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UK ‘sugar tax’ linked to fall in child hospital admissions for tooth extraction

Wed, 15/11/2023 - 00:00

In a study published today in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, researchers at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge found that the levy may have reduced the number of under-18s having a tooth removed due to tooth decay by 12%. The largest reductions were in children aged up to nine years old.

Sugar-sweetened drinks account for around 30% of the added sugars in the diets of children aged one to three years and over a half by late adolescence. In England, nearly 90% of all tooth extractions in young children are due to decay, resulting in around 60,000 missed school days a year. 

The World Health Organization has recommended a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks to reduce sugar consumption, which more than 50 countries have implemented. In March 2016, the UK government announced a soft drinks industry levy or ‘sugar tax’, which aimed to reduce sugar intake by encouraging drinks manufacturers to reformulate their products. The levy was implemented in April 2018. 

While the relationship between sugar-sweetened drinks and tooth decay is well established, no studies have used real-world data to examine the relationship between the levy and dental health. 

To address this, the researchers analysed hospital admissions data for tooth extractions due to tooth decay in children up to 18 years old in England from January 2014 to February 2020. They studied trends overall as well as broken down by neighbourhood deprivation and age groups.

Overall, in children aged 18 and under, there was an absolute reduction in hospital admissions of 3.7 per 100,000 population per month compared to if the soft drinks levy had not happened. This equated to a relative reduction of 12% compared to if the levy had not been introduced.

Based on a population of nearly 13 million children in England in 2020, the researchers estimated that the reduction avoided 5,638 admissions for tooth decay. Reductions in hospital admissions were greatest in younger children aged up to four years and among children aged five to nine years, with absolute reductions of 6.5 and 3.3 per 100,000 respectively. 

Dr Nina Rogers from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, the study’s first author, said: “This is an important finding given that children aged five to nine are the most likely to be admitted to hospital for tooth extractions under general anaesthesia.”

No significant changes in admission rates for tooth decay were seen in older age groups of 10–14 years and 15–18 years. However, reductions in hospital admissions were seen in children living in most areas regardless of deprivation.

As this is an observational study and because there was no comparable control group, the researchers cannot say definitively that the soft drinks levy caused this reduction in tooth decay. They acknowledge that other national interventions such as the sugar reduction programme and compulsory nutrition labels alongside the levy may have raised public awareness of sugar consumption and influenced buying habits.

Nevertheless, they conclude that their study “provides evidence of possible benefits to children’s health from the UK soft drinks industry levy beyond obesity which it was initially developed to address.”

Professor David Conway, co-author, and professor of dental public health at University of Glasgow added: “Tooth extractions under general anaesthesia is among the most common reason for children to be admitted to hospital across the UK. This study shows that ambitious public health policies such as a tax on sugary drinks can impact on improving child oral health.”

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health and Care Research

Reference
Rogers, NT et al. Estimated impact of the UK soft drinks industry levy on childhood hospital admissions for carious tooth extractions: interrupted time series analysis. BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health; 14 Nov 2023; DOI:10.1136/bmjnph-2023-000714

Adapted from a press release from the BMJ.

The UK soft drinks industry levy introduced in 2018 may have saved more than 5,500 hospital admissions for tooth extractions, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

This is an important finding given that children aged five to nine are the most likely to be admitted to hospital for tooth extractions under general anaesthesiaNina RogersMichal Jarmoluk (Pixabay)Child receiving dental treatment


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COVID-19 showed the importance of genomic surveillance – we need it to help fight antimicrobial resistance

Tue, 14/11/2023 - 23:30

AMR already causes substantial sickness and death worldwide, responsible for approximately 1.27 million deaths in 2019. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, it could kill as many as 10 million people each year.

Professor Sharon Peacock at the University of Cambridge – the driving force behind the UK’s pioneering COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium – said: “Over the past century, antibiotics have transformed our ability to treat infection and illness and reduce mortality. But bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant, and with a limited pipeline of new antibiotics, we risk effectively returning to the pre-antibiotic era where we can no longer treat infections.

“When the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, we showed how powerful a tool genomic surveillance could be in helping us fight back. This work grew out of its increasing application to real-world problems such as detecting outbreaks in hospitals and in the community – including food borne outbreaks. We now need to take what we learned from the pandemic including its bold and largescale use and reapply it to the complex problem of AMR.”

