Thanks to the internet, we know what’s happening in Myanmar. But a communication blackout may be near

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Social media has given us valuable access to the actions of both the military and anti-coup protesters in Myanmar, but a communication blackout may be coming.

The country’s military seized control of the government on February 1, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won the general election in a landslide.

The opposition-backed army has since detained hundreds of NLD members, including party leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thousands have taken to the streets in protest, relying heavily on open communication channels to broadcast military abuses from inside and receive support from outside. And activists likely haven’t seen the last of the military’s attempts to shut these down.

Broadcasting human rights abuses

After just one month, there is an astonishing internet archive documenting both the harms done by the military since the coup, as well as countless acts of protest.

There are shocking videos of military personnel showing off their guns, drone footage of people being detained in monasteries, and snapshots into ongoing acts of violence.

At the same time, demonstrators are using social media to find creative ways to keep morale high, such as by staging candle-lit vigils.

In response to the massive civil disobedience movement, the military has partially stopped communications to the outside world. For the past 17 days, internet access in Myanmar has been blocked at night.

In doing so the army is demonstrating it can control internet access without, for now, completely cutting off Myanmar off from the rest of the world.

Parts of the country had already had internet cut off since June 2019, in what has been dubbed the “world’s longest internet shutdown” by the Human Rights Watch.

Days after the coup began, Facebook was blocked nationwide and remains blocked by most internet service providers. Adding to this, a new cybersecurity law has been drafted which would give the army sweeping powers to censor citizens online and violate their privacy.

So far these efforts have only been partially successful.

Read more:
COVID coup: how Myanmar’s military used the pandemic to justify and enable its power grab

Watching the cat and mouse game online

Myanmar’s internet-savvy younger generation began sharing information on how to avoid a communication blackout almost as quickly as restrictions were imposed.

When Facebook was blocked, they shifted to Twitter. They’ve been using virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask internet protocol (IP) addresses so a user’s internet activity can’t be traced.

They’ve migrated to platforms offering extra privacy through end-to-end-encryption, such as WhatsApp and Signal. To communicate protest times and locations, they’ve turned to older technologies such as landlines.

And at the same time, they’ve created local networks using newer Bluetooth messaging apps that work over short distances. With these small, decentralised clusters of communication they can avoid cell tower transmission.

But despite activits’ ingenuity, in this cat and mouse game the Myanmar military is ultimately stronger and equipped with far greater resources. As violence escalates, the military will be increasingly eager to limit the flow of information to and from the country’s citizens.

If the proposed cybersecurity bill becomes law, using VPNs will become illegal. The tweets, images and videos that have kept the outside world informed could come to an abrupt stop, or slow down significantly.

Cutting off internet access entirely in Myanmar would lead to huge economic disruption, too — even more than has already been felt. But the military may still see this as preferable to being derided across the globe, including by its own United Nations ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun.

The ambassador was close to tears before the UN General Assembly as he called on the international community to help restore Myanmar’s democratically elected government.

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At the end of his speech Kyaw Moe Tun held up the three-finger salute, which famously featured in the Hunger Games franchise. It has become a symbol of resistance against military forces.

For the rest of us, a full blackout would mean an absence of critical information that advocates and policymakers rely on to create petitions, lobby governments and corporations, and impose sanctions. But for people inside Myanmar, it would mean much, much worse.

Putting on the pressure online

For now, online tools remain salient for those wanting to put pressure on Myanmar’s military.

One online petition (now closed) urged Telenor, a Norwegian telecommunications company working in Myanmar, to push back on the proposed cybersecurity law. And the company did.

Similarly, Facebook took down all accounts linked to Myanmar’s military, blocking their use on Facebook and Instagram and thus stemming one of the military’s primary means of communication. There is still a push to get Facebook to completely ban the military from promoting its services and products.

There are also online pages that serve as clearinghouses for those who want to offer support. The coup brought Myanmar’s economy to its knees. Activists and the wider public will quickly feel the financial loss spurred by business shutdowns, the protest movement and economic sanctions imposed by foreign states (even where these are carefully targeted).

Initiatives to support them — largely channelled through groups in the United States and Australia — are taking donations to help pay for protesters’ activities and topping up their phone credits. Some onlookers may choose to support local journalists broadcasting from inside, by subscribing to English newspapers such as The Irrawaddy and Frontier.

Finally, there are border groups that combine their online presence with on-the-ground work in ethnic minority areas. For example, the Karen ethnic minority group on the border of Thailand and Myanmar posted information about recent defections of military personnel in favour of the movement.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees have protested against the military coup.

Even if a total blackout befalls Myanmar, activists can use porous borders to cross into nearby countries, especially Thailand and Bangladesh, where infrastructures for activism already exist.

By collecting information from inside the conflict zone, crossing borders and broadcasting it, these groups have the potential to short-circuit internet bans. And with them, online efforts can carry on.

Read more:
Internet blackouts in Myanmar allow the military to retain control

Tags: #internet #whats #happening #Myanmar #communication #blackout

Written by Susan Banki, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, University of Sydney

This article by Susan Banki, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, University of Sydney, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

strip away pandemic largesse and UK is banking on recovery with no extra public spending

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What a difference a year makes. In March 2020, the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced an emergency budget pledging £12 billion to tackle coronavirus. One year later, the government has already spent £280 billion, and spending by spring 2022 will exceed £400 billion.

The 2021 budget – perhaps the most widely leaked in history – contains a cornucopia of short-term measures, such as the extensions to the furlough scheme and to the VAT cuts for hospitality. These are aimed at helping workers and businesses during the transition towards what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has called “freedom” from lockdown.

There were some future-focused announcements such as the “super-deduction” investment incentives for businesses, visa reforms for highly skilled migrants and the creation of eight new freeport zones. But they will only succeed to the extent that the economy really “bounces back” after the biggest fall in GDP in British economic history. That in turn will have a crucial impact on whether taxes will have to rise further beyond the announcements of a freeze on personal tax bands and sharp increases in corporation taxes for bigger companies, or whether spending might also have to be curbed, to tackle the deficit.

The chancellor’s approach relies on two big gambles: first, that the economy will continue to grow strongly despite the withdrawal of most pandemic financial support from the autumn, a short-term approach questioned by several G7 countries and international financial institutions. And second, that he can fulfil Conservative pledges to “level up” at the same time, amid strong public pressure to tackle inequality and support the NHS. Pulling off these gambles could shape the public finances far more than the tax increases Sunak has proposed so far.

And there is a further gamble: that his long-term vision of an outward-looking, entrepreneurial Britain based on private innovation will be enough to reverse the economy’s long-term weakness after a decade without any increase in productivity or growth in real incomes.

A coiled spring?

The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, argues that the economy will recover rapidly – like a “coiled spring” – once the lockdown is eased, as the richer half of the population, with £125 billion in pent-up savings, rushes out to spend their money.

A pinging spring
Let’s hope not.
Olga Borysenko

There is no doubt that there will be a short-term boost to economic growth as businesses shuttered by the lockdown reopen, which both the Bank and the government’s Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR) now forecast will be faster than previously thought. The OBR thinks the economy will return to pre-crisis levels by mid-2022, six months ahead of the previous prediction.

But whether this can be maintained depends on whether individuals and firms can put the fears of the pandemic behind them, or continue to be cautious about spending, hiring or investment. Indeed the OBR’s projections suggest growth will be quite weak from 2023 onwards, growing just 1.7% annually, well below Britain’s long-term average.

In addition, even if one section of the population is ready to spend more, there is a very real risk of a K-shaped recovery, where some groups and industries grow much faster than others. This would leave a substantial proportion of the population – the young, the less well educated, and those in deprived communities – seriously affected by the pandemic and without savings. Unemployment is now projected to peak at 6.5% by the end of the year, less than OBR fears of double figures last summer, but there could still be “scarring” of the economy that will permanently damage its potential output.

Such concerns have led the US to embark on the largest economic stimulus package among the G7 countries, 50% bigger than Britain as a proportion of GDP. The US treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, argues that this is only way to kickstart the economy, and has urged much less than the UK in 2020, and is set to recover at a faster pace.

There are admittedly worries that too big a stimulus could stoke inflation, as the former US treasury secretary, Larry Summers, argues. This could lead to higher interest rates on government debt, which could worsen a UK deficit that is forecast to reach a record 17% of GDP this year.

Luckily for the chancellor, ultra-low interest rates have so far meant that the cost of servicing the government’s £2 trillion debt has been smaller than at any time on record. And some inflation would actually help the government both by boosting tax receipts in nominal terms, while cutting the real value of the debt as a percentage of GDP. This is the long-term solution that lowered UK government debt after the world wars.

Cost of servicing public debt

Graph showing cost of servicing debt


Austerity by stealth?

Although the chancellor has outlined some big tax rises, the government’s aim is not to expand the public sector but to “balance the books”, to show that the Conservatives are fiscally responsible, while reversing the temporary increase in the size of the state.

Sunak has frozen public sector pay and fought hard against any permanent increases in spending, such as in universal benefit, while rejecting calls from NHS hospitals for more funding after the pandemic.

The government’s own November 2020 spending review made it clear that spending by most government departments other than health and defence would fall in future, with further cuts of £4 billion of public spending now planned in future years. The total planned reduction in public spending by £14 billion is the second biggest element in reducing the deficit after corporate tax increases.

Just as the chancellor prefers “stealth taxes” such as changes to income tax bands, he may also decide nearer to the election that this kind of “austerity by stealth” might be a more attractive way to cut the deficit than raising taxes further. Another early example is the squeeze on local government spending, which forces local politicians to raise council tax – for which Sunak may be hoping they will be blamed.

The chancellor is the most popular figure in the cabinet and not shy of self-promotion, as per the video he put out earlier in the week. So far, he has succeeded in appealing to Tory backbenchers who want him to back small business, to the financial markets who want fiscal responsibility, and to the public who want him to tackle inequality. Being able to carry on this balancing act may prove his biggest challenge of all.

Tags: #strip #pandemic #largesse #banking #recovery #extra #public #spending

Written by Steve Schifferes, Honorary Research Fellow, City Political Economy Research Centre, City, University of London

This article by Steve Schifferes, Honorary Research Fellow, City Political Economy Research Centre, City, University of London, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Tracking the epic journeys of migratory birds in northwest Mexico

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One morning in January, I found myself 30 feet (9 meters) up a tall metal pole, carrying 66 pounds (35 kilograms) of aluminum antennas and thick weatherproofed cabling. From this vantage point, I could clearly see the entire Punta Banda Estuary in northwestern Mexico. As I looked through my binoculars, I observed the estuary’s sandy bar and extensive mudflats packed with thousands of migratory shorebirds frenetically pecking the mud for food.

In winter, more than 1 million shorebirds that breed in the Arctic will visit and move throughout the coastline of northwest Mexico. It’s possible they are tracking rare superabundant seasonal resources like fish spawning events. Or maybe they are scouting for sites with better habitat to spend their nonbreeding season. The truth is, researchers don’t actually know. It has been incredibly hard to elucidate how birds use the region and what drives their movements in this vast network of coastal wetlands spanning 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) of coastline.

A map of existing Motus stations covering much of North America and showing planned stations in northwest Mexico.
There are currently few Motus stations in Mexico, leading to a large information gap.
Julián García Walther, CC BY-ND

Tracking birds has always been a challenge. To make it easier, scientists have built a massive network of radio antenna devices called Motus stations across the U.S. and Canada that can automatically track the movements of tagged birds. However, Motus stations – Motus means movement in Latin – are still missing in much of Latin America. This has resulted in large gaps in biologists’ understanding of where migratory shorebirds go during their nonbreeding season.

A biology doctoral student studying bird migration, I am collaborating with the nonprofit Pronatura Noroeste. We have one goal: to expand the Motus network in northwest Mexico and unravel the mystery of where shorebirds are going during the winter.

