Sheep learned to recognise photos of Obama and other celebrities, neuroscientists say

Of the roughly 1.1 billion sheep on Earth, roughly 1.1 billion have no idea who Barack Obama is. But there are at least eight sheep who can recognise the former president by his face. After a few days of training at the University...

Brexit McCarthyism, Universities PLC and the Erosion of Academic Freedom in the UK

Last week, much media attention was devoted to a letter in which Chris Heaton-Harris MP asked the vice chancellors of all British universities to name academics teaching on Brexit and disclose the content of their classes. To my knowledge, no vice chancellor acquiesced. Instead, some, most notably the University of Worcester’s David Green, turned to the media. Somewhat predictably, the issue drew much media attention, both in Britain (1, 2) and internationally (1, 2, 3). There was much talk about incipient McCarthyism among the pro-Brexit political right, and Heaton-Harris’s initiative was publicly disowned by some leading figures in the Conservative Party.

Nehring Corporate bugThe affair resulted in a brief public debate about the consequences which Britain’s impending departure from the EU will have for academic freedom in the country. However, this week, public debate is already concerned with completely different matters.

This lack of lasting public interest in threats to academic freedom is lamentable. The apparently rather censorious mindset of a hardly known MP is not of particular concern in this context. Universities reacted quite robustly to Chris Heaton-Harris’s enquiry, and vice chancellors spoke out publicly in defense of academic freedom (1, 2). The problem lies elsewhere, in issues of academic governance of which the British public seems hardly aware and in which the British commentariat seems to have hardly any interest. Simply, the most serious threat to academic freedom in Britain today is the transformation of its universities into businesses.

Among policy makers, journalists, the general public, academic managers and, to a much lesser extent, academics, the view has become dominant that universities serve two purposes. First, they are meant to contribute to economic development and growth. Second, they are meant to train Britain’s labor force, equipping students with skills that will serve them in the job market and providing other businesses with the well-prepared workers they need. Other considerations regarding universities’ role in society have faded away and gradually become irrelevant. Thus, for instance, the mentioned brief public debate about Brexit McCarthyism saw vice chancellors strategically deploy arguments about universities’ importance to civic life and the need for unfettered intellectual debate. However, similar considerations about universities’ contribution to the formation of a well-informed and critically-minded citizenry are either absent from contemporary higher education policy papers and management manuals, or they are paid lip service at best. The Humboldtian university has been replaced by Universities PLC.

This has concrete consequences for academic freedom. It means that academic enquiry, both on the part of professional academic and of students, increasingly comes to be untied from considerations about politics, citizenship and social justice. To be sure, at least some universities continue to be highly politicized spaces, and at least some students continue to engage in vigorous political activity through and alongside their studies, as the recent heated debates about no-platforming and safe spaces have shown. However, all this is threatened by a powerful counter-discourse that envisions students as consumers and academics as purveyors of economically useful knowledge. British universities today approach students as potential or actual sources of revenue. Prospective students are treated to glossy prospectuses and flashy websites that promise an enjoyable student experience. Among current students, that student experience is then frequently assessed through student satisfaction surveys and a range of other techniques to measure customer satisfaction.

If marketing becomes the primary avenue of communication between students and universities, intellectual rigor becomes problematic, and academics’ engagement with their students may come to be constrained by commercial, rather than intellectual considerations. Thus, a colleague who teaches at a leading British sociology department recently told me that she had been strongly discouraged from giving her students more to read than an article every two or three or four weeks, lest her student satisfaction scores drop. Universities’ preoccupation with customer satisfaction in a highly competitive ‘industry’ may thus end up curtailing students’ intellectual development, without them even becoming fully aware of the problem.

At the same time, professional academics today frequently are the recipients of far-reaching and invasive performance management strategies, employed by their managers to ensure that a range of institutional targets are met, from student satisfaction scores to grant capture, number of publications and so on. One purpose of such performance management is to ensure that departments and universities do well in a range of rankings and league tables and demonstrate superiority in competition with other departments and universities.

Another purpose is quite simply the direct generation of money through research, for example in the form of research grants. In Britain, academic managers have devised a whole new terminology to address these concerns, and talk about grant capture, impact factors and REF scores may comprehensively divert attention from the intellectual dimensions of scholarship. Does it really still matter whether your article was about Britain’s widening class divide or the recipe for octopus pudding, as long as it has been published in a highly ranked journal and is cited often enough?

This transition to an instrumental and economically driven approach to scholarship is sustained, of course, by the threat of job loss, as academic employment contracts are now frequently tied to the achievement of specific performance targets. At the same time, mindful of their brand image, British universities have in at least some cases used administrative tools such as tone of voice policies to punish scholars who have publicly spoken out against these new commercial realities. Of course, intellectual life at Britain’s universities continue to be vibrant, and many academics are deeply involved in civic life. Nonetheless, the outlined threats are real and pressing, and there is an urgent need for a thorough public debate on academic freedom and universities’ role in society.