The genome, which is ‘written’ in DNA or RNA, consists of a string of nucleotides. Each time a copy of the genome is made, errors can arise – for example, one of the A, C, G and T nucleotides of DNA might get swapped. These changes allow scientists to create lineages – family trees – showing how the genome has evolved and spread. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, they allowed scientists to identify sources of infection, spot so-called ‘variants of concern’ and see whether public health measures such as lockdown, travel restrictions and vaccination were working.

The potential to improve surveillance of AMR pathogens may be even higher than for SARS-CoV-2 as the genome data can detect and track outbreaks, provide a prediction for effective antibiotic treatment, reveal the mechanism for resistance including mutations and the acquisition of new DNA, and help understand the movement of resistance mechanisms between bacteria.

Although surveillance of AMR bacteria is already used in some settings, the growing evidence of its potential has largely not translated into routine use. Writing today in The Lancet Microbe, a working group has set out how genomic surveillance could be applied to the problem of AMR more widely, including the barriers that need to be overcome, presenting a series of recommendations including building capacity, training of existing and new workforces, standardising the way that surveillance is done to detect AMR, and agreeing equitable data sharing and governance.

The group, which is funded by Wellcome, was initiated by Professor Peacock in conjunction with Wellcome SEDRIC (Surveillance and Epidemiology of Drug Resistance Infection Consortium) and delivered by a team of nearly 100 experts co-led by Professor Kate Baker and Dr Elita Jauneikaite. Five papers will be published in the same edition of the journal, highlighting the breadth of review and analysis undertaken by the team.

The series covers multiple areas for the application of genomic AMR surveillance including in hospital settings to help identify outbreaks and inform infection prevention and control and informing clinical decision-making at a patient level. They also highlight applications at a public health level to detect emerging threats and to design and assess suitable interventions like vaccination. It even has the potential to track AMR pathogens moving between humans, animals, and the environment. The team also considered future innovations in genomic surveillance of AMR, looking at how the next phase of genomic technologies and analysis methods might further transform the surveillance landscape.  

A number of barriers will first need to be overcome, however. These include a lack of resources and political will, and the need for more training, particularly around bioinformatics (the analysis of genome data). There are also practical barriers, including in many countries a weak epidemiological surveillance and microbiology infrastructure, poor supply chains and pricing structures, and issues around effective cooperation and data sharing.

Professor Kate Baker, University of Cambridge, said: “We are on the cusp of realising the full potential for genomics in tackling AMR, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. We need the scientific, public health and political communities to work together to make this happen. AMR is an urgent problem. It is not something that will happen in years to come – it is happening now.”

Dr Elita Jauneikaite, Imperial College London, said: “We are going to be locked in an ongoing arms race with bacterial pathogens indefinitely. Genomic surveillance offers real promise to help us fight back, providing invaluable information to limit the spread and impact of AMR.”

Professor Peacock added: “It was clear from the pandemic that sequencing was a vital tool that was needed in every country worldwide. AMR is a global problem and once again we need to make sure countries worldwide are in a position both to contribute to, and benefit from genomic surveillance data.”

Janet Midega, AMR Research Lead at Wellcome and SEDRIC Board member, said: “Genomic research and surveillance are pivotal to detect pathogens and understand the transmission and trends of drug resistance in both high- and low-income settings. In order to respond effectively to this data, we need to ensure that the tools being developed are accessible and can be utilised by public health agencies around the world.”

Reference
Baker, K, et al. Overview: Harnessing genomics for antimicrobial resistance surveillance. The Lancet Microbe; 14 Nov 2023; DOI: 10.1016/S2666-5247(23)00281-1

During the COVID-19 pandemic, genomic surveillance proved vital in helping understand the evolution and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Now, an international group of researchers is calling for its potential to be harnessed to tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a major global challenge that could ultimately result in many more deaths than the coronavirus pandemic.

We are on the cusp of realising the full potential for genomics in tackling AMR, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be doneKate BakerNIH Image GalleryScanning electron micrograph of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (yellow) and a dead human white blood cell (red)


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Cambridge University Press & Assessment grows global impact

Tue, 14/11/2023 - 08:54

Cambridge University Press & Assessment's Annual Report highlights how the group reached new audiences through technological innovations - from digital exams to generative AI - while delivering the highest quality books, learning materials, assessments and research publications.