Side-by-side photos of a red knot in summer plumage in the Arctic and in winter plumage in Mexico.
Red knots and many other shorebirds travel thousands of miles from breeding grounds in the Arctic (left) to nonbreeding grounds in Latin America (right).
Julián García Walther, CC BY-ND

How to track a bird

Much of my work is focused on red knots – stubby sandpipers that feed on muddy flats that are uncovered during low tide in many estuaries.

A red knot standing on a rock with a tiny colored flag on its leg.
Biologists use tiny flags attached to the legs of birds to track them over thousands of miles, but it’s not very efficient.
Julián García Walther, CC BY-ND

In the past, to learn how red knots move among wetlands meant walking through knee-deep mud with a scope, trying to find birds with color-coded flags on their legs. I would then have to get close enough to read the writing on the flags to determine who had attached the flag and where in the continent the bird had been seen before. This is not easy work. It requires large numbers of flagged birds and many skilled ecologists trying to find them, so you get very limited data in return for a lot of time and effort.

Motus stations make this job much easier, and with a Motus network in Mexico, ecologists like me will get much more data on the movements of these animals. The project involves two parts: attaching tiny radio transmitters to birds and building a network of stations to track them.

Two transmitters sitting next to a paper clip for size comparison. The paper clip is bigger.
The transmitters are tiny and extremely light.
Julián García Walther, CC BY-ND

Motus stations work similarly to a cellphone tower. Researchers attach tiny transmitters weighing just 0.45 grams to animals and these transmitters emit a radio pulse every five seconds. Each station has multiple antennas pointing toward a site used by birds – like the mudflats at Punta Banda – and is always listening for these radio signals.

Motus stations can pick up signals from tagged birds in a 12-mile (20-kilometer) radius, 24/7. A small computer built into the Motus station can then record and send information to researchers about when animals arrive to the site, how long they stay and in which direction they are headed when they leave.

Author climbing a pole to mount the radio receivers and the view from the top of the receiver.
Motus stations require a high vantage point that overlooks estuaries.
Julián García Walther, CC BY-ND

Building a network

The station at Punta Banda is the first and, so far, the only tower my team and I have erected. But the ultimate goal of our project is to deploy two dozen Motus stations in 15 coastal wetlands spanning the whole northwest coast of Mexico. When we are done, we will use these stations to track the movements of birds among these sites, as well as the more than 1,000 other sites with active stations across the world.

The Punta Banda Estuary is one of the key stopovers for red knots. To maximize our chances of detecting birds, we chose to build the station on top of an old 30-foot metal pole overlooking the whole estuary. After getting approval from the pole owner, my colleagues and I assembled the station components. Then I climbed the pole, hoisting multiple antennas with me, and pointed them in all directions over the estuary.

By the time red knots start arriving in the fall, after breeding in the Arctic, our team hopes to have built many more stations like this one across northwest Mexico, ready to detect passing birds.

A red knot with a radio transmitter glued to its back.
Any bird with a transmitter will be picked up if it flies within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of a Motus station.
Julián García Walther, CC BY-ND

Tagging birds

The stations alone can’t detect these animals. The final step, which will happen in the coming months, is to catch birds and tag them. To do this, our team will set up a soft, spring-loaded net called a whoosh net in sandy areas where the red knots rest above the high-tide line. When birds walk past the net, the crew leader will release the trigger, safely trapping the birds with the net.

A team of biologists using a whoosh net to safely capture birds in Texas.

Once we’ve successfully caught a bird, we will attach a transmitter to its back. Transmitters are solar-powered and very light – less than 1% of the bird’s weight – and they can thus provide many years of data without harming the birds. Because younger birds may move differently than adults across the region, our team hopes to tag 130 red knots of different ages at other estuaries in northwest Mexico. The larger Motus project has already tagged more than 25,000 animals, so any other birds that come to northwest Mexico will also get picked up by our stations.

Filling important gaps in knowledge

Migratory shorebirds are among the most threatened bird groups. Their populations have plummeted by 37% since 1970 owing to habitat loss, human disturbance and climate change. Without robust information on how birds use important sites like the ones we are working on in Mexico, it is hard to focus conservation actions when and where they are most needed. As our network of stations grows, the data they collect will help fill critical knowledge gaps.

For researchers like me, this data will allow us to understand how the movement of shorebirds might be disrupted as global threats such as sea level rise continue to affect the coastal wetlands they depend on. In turn, conservationists will be able to implement better and more effective on-the-ground actions to conserve species like red knots.

Tags: #Tracking #epic #journeys #migratory #birds #northwest #Mexico

Written by Julián García Walther, PhD Student in Ornithology, University of South Carolina

This article by Julián García Walther, PhD Student in Ornithology, University of South Carolina, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

GDP is V-shaped, but not yet good. These three graphs tell the story

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There’s one graph that sums up both the good and not-yet-as-good detailed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg at Wednesday’s national accounts press conference.

It’s a graph of the level of Australia’s gross domestic product – how much is produced and earned each three months in Australia – adjusted for inflation.

Australian quarterly gross domestic product

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Chain volume measures, seasonally adjusted.

It shows Australia’s economy getting bigger and bigger over almost all the past 80 years with only two readily-apparent slowdowns; one in the early 1980s recession, and one in the early 1990s recession.

Until COVID. Last year’s recession wasn’t a slowdown like the other two – it was a collapse, so big you could see it on any scale, even one that went back to when modern records began.

And it was V-shaped.

As soon as the economy collapsed – by 7% in the three months to June, the most since the Great Depression – it bounced back 3.4% in the three months that followed and (we now know) a further 3.1% in the three months that followed that.

It’s actually more like the beginning of a V

But, as I suggested last time (and as the graph shows) the gain of 3.1% and the gain of 3.4% don’t anything like offset the dive of 7% because a percentage increase in a small number does less than a percentage dive in a bigger number.

It’s reasonable to think that population-fuelled GDP is irrelevant to our lives, that what matters is GDP per head – the amount earned per person.

It shows much the same pattern: a V so clear you can see it on the widest possible scale, which is the one I have presented:

Per capita quarterly GDP

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Chain volume measures, seasonally adjusted.

The economy is 1.1% smaller than it was at the start of last year and 3.3% smaller than it would have been had economic growth continued, an extraordinarily good outcome given what Frydenberg described as the “economic abyss” forecast just five months ago in the October 2020 budget.

Government support has turned into private spending

Driving the recovery has been a continuing rebound in consumer spending. It dived 12.3% in the June quarter, climbed 7.9% in the September quarter and in the three months to December when Victorians became freer to spend, a further 4.3%.

We’ve funded it in part by cutting what had been an extraordinarily high household saving ratio.

Household saving has slid from a record high 20% of net-of-tax income in the June quarter to a more welcome 12% in the December quarter.

Household saving ratio

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Ratio of saving to net-of-tax income, seasonally adjusted.

Unable to spend much on travel, we are spending on the things we can. In the three months to December our spending on motor vehicles jumped a dizzying 31.8%, putting it up 22.2% over the year.

Our spending in hotels, cafes and restaurants rebounded 17.5% in the months to December, although with overseas and much interstate travel restricted, it was still down 29.8% over the year.

With the help of low interest rates and incentives, housing investment climbed 4.1% in the quarter (Homebuilder) and business investment in plant and equipment climbed 8.9% (instant asset write-off).

There are no guarantees

Farm production soared an astounding 26.8% in the quarter – the biggest jump since 2008 – on the back of the second-best winter crop on record.

If the economy continues to recover at this pace and the “V” turns into an upward tick we will make big inroads into unemployment and the coronavirus recession will look like a blip, an aberration.

But there are no guarantees. The JobKeeper employment subsidy ends on March 28 and the sharp upticks in business investment and farm production are unlikely to continue.

Read more:
Josh Frydenberg has the opportunity to transform Australia, permanently lowering unemployment

Much will depend on the May budget, which comes out before the next update.

Among the budget decisions that will matter are how it will deal with the funding requirements of the aged care royal commission, whether and how it proceeds with the legislated increases in compulsory superannuation, and how quickly and to what extent it withdraws support from the economy.

There’s a case for keeping support high in order to extend the rebound in GDP and make big inroads into unemployment right up until the point we return to meaningful inflation. There’s a case for going for growth.

Tags: #GDP #Vshaped #good #graphs #story

Written by Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article by Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

British Uber driver win is promising, but gig workers still need basic rights

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In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom recently ruled that Uber drivers are employees of the company and not simply using its technology as self-employed contractors.

Nicholas Humblen, a Supreme Court justice, explained:

“Drivers are in a position of subordination and dependency to Uber, such that they have little to no ability to improve their economic position or professional or entrepreneurial skill.”

The ruling makes clear that platforms should be required to offer basic benefits for the people “collaborating” with them. This ruling can have an impact beyond those in the U.K.

But where does the decision leave migrant gig workers?

These implications were discussed in a study recently presented under the auspices of the CERC Migration program, focusing on newcomer migrants who work in the gig economy, notably on platforms like Uber, TaskRabbit or Amazon Flex, to name a few.

Lack of Canadian experience

In Canada, new migrants are over-represented in the gig economy compared to Canadian-born populations. The stories are familiar — a newcomer enters through Canada’s points-based immigration system, rich in education and experience. But without Canadian experience, it’s next to impossible to land a job that offers career opportunities in their area of expertise.

While studying for a Canadian diploma, completing professional qualifications’ exams or volunteering in their field to get local experience, many newcomers take jobs in the platform economy. Such jobs offer a necessary stepping stone and are seen as a better alternative to typical, low-income work in the service or manufacturing sectors.

The Uber app on an iPhone
The Uber app is seen on an iPhone near a driver’s vehicle in January 2020 in Vancouver.

The flexible nature of the work allows for a sense of control over one’s time and one’s finances — the more hours you work, the more you earn. But in time, they soon realize that there is no safety net for illness, income fluctuates unexpectedly with demand — you may drive for a whole day and earn just enough for your gas — and of course there are no career prospects. And yet newcomers feel platform work is worth it.

Why? Because the alternatives are even worse. Working for the low-skill service industry offers long hours, low pay, no flexibility, little security and no career prospects. The lack of meaningful alternatives facing newcomers can make platform work all the more attractive.

Not a lifelong job

Most newcomer workers who have spent a few years in the platform economy don’t believe the job is for life. To them, it’s only a means to an end. At the same time, the flexibility, freedom, and opportunity to generate extra cash can make platform work difficult to walk away from.

So where does the problem lie? From a short-term perspective, it’s the lack of a safety net for those who work in the platform economy. There are ongoing debates globally about whether platform workers should be treated as employees instead of independent contractors or even become unionized. None of these debates have yet resulted in a significant change, but there may be some hope on the horizon.

Changing the working conditions in platforms requires political will and regulations must apply to all platforms. It’s still a turbulent process – Foodora simply abandoned Canada when their workers made a move to unionize. And gig companies in California are taking advantage of the state’s Proposition 22 ruling to further exploit workers as contractors.

Read more:
California’s gig worker battle reveals the abuses of precarious work in Canada too

A Uber driver wearing a mask stands beside his car that has a Unions For All banner on the passenger door.
An Uber driver and member of the Mobile Workers Alliance outside Los Angeles City Hall in January 2021. Drivers for app-based ride-hailing and delivery services are suing to overturn Proposition 22.
(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Increasingly precarious

Migrants who face labour market barriers are stepping into platform work that is growing increasingly precarious. The aftermath of COVID-19 has the potential to create a flood of gig workers, as data from Statistics Canada show an influx of gig employees during periods of economic recession. There are dire implications if gig companies end up absorbing the migrant workforce.

The longer term solution in Canada is to restructure the labour market and look at how we are matching qualified migrants to work. The work available to highly skilled newcomers doesn’t match their education and experience. Canada has to do more to help newcomers find decent work.

