaian education minister Ama Ata Aidoo passed away on 31 May 2023 at the age of 81. News of her death reverberated around the world, proof of her towering influence in literary, feminist and political spaces.

Aidoo was Ghana’s foremost woman writer and her distinguished career spanned several decades. Her literary contribution places her among the first generation of African women writers of the post-independence era. After independence in Ghana in 1957 she became a leading feminist voice within postcolonial writing.

For over 20 years, my research, scholarship and teaching has explored the literature of African women writers, including Aidoo. My work celebrates their remarkable contributions to women’s and gender studies through literary expression.

Through a feminist lens, Aidoo’s writing conveys great insight into the complexities and challenges of African women’s lives in colonial and postcolonial societies. She writes about women who must navigate local norms and expectations, customs and traditions – including race, class and gender inequalities.

A consummate storyteller, Aidoo captures in her body of writing the dynamism of Ghanaian and African women’s lives. Strong women characters exhibit intelligence and agency in the search for happiness and success.

As a writer and an outspoken thinker, Aidoo was a pioneering global figure.

Who was Ama Ata Aidoo?

Aidoo was born on 23 March 1942 in southern Ghana to a royal family of the Fante ethnic community. Encouraged by her father to pursue western education, she began writing at 15. After completing school in Cape Coast, she attended the University of Ghana, where she majored in English literature.

At university she participated in the Ghana Drama Studio and published her first play, Dilemma of a Ghost, in 1965. This was the first play to be published in English by an African woman.

Her teaching career began in 1970 and lasted for over a decade at the University of Cape Coast. But the unfavourable political climate in the country failed to nurture her creative talent. In 1982 she was appointed Minister of Education by head of state Jerry J. Rawlings. She resigned from her position in less than two years because of political repression and migrated to Zimbabwe, where she resumed writing and teaching.

She subsequently taught in the US until her retirement in 2012. Her many literary works have been met with critical acclaim, documentaries and robust scholarly engagement.

Her writing

Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s. Dilemma of a Ghost was followed by her second play, Anowa, in 1970.

Her novels Our Sister Killjoy: or Reflections of a Black-Eyed Squint (1977) and Changes: A Love Story (1991) disrupted the stereotypical portrayals of women that were common in male-authored African texts. In both, Aidoo crafted strong, intelligent and outspoken female protagonists – a form of “writing back” to reclaim African women’s voices from the literary margins.

Important themes in Aidoo’s works include postcolonial perspectives, feminist expression and the interplay of tradition and modernity. She also explored the relationship between Ghana and its diaspora in the rest of the world.

Aside from her novels and drama, Aidoo produced multiple works across genres of poetry, short fiction, essays and literary criticism. Her literary style draws heavily upon African oral traditions and a combination of prose and poetry.

Key works

I’m fortunate to have experienced a rewarding friendship with Aidoo that began in 2012, at the African Literature Association conference. I cherish the memory of her warmth and hospitality and her insightful perspectives on contemporary women’s issues. Her fiction inspired my early scholarly engagement with victimhood and agency in the work of African women writers and influenced my approach to feminist-inspired African texts.

Feminist Press at the City University of New York

Of particular interest to me have been her novel Changes: A Love Story, the short story collection No Sweetness Here and the play Anowa. In these works Aidoo presents mixed outcomes for women characters as they respond to patriarchy, urbanisation and conflicting demands of modernity in Ghana.

Changes skilfully examines the complexities of Ghanaian women’s difficult choices and their responsibility for their destiny in life. Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who obeys conventional social norms.

No Sweetness Here portrays Ghanaian women faced with choices that challenge these norms and expectations and who must deal with the realities of the modern world of social flux and changing identity.

Feminist Press at the City University of New York

Anowa is set in the 1800s in colonial Ghana, where feminist themes emerge through the actions of the female protagonist. Anowa rebels against her parents’ authority and traditional roles for women by marrying a man her family has rejected. The outcome for her is tragic.

As an outspoken voice for women, Aidoo articulated the impact of social, economic and political forces on the lives of African women. She asserts:

On the whole, African traditional societies seem to have been at odds with themselves as to what exactly to do with women.

This dilemma lies at the crux of the feminist perspectives found in her writing. They underscore the pressing need for social transformation and equality for women.


Aidoo’s legacy may be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the 21st century by women authors who now dominate the field. A new generation of leading women writers from Africa owe their inspiration to Ama Ata Aidoo and other pioneers like Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta from Nigeria and Senegal’s Mariama Ba. They all broke barriers for women as literary godmothers of feminist expression and innovative ways of telling the African story.

Ghana and the world may have lost a commanding presence on the literary stage but her works will remain as cherished classics in African and world literature. Läs mer…

Kakhovka dam breach raises risk for Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – receding waters narrow options for cooling

A blast on June 6, 2023, destroyed the Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper River in eastern Ukraine. The rupture lowered water levels in a reservoir upriver at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the city of Enerhodar. The reservoir supplies water necessary for cooling the plant’s shutdown reactors and spent fuel, which is uranium that has been largely but not completely depleted by the fission reaction that drives nuclear power plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspectors on-site to monitor effects of the war at the plant, issued a statement saying that there was no imminent danger. Nevertheless, the destruction of the dam increases the risk of a disaster at the plant, a risk already heightened by ongoing combat in the area.