Peter Phillips, Chief Executive of Cambridge University Press & Assessment, said: “This year we reached 100 million learners worldwide and our revenue reached £1 billion for the first time. Both of these achievements reflect the extraordinary impact that we are having through our work, whether it’s with teachers, learners or researchers.

“As we celebrate these achievements, above all we think of the individual lives that we can touch; whether that’s a teacher in Brazil, an IGCSE student in Malaysia, a biologist in Botswana or a parent in New Delhi. The changing ways in which learners think, how they experience the world, and how we can help them – that is what really matters to us. We achieved these milestones by having a single-minded focus on supporting the people we exist to serve: from Lagos to Lima, Singapore to Seattle."

Professor Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Cambridge University Press & Assessment’s extraordinary reach and expertise – now extending to 100 million learners worldwide – underpin its importance to our University. But its impact extends beyond the sphere of higher education. For many people around the globe, Cambridge is known for opening doors to English language learners through IELTS or Linguaskill, for sparking new interests among IGCSE students, and for offering scholars and general readers new insights through Cambridge University Press publications.”

The Press & Assessment grew collaborations with teaching and learning departments across the University of Cambridge. That included work in language science research with the Cambridge Institute for Automated Language Teaching and Assessment (ALTA), and with Cambridge geographers in climate education. Through Cambridge Advance Online, professionals can access flexible courses led by University of Cambridge academics: from risk management to AI systems design.

Read Cambridge University Press & Assessment's Annual Report.

Cambridge University Press & Assessment hits £1 billion revenue milestone while reaching 100 million learners, the organisation's Annual Report 2022-23 reveals.

Cambridge University Press & Assessment's Annual Report


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YesRelated Links: Cambridge University Press & Assessment Annual Report

Solar-powered device produces clean water and clean fuel at the same time

Mon, 13/11/2023 - 16:21

The device, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could be useful in resource-limited or off-grid environments, since it works with any open water source and does not require any outside power.

It takes its inspiration from photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into food. However, unlike earlier versions of the ‘artificial leaf’, which could produce green hydrogen fuel from clean water sources, this new device operates from polluted or seawater sources and can produce clean drinking water at the same time.

Tests of the device showed it was able to produce clean water from highly polluted water, seawater, and even from the River Cam in central Cambridge. The results are reported in the journal Nature Water.

“Bringing together solar fuels production and water purification in a single device is tricky,” said Dr Chanon Pornrungroj from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, the paper’s co-lead author. “Solar-driven water splitting, where water molecules are broken down into hydrogen and oxygen, need to start with totally pure water because any contaminants can poison the catalyst or cause unwanted chemical side-reactions.”

“In remote or developing regions, where clean water is relatively scarce and the infrastructure necessary for water purification is not readily available, water splitting is extremely difficult,” said co-lead author Ariffin Mohamad Annuar. “A device that could work using contaminated water could solve two problems at once: it could split water to make clean fuel, and it could make clean drinking water.”

Pornrungroj and Mohamad Annuar, who are both members of Professor Erwin Reisner’s research group, came up with a design that did just that. They deposited a photocatalyst on a nanostructured carbon mesh that is a good absorber of both light and heat, generating the water vapour used by the photocatalyst to create hydrogen. The porous carbon mesh, treated to repel water, served both to help the photocatalyst float and to keep it away from the water below, so that contaminants do not interfere with its functionality.

In addition, the new device uses more of the Sun’s energy. “The light-driven process for making solar fuels only uses a small portion of the solar spectrum – there’s a whole lot of the spectrum that goes unused,” said Mohamad Annuar.

The team used a white, UV-absorbing layer on top of the floating device for hydrogen production via water splitting. The rest of the light in the solar spectrum is transmitted to the bottom of the device, which vaporises the water.

“This way, we’re making better use of the light – we get the vapour for hydrogen production, and the rest is water vapour,” said Pornrungroj. “This way, we’re truly mimicking a real leaf, since we’ve now been able to incorporate the process of transpiration.”