One interesting initiative under consideration involves reassessing competencies so that previous professional experience is more easily recognized in the labour market.

Another avenue to explore is educating employers on the skills possessed by newcomers and how they can be applied to the Canadian labour market. This should be easy in a country like Canada, where more than 20 per cent of the population was born abroad. Organizations like the Immigrant Employment Council of BC and the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council are doing this work. Their efforts must be supported and boosted significantly.

Tags: #British #Uber #driver #win #promising #gig #workers #basic #rights

Written by Anna Triandafyllidou, Canada Research Excellence Chair in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University

This article by Anna Triandafyllidou, Canada Research Excellence Chair in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

there’s been a jump forward, but the job is only half done

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The push to more fairly represent women in UK boardrooms is making good progress, according to the final report of the independent Hampton-Alexander review. The boards of the UK’s largest 350 listed companies were at least 33% female on average by the end of 2020, in line with the review’s headline target.

When the review was started in 2016 by former GlaxoSmithKline chair Philip Hampton and the late Helen Alexander, former president of business association the CBI, only 25% in the FTSE 100 and FTSE 350 boardrooms were female. And when the drive towards gender balance began in 2011 with former Labour minister Mervyn Davies’ predecessor review, the figure was around 12% for the FTSE 100.

Hampton-Alexander has achieved this considerable success by getting businesses and other stakeholders to cooperate voluntarily. This has eclipsed efforts by most other European nations, many of whom resorted to quotas and punitive sanctions such as delisting or fines of companies or directors.

Continental initiatives tended to apply their targets of 30% to 40% female board membership to only 40 to 60 of the largest companies. Not only was the UK review’s group of 350 target companies much larger, it also went beyond board representation to set a 33% figure for women’s “leadership roles”. This had risen from 24% in 2017 to 30% by the end of 2020.

The UK review benefited from clear targets, transparent reporting, publishing relevant data and encouraging voluntary codes by executive search companies, investment companies and the Financial Reporting Council. The most severe sanction on non-compliant companies has been “naming and shaming”. So is it time for UK companies to congratulate themselves and start teaching other European countries how to do better? Not quite.

Women and company performance

The headline figure of 33% of women on company boards and in senior positions looks good. But if Bill Gates walks into a small bar in Nebraska, “the average person” is a millionaire.

Digging deeper into the data, 37% of FTSE 350 companies have not even hit the 33% target for women on boards and around 70% have not hit the 33% target for leadership positions.

Detractors might also say that finding a few hundred qualified women to achieve 33% representation on FTSE boards over ten years is the low-hanging fruit. Perhaps we need to judge the initiative against the original reason for which it was set up, namely to increase the talent pool of influential females in business with a view to increasing company performance and achieving equality in senior appointments.

When it comes to company performance, the impact of female board members turns out to be extremely difficult to pin down, partly because the average size of the board is quite small at around ten. Hence, you are trying to measure the impact on profitability caused by the addition of about three women.

Executives around the boardroom table
It’s hard to show that more women = better performance.

Even then, given the many possible influences on company profits, the evidence suggests it is very unlikely you would expect to see a strong positive effect from this change even across many companies and over many years. Even where you have a positive correlation between profits and female board representation, it might be because of highly profitable companies appointing more women, rather than more women making companies more profitable.

The case for more women in executive positions is therefore one of diversity and fairness and a presumption that “women do no harm” to the bottom line.

Senior appointments

Senior appointments are another matter. Greater visibility of women in top positions may well open up promotion pipelines and encourage other women’s aspirations to success in business, but there is not strong evidence that this has fully delivered yet.

Only 14% of full-time executives on FTSE 100 boards are women, so much of the rise will be part-time positions. Only 23% of women are “senior independent directors”, 11% are chairpersons of the board, and only 8% are full-time chief executives. The figures are broadly similar for the next 250 largest UK companies.

Female conductor waves wand
Unbiased manoeuvres in the dark.

Women’s failure to secure more influential full-time roles may be because those making the appointments are unconsciously biased. This is difficult to prove, but there is some good evidence that it happens. For example, when musicians audition behind a screen, more women get selected for orchestras.

Similarly, the number of applicants who get called for job interviews is much lower among those with names associated with ethnic minorities than with white applicants, even though both sets of CVs are constructed to be equivalent and both are sent to the same firms.

The Hampton-Alexander review also did not examine if (the few) women and (many) men who successfully climb the executive greasy pole are treated equally when they reach the top. In a study of top earners in Swedish firms, 30% of male executives achieve chief executive positions compared with 12% of females. Also, male executives earn 27% more than female executives.

Hardly any of these huge differences can be explained by personal attributes such as educational attainment, past employment experience, marital status or number of children, or the type of firm or sector. Could this be explained by unconscious bias?

What now

The underlying findings and shortcomings in the Hampton-Alexander review demonstrate that it needs to continue, reinforced by continued government backing. It’s time to impose 33% quotas on straggler firms – including financial penalties on existing directors.

Achieving a “critical mass” of women in “influential positions” is still required. The female pipeline is now established, but the flow needs speeding up. New targets are needed so that more women are in executive director positions and the various other senior positions I mentioned. The work of the review could be combined with that of the Parker Review, which is targeting at least one BAME member on FTSE 100 boards by 2021 (and by 2024 on FTSE 350 boards).

A caveat. The debate around Hampton-Alexander is largely about improving the careers of women in well-paid positions. Any further work must not detract from government policies that affect most women, such as parental leave, childcare provision, domestic violence, schooling, university and career choices in business, government and other areas of the private sector. Finally, the impact of COVID-19 on flexible working, a major driver of women’s advancement, needs investigation.

Tags: #jump #job

Written by Keith Cuthbertson, Professor of Finance, City, University of London

This article by Keith Cuthbertson, Professor of Finance, City, University of London, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

No evidence butter is harder due to palm supplements for cows

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The recent controversies over the properties of butter and how dairy cows are fed have become a case study in media attention and the weight of evidence behind it. Anecdotal comments about the consistency of butter snowballed into sometimes overheated discussion of dairy cows’ diets.

To paraphrase the Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift, sensationalism flies and consideration comes limping after it. Dairy Farmers of Canada announced a committee to consider issues related to palm-based feed supplements for cows, but soon after pre-emptively asked farmers to consider avoiding their use.

The problem started with a question about a perceived change in the hardness of butter and moved to whether a contentious product such as palm oil should be used in ingredients for cows’ feed.

The weight of evidence

University professors and other experts are accorded some presumption of basing their comments on rigorous data and analysis when contributing to public discussion of issues. That trust must be supported by being clear about the basis for statements: What is the quantity and quality of the evidence? Is there presently a scientific consensus? What is opinion versus evidence that has at least passed the basic standard of peer review and publication in a scientific journal?

This controversy started over whether butter is harder at room temperature than it used to be. Although that question has melted away, it’s instructive to trace this story from its start.

Consider the difference in value between replying to a social media post and conducting a formal survey of a representative sample of people. It’s not hard to see how you might get a very different view by asking “Does anyone else think that butter is harder?” or “Please rate your satisfaction with the texture of butter from very dissatisfied to very satisfied,” including an option for “no opinion.”

If we wanted to know if butter is hard or harder than it used to be, we would have to measure it. That is not difficult do, but it has not been done in this case. That might have been the end of it. Astute observations raise questions that research may answer, but without a clear question it is impossible to propose a solution.

A knife spreading butter on bread
To definitively know whether the consistency of butter had changed, we would have needed to measure its consistency over time.

In this case, the observation was made that some dairy farmers sometimes feed small amounts (about one per cent of the cow’s diet) of palm-based feed supplements to some of their cows. Presumably because butter is 80 per cent milk fat, this led to speculation that there might be an association between this feeding practice and the consistency of butter. Here, there are some data. And also some muddied waters.

While the terminology is possibly confusing, cow’s milk — like human breast milk — contains palmitic acid, a saturated fat. It’s 30 to 35 per cent of the many different fats in cows’ milk, whether the cows eat any palm-based feeds or not.

Cows’ diets

Most of what cows in Canada eat is grown on their home farm or locally: corn and alfalfa silage, corn grain and some soybean meal are staples. Dairy farmers set their cows’ diets based on detailed and ongoing analysis and formulation by professional nutritionists. Veterinarians routinely monitor cows’ health, visiting dairy farms for preventive medicine every week or every other week.

Vegetable-based fat supplements may be included at about one per cent of a dairy cow’s total diet to help counter the energy deficit that can occur in early lactation, or to shore up the cow’s energy supply during the heat of the summer. That has been done to meet seasonally fluctuating market demands for butterfat for decades.

Adam Lock, an expert on dairy cow nutrition and its impact on milk fat, produced a briefing and summary of the current science.

Feeding palm-based supplements to dairy cows will change the palmitic acid content of milk to a small degree. There is no evidence of negative health implications for the cows or the people who consume the milk from these cows.

Cows are not fed palm oil itself but palmitic acid supplements, which may come from palm oil or by-products of palm oil processing. There is no evidence that there has been any change in the feeding of palmitic acid. In fact, the evidence based on data on the fatty acid profile of milk from cows in Québec is that the palmitic acid content of milk has not changed over the last year, and data from 2018 showed less than a one per cent difference in palmitic acid content in herds that did or didn’t feed supplemental fat — 33 versus 33.5 per cent.

There is little data on whether or how the details of cows’ diets might affect the properties of dairy food. More research is needed, and is being pursued on several fronts. But based on the available evidence, it is improbable that feeding palm-based supplements has had appreciable effects on the properties of butter.

Informed decisions?

Not all decisions are, or ought to be, based on scientific data alone. We often have to make decisions in the absence of fulsome evidence, and consider our values as well as hard data. Context helps. Palm oil and its derivatives are used in many foods (check the baked goods, granola bars and hazelnut spread in your pantry, and the margarine in the fridge), cosmetics and biofuels.

There are concerns about the sustainability of palm oil production. Like the coffee, cocoa and forestry industries, there are established international schemes to support sustainable practices in palm production.

Individuals or industries may well make values-based practices and purchasing decisions but they should first consider the best available scientific evidence. Otherwise we’re on a slope more slippery than butter, hard or soft.

Tags: #evidence #butter #harder #due #palm #supplements #cows

Written by Stephen LeBlanc, Professor, Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Guelph

This article by Stephen LeBlanc, Professor, Veterinary Population Medicine, University of Guelph, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

insights from the effect of a bridge across the Zambezi on maize prices

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Investments in infrastructure – such as roads – typically aim to reduce transport costs, stimulate trade and make new production activities viable. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the need for such investments is widely acknowledged.

The argument for more and better infrastructure seems fairly compelling. But little rigorous evidence has been collected about the magnitude of the economic impacts from such new investments. In part, this is because new investments often respond to new activities, such as growing cities, and are not necessarily independent causes of that growth.

To get around this, researchers typically focus on so-called “exogenous shocks”, where neither the location nor timing of changes to infrastructure can be explained by existing economic factors. In Mozambique, one such positive shock occurred in 2009 with the completion of a major bridge over the Zambezi river, financed primarily by external development partners.

The Armando Emilio Guebuza Bridge was important for two reasons. First, before it was constructed, the river formed a natural barrier to direct north–south trade along the main highway. Historically, there was a ferry service. But it was extremely inefficient. The journey lasted less than 30 minutes, yet the ferry only ran from 7 am to 5 pm, was notorious for breaking down, and was frequently suspended during the rainy season. As found at many other border posts and river crossings in the region, lengthy queues of vehicles lasting several hours and even days were common. Also, alternative options were limited, necessitating extremely lengthy detours.

Second, the new bridge was constructed at the same point as the old ferry. So, rather than creating new driving routes, the bridge simply made crossing the river more efficient and reliable, reducing the overall journey time. And the toll for crossing the bridge was fixed at the same price as the old ferry.