The post Brexit McCarthyism, Universities PLC and the Erosion of Academic Freedom in the UK appeared first on Social Science Space.

NSF, NIH and USDA make new awards to combat infectious diseases

Male Amblyomma triste tick

Preventing outbreaks and controlling the spread of infectious diseases requires knowledge about how pathogens move through populations, and the factors that can keep them contained. To that end, the National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), provided over $15 million through the Ecology and Evolution of Infectious Diseases (EEID) program to fund eight new projects looking at how ...

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The more air pollution, the more mental distress

The higher the level of particulates in the air, a new study shows, the greater the indications of psychological distress.

“This is really setting out a new trajectory around the health effects of air pollution,” says Anjum Hajat, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

“The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health and lung diseases like asthma are well established, but this area of brain health is a newer area of research,” Hajat says.

Air quality and quality of life

Where a person lives can make a big difference to health and quality of life. Scientists have identified “social determinants” of physical and mental well-being, such as availability of healthy foods at local grocers, access to nature, or neighborhood safety.

Every increase in pollution of 5 micrograms per cubic meter had the same effect as a 1.5-year loss in education.

Previously, researchers have found association between air pollution and behavior changes—spending less time outside, for instance, or leading a more sedentary lifestyle—that can be related to psychological distress or social isolation.

The new study looked for a direct connection between toxic air and mental health, relying on some 6,000 respondents from a larger, national, longitudinal study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Researchers then merged an air pollution database with records corresponding to the neighborhoods of each of the 6,000 survey participants.

The team zeroed in on measurements of fine particulate matter, a substance produced by car engines, fireplaces, and wood stoves, and power plants fueled by coal or natural gas.

People can easily inhale fine particulate matter (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) and absorb it into the bloodstream. Fine particulate matter is considered of greater risk than larger particles. (To picture just how small fine particulate matter is, consider this: The average human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter.)

The current safety standard for fine particulates, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, is 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Between 1999 and 2011, the time frame the researchers examined in the study, survey respondents lived in neighborhoods where fine particulates measured anywhere from 2.16 to 24.23 micrograms per cubic meter, with an average level of 11.34.

Researchers gauged participants’ feelings of sadness, nervousness, hopelessness, and the like with survey questions relevant to the study, scoring responses with a scale they made to assess psychological distress.

The researchers found that the risk of psychological distress increased alongside the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. For example, in areas with high levels of pollution (21 micrograms per cubic meter), psychological distress scores were 17 percent higher than in areas with low levels of pollution (5 micrograms per cubic meter).

Another finding: Every increase in pollution of 5 micrograms per cubic meter had the same effect as a 1.5-year loss in education.

Breaking down the numbers

Researchers controlled for other physical, behavioral, and socioeconomic factors that can influence mental health, such as chronic health conditions, unemployment, and excessive drinking.

But some patterns emerged that warrant more study, explains primary author Victoria Sass, a graduate student in the sociology department.

People of color breathe more air pollution

When researchers broke the data down by race and gender, black men and white women show the most significant correlation between air pollution and psychological distress: The level of distress among black men, for instance, in areas of high pollution, is 34 percent greater than that of white men, and 55 percent greater than that of Latino men. A noticeable trend among white women is the substantial increase in distress—39 percent—as pollution levels rise from low to high.

Precisely why air pollution impacts mental health, especially among specific populations, was beyond the scope of the study, Sass says. But that’s what makes further research important.

“Our society is segregated and stratified, which places an unnecessary burden on some groups,” Sass says. “Even moderate levels can be detrimental to health.”

Air pollution, however, is something humans can mitigate, Hajat says, and has been declining in the United States. It’s a health problem with a clear, actionable solution.

But it requires the political will to continue to regulate air quality, Sass adds.

“We shouldn’t think of this as a problem that has been solved,” she says. “There is a lot to be said for having federal guidelines that are rigorously enforced and continually updated. The ability of communities to have clean air will be impacted with more lax regulation.”

In northern China, air pollution cuts years off life expectancy

The researchers report their findings in the journal Health & Place.

Additional authors of the study are from the University of Washington; the University of California, Davis School of Medicine; and the Boston College School of Social Work.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the University of Washington’s Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology funded the study.

Source: University of Washington

The post The more air pollution, the more mental distress appeared first on Futurity.

Photo: Weedy sea dragon puts neon lights to shame

No shrinking violet, it's hard to miss this Phyllopteryx taeniolatus.
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