A device that can make clean fuel and clean water at once using solar power alone could help address the energy and the water crises facing so many parts of the world. For example, the indoor air pollution caused by cooking with ‘dirty’ fuels, such as kerosene, is responsible for more than three million deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. Cooking with green hydrogen instead could help reduce that number significantly. And 1.8 billion people worldwide still lack safe drinking water at home.

“It’s such a simple design as well: in just a few steps, we can build a device that works well on water from a wide variety of sources,” said Mohamad Annuar.

“It’s so tolerant of pollutants, and the floating design allows the substrate to work in very cloudy or muddy water,” said Pornrungroj. “It’s a highly versatile system.”

“Our device is still a proof of principle, but these are the sorts of solutions we will need if we’re going to develop a truly circular economy and sustainable future,” said Reisner, who led the research. “The climate crisis and issues around pollution and health are closely related, and developing an approach that could help address both would be a game-changer for so many people.”

The research was supported in part by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, The European Research Council, the Cambridge Trust, the Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme, and the Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability. Erwin Reisner is a Fellow of St John’s College. Chanon Pornrungroj is a member of Darwin College, and Ariffin Mohamad Annuar is a member of Clare College.

Reference:
Chanon Pornrungroj, Ariffin Bin Mohamad Annuar et al. ‘Hybrid photothermal-photocatalyst sheets for solar-driven overall water splitting coupled to water purification.’ Nature Water (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s44221-023-00139-9

A floating, solar-powered device that can turn contaminated water or seawater into clean hydrogen fuel and purified water, anywhere in the world, has been developed by researchers.

These are the sorts of solutions we will need to develop a truly circular economy and sustainable futureErwin ReisnerChanon PornrungrojDevice for making solar fuels on the River Cam near the Bridge of Sighs


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The Vice-Chancellor’s Dialogues: Is assisted dying compassionate, or dangerous for society?

Thu, 09/11/2023 - 14:02

There are two purposes to these events. The first, is to establish whether there is any common ground between people who may seem to be far apart. If we are to make progress in legislation or in understanding the world we live in, we need to identify where we agree as well as where we disagree. The second, is to ensure discussions involve the widest range of viewpoints – that nothing, within the law, is taboo and that freedom of speech and of thought, and of academic debate, is upheld.

The first event tackled, literally, a matter of life and death: the question of whether assisted dying is compassionate, or dangerous for society.

The speakers were:

  • Dr Jonathan Romain, who was appointed Chair of Dignity in Dying, the UK’s leading campaign for a change in the law on assisted dying, in June 2023
  • Dr Amy Proffitt, who spoke for Dying Well, the group promoting access to excellent care at the end of life and standing against the legalisation of assisted suicide
  • Dr Zoë Fritz, a Wellcome fellow in Society and Ethics at the University of Cambridge, and a Consultant Physician in Acute medicine at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. She works with colleagues in the Faculties of Law and Philosophy to ensure solutions are philosophically grounded and legally robust, as well as clinically practical and acceptable to all stakeholders.

The full recording can be viewed on the University YouTube channel.

On Wednesday 8th November Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice chaired the first Vice-Chancellor’s Dialogues. The event launched a series of dialogues about some of the most difficult issues of our time.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice chaired the first Vice-Chancellor’s Dialogues


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Why do climate models underestimate polar warming? ‘Invisible clouds’ could be the answer

Wed, 08/11/2023 - 16:06

The Earth’s average surface temperature has increased drastically since the start of the Industrial Revolution, but the warming effect seen at the poles is even more exaggerated. While existing climate models consider the increased heating in the Arctic and Antarctic poles, they often underestimate the warming in these regions. This is especially true for climates millions of years ago, when greenhouse gas concentrations were very high.

This is a problem because future climate projections are generated with these same models: if they do not produce enough warming for the past, we might underestimate polar warming – and therefore the associated risks, such as ice sheet or permafrost melting – for the future.

“During my PhD, I was drawn to the fact that the climate models we are using do not represent the magnitude of warming that happens in the Arctic,” said lead author Dr Deepashree Dutta from Cambridge’s Department of Geography, who carried out the work during her PhD at UNSW. “At the same time, we knew that the majority of these models do not represent the upper layers of the atmosphere very well. And we thought this might be a missing link.”