To analyse the economic impact of the bridge, we looked at changes in the difference in maize prices between market pairs that did, and did not, use the bridge to trade. According to the “law of one price” expounded by economists, opportunities for arbitrage will tend to ensure that the difference in prices between goods produced in place A and sold at place B only reflect transport costs – in other words, competition between traders should drive any opportunities for additional profit down to zero. So, because market pairs that did use the bridge to trade experienced a positive shock to the quality of their transport infrastructure, we would expect their transport costs to fall – and this should be reflected in smaller price differences.

Comparing the groups of market pairs that did and did not use the bridge to trade, we found that differences in maize prices did become smaller for the first group. In other words – consistent with the law of one price – their maize markets did become more closely integrated. Even so, we found this was only the case for relatively close market pairs. For others, driving distances remained so large that the gain from the bridge was negligible.

The analysis

Maize is the staple food in Mozambique, consumed across the country and predominantly by the poorest households. While it is also produced by small farmers across the country, there are large distances between the most productive areas of the country in the centre and the north and the main urban centres of demand in the south.

Historically, poor transport infrastructure – including just one north-south road, no integrated national rail network and no coastal shipping services – has meant differences in prices for maize can be very large over the country. As we plot in in the figure below, for agricultural markets located more than 250km apart, on average maize prices are at least 25% more expensive in destination versus origin locations. And, at times, this average difference has reached over 40% such as during the food price crisis of 2007/08.

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Figure 1: Average absolute relative difference in maize prices between markets more than 250km apart.

Using data from Mozambique’s agricultural market data system and applying a variety of econometric techniques, we found that the bridge did indeed have an effect on maize price differences. We found a positive relationship between changes in the journey time associated with the opening of the bridge and changes in absolute price differences. For the closest market pair using the bridge to trade, located just under 5 hours apart, we estimate the opening led to an approximate 7% reduction in maize price differences.

At the same time, given the long journey times between many markets in Mozambique, most market pairs that use the bridge to trade experienced only small relative changes in journey times due to the opening of the bridge. As summarised in Figure 2, which plots the change in absolute relative maize prices against the relative difference in journey times associated with the bridge, only market pairs that experienced a more than 20% fall in journey time saw a significant reduction in maize price differences.

Figure 2: Change in absolute relative maize prices (y-axis) vs. relative difference in journey times associated with the new bridge, treated market pairs only

file 20210217 21 xsi85f.png?ixlib=rb 1.1

Staple foods and well-being of the poor

Understanding what drives food prices is important because these prices are critical to the well-being of the poor. Sudden price increases can drive many consumers into poverty, with knock-on consequences for other important expenditures such as schooling. And as we saw during the prelude to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/08, rising food prices often spilled-over into political unrest.

But stabilising prices is fraught with difficultly. And this case is no different. On the one hand, we see that the construction of the bridge did significantly improve the integration of maize markets in Mozambique. We also found evidence that other agricultural commodity markets, especially for products that can be easily stored and transported in bulk, benefited from the bridge.

On the other hand, the benefits appear to be fairly narrow. A comparatively small number of market pairs substantially benefited from the new investment. For others, the improvement in journey times was not sufficient to seriously reduce trading frictions between the capital city and areas of surplus maize production.

Overall, the general lesson is that very careful cost-benefit analysis must be undertaken when embarking on major infrastructure investments. In themselves, they are rarely a panacea for the difficult trading conditions facing many rural producers and provide no guarantee of price stability.

Tags: #insights #effect #bridge #Zambezi #maize #prices

Written by Sam Jones, Research Fellow, World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), United Nations University

This article by Sam Jones, Research Fellow, World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU-WIDER), United Nations University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

how baby birds deceive their finch foster parents

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It’s a warm wet day in Zambia and the rains are finally falling. A small, scarlet finch flits through the undergrowth, stopping occasionally to check its surroundings. It glances left, right, then left again before evaporating into the foliage. A second passes before an anxious, insistent note issues from within the vegetation. Initially faint, it builds in amplitude until it is joined by others, ultimately breaking into a chorusing crescendo of persistent, demanding cries.

In a small, ball-shaped nest sit four half-feathered nestlings, all clamouring for the attention of the recently arrived adult bird. In a mesmerising display, the chicks wave their heads from side to side, opening their mouths to reveal elaborately ornamented interiors, lined with a complex pattern of coloured spots and swellings.

Eager to provide for its young, the adult, a type of firefinch, sticks its beak into their open mouths and regurgitates the grass seeds it has been storing in its crop. One chick is particularly large, loud and demanding and receives the biggest share of the food. On depleting its stocks, the adult darts off to replenish its crop. In renewed silence, the chicks patiently wait.

The scene we have just witnessed, at the edge of an agricultural field in Choma, southern Zambia, is repeated millions of times each year across Africa and the world. We could easily dismiss it as the expected demonstration of care by a dutiful parent to its biological offspring. And yet there is an important detail that we, and the adult firefinch, have overlooked: among the brood is an imposter.

The unusually large chick is not one of the firefinch’s own but an indigobird, a completely different species seemingly masquerading as a firefinch nestling. Indigobirds, and their close relatives the whydahs, are “brood parasites”. Rather than constructing a nest, incubating eggs and feeding young, they deposit their eggs in the nests of other birds (“hosts”) and force them to do the child rearing.

The strategy is a good one. Raising offspring takes time and energy. By outsourcing parental care, brood parasites are free to produce more eggs and to spread these eggs across many nests rather than just one. If something goes wrong, the parent’s entire reproductive output isn’t lost.

Worldwide, over one hundred bird species exclusively adopt a brood-parasitic lifestyle. Africa’s parasitic finches make up 20 of these. Among them, the indigobirds and whydahs are highly specialised parasites whose hosts are exclusively members of the grassfinch family. Broadly speaking, each parasitic finch species uses only one grassfinch species.

Over several years of fieldwork in Zambia, my colleagues and I set out to test whether nestling indigobirds and whydahs truly do mimic the begging displays of their host nestlings.

Earlier work had provided initial indications of mimicry but technological limitations at the time meant accounts were largely descriptive or anecdotal. Furthermore, nestling begging isn’t just visual, it’s also vocal and postural. These components are as diverse and specific for each grassfinch as mouth markings are. We wanted to know whether parasitic finches mimic these characteristics too.

Ornamented nestlings, mimetic parasites

Grassfinches are exceptional in that they have the most ornately patterned nestlings of any birds in the world. Some have a luminous papillae lining the gape and intricate patterns of spots and bars on the palate. These markings vary widely between grassfinch species but little within them, making them highly characteristic of each.

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The diverse appearances of different nestling grassfinch species. The top two rows show the insides of the mouths while the bottom row shows recently-hatched chicks. Many of these species are hosts to indigobirds and whydahs.
Gabriel A. Jamie and Claire N. Spottiswoode

The colours and patterns of each nestling grassfinch are important in ensuring parents feed them adequately. Nestlings with “odd” mouth markings are fed less by parents than those with “normal” ones. This suggests that, to convince host parents to feed them enough food, young parasitic finches need to have similar mouth markings to those of their host.

Birds see wavelengths of light humans cannot and also process patterns differently. This must therefore be taken into account to detect mimicry as perceived by a bird.

To test for visual mimicry, we photographed inside the mouths of the nestling birds with a specially modified camera that could detect ultra-violet light as well as human-visible wavelengths of light. These images were processed through models of “bird vision”, so we could see what the parent birds see. To provide evidence of visual and postural mimicry, we sound and video recorded the displays of host and parasite nestlings.

Through this quantitative analysis of parasite and host begging displays we found that nestling parasites do indeed mimic the mouth markings (both colour and pattern) of their hosts. We also showed that they mimic the begging calls and postural movements their hosts make when begging.

Our findings cement these birds as a wonderful example of the power of natural selection to develop astonishing adaptations. Studies like this help us understand how the complex and highly specialised relationships between parasites and hosts have evolved.

Mimicry and the origin of species

Indigobird and whydah chicks have evolved to mimic their host’s chicks with remarkable accuracy. This mimicry seems to be genetically encoded rather than learned. When we moved parasite eggs into a new host species’ nest and let them grow there, they did not develop begging displays to match the new host but instead kept those of their ancestral host.

This amazing mimicry may have implications for how new species of indigobird and whydah form.

It has long been known that the formation of new species of parasitic finch is tightly linked to host-switching events. Indigobirds imprint on their hosts. Male indigobirds grow up to imitate the song of their host species, while females prefer to mate with males that sing like the host she was raised by. This means if a female accidentally lays her egg in the nest of a new host species, her offspring will imprint on the new host. In so doing, she has the potential to create a new species of indigobirds associated with the new host species – they won’t reproduce with indigobirds that associate with other hosts.

Over subsequent generations of associating with the new host species, specialised mimicry of nestling begging display evolves. In turn, these host-specific adaptations may reinforce species boundaries by making it harder for the occasional hybrids between indigobirds associating with different hosts to survive.

Despite its many advantages, genetic specialisation is a double-edged sword. While it equips an organism to be highly effective in one circumstance, it can vulnerable to fluctuating conditions. As the ranges of these hosts shift in the coming decades, driven by climatic changes and bush encroachment, it will be fascinating to see whether these parasites can track their shifting distributions and even adapt to new previously unexploited hosts.

Tags: #baby #birds #deceive #finch #foster #parents

Written by Gabriel A. Jamie, Post-doctoral research associate, University of Cambridge

This article by Gabriel A. Jamie, Post-doctoral research associate, University of Cambridge, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Scientists have found dust from the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs inside the crater it left

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More than 99% of all organisms that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. Most of these just died out quietly. However, in Earth’s history there have been five major mass extinction events – known as the big five – during which many species became extinct at the same time.

Each of the big five events caused at least a 40% loss of all species on Earth. Yet humans hold a particular grudge against the most recent one, which brought a sudden end to the 160-million-year history of the dinosaurs. This was the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction and it happened 66 million years ago, wiping out about 75% of all species on Earth at the time. Except sea turtles and crocodiles, no four-legged animals bigger than 25kg survived.

After decades of heated debate, scientists have settled on two leading theories about what caused this extinction. The first possibility is the impact of an asteroid which created the 180km wide Chicxulub impact crater in the modern day Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Second, a series of eruptions in a volcanic area known as Deccan Traps in India.

Last week, an international team of scientists with data from four independent laboratories published a study claiming to have ended the debate. They say the 12km-wide asteroid was the one to blame.

A case closed?

The study looked at rock samples collected in the crater, which is now under water. They found a layer of terrestrial mud mixed with “space dust” containing the element iridium, which can be found in high concentrations in meteorites but is rare in the Earth’s crust. This layer was four times thicker in the impact crater than in the surrounding area.

The team found a 5cm layer of sediment immediately below the limestone from the earliest Paleogene, the geologic period that began immediately after the extinction. This thin layer of sediment had iridium concentrations of one part per billion, compared to the 0.04 parts per billion in the Earth’s crust.

A map showing where the Chicxulub crater is, in the Yucatán Peninsula.
The impact crater.
The University of Texas at Austin/Jackson School of Geosciences/ Google Maps, Author provided

The asteroid is thought to have hit the planet at about 20km per second, more than 50 times faster than the speed of sound in air. Not only did it destroy the immediate surroundings, but it also sent a cloud of vaporised rock and microscopic dust with high levels of iridium that travelled across the Earth. The global blanket of cloud blocked out sunlight, cooled Earth’s surface for decades by up to 10°C, and triggered a global “impact winter”. The cold and dark regime was followed by large-scale photosynthesis shutdown, disrupted food webs worldwide and the collapse of ecosystems.

Spikes of iridium in dust from this time have been found in over 100 places around the world from America, Asia, Europe, Oceania, all the way to Antarctica. These were first identified in findings from the 1980s.

