Campus round-up

September 1, 2011

University of Oxford

Fossil-fuelled discovery

Researchers working in Australia have found the oldest-known fossils on Earth. A team of researchers from the University of Western Australia and the University of Oxford found the microscopic fossils, which show convincing evidence for cells and bacteria living in a hot, watery, oxygen-free world more than 3.4 billion years ago. "It confirms there were bacteria at this time," said Martin Brasier, a professor of palaeobiology at Oxford. The microfossils satisfy three crucial tests of biological origin: they show precise cell-like structures all of a similar size; the cells are clustered in groups, attached to sand grains; and the chemical make-up is consistent with a sulphur-based metabolism. Professor Brasier said that it was conceivable that similar life might exist on other planets.

Imperial College London

Cash to burn

Tax breaks to the movie industry indirectly promote smoking among young people, academics have claimed. Researchers at Imperial College London's School of Public Health found that many governments were providing generous subsidies for films, including children's movies, which feature tobacco use. They estimated that the UK government gave tax credits worth £48 million a year to US-produced films showing smoking between 2003 and 2009, while also spending £23 million a year on anti-smoking campaigns in the media. The researchers argue that films with tobacco imagery should be ineligible for public funding because such subsidies conflict with public health goals.

University of Greenwich

Benefits in the pipeline

Cheaper and more reliable sewerage systems could be on the way, thanks to a new study. The University of Greenwich has received a grant worth £4,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop new techniques for deciding when and where pipes should be replaced or strengthened. Carried out in collaboration with partners in the water and construction industries, the testing of new sewer modelling will be based on "real world" pipe installations and laboratory experiments. Chun-Qing Li, a professor of civil engineering at Greenwich, believes that the work could cut the £150 million a year cost of replacing faulty pipes. "If companies are planning to replace certain parts of their network, we hope that they would come to us for advice," he said.

London School of Economics

Profitable life cycle

Cycling generates nearly £3 billion a year for the UK economy, according to academics. Researchers at the London School of Economics say Britons spent more than £1.5 billion on bikes and another £850 million on accessories last year. About 23,000 people work in cycling-related industries and £51 million was raised for UK manufacturers from the 3.7 million cycles sold in 2010. Other economic benefits included lower sickness rates among cyclists, who took an average of 7.4 sick days a year compared with 8.7 sick days for non-cyclists, saving around £128 million through reduced absenteeism. Alexander Grous, an academic associate at LSE who conducted the research, said: "Structural, economic, social and health factors seem finally to have created a true step change in the UK's cycling scene."

Universities of Edinburgh/Oxford

Who did you think you were?

New genetic research has found that most British men are not descended from farmers who spread west across Europe from the Near East around 5,000-10,000 years ago, as previously thought. Instead, researchers at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford believe that most European men can trace their lineage from settlers long before that, most likely hunter-gatherers. The findings are based on the analysis of a gene called R-M269. Cristian Capelli, of the University of Oxford's department of zoology, said: "The peopling of Europe, and how farmers from the Near East mixed with or supplanted the hunter-gatherers already here, has been the subject of debate for 20 years. Our work shows the limitations of common methods used to deduce the genetic history of male Y chromosomes on which these arguments had been based."

University of Reading

Here comes the sun

Radiation risks to airplanes and spacecraft are likely to increase as the sun moves into an era of lower solar activity, according to researchers. The work at the University of Reading was led by Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics, and has now been published in Geophysical Research Letters. "All the evidence suggests that the sun will shortly exit from a grand solar maximum that has persisted since before the start of the space age," explained Professor Lockwood. "At middling solar activity, there are fewer events but those that do occur can generate a much greater flux of hazardous solar energetic particles. In addition, the lower solar activity means more galactic cosmic rays will reach Earth."

University of Winchester

Growing confidence

Residents of a homeless shelter have been helping a university with the upkeep of its grounds. As part of a back-to-work scheme, the residents of Winchester Churches Nightshelter spend one morning a week on gardening duties at the University of Winchester. Those taking part report that it has given them a feeling of commitment, a greater sense of responsibility and of timekeeping, pride in the work they have done, as well as an opportunity for camaraderie and for improving communication skills. "It's not easy to get work when you have no fixed address," said shelter manager Michele Price. "This scheme will assist our residents in their search for work, as (participants) receive a letter from the university which can be added to their portfolio of qualifications and experience."

University of Dundee

It's not about the money

Interviews with Indian villagers have cast doubt on whether wealth is the best measure of poverty. Researchers from the University of Dundee and Cleveland State University found "significant" variations in self-reported poverty owing to caste, gender and other factors. "It is commonly said that if someone has less than two dollars a day then they are poor, but the person may not consider themselves to be so," said Deepak Gopinath, lecturer in town and regional planning at Dundee.

University of Aberdeen

What are we fighting for?

Tackling the causes of conflicts that prevent effective conservation was the subject of an international academic conference last week. Organisers of the event, which was held from 21 to 24 August at the Aberdeen Arts Centre, said that conserving biological diversity was becoming more difficult because it was increasingly conflicting with interest groups as the human imprint on the planet increased. "There is an urgent need to make conservation more effective by understanding the root causes of conflicts," said Stephen Redpath, a professor of conservation science at the University of Aberdeen.

University of Warwick

The generosity of friends

Philanthropic income hit £5.2 million in 2010-11 at one UK institution. The University of Warwick's total included £1.3 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England under the government matched-funding scheme, which ended last month. The total also included gifts of artwork to the value of £60,000, as well as £145,480 from the Friends of the University of Warwick in the US. The university said that the donations were a significant step towards Warwick's goal of raising £50 million.

University of Liverpool

Cleaning up the act

Two university researchers have spoken on corruption in public administration at the United Nations Office in Vienna. Colin Adams, senior lecturer in ancient history in the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, and Mike Rowe, from Liverpool's Management School, addressed last month's Expert Group Meeting and Workshop. Dr Adams' subject was corruption in its historical and cultural perspective and Dr Rowe focused on corruption in public service delivery in the UK and other modern states. The UN is to publish the findings of the meeting in the form of a book and policy statements intended to inform public policy in member states.

Robert Gordon University

Lose weight and save the planet

Going on a diet tends to be good for life expectancy. In addition, research conducted at Robert Gordon University suggests, it could also be a way of combating global warming. Humans breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide in amounts proportionate to body mass. If every overweight person in the world lost 10 kilograms, the resulting drop in emissions would be the equivalent of 0.2 per cent of the CO2 emitted globally in 2007. Working towards this goal could help meet reduction targets, while also making a significant contribution to global health, the research suggests.

Saving Banksy for the nation

Graffiti is normally seen as a menace by local authorities, to be painted over or scrubbed away at the earliest opportunity. But what if they are guerrilla interventions by the celebrated UK street artist, Banksy? Solicitor John Webster, who is also a postgraduate law student at the University of Bristol, has published an article in the Journal of Planning and Environment Law suggesting that the works might be entitled to protection under the Planning Act, which covers listed buildings. "It can be argued that (Banksy's) work, due to its political and social statements, carries a cultural significance in modern society...The danger of loss creates a moral dilemma if the public have stated en masse that they wish to retain a cherished part of their environment."

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