The team turned their focus to a key atmospheric element that is missing in most models — polar stratospheric clouds — and found that they can explain a large part of the missing warming in models.

Their results, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, show that there is still much to learn about the climate of the past, present and future.

Climate models are computer simulations of our global climate system that are built using our theoretical understanding of how the climate works. They can be used to recreate past conditions or predict future climate scenarios.

Climate models incorporate many factors that influence the climate, but they cannot include all real-world processes. One consequence of this is that generally, climate models simulate polar climate change that is smaller than actual observations.

“The more detail you include in the model, the more resources they require to run,” said co-author Dr Martin Jucker from UNSW. “It’s often a toss-up between increasing the horizontal or vertical resolution of the model. And as we live down here at the surface of the earth, the detail closer to the surface is often prioritised.”

In 1992, American paleoclimatologist Dr Lisa Sloan first suggested that the extreme warming at high latitudes during past warm periods may have been caused by polar stratospheric clouds.

Polar stratospheric clouds form at very high altitudes (15-25 km above the Earth's surface), and at very low temperatures (over the poles). They are also called nacreous or mother-of-pearl clouds because of their bright and sometimes luminous hues, although they are not normally visible to the naked eye. 

These polar stratospheric clouds have a similar effect on climate as greenhouse gases – they trap heat that would otherwise be lost to space and warm the surface of the Earth. 

“These clouds form under complex conditions, which most climate models cannot reproduce. And we wondered if this inability to simulate these clouds may result in less surface warming at the poles than what we’ve observed in the real world,” said Dutta. 

Thirty years after Sloan’s research, Dutta wanted to test this theory using one of the few atmospheric models that incorporates polar atmospheric clouds, to see if it might explain the disparities in warming between observational data and climate models.

“I wanted to test this theory by running an atmospheric model that includes all necessary processes with conditions that resembled a time period over 50 million years ago, known as the early Eocene. It was a period of Earth’s history when the planet was very hot and the Arctic was ice-free throughout the year,” said Dutta. 

The Eocene was also a period characterised by high methane content, and the position of continents and mountains was different to today.

“Climate models are far too cold in the polar regions, when simulating these past hot climates, and this has been an enigma for the past thirty years,” said Jucker. “The early Eocene was a period in the Earth’s climate with extreme polar warming, so presented the perfect test for our climate models.”

The team found that the elevated methane levels during the Eocene resulted in an increase in polar stratospheric cloud formation. They found that under certain conditions, the local surface warming due to stratospheric clouds was up to 7 degrees Celsius during the coldest winter months. This temperature difference significantly reduces the gap between climate models and temperature evidence from climate archives.

By comparing future simulations to simulations of the Eocene, the researchers also discovered that it isn’t just methane that was needed to produce polar stratospheric clouds. “This is another key finding of this work,” said Dutta. “It’s not just methane, but it's also the Earth’s continental arrangement, which plays an important role in forming these stratospheric clouds. Because if we input the same amount of methane for our future climate, we do not see the same increase in stratospheric clouds.”

The research has provided some of the answers to questions about the climate of the deep past, but what does that mean for future projections?

“We found that stratospheric clouds account for the accelerated warming at the poles that is often left out of our climate models, and of course this could potentially mean that our future projections are also not warm enough,” said Jucker. “But the good news is that these clouds are more likely to form under the continental arrangement that was present tens of millions of years ago, and is not found on Earth now. Therefore, we don’t expect such large increases in stratospheric clouds in the future.”

This new research has not only helped to provide a piece of the puzzle as to why temperature recordings in the Arctic are always warmer than climate models – it has also provided new insights into the Earth’s past climate.

“Our study shows the value of increasing the detail of climate models, where we can,” said Dutta. “Although we already know a lot about these clouds theoretically, until we include them in our climate models, we won’t know the full scale of their impact.”

Reference:
Deepashree Dutta et al. ‘Early Eocene low orography and high methane enhance Arctic warming via polar stratospheric clouds.’ Nature Geoscience (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41561-023-01298-w

Adapted from a UNSW press release.

Stratospheric clouds over the Arctic may explain the differences seen between the polar warming calculated by climate models and actual recordings, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge and UNSW Sydney.