The early studies did not win a global consensus because the evidence couldn’t link the high iridium concentrations to the Chicxulub crater. But this new study provides this crucial link, and places an important time constraint too. The dust must have deposited within just a few decades – less than 20 years – after the impact.

Read more:
Five mass extinctions – and what we can learn from them about the planet today

The Armageddon of dinosaurs

Although the sudden nature of this extinction is backed up by changes in the fossil record, the record of microscopic organisms points towards a long-term shift instead. This is the argument in favour of a volcanic extinction, with a series of eruptions happening over tens of thousands of years.

Massive and prolonged volcanic eruptions have been linked to other volcanism-extinction events – like the Siberian Traps eruptions, which marked the extinction at the end of the Permian period. In the case of the dinosaur extinction event, however, it could not have been caused by volcanism alone.

A drawing of a T-rex looking at a small flying dinosaur in a forest.
All non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago.
Willgard Krause/ Pixabay, Author provided

The Deccan Traps released more than ten million cubic kilometres of material and gases, which caused a long term global warming of between 2 and 4°C, 150 to 300 thousand years before the extinction, just before the asteroid blow.

The Deccan Traps eruption lasted several million years, starting long before the asteroid impact. In fact, the main phase of Deccan Traps volcanism, at around 66 million years ago, might have been triggered by the Chicxulub impact.

The increase of nutrients into the oceans led to planktonic blooms and low oxygen level in the oceans, yet the oceans were not completely oxygen free. Deccan volcanism might have induced biotic stress but not the organisms’ total demise.

Dinosaurs might have their doomsday set in an unfortunate double trouble of an asteroid volcano combo, or a single giant impact. Either way, the large asteroid has played a key role. This new study has found the missing piece of evidence that links the dinosaurs’ extinction to the Chicxulub impact, and that it happened in a geological blink of an eye.

Tags: #Scientists #dust #asteroid #wiped #dinosaurs #crater #left

Written by Queenie Hoi Shan Chan, Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway

This article by Queenie Hoi Shan Chan, Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

COVID-19 costs could push hospitals to rethink billions of dollars in wasted supplies

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The United States spends more on health care than any other nation. What many people don’t realize is that a large portion of this spending goes to waste.

Every year, an estimated US$760 billion to $935 billion is wasted through overtreatment, poor coordination and other failures, amounting to about a quarter of total U.S. health care spending, research has shown. Medical supplies and equipment are part of that. One study estimated that nearly $1,000 in unused supplies are wasted on average during each neurosurgery procedure.

With hospitals under financial pressure from COVID-19 and medical waste volumes even higher, the pandemic could finally trigger a much-needed reset in how health care organizations and hospitals think about supply-related waste. That includes how they reuse supplies, how they plan for surgeries and what they look for in prepackaged surgical supplies.

Decontaminating and reusing supplies safely

It’s important to recognize that not all single-use equipment and supplies are safer. Cleaning, sterilizing and reusing equipment can be safe and cost less in the long run. For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration points out that surgical instruments such as clamps and forceps can be reprocessed and reused, but they are often thrown away after a single use.

New sterilization methods can help. For example, N-95 masks that were sterilized and sanitized with ethylene oxide and vaporized hydrogen peroxide were able to retain their more than 95% filtration efficiency. The approvals hospitals received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to decontaminate some disposable items could become long-term safe methods to reduce waste.

Supplies on tables in an operating room during surgery
Operating rooms are a large source of hospital supply waste.
Thierry Dosogne via Getty Images

Being able to reuse personal protective equipment could not only reduce waste in landfills, lower the environmental footprint of supply production and delivery, and save money, but it could also strengthen health care organizations’ ability to be prepared for supply chain breakdowns in future pandemics.

Ways to cut waste in the operating room

Operating rooms are a source of large amounts of hospital supply waste. They account for over 50% of hospital revenues and 25% of their expenses.

Supplies and materials in operating rooms average nearly half of operating room spending and account for 70% of the 4 billion pounds of health care waste produced in the United States annually.

A big part of that waste happens when there is a mismatch between the supplies requested and those actually needed during surgery. Surgeons submit a physician preference card that lists all the supplies they believe they will need in the operating room. In one study, my colleagues and I found that more frequent updates to those preference cards before surgery can reduce unplanned costs.

We estimated that the unplanned costs in operating rooms averaged about $1,800 per surgery, adding up to tens of millions of dollars. These costs include both supplies that are opened but go unused and additional supplies brought in during surgery that make it harder to manage supply use efficiently. We found that as the frequency of updating physician preference cards increased, waste and costs initially went up but then came down as surgeons were able to narrow down the supplies actually needed. This learning can translate into an annual cost reduction of millions of dollars.

Just understanding how supplies are being wasted can help. When surgeons in a San Francisco hospital were given information about their supply use and an incentive to reduce it, they cut their supply waste by 6.5%.

Rethinking packaging, including working with suppliers to reformulate surgical packs, could also reduce waste. Supplies used in the operating room often come in surgical packs, which include items typically needed during a procedure, but not all are used.

Ramping up recycling

Hospitals can also increase their recycling. A survey conducted across four Mayo Clinic locations across the United States in 2018 found that single-use plastics made up at least 20% of medical waste generated in the hospitals. Among the more than 500 hospital staff members surveyed, 57% didn’t know which items used in operating theaters could be recycled; 39% said they either sometimes or never recycled; and 48% said the greatest barrier to recycling was “lack of knowledge.”

In fact, only 15% of health care wastes are hazardous. The remaining 85% include packaging materials that can be recycled and gloves. Gloves worn to inspect a noninfectious patient are not hazardous and can be reused.

The pandemic-triggered awareness of supply waste in health care could provide an impetus for a fresh look at health care supply chain management. The result can benefit patients, hospitals and the environment, as well.

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Tags: #COVID19 #costs #push #hospitals #rethink #billions #dollars #wasted #supplies

Written by Anand Nair, Eli Broad Endowed Professor, Department of Supply Chain Management, Michigan State University

This article by Anand Nair, Eli Broad Endowed Professor, Department of Supply Chain Management, Michigan State University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

how much should we listen to the views of business?

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After the long COVID winter, there has been a cautious sense of turning the corner in the UK. The vaccination programme has progressed better than many might have expected, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now unveiled his “roadmap” for unwinding restrictions in England over the next four months.

Inevitably, however, some camps received the news less well than others. Business leaders in sectors like hospitality, travel and retail were worried about the prospect of several more months in lockdown, saying it could sink companies that were already on the verge of going under.

A year after lockdown measures began in most western countries, it was a reminder of the gap that has often existed between epidemiologists and businesses over how best to cope with the pandemic. We asked experts with specialist knowledge of the two fields to reflect on how the other side has handled the past year, and what, if anything, they can learn from one other.

‘Premature reopening may not bring sustained economic benefits’ – Aditya Goenka and Lin Liu

With vaccinations being rolled out rapidly, there have been numerous calls from the business lobby for the UK lockdown to be lifted sooner than the dates set out in the official government roadmap for reopening.

There have been more than 120,000 deaths directly due to the virus in the UK – one of the highest in the world. As well as this tragic toll, the pandemic has also had severe economic effects. The UK’s GDP dropped by 10% in 2020.

The mental health costs and economic effects on lower income, younger workers and minority groups has been disproportionate. In the UK, London and other areas of the south of England have seen more of a recovery than other parts of the country.

Before the rollout of vaccines, the main policy to control COVID-19 was the use of social distancing measures and lockdowns. These have been effective in bringing down infections and deaths, but in our view the political appetite for imposing such measures may have waned in some quarters. Meanwhile, research suggests compliance with lockdown measures has declined over time, possibly due to “lockdown fatigue”.

Patients waiting for COVID vaccines
UK’s vaccine rollout has been a welcome bright spot.

The tension between the desires to continue restrictions and to remove them earlier than planned arises from the view that it is the lockdowns that are the main causes of economic damage.

Is there merit to this view? The evidence from other countries gives some indication of the impact of the disease itself versus that of lockdown. If we compare Scandinavian countries – Norway and Denmark imposed lockdowns but Sweden did not – we can see the economic impact is similar for all countries but the health impact is larger on Sweden.

In the USA, each state has followed its own health policy. This gives a natural variation across different areas and gives a clearer picture of the effects of lockdowns versus those from behavioural changes due to increased infections. Comparing movement of people within commuting zones with different jurisdictions shows that although consumer traffic fell by 60%, only 7% was due to legal restrictions. Granular data from private businesses in the US finds that state-ordered re-openings had small impacts on spending and employment.

A International Monetary Fund cross-country study of over 130 countries, which analysed mobility and job postings, came to the same conclusions. It suggests that removing lockdowns without controlling infections will have modest economic benefits.

Is there a longer run trade-off? With new variants emerging, it is unlikely that COVID-19 will be eradicated. Robust cross-country evidence for infectious diseases over the past 50 years indicates that countries that have higher incidence of disease have lower per person income, growth and educational attainment.

We should also consider the loss of productivity of those infected with long COVID. In the UK, 20% of people who catch COVID report health impairment after five weeks, and 10% report impairment after 12 weeks. While mortality from COVID-19 among the young is much lower than for the elderly population, young people are affected by long COVID and can suffer long-term damage to internal organs.

There are challenges in reducing the short-run impacts from COVID. Premature opening up could increase infections without leading to significant economic benefits, as initial research into the Eat Out to Help Out scheme in the UK has suggested.

The UK government should resist pressures for the premature removal of restrictions. Countries that had lower infections from COVID-19 have had better economic outcomes. New Zealand’s policy of eliminating infections, for example, is instructive.

The existing strategy of vaccinating the most vulnerable first will reduce mortality and may have a more limited impact on spread of infections if people start mixing more with increased coverage of the vaccine. The economic impact of COVID is likely to persist until the disease is fully suppressed. But the medium- to long-term consequences of allowing infections to continue will have enduring consequences for both the economy and society.

‘With wicked problems, no one has a monopoly on the best way forward’ – Will Foster

The pandemic is a classic example of what researchers refer to as a wicked problem. With many moving parts spanning politics, economics, culture, ethics, medicine and pure practicality, such problems can be almost impossible to solve.

Epidemiologists and business leaders are two of many stakeholders that have their own complex motivations and ways of seeing the world. They ascribe meaning in different ways to everything from infection and death rates to economic consequences to the implications for the younger generation.

While they will usually find common ground, their views of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown will be shaped by these different perspectives. For epidemiologists, the quest to save and preserve life focuses on pandemic-related data and statistics – arguably as crucial to this profession as the Hippocratic oath is for medical doctors. Yet as vital as this information is, epidemiologists do not necessarily have a monopoly on “what is right”.

With wicked problems, an intervention in one sphere will inevitably have unintended consequences elsewhere. For example, some people’s long-term health may well be affected by the lockdown and then social distancing and mask-wearing in the longer term.

A recent British Medical Journal article pointed out that unemployment and deprivation caused by COVID restrictions can lead to increased drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues, delays or cancellations to treatments for life-threatening conditions, and higher death rates. We see echoes of this in Keele University’s ongoing COVID recovery research project exploring “decent work”, which has identified that many groups of low-paid workers feel abandoned and disillusioned by lockdown.

The danger is that a data-led approach to saving lives can lead epidemiologists to extreme poles of caution that lose sight of these wider consequences. I’m thinking, for example, of those in the “zero COVID” camp, who want tough restrictions to achieve New Zealand-levels of freedom from the virus.

Business leaders are no less concerned to preserve life, but their focus tends away from bald statistics to people’s livelihoods. Some have certainly been very critical of the roadmap announcement, particularly those in sectors like English pubs and hotels, who say it is unreasonable that they will be closed until at least May 17.