The Conversation asked Najmedin Meshkati, a professor and nuclear safety expert at the University of Southern California, to explain what the dropping water level means for the safety of the nuclear power plant and the ongoing risks to the plant’s spent fuel.

Why are dropping water levels a threat to the power plant?

The immediate situation is becoming very precarious. The dam is downstream from the plant, meaning that the flooding will not jeopardize the plant. But the plant draws water from a major reservoir on the river for its cooling system. This reservoir is draining because the downstream dam has been damaged.

The plant doesn’t need the massive amount of water it otherwise would because its six reactors are in cold shutdown. But the plant still needs water for three purposes: to reduce the residual heat from the shutdown reactors, to cool the spent fuel, and to cool the emergency diesel generators if the plant loses off-site power.

The plant’s operators pumped water from the reservoir into a cooling pond, which is why the IAEA said the plant has enough water for several months. But that’s the last resort, which is why the agency also said that it’s vital that the cooling pond remains intact. If the plant loses the cooling pond, the only hope would be to try something like they did at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011. They brought in huge water pumps to pump saltwater from the Pacific Ocean into the reactors to cool them down. The plant operators may need to try to pump water from the Dnieper River.

The two lifelines of any nuclear plant, whether operational or closed down, are water and electricity. The newly launched Ukrainian counteroffensive puts these two lifelines in further jeopardy. Since the Russian occupation, the plant has suffered a lot and lost off-site power seven times. My immediate concern is that if the plant loses its last remaining power line, which powers the cooling pumps, then it needs to rely on emergency diesel generators. There are 20 generators with on-site storage of only 10 to 15 days of fuel supply. Getting fuel while the counteroffensive is going on is another major challenge.

What does it mean to have a nuclear reactor in cold shutdown?

The fission reaction that generates heat in a nuclear power plant is produced by positioning a number of uranium fuel rods in close proximity. Shutting down a nuclear reactor involves inserting control rods between the fuel rods to stop the fission reaction.

The reactor is then in cooldown mode as the temperature decreases. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, once the temperature is below 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 Celsius) and the reactor coolant system is at atmospheric pressure, the reactor is in cold shutdown.

When the reactor is operating, it requires cooling to absorb the heat and keep the fuel rods from melting together, which would set off a catastrophic chain reaction. When a reactor is in cold shutdown, it no longer needs the same level of circulation.

The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant uses pressurized water reactors.

How does being in cold shutdown improve the plant’s safety?

The shutdown has removed a huge element of risk. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is a pressurized water reactor. These reactors need constant cooling, and the cooling pumps are gigantic, powerful electricity-guzzling machines.

Cold shutdown is the state in which you do not need to constantly run the primary cooling pumps at the same level to circulate the cooling water in the primary cooling loop. Now, at least if the plant loses offsite power, the operators won’t have to worry about trying to cool an operating reactor with cranky diesel generators.

And by shutting down all the reactors, the plant operators have been relieved of a considerable amount of their workload monitoring the reactors amid the ongoing uncertainties around the site. This substantially reduced the potential for human error.

The operators’ jobs are likely to be much less demanding and stressful now than before. However, they still need to constantly monitor the status of the shutdown reactors and the spent fuel pools.

What are the risks from the spent fuel at the plant?

The plant still needs a reliable source of electricity to cool the six huge spent fuel pools that are inside the containment structures and to remove residual heat from the shutdown reactors. The cooling pumps for the spent fuel pools need much less electricity than the cooling pumps on the reactor’s primary and secondary loops, and the spent fuel cooling system could tolerate a brief electricity outage.

One more important factor is that the spent fuel storage racks in the spent fuel pools at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant were compacted to increase capacity, according to a 2017 Ukrainian government report to the IAEA. The greater number and more compacted the stored spent fuel rods, the more heat they generate and so more power is needed to cool them.

These massive concrete cylinders store spent nuclear fuel rods. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant stores much of its spent fuel outdoors in casks like these.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

There is also a dry spent fuel storage facility at the plant. Dry spent fuel storage involves packing spent fuel rods into massive cylinders, or casks, which require no water or other coolants. The casks are designed to keep the fuel rods contained for at least 50 years. However, the casks are not under the containment structures at the plant, and though they were designed to withstand being crashed into by an airliner, it’s not clear whether artillery shelling and aerial bombardment, particularly repeated attacks, could crack open the casks and release radiation into the grounds of the plant.

The closest analogy to this scenario could be a terrorist attack that, according to a seminal study by the National Research Council, could breach a dry cask and potentially result in the release of radioactive material from the spent fuel. This could happen through the dispersion of fuel particles or fragments or the dispersion of radioactive aerosols. This would be similar to the detonation of a “dirty bomb,” which, depending on wind direction and dispersion radius, could result in radioactive contamination. This in turn could cause serious problems for access to and work in the plant.

Next steps from the IAEA and UN

Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the IAEA, briefed the U.N. Security Council on May 30, 2023, about the situation at the Zaporizhzhia plant. He called on Russia and Ukraine to ensure that the conflict does not put the plant at risk. Grossi has been to the Security Council several times. A week before the dam failed, he said it was the most important briefing that he had given to the council. To date, there has been no draft resolution from the Security Council.

This situation is rapidly evolving. And if something happens and there is a radiation release, it’s going to spread around the world.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 13, 2022. The article has been updated to include news of the destruction of a dam downriver from the nuclear power plant and the IAEA’s report to the U.N. Security Council about reducing the risk that combat poses to the plant. Läs mer…