Our study shows the value of increasing the detail of climate models where we canDeepashree DuttaCavan Images / Per-Andre Hoffmann via Getty ImagesMother of pearl clouds (nacreous clouds), Polar Stratospheric Clouds.


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Machine learning gives users ‘superhuman’ ability to open and control tools in virtual reality

Wed, 08/11/2023 - 07:44

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used machine learning to develop ‘HotGestures’ – analogous to the hot keys used in many desktop applications.

HotGestures give users the ability to build figures and shapes in virtual reality without ever having to interact with a menu, helping them stay focused on a task without breaking their train of thought.

The idea of being able to open and control tools in virtual reality has been a movie trope for decades, but the researchers say that this is the first time such a ‘superhuman’ ability has been made possible. The results are reported in the journal IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics.

Virtual reality (VR) and related applications have been touted as game-changers for years, but outside of gaming, their promise has not fully materialised. “Users gain some qualities when using VR, but very few people want to use it for an extended period of time,” said Professor Per Ola Kristensson from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the research. “Beyond the visual fatigue and ergonomic issues, VR isn’t really offering anything you can’t get in the real world.”

Most users of desktop software will be familiar with the concept of hot keys – command shortcuts such as ctrl-c to copy and ctrl-v to paste. While these shortcuts omit the need to open a menu to find the right tool or command, they rely on the user having the correct command memorised.

“We wanted to take the concept of hot keys and turn it into something more meaningful for virtual reality – something that wouldn’t rely on the user having a shortcut in their head already,” said Kristensson, who is also co-Director of the Centre for Human-Inspired Artificial Intelligence.

Instead of hot keys, Kristensson and his colleagues developed ‘HotGestures’, where users perform a gesture with their hand to open and control the tool they need in 3D virtual reality environments.

For example, performing a cutting motion opens the scissor tool, and the spray motion opens the spray can tool. There is no need for the user to open a menu to find the tool they need, or to remember a specific shortcut. Users can seamlessly switch between different tools by performing different gestures during a task, without having to pause their work to browse a menu or to press a button on a controller or keyboard.

“We all communicate using our hands in the real world, so it made sense to extend this form of communication to the virtual world,” said Kristensson.

For the study, the researchers built a neural network gesture recognition system that can recognise gestures by performing predictions on an incoming hand joint data stream. The system was built to recognise ten different gestures associated with building 3D models: pen, cube, cylinder, sphere, palette, spray, cut, scale, duplicate and delete.

The team carried out two small studies where participants used HotGestures, menu commands or a combination. The gesture-based technique provided fast and effective shortcuts for tool selection and usage. Participants found HotGestures to be distinctive, fast, and easy to use while also complementing conventional menu-based interaction. The researchers designed the system so that there were no false activations – the gesture-based system was able to correctly recognise what was a command and what was normal hand movement. Overall, the gesture-based system was faster than a menu-based system.

“There is no VR system currently available that can do this,” said Kristensson. “If using VR is just like using a keyboard and a mouse, then what’s the point of using it? It needs to give you almost superhuman powers that you can’t get elsewhere.”

The researchers have made the source code and dataset publicly available so that designers of VR applications can incorporate it into their products.

“We want this to be a standard way of interacting with VR,” said Kristensson. “We’ve had the tired old metaphor of the filing cabinet for decades. We need new ways of interacting with technology, and we think this is a step in that direction. When done right, VR can be like magic.”

The research was supported in part by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

 

Reference:
Zhaomou Song; John J. Dudley; Per Ola Kristensson. ‘HotGestures: Complementing Command Selection and Use with Delimiter-Free Gesture-Based Shortcuts in Virtual Reality.’ IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (2023). DOI: 10.1109/TVCG.2023.3320257

Researchers have developed a virtual reality application where a range of 3D modelling tools can be opened and controlled using just the movement of a user’s hand. 

We need new ways of interacting with technology, and we think this is a step in that directionPer Ola Kristensson HotGestures give users ‘superhuman’ ability to open and control tools in virtual reality University of CambridgeModelling a sailboat in virtual reality


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Experts predict ‘catastrophic ecosystem collapse’ of UK forests within the next 50 years if action not taken

Wed, 08/11/2023 - 00:05

A team of experts from across Europe has produced a list of 15 over-looked and emerging issues that are likely to have a significant impact on UK forests over the next 50 years.