Empty hotel lobby with a 'closed for coronavirus' sign
Hotels will be closed for three more months.
Dawid Kallsinski/Alamy

But broadly I’m seeing business leaders engaging with the issues at hand in a balanced and positive way. Business association the CBI welcomed the clarity in the roadmap, while calling for the furlough scheme to be extended. Even the British Hoteliers Association has been talking about the possibility of “long-term gain” from maintaining restrictions. This sense of balance is more remarkable because it in no way minimises businesses’ severe apprehension over economic recovery and the survival of important companies and sectors.

It is understandable that some businesses want the timescale for ending lockdown to be brought forward. I know from my contacts in travel and tourism, for example, how hard they have been hit by the restrictions. It is also right for business leaders to be calling on the government to extend the support for fragile organisations and their employees to the “starting line” of recovery.

When dealing with a wicked problem, the government is always having to steer a course between different perspectives. It greatly over-simplifies this reality for some to say that we should follow the science, or of course to ignore it. We must gather together the perspectives of different stakeholders, view the problem from as many angles as possible, and ensure each voice is taken seriously. No single perspective can lead us out of this situation, and everyone needs to recognise that.

Tags: #listen #views #business

Written by Aditya Goenka, Professor of Economics, University of Birmingham

This article by Aditya Goenka, Professor of Economics, University of Birmingham, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Josh Frydenberg has the opportunity to transform Australia, permanently lowering unemployment

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Josh Frydenberg has the opportunity to become a transformational Australian treasurer. He has been bequeathed a set of circumstances that comes along rarely.

He has already shown himself able to shift the debate on important topics in order to achieve the previously unthinkable.

Most recently he did it with Google and Facebook, getting them to pay news providers for content using legislation that led the world in its breadth and force.

It’s actually the second time Frydenberg has taken on big tech. As assistant treasurer in 2015 he championed a “Netflix tax” on overseas-based suppliers of online services. They would be required to collect and pass on goods and services tax, just like Australian retailers.

It was a tax experts told him big tech might never pay.

Frydenberg has shown boldness before

Opportunities like the much bigger one in front of him now don’t come along often because Australia isn’t in recession often. Three decades ago in the early 1990s Australia’s then Reserve Bank governor Bernie Fraser seized its mirror side.

In the wake of an appalling recession that had destroyed both jobs and inflation, Fraser opted to finish the job and drive a stake through the heart of inflation.

A biography of then treasurer Paul Keating quotes Fraser as saying “we’ve got the inflation rate down and we are damn-well going to keep it down”.

At the first hint of a resurgence in inflation as the economy got back on its feet Fraser rammed up interest rates an extraordinary 0.75 percentage points in August 1994, then another 1.00 percentage points in October, and a further dizzying 1.00 percentage points in December.

Job finished, inflation has remained tamed ever since, never again returning to the 8% and 10% common in the 1980s.

Recessions create opportunities

Frydenberg’s opportunity is to drive a stake through the heart of unemployment.

From the end of the second world war right through to the mid 1970s Australia’s unemployment rate averaged just 2%. From then onwards until today it has averaged 6.8%, an embarrassment in a country capable of much, much better.

How much better?

The Reserve Bank’s pre-COVID estimate of Australia’s so-called non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU) was 4.5%. NAIRU is the rate below which it is thought inflation and wage growth might start to climb.

Read more:
Why the unemployment rate will never get to zero percent – but it could still go a lot lower

If correct, the estimate means there is no danger whatsoever in pushing Australia’s unemployment rate down from its present 6.4% to 4.5%, or lower. We won’t know how much lower until we try. Pre-COVID, US unemployment got to 3.5%.

Far from danger, there would be a huge payoff in permanently lowering the rate of unemployment Australia regarded as acceptable.

At an unemployment rate of 4.5%, an extra 255,800 Australians would be in work and earning money, providing services and paying tax. The government could save $4 billion per year in JobSeeker payments.

We could go for broke

Frydenberg should actually aim for a much-lower unemployment rate than 4.5%.

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe does not say 4.5% would accelerate inflation, he says he doubts whether anything above 4.5% would accelerate inflation.

And Lowe says this notwithstanding the view of the secretary to the treasury that the recession has pushed up NAIRU to around 4.75% to 5% as people who have lost their jobs have become less employable.

But here’s the thing. NAIRU is the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment — the rate that keeps inflation and wage growth constant.

Wage growth, at 1.4% and inflation, at 0.9% are too low. We need them to accelerate. Frydenberg and the Reserve Bank have agreed to target inflation of 2-3%. It’s a target that would normally mean wage growth of 3-4%, where wage growth hasn’t been for the best part of a decade.

Wage growth below par for years

file 20210302 19 301tm4.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Wage price index, total hourly rates of pay excluding bonuses, private and public, annual.

To get inflation and wage growth back up to where we want them we are going to need an unemployment rate well below the oddly-named NAIRU — well below 4.5% — for quite some time.

In his new book Reset, economist Ross Garnaut says we should be aiming for an unemployment rate of 3.5%.

He says on the way down there would be time to adjust the target “up when high and accelerating inflation becomes a matter of concern, or down (further) if we approach 3.5% without inflation accelerating dangerously”.

As in the US, we don’t yet know how low we can safely push unemployment, but it might turn out to be very low indeed.

Read more:
The reset to lift us out of the COVID recession has to be bold: returning to where we were is nowhere near good enough

To get there Australia’s government will have to keep spending, and learn to live with big budget deficits and big debt.

Garnaut says to not do so would be a false economy, condemning us to “endless increases in our public debt-to-GDP ratio because we wouldn’t be producing the GDP we were capable of.

The government would fund the crushing of unemployment by selling bonds to the Reserve Bank directly, bypassing financial markets in order to avoid putting further upward pressure on the dollar.

Low risk, long payoff

To the extent that the continuing flood of bonds further eased mortgage interest rates (which it mightn’t much, because the bonds would be long-term) the Prudential Regulation Authority would have to crack down on investor and interest-only loans as it did successfully before the COVID crisis in order to restrain house prices.

Garnaut believes there will also be a need for less-pleasant reforms to restore the prosperity Australia is capable of, but he says they will only gain widespread acceptance if it is known that anyone who wants a job can get a job — whether that’s at an unemployment rate of 3.5%, the 2% Australia once had or the 1% New Zealand had.

The COVID recession and rapid recovery from it have handed Frydenberg an opportunity to relentlessly drive down and crush unemployment — to finish the job. If he grabs it he will be remembered as the treasurer who changed Australia, perhaps forever.

Tags: #Josh #Frydenberg #opportunity #transform #Australia #permanently #lowering #unemployment

Written by Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article by Peter Martin, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Ontario’s digital health program has a data quality problem, despite billions in spending

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Digital health is about applying advanced information technologies to enable free flow of patient information across the circle of care. For patients, that means every health-care provider they see at different locations should be able to access relevant health record information quickly and efficiently.

Digital health technology, such as electronic health records, is believed to enhance patient-centred care, improve integrated care and ensure financial sustainability of our health-care system. However, Ontarians are facing the tough reality that their health data are still fragmented, despite billions of dollars spent over the last two decades to enable fast and secure exchange of health information. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light even more data quality issues.

As noted in a recent National Post article, much of the public data on COVID-19 is a mess. Not only are data on infected cases and deaths delayed, they are also incomplete. Ontario reportedly offered inconsistent counts between provincial medical officials and local public health units. No wonder the Ministry of Health admits that “consistent standards are lacking across sectors — making it extremely difficult to integrate patient records or to integrate local systems with provincial ones.”

It is a tough pill to swallow after years of investment aimed at enabling fast and secure health data exchange.

Neither sustainable nor effective

The Ontario government is taking two approaches to improving data quality, examples of which include accuracy and timeliness of data reported across different service providers. The first approach centres on improving health data exchange across heterogeneous systems (systems developed by different vendors and requiring different hardware and software configurations to operate) by using common communication standards.

However, this approach is neither scalable nor sustainable as communications across these systems become increasingly complex, time-consuming and error-prone when more systems are added to the mix of systems. Inconsistent counts of COVID-19 infected cases and deaths provided by different levels of governments is a case in point. Not to mention that these standards evolve rapidly and even previous versions of the same standard cannot be easily mapped and migrated to current ones.

The second approach relies on the minimum common data set proposed in the Digital Health Playbook, a resource intended to guide health-care organizations to build their digital systems. The minimum data set contains data classes (such as individual patients) and their corresponding elements (such as date of birth) for clinical notes, laboratory information, medications, vital signs, patient demographics and procedures, to name a few uses.

Illustration of a tablet showing patient information
Health-care providers need fast, secure access to medical records, including clinical notes, lab information, medications, vital signs, patient demographics and procedures.

These data sets, while appropriate for the requirements of family physicians whose main responsibility is disease control and prevention, are not sufficient for treating complex patients who suffer from multiple health issues, which demand a vast amount of health data from various health-care providers.

These two approaches adopted by the Ontario government to address data quality issues are neither sustainable nor effective, so can hardly serve as a strategy guiding health digitalization.

As researchers focusing on IT in health governance, we propose that a data strategy encompass four pillars:

1. Data quality standards

First, data quality is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple dimensions that include things like accuracy, accessibility and timeliness. And there are trade-offs among these dimensions. For example, increasing timely data reports may affect data comprehensiveness, which demands time to cover all the required data.

While “fit for use” (meaning the quality of data fits the requirements of their intended users) is considered appropriate and pragmatic, it needs to be clearly spelled out what quality standards need to be reinforced. Given the limited resources and increasing pressures to curb health-care costs, it becomes increasingly urgent to decide which data quality standards should be the focus.

2. Sustainable, scalable, patient-centric platform

Second, the health-care sector is not alone in dealing with decades-old systems and the low-quality data — such as inaccurate COVID-19 case counts — generated by these systems. Drawing on experiences from banks and other organizations, the health-care sector could create an open data platform that enables data sharing across health-care providers and allows patients to share data from their social media and mobile and wearable devices. Countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany have started implementing the open data platform idea.

3. Measurable indicators of improvement

Third, measurable outcomes pertaining to data quality improvement efforts need to be defined. Improvement efforts could include training programs on best practices related to data entry, and introducing system features that enable data quality checking (for example, completeness or consistency). Measurable outcomes would ensure accountability and the achievement of the intended objectives, and inform future funding decisions.

4. Improvement process adopted by providers

Lastly, a data strategy needs to clearly define a data quality improvement and monitoring process where the quality of the data is continuously monitored and assessed to ensure that data support patient care and research. Data quality is a shared responsibility, so the quality assurance process needs to take place collectively across providers but also within each provider.

To define and implement the data strategy, meaningful engagement with all stakeholders is key. For example, patients and providers need to be involved to identify the data required to treat the diseases that claim the most of our health-care budget, define quality dimensions of the data, and specify roles and responsibilities of maintaining the quality of data.

In contrast to the Band-Aid approach adopted by the Ontario government, the four-pillar data strategy is long-term, focused and holistic. It would ensure that data quality is placed at the front and centre of Ontario’s effort in health digitization. Following the strategy, our health-care system would develop a sustainable mechanism and a scalable capability to continuously improve data quality.

Without such a data strategy, Ontarians will stand to lose another decade and billions more.

Tags: #Ontarios #digital #health #program #data #quality #problem #billions #spending

Written by Linying Dong, Professor, Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, Ryerson University

This article by Linying Dong, Professor, Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management, Ryerson University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Water markets are not perfect, but vital to the future of the Murray-Darling Basin

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Water markets have come in for some bad press lately, fuelled in part by the severe drought of 2019 and resulting high water prices.

They have also been the subject of an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry, whose interim report released last year documented a range of problems with the way water markets work in the Murray-Darling Basin. The final report was handed to the treasurer last week.

While water markets are far from perfect, new research from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) has found they are vital in helping the region cope with drought and climate change, producing benefits in the order of A$117 million per year.

To make the most of water markets, we will need to keep improving the rules and systems which support them. But with few “off-the-shelf” solutions, further reform will require both perseverance and innovation.

Water markets generate big benefits

Australia’s biggest and most active water markets are in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the Murray River and its tributaries in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

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Murray Darling Basin.

Each year water right holders are assigned “allocations”: shares of water in the rivers’ major dams. These allocations can be traded across the river system, helping to get water where it is most needed.

Water markets also allow for “carryover”: where rights holders store rather than use their allocations, holding them in dams for use in future droughts.

Our research estimates that water trading and carryover generate benefits to water users in the southern Murray-Darling, of A$117 million on average per year (around 12% of the value of water rights) with even larger gains in dry years. Carryover plays a key role, accounting for around half of these benefits.

Together water trading and carryover act to smooth variability in water prices, while also slightly lowering average prices across the basin.

There’s room for improvement

One of many issues raised in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission interim report was the design of the trading rules, including limits on how much water can move between regions.

These rules are intended to reflect the physical limits of the river system, however getting them right is extremely difficult.

The rules we have are relatively blunt, such that there is potential at different times for either too much water to be traded or too little.

file 20210228 13 1jggh3f.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
National Electricity Market.

One possible refinement is a shift from a rules-based system to one with more central coordination.

For example, in electricity, these problems are addressed via so-called “smart markets”: centralised computer systems which balance demand and supply across the grid in real-time.

Such an approach is unlikely to be feasible for water in the foreseeable future.

But a similar outcome could be achieved by establishing a central agency to determine inter-regional trade volumes, taking into account user demands, river constraints, seasonal conditions and environmental objectives.

While novel in Australia, the approach has parallels in the government-operated “drought water banks” that have emerged in some parts of the United States.

Some of the good ideas are our own

Another possible refinement involves water sharing rules, which specify how water allocations are determined and how they are carried over between years.

At present these rules are often complex and lacking in transparency. This can lead to a perceived disconnect between water allocations and physical water supply, creating uncertainty for users and undermining confidence in the market.

Although markets in the northern Murray-Darling Basin are generally less advanced than the south, some sophisticated water sharing systems have evolved in the north to deal with the region’s unique hydrology (highly variable river flows and small dams).

file 20210301 23 3ixon4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Beardmore Dam at St George in Southern Queensland, where water markets operate under a capacity sharing system.

There is potential for the southern basin to make use of these northern innovations (known as “capacity sharing” or “continuous accounting”) to improve transparency and carryover decisions.

Don’t throw the market out with the river water

Governance failures in the water market have led to understandable frustration.

But it is important to remember how vital trading and carryover are in smoothing variations in water prices and making sure water gets where it is needed, especially during droughts.

The ACCC’s final report (due soon) will provide an opportunity to take stock and develop a roadmap for the future.

Water markets will be discussed at Today’s ABARES Outlook 2021 conference in an online panel session at 3-4pm AEDT.

Tags: #Water #markets #perfect #vital #future #MurrayDarling #Basin

Written by Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article by Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Life on the hidden doughnuts of the Great Barrier Reef is also threatened by climate change

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Mention the Great Barrier Reef, and most people think of the rich beauty and colour of corals, fish and other sea life that are increasingly threatened by climate change.

But there is another part of the Great Barrier Reef that until recently was largely hidden and under-explored.

In the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park there are large Halimeda algal habitats called bioherms (also known as doughnuts because of their shape).

They are constructed by a type of algae (Halimeda) with a limestone skeleton. The tops of the bioherms are carpeted by a living meadow of the algae, yet much of the plant community includes other types of green, red and brown algae and some seagrasses.

A type of green seaweed.
Halimeda is a genus of green macroalgae (seaweed).
Mardi McNeil, Author provided

The bioherms cover an area greater than 6,000km², more than twice the area of shallow coral reefs.

Several maps showing the location of the _Halimeda_ bioherms.
The distribution of Halimeda bioherms in the Great Barrier Reef.
Figshare/Mardi McNeil, CC BY

Scientists have known for decades of this unusual inter-reef seafloor habitat that lies between the coast and the outer barrier reefs. But they’ve never investigated the diversity of marine life that lives there, until now.

In a new study published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists examined the community of plants and animals that inhabit these unique areas.

Let’s go deeper

Most studies of tropical marine biodiversity come from shallow coastal and coral reef habitats. We know a great deal about the biodiversity of these parts of the Great Barrier Reef.

But beyond the vision of scuba divers, deeper inter-reef habitats on the shelf, such as the bioherms, have been largely under-explored.

Read more:
Gene editing is revealing how corals respond to warming waters. It could transform how we manage our reefs

In our study, we used a dataset of all the plants and animals recorded from the bioherms and surrounding seafloor habitats. The data came from the Seabed Biodiversity Project, a large study published back in 2007 of the inter-reef biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

What we found was surprising. An exceptional diversity of marine life and a distinct community was found to be living on the bioherms.

A diverse community

The biodiversity of marine life was up to 76% higher on the bioherms than the surrounding inter-reef habitats. Species richness was especially high for plants and invertebrates.

The average number of fish species per site was about the same in both Halimeda and non-Halimeda habitats. In total, 265 species of fish were observed in the bioherms, including sharks and rays.

Overall, more than 1,200 species of animals were recorded from the bioherms. The majority of these (78%) are invertebrates.

A feather star invertebrate.
Most of the animals living on the Halimeda bioherms are invertebrates, such as this feather star.
Mardi McNeil, Author provided

A distinct community

The composition of plant and animal communities on the bioherms was also distinctly different to the surrounding inter-reef areas.

Some 40% of bioherm species were unique to that habitat in the study area. The community included many sponges, snails and slugs, crabs and shrimps, brittle stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

The fish community on the bioherms was also distinct from surrounding habitats. The two-spot wrasse, threadfin emperor and black-banded damselfish were particularly common.

A small black fish with a yellow tail and a white band near its neck.
A yellowtail angelfish (Chaetodontoplus meredithi) seen in coral waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
Sascha Schultz/, CC BY-NC

Most interesting about the bioherm fish community was the occurrence of some species such as the yellowtail angelfish generally thought to live mostly on coral reefs. Some of these reef-associated fishes have been increasingly observed in a range of non-reef habitats.

These multi-habitat users may be using the bioherms for shelter, feeding, spawning or as nursery grounds. Understanding the connections between shallow coral reefs and deeper bioherms is important to better understand how the reef and inter-reef habitats function.

An unusual habitat

The Halimeda bioherms are arguably the weirdest habitat in the Great Barrier Reef.

Recent high-resolution seafloor mapping using airborne lasers revealed the bioherms form a seafloor that looks like fields of giant doughnuts 20 metres high and 200 metres across.

The doughnuts are the connected circles on the seafloor in the yellow/green bioherm part. They look quite small but each circle is about 200 metres across.

The tops of the bioherms lie some 25-30 metres below the surface, so can’t be seen from boats passing over.

Deeper water and the remote location has meant the bioherms have been mostly invisible to marine biologists that work on the nearby shallow coral reefs.

Under threat from climate change

We are only just beginning to understand the importance of Halimeda bioherms as a habitat to support biodiversity in the Great Barrier Reef.

But just as the rest of the Great Barrier Reef is likely to be impacted by the effects of climate change, so too are the bioherms.

Potential threats to the bioherms include marine heating, ocean acidification and changes to circulation patterns.

Read more:
Under the moonlight: a little light and shade helps larval fish to grow at night

It has been more than 15 years since the inter-reef Seabed Biodiversity Project. The five-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report says little is known about any ecological trends in the bioherm habitat.

Our new study provides a baseline of the biodiversity of Halimeda bioherms at a single point in time. But questions remain about the present state of this ecosystem and its resilience on short and long-term physical and biological cycles.

Long-term monitoring of these unique and hidden habitats is critical to more fully understand the overall health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Tags: #Life #hidden #doughnuts #Great #Barrier #Reef #threatened #climate #change

Written by Mardi McNeil, Postdoctoral researcher, Queensland University of Technology

This article by Mardi McNeil, Postdoctoral researcher, Queensland University of Technology, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

legal experts weigh in on ‘disturbing’ technology

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It was recently revealed that in 2017 Microsoft patented a chatbot which, if built, would digitally resurrect the dead. Using AI and machine learning, the proposed chatbot would bring our digital persona back to life for our family and friends to talk to. When pressed on the technology, Microsoft representatives admitted that the chatbot was “disturbing”, and that there were currently no plans to put it into production.

Still, it appears that the technical tools and personal data are in place to make digital reincarnations possible. AI chatbots have already passed the “Turing Test”, which means they’ve fooled other humans into thinking they’re human, too. Meanwhile, most people in the modern world now leave behind enough data to teach AI programmes about our conversational idiosyncrasies. Convincing digital doubles may be just around the corner.

But there are currently no laws governing digital reincarnation. Your right to data privacy after your death is far from set in stone, and there is currently no way for you to opt out of being digitally resurrected. This legal ambiguity leaves room for private companies to make chatbots out of your data after you’re dead.

Our research has looked at the surprisingly complex legal question of what happens to your data after you die. At present, and in the absence of specific legislation, it’s unclear who might have the ultimate power to reboot your digital persona after your physical body has been put to rest.

A woman lying in bed looking at a lit-up phone screen on a pillow
Be Right Back, an episode of the Black Mirror TV series, featured a woman addicted to a chatbot representation of her dead partner.

Microsoft’s chatbot would use your electronic messages to create a digital reincarnation in your likeness after you pass away. Such a chatbot would use machine learning to respond to text messages just as you would have when you were alive. If you happen to leave behind rich voice data, that too could be used to create your vocal likeness – someone your relatives could speak with, through a phone or a humanoid robot.

Microsoft isn’t the only company to have shown an interest in digital resurrection. The AI company Eternime has built an AI-enabled chatbot which harvests information – including geolocation, motion, activity, photos, and Facebook data – which lets users create an avatar of themselves to live on after they die. It may be only a matter of time until families have the choice to reanimate dead relatives using AI technologies such as Eternime’s.

Read more:
Bereaved who take comfort in digital messages from dead loved ones live in fear of losing them

If chatbots and holograms from beyond the grave are set to become commonplace, we’ll need to draw up new laws to govern them. After all, it looks like a violation of the right to privacy to digitally resurrect someone whose body lies beneath a tombstone reading “rest in peace”.

Bodies in binary

National laws are inconsistent on how your data is used after your death. In the EU, the law on data privacy only protects the rights of the living. That leaves room for member states to decide how to protect the data of the dead. Some, such as Estonia, France, Italy and Latvia, have legislated on postmortem data. The UK’s data protection laws have not.

To further complicate matters, our data is mostly controlled by private online platforms such as Facebook and Google. This control is based on the terms of service that we sign up to when we create profiles on these platforms. Those terms fiercely protect the privacy of the dead.

For example, in 2005, Yahoo! refused to provide email account login details for the surviving family of a US marine killed in Iraq. The company argued that their terms of service were designed to protect the marine’s privacy. A judge eventually ordered the company to provide the family with a CD containing copies of the emails, setting a legal precedent in the process.

Read more:
People are going to court over dead family members’ Facebook pages – it’s time for post-mortem privacy

A few initiatives, such as Google’s Inactive Account Manager and Facebook’s Legacy Contact, have attempted to address the postmortem data issue. They allow living users to make some decisions on what happens to their data assets after they die, helping to avoid ugly court battles over dead people’s data in the future. But these measures are no substitute for laws.

One route to better postmortem data legislation is to follow the example of organ donation. The UK’s “opt out” organ donation law is particularly relevant, as it treats the organs of the dead as donated unless that person specified otherwise when they were alive. The same opt out scheme could be applied to postmortem data.