This is the first ‘horizon scanning’ exercise – a technique to identify relatively unknown threats, opportunities, and new trends – of UK forests. The aim is to help researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and society in general, better prepare for the future and address threats before they become critical.

Dr Eleanor Tew, first author, visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Head of Forest Planning at Forestry England said: “The next 50 years will bring huge changes to UK forests: the threats they face, the way that we manage them, and the benefits they deliver to society.”

Forestry England, a part of the Forestry Commission, collaborated with the University of Cambridge on the study, which was published today in the journal, Forestry.

A panel comprising 42 experts, who represented a range of professions, organisations, and geographies, reached out to their networks to seek over-looked and emerging issues that were likely to affect UK forests over the next half a century. The resulting 180-item longlist was then whittled down through a series of review exercises to a shortlist of 30 issues. In a final workshop, panellists identified the top 15 issues they believed were likely to have the greatest impact on UK forests in the next 50 years.

The research method did not support the overall ranking of the 15 issues in order of importance or likelihood of occurrence. However, when the issues were scored individually by the panel of experts, it was notable that ‘catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse’ was the most highly ranked issue, with 64% of experts ranking it as their top issue and 88% ranking it within their top three.

‘Catastrophic forest ecosystem collapse’ refers to multiple interrelated hazards that have a cascading effect on forests, leading to their total or partial collapse. This has already been witnessed in continental Europe and North America.

Tew said: “We hope the results from this horizon scanning exercise serve as an urgent call to action to build on, and dramatically upscale, action to increase forest resilience.”

Another issue identified was that droughts caused by climate change may lead to competition for water resources between forests and society. On the other hand, forests may help to mitigate the impact of floods caused by climate change.

Tree viral diseases were also identified as an issue. In the UK, pests and pathogens are increasing due to globalisation and climate change, with viruses and viroids (RNA molecules) being the largest group on the UK Plant Health Risk Register. However, little is known about how viral diseases affect forest tree species and indeed the wider ecosystem.

A further issue was the effect of climate change on forest management, with extreme weather leading to smaller windows of time when forestry can be carried out. Experts warn that the seasons for carrying out work such as harvesting and thinning are getting narrower as we see wetter winters and scorching summers.

However not all emerging issues are threats – some are new opportunities. For example, trees will be at the heart of future urban planning. Experts predict that ‘forest lungs’ will be created thanks to an increased understanding of the benefits of trees for society. They say there will likely be a greater blurring of boundaries between urban and rural areas, with an increase in green infrastructure and connectivity.

International commitments around nature are also likely to have repercussions at the local level. For example, the mandatory reporting of companies’ supply chain impacts on nature, such as through the new framework being developed by the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), could create additional incentives for nature-friendly forest management.

Tew concluded: “These results are both concerning and exciting. However, we should be optimistic, remembering that these are possibilities and not certainties. Crucially, we have time to act ‒ by responding to the threats and embracing the opportunities, future generations can have resilient forests with all the benefits they offer.”

Senior author and pioneer of horizon scanning, Professor Bill Sutherland, from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge said: “We are already seeing dramatic events in Europe’s forests whether fires, disease or bark beetles, whilst the importance of trees is increasingly recognised. Horizon scanning to identify future issues is key, especially as trees planted now will face very different circumstances as they mature in scores of years.”

This research was funded by Forestry England. The Forestry Commission are bringing the sector together in 2024 to look at next steps.

Other threats to UK forests include competition with society for water, viral diseases, and extreme weather affecting forest management.

The next 50 years will bring huge changes to UK forests: the threats they face, the way that we manage them, and the benefits they deliver to society.Dr Eleanor Tew, visiting researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Head of Forest Planning at Forestry EnglandGraham Custance Photography / Moment via Getty Images Ashridge, Hertfordshire, UK


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“Get back to school” headlines eroded teacher wellbeing during the pandemic

Mon, 06/11/2023 - 14:53

The finding comes from newly published research, following on from an earlier study with a small group of primary and secondary teachers during lockdown. Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and York monitored the group for almost two years from March 2020, charting an overall decline in their wellbeing and mental health. In the new report, they show how this was linked to the portrayal of teachers amid wider debates about whether schools should lock down, and for how long.