This model could help us respect the privacy of the dead and the wishes of their heirs, all while considering the benefits that could arise from donated data: that data donors could help save lives just as organ donors do.

In the future, private companies may offer family members an agonising choice: abandon your loved one to death, or instead pay to have them digitally revived. Microsoft’s chatbot may at present be too disturbing to countenance, but it’s an example of what’s to come. It’s time we wrote the laws to govern this technology.

Tags: #legal #experts #weigh #disturbing #technology

Written by Edina Harbinja, Senior Lecturer in Media/Privacy Law, Aston University

This article by Edina Harbinja, Senior Lecturer in Media/Privacy Law, Aston University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

What’s really driving coal power’s demise?

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The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

People often point to plunging natural gas prices as the reason U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shutting down at a faster pace in recent years. However, new research shows two other forces had a much larger effect: federal regulation and a well-funded activist campaign that launched in 2011 with the goal of ending coal power.

We studied the retirement of U.S. coal-fired units from January 2008 to September 2016 and compared the effects of various market factors, regulations and activism on their early closure. In all, 348 coal-fired units either retired or switched to natural gas during that time.

Among the many pressures on coal power that we reviewed, a federal regulation implemented in 2015 had the biggest overall effect. The Cross State Air Pollution Rule requires states to reduce soot and smog pollution that blows across states lines, including from power plants. We estimate that it was responsible for reducing the expected production life of the coal power units that it affected by a total of 1,170 years.

Looking at coal units individually, however, we found that the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, backed by over US$174 million to date from Bloomberg Philanthropies, had the most impact per targeted plant.

The campaign works by generating public pressure on utilities and state and local politicians to close down coal-fired units, often through targeted lawsuits. When the Beyond Coal campaign targeted a coal-fired unit, we found that the unit’s life expectancy, normally 50-60 years, was reduced by an average of just over two years.

The Cross State Air Pollution Rule was the second-biggest factor per individual plant, though it affected more plants. It reduced the expected life span of each coal-fired generating unit that it affected by an estimated average of about 21 months.

We were surprised to find that neither low natural gas prices nor the adoption of renewable energy significantly reduced the life of coal units. Both have been widely touted by politicians and business leaders as the market-based drivers of coal plant retirement.

Chart of the changing costs of coal and gas
Falling natural gas prices had little impact on coal-fired power plant closures.
David Drake and Jeffrey York, CC BY-ND

However, while adoption of renewable energy alone did not reduce coal units’ life spans, the average use of each source of renewable energy in an area did have a significant impact. Coal units operating in regions with high average renewable energy use retired an average of 15 months earlier.

It is important to note that a large number of coal plants were already nearing the end of their lifecycles during this period. But through statistical modeling, we were able to isolate the impact of each of these interventions on accelerating the retirement of a given unit.

Why it matters

A rapid transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources such as coal is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. Burning coal releases nearly twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced as natural gas does, and natural gas’s contribution to global warming is significant.

From 2011 through 2018, coal-fired generating capacity in the U.S. contracted by 23%. We estimate that the emissions impact of the accelerated retirements we studied was equivalent to taking 38 million typical passenger cars off the road.

The common narrative has been that market forces and economics have driven the demise of coal. However, our research suggests that a continued focus on federal policy is a more effective route for reducing emissions.

The Biden administration has already halted new leases for coal, oil and gas extraction on federal lands. And its climate task force – which includes the Cabinet-level department and agency heads – met in February to start coordinating governmentwide climate change solutions. Those likely will include new regulations and could include a price on carbon.

What’s next

Our current work sheds light on where responsibility lies for the acceleration of coal-fired power unit retirements through late 2016.

Next, we are interested in expanding on our findings about differences between renewable energy use and initial adoption. Understanding how to increase use of renewable sources, while creating new businesses and jobs, is a critical research agenda for addressing climate change.

Tags: #Whats #driving #coal #powers #demise

Written by David Drake, Assistant Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Operations Management, University of Colorado Boulder

This article by David Drake, Assistant Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Operations Management, University of Colorado Boulder, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Why do flowers smell?

How do geese know how to fly south for the winter?

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Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to [email protected].

Why do flowers smell? – Henry E., Age 9, Somerville, Massachusetts

Imagine walking through a tropical forest as a sweet scent wafts through the air. A little farther down the path, the putrid stench of rotting flesh makes you catch your breath. Upon investigation, you find that both odors originate from flowers – but why do flowers smell like anything at all?

It’s actually part of a strategy that helps flowering plants reproduce themselves and spread their species. Certain scents help these flowers solve a big problem.

Plants flower to produce seeds that can go on to become new plants. To make a viable seed, pollen from one part of the flower must fertilize the ovules in another part of the flower. Some plants can self-pollinate, using their own pollen to fertilize the ovule. Others require pollen from another plant of the same species – that’s called cross-pollination.

So how does one plant get some other individual plant’s pollen where it needs to be?

Sometimes gravity helps pollen fall into place. Sometimes wind carries it. Wind-pollinated flowers, like those of many trees and grasses, don’t produce a scent.

Bee transfers pollen from one blossom to another
Animal pollinators can carry pollen from one flower’s stigma to another flower’s ovule as they forage for food.
ttsz/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Other flowers are pollinated by birds, bats, insects or even small rodents carrying the pollen from one flower to another. In these cases, the flowers might provide a little incentive. Animal pollinators are rewarded by sweet energy- and nutrient-rich nectar or protein-packed pollen they can eat.

Flowers that need the help of insects and bats go one step further, producing a floral scent that acts as a smelly kind of welcome sign for just the right pollinator.

An orchid blooming in the tropical forest or a rose in your garden needs to attract a pollinator to bring pollen from flowers of the same species. However, there are flowers which look similar but are from other species. To differentiate itself from other flowers, each species’ flowers puts out a unique scent to attract specific pollinators.

Similar to the perfumes at a department store counter, flower scents are made up from a large and diverse number of chemicals which evaporate easily and float through the air. The type of chemical, its amount and its interaction with other chemicals give the flower its unique scent. The scent of a rose may consist of as many as 400 different chemicals.

People can smell these floral scents because they easily evaporate from the flower, drifting on the air currents to attract pollinators.

corpse flower blossom in a greenhouse
The giant corpse flower has a very stinky scent that its pollinators love.
Photography by Mangiwau/Moment via Getty Images

Flower fragrances may be sweet and fruity, or they can be musky, even stinky or putrid depending on the pollinator they are trying to attract. A blooming apple or cherry tree emits a sweet scent to attract bumblebees, honeybees and other bees. But stick your nose into the beautiful flowers of a pear tree – a close relative of apples and cherries – and you may recoil in disgust, as these flowers smell musky or putrid to attract flies as pollinators. Similarly, the corpse flower, native to Indonesian rainforests, emits a foul odor reminiscent of rotting flesh to attract flies and beetles to pollinate its flowers.

Moths and bats flying at night locate flowers by the scent some release after the Sun goes down. The night-blooming cereus, the saguaro cactus and the dragon fruit all have large white flowers which open at night – they seem to glow in the moonlight, making them visible to nocturnal visitors. Their strong perfume helps guide pollinators inside. While drinking the sweet nectar, the pollinator picks up pollen which it then deposits in the next flower visited.

Once pollinated, the flower stops producing a floral scent and nectar and redirects its energy to the fertilized embryo that will become the seed.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to [email protected]. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best.

Tags: #flowers #smell

Written by Richard L. Harkess, Professor of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture, Mississippi State University

This article by Richard L. Harkess, Professor of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture, Mississippi State University, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).

Businesses say they want to tackle inequalities but they need more data to take action

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COVID-19 has brought challenges like no other for businesses. In the UK, where firms have also had to deal with the challenges of Brexit, the resilience and adaptability amid such adversity has been remarkable. But there has also been recognition of opportunities for change in the longer term. One area of which is the role of businesses in tackling social inequalities.

With a lot of attention given to the shape and make-up of company boards, both over a lack of gender and ethnic diversity, there has been much debate about diversity measures in business. In February it was reported that the number of black people at the top of Britain’s biggest listed companies had fallen to zero, despite public commitments to increase diversity in leadership. The Investors Association also said they will issue warnings to firms if they do not disclose the ethnic diversity of their boards or have a credible action plan to address the issue.

While such actions are incredibly important, structural inequalities span wider than diversity initiatives and action is needed beyond merely the upper echelons of business.

In a recent survey of 200 companies across London that we conducted with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), we found a clear desire among business leaders of all sizes and sectors to engage with this issue of inequalities – more than 80% said that the capital’s business community can do more.

Despite the current challenging business environment, 75% of respondents said tackling inequalities in society over the next six to 12 months is important to their business. And one in five reported this to be an “extremely important” business priority. As a collective, the business community appears to clearly recognise the need for action to ensure an equitable and inclusive recovery from COVID-19.

The problems involved are also clear. The gender pay gap in hourly pay across the capital is still 17.5% and on the rise. For disability, there is a difference of 15% between disabled and non-disabled workers in London. And in our survey, only 9% of firms reported that they collect data on their disability pay gap – the lowest percentage of all answers given. A greater proportion of firms recorded employee education (19%) and the community engagement of employees (12%).

Similarly, while over a fifth of London business leaders stated their firms are tracking their ethnicity pay gap, this still lags significantly behind work on gender reporting.

Black business woman fills out survey on computer
Ethnicity pay gap lags behind gender, but many employees will intersect.

Yet at an individual business level, analysis of findings from the survey shows that gender equality receives more attention than action on other protected characteristics, such as disability and ethnicity. This is causing a hierarchy of inequalities to persist within the labour market. While a significant majority of firms (both large and small) stated they had continued to report on their gender pay gap despite not being legally required to in 2020 because of the pandemic, reporting on other protected characteristics remains very low.

Read more:
COVID is changing the way we work – and for disabled people too

Greater data collection, conducted in discussion with employees and grounded in employee experiences, can guide actions to reduce inequalities and foster inclusion in employment. And businesses themselves recognise this.

When asked what the most effective and practical ways for business to measure improvements in diversity, inclusion and equality were, 43% of respondents stated greater data collection. Strikingly, this figure rose to 73% for respondents from larger firms. Yet despite this high level of support for greater collection, of the same respondents, only 43% recorded that they currently report ethnicity pay gaps.

Taking action

It is not enough, however, to focus on measuring inequalities alone, we also need to make sure these inequalities are meaningfully addressed. Avoiding creating (or, indeed, cementing) hierarchies of inequalities or prioritising action to tackle one area of inequity over another is critical.

Businesses should look across the board at the whole range of inequalities they need to tackle, not just focus action on gender or ethnicity for example. And they need to look at what inequalities exist in their own businesses as well as reaching out to understand how wider structural inequalities in society affects business. As an individual’s job is more than merely counting hours and collecting a salary, it affects every aspect of lives, from health to housing.

These findings show the need for businesses to undertake analysis of how these characteristics and data groups overlap – taking into account how people’s outcomes are simultaneously affected by multiple factors such as gender, disability and ethnicity.

Assessing and comparing data so that we avoid focus being placed on one area alone is urgently needed. Looking at social inequalities, at people’s lives as a whole, their many characteristics and the multiple, interlinked and stacked disadvantages they face, it is essential for firms to identify patterns of intersecting inequalities and build action to address different outcomes.

Despite the immense challenges businesses have faced over the past 18 months, the survey responses clearly demonstrate that the business community is up for the challenge. In short, it’s not just about getting things going again. It’s about capitalising on this opportunity to rethink and recognise the role of business in building a more equitable society.

Tags: #Businesses #tackle #inequalities #data #action

Written by Siobhan Morris, Head of Programmes, Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality, UCL

This article by Siobhan Morris, Head of Programmes, Grand Challenge of Justice and Equality, UCL, originally published on The Conversation is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0 International(CC BY-ND 4.0).