While other frontline workers were lauded as ‘heroes’, teachers felt they were being left out of this narrative and even perceived as ‘lazy’, despite their key worker status, the study shows. In particular, continual news stories during mid-2020 clamouring for schools to reopen led some teachers to believe that parents, and wider society, thought they were neglecting their duties.

In reality, teachers were shouldering higher workloads as they adjusted to ever-changing government guidance. The researchers describe the aggregate effects of their public portrayal as “psychologically costly” and suggest it may have worsened a well-documented retention crisis in the profession.

Dr Laura Oxley, from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “Although lots of parents may not have actually thought teachers were lazy, the nature of public discussion meant that teachers started to feel that was the case.”

“At the time, there was lots of praise for the NHS, delivery drivers, retail workers. Teachers were frontline workers too, but were often not part of the narrative. Constant headlines about getting them back to school made many teachers believe that people thought they were sitting at home doing nothing. This didn’t cause the decline in teacher mental health, but it appears to have contributed to it.”

The study arose from an earlier research project, ‘Being a teacher in England during the COVID-19 pandemic’ led by Dr Lisa Kim from the University of York. In it, researchers monitored a sample of 24 teachers, who were interviewed seven times between April 2020 – just after schools first closed – and July 2022. The mental health of the participants was found to have declined in that time. Alongside heavy workloads and ongoing uncertainty, teachers cited a creeping sense of “negative public perceptions” as a contributing factor.

In the new study, the team assessed whether this belief about perceptions was grounded in objective reality. They surveyed eight leading national newspapers, identifying 156 cases in which stories about COVID-19 and pre-16 education made front page news between March 2020 and January 2022.

These often either explicitly or implicitly suggested that teachers bore direct responsibility for school closures and other key developments in the education sector. Spikes in the coverage coincided almost exactly with when teachers reported sharp falls in their own mental health. While the decline was driven by the impact of events, the researchers suggest it was exacerbated by the news coverage.

The analysis focused on front page headlines because they reach a large audience, comprising both newspaper buyers and a ‘passing’ readership. Aside from stories about the handling of A-Levels, education made big headlines during the build-up to schools reopening in spring 2020, and the partial closures of January 2021.

Some explicitly criticised teachers for “demanding” that schools stay closed. More broadly, much-criticised national headlines called for teachers to be “heroes” by returning to schools while the health risks remained high, or reported the guidance of unions and doctors about whether they should do so.

The research suggests this constant discussion made teachers feel as though the public was waiting for them to make a decision about returning to the classroom, and that the longer they stayed away, the more they were seen to be ‘failing’ children.

Dr Lisa Kim, from the University of York’s Department of Education, said: “There seems to be a relationship between the frequency of these headlines and teachers’ own mental health. Though we cannot determine whether there is a causal relationship, it seems that it added to the pressure, particularly because some commentary seemed to be encouraging a blame culture.”

This was confirmed by evidence gathered from the project participants and published in the preceding study. In interviews conducted in April and May 2020, for example, one told the researchers: “People think we’re at home on full pay doing nothing, which is not great for your mental health.” Later that summer, one teacher confessed: “There were times when I felt, and feel, that I’ve had enough. I don’t want to do this anymore, because you can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Teachers emerged from the experience feeling underappreciated. In November 2020, after schools reopened, one told the team: “I was working really hard and it almost feels like what we’ve been doing hasn’t really meant anything.” They reported avoiding looking at social media because it was full of what one described as “teacher-bashing”.

The researchers say these outcomes are a concern given the present teacher recruitment and retention crisis. Many teachers identify strongly with their job because they see it as rewarding and worthwhile, despite the modest pay. This was eroded during the pandemic, the researchers suggest, because of a deepening sense of being undervalued.

“It’s striking that so little was said about the extraordinary efforts teachers were making,” Oxley added. “The narratives we create matter, and we need to think carefully about this if we want to encourage more high-quality professionals into education.”

The report is published in Psychology of Education Review.

Intense public pressure on teachers to “get back to school” during the COVID-19 lockdowns deepened an already widespread sense that they were undervalued, and left some actively rethinking their careers, research shows.

Getty/Sean GladwellCoronavirus newspaper headline montage


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

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Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme

 

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