Daily Archives: August 8, 2016

The summer when working in a British university lost its global appeal

The last few months have clearly been trying on the nerves and confidence of many academics working in Britain. The vote for Brexit has reverberated through the ivory towers and off the red-brick walls of British universities. In the middle of this unease then came a set of new recommendations by Lord Nicholas Stern proposing changes to the way the quality of research is assessed in the UK.

Writing as a migrant working within UK academia, I believe the events of this summer will make the UK increasingly financially uncompetitive in the global marketplace � and an ever more unattractive destination for academics in many fields.

In the wake of the UK’s vote for Brexit, there has been much debate about the impact on universities. There are fears it will mean less EU research funding, fewer EU students at all levels, less cooperation between UK and EU institutions and increased costs in recruiting and retaining both staff and students.

Within my own university there are already examples of individuals being asked to step aside from EU research grant proposal teams. This is due to fear of bias from reviewers rather than any retribution from the EU itself, which is on record as saying it will consider all proposals as in the past. Scholars from the EU who had been offered jobs in the UK have had them turned down since the vote because of uncertainty about immigration issues. In one case I know of, the academic from another country in the EU had accepted a position before the vote, only to change their mind after the vote.

Uncompetitive salaries

The indirect impact of the Brexit vote on exchange rates � and so the global competitiveness of salaries � is probably one of the least discussed areas. It has been documented that UK academic salaries in most disciplines are significantly below those paid in North America and Australia.

In my field, business and management, the UK’s standard salary scales range from about 50% (of US salaries) at the lower end of scale for lecturers in management, strategy or human resources � to about 75% (of US salaries) at the upper end of the scale for professors in finance and accounting. With the fall in the exchange rate of about 14% against the Australian and US dollars, these discounts are even larger. One of my US colleagues used to call the UK system the Walmart of academia; after Brexit it is more like Poundland.

What has held the system in the UK in place (at least at business schools) is that while UK institutions were uncompetitive against the major institutions in countries such as the US, they were competitive with many institutions in Europe, particularly schools in the east and south of the continent. In my own institution, Leeds University Business School, about half the faculty are foreign, with Greeks the dominant EU source for scholars in the business school. In my specific department, 90% of the staff were born outside the UK, with staff from the US, Greece, Ireland, China, India, Poland, Finland, Italy and Romania.

My point is that a system already barely financially competitive against the best in the world has still been able to play in the global game as long as it has because of its openness to foreign labour. While we still desire to be open to all, the cost of that openness may soon be prohibitively high.

Stay where you are

Into this new uncertainty has come the Stern review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the process through which the quality of research is assessed. In particular, one proposal for the next REF � expected in 2020 or 2021 � could have an effect on the competitiveness of the UK marketplace for attracting academics: the idea that only research done at an academic’s current institution can be used in that university’s submission to the REF.

The goal is to stop universities recruiting new staff just before they submit to the REF � something Stern says has costs for recruitment and retention in UK universities. But what he proposes is to replace rent-seeking by individuals with rent-seeking by institutions, effectively shackling academics to their current employer and encouraging those who have effective scholarly records to capitalise on those records overseas rather than in the UK.

I will admit, in the spirit of open disclosure, that I was a REFugee, recruited into what the University of Leeds called a university leadership chair. I arrived right before the REF census date. According to the logic of Stern, I was engaging in blatant rent-seeking � but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, I took a slight pay cut to move to the UK (which is now a much larger pay cut given Brexit) and the only reason I moved was that Leeds was willing to accommodate my rent-seeking by paying me something closer to my global market worth rather than the Walmart-UK discounted salary dictated by the salary scales.

Stern’s logic on the portability of research outputs is flawed on a number of dimensions, not least because the time taken to publish research varies enormously between fields. In my field, the time between submission of a manuscript and its ultimate publication ranges from three to five years, with a typical paper having to go through three rounds of reviews. So an academic may find themselves stuck at their institution for a period of indenture that can amount to five years or more. No school will hire them away since they lack REF value � and given Stern’s proposal that all staff will be assessed in the process, newcomers may impose a real burden on staff already at the institution, no matter how solid their record up to that point.

Taken together, Brexit and the impact of Stern’s recommendations, mean scholars may well rethink whether the UK is the environment where they can most effectively build and enhance their intellectual and professional capital while ensuring that they are paid consistent with the value of human capital. While this may take time to materialise, the UK may find itself facing a serious shortage of talented academics as more and more look elsewhere to start a career.

Source: The Conversation

Zambia’s 2016 elections: democracy hovering on the precipice

When Rupiah Banda conceded defeat to Michael Sata in Zambia’s 2011 elections, many commentators hailed the peaceful transfer of power as a sign that the country’s democracy had matured. Twenty years after ousting the United National Independence Party (UNIP) in the historic 1991 multi-party elections, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) lost to Sata’s urban-based and populist Patriotic Front (PF).

Five years later, the country is preparing to go to the polls again on August 11 to vote on a president, parliamentarians, mayors and a referendum on the Bill of Rights. This time, the entire party system is in flux and electoral violence has been worryingly frequent and extreme. As a consequence, Zambia’s democratic credentials are increasingly in doubt.

The 2016 elections therefore represent a critical point in Zambia’s political history. They could herald a complete rupture of the existing party system and a worrying slide towards a competitive authoritarian regime. But they could also simply reflect a minor detour on the country’s road towards democratic consolidation.

The latter scenario has not been uncommon in Zambia’s history. After the end of Kenneth Kaunda’s almost 30-year presidency (1964-1991), the initial euphoria surrounding the MMD’s victory was squandered by President Frederick Chiluba. The mid-1990s were characterised by increased repression of the opposition and political rights, culminating in 2001 with Chiluba’s failed attempt to change the constitution to run for a third term in office. Although his MMD successor, Levy Mwanawasa, ultimately won the 2001 elections, albeit by very low margins, that period represented a critical juncture in the country’s party system. Defections of disillusioned MMD politicians resulted in the creation of key political parties, including the United Party for National Development (UPND) and the PF.

Today, much is at stake for Zambian citizens who have seen four elections in less than ten years due to two presidential deaths in 2008 and 2014. Whoever wins, most Zambians will be just looking forward to a president who can serve out the five year term and proceed with the business of governing and delivering services rather than divisive campaigning.

Unexpected trajectory

Zambia’s current unexpected trajectory can be traced to the death of Sata in October 2014. This led the PF to descend into a tumultuous succession battle between two factions. One, labelled the Cartel, included long-time PF stalwarts who helped build the party. They included Sata’s vice president, Guy Scott, former party general secretary Wynter Kabimba, former party spokesperson George Challah and the editor-in-chief of The Post newspaper, Fred M’membe.

In the second group were those who became increasingly close to Sata during his period of illness. They included former defence minister Edgar Lungu and finance minister Alexander Chikwanda. Ultimately, Lungu was selected by the party to contest the January 2015 elections and is again the PF’s candidate this year.

Lungu’s most significant opposition opponent is Hakainde Hichilema. The leader of the UPND is poised to contest the elections for the fifth time. Seven additional parties were registered in time to field presidential candidates. Amazingly, this is the first time in more than 20 years that the MMD will not be competing for president. This is due to squabbles between two politicians, Nevers Mumba and Felix Mutati, over who legitimately leads the party.

The PF will be hoping to win over voters by emphasising its large-scale road construction and rehabilitation projects. The party can as well point to the fact that it oversaw the passing of a much demanded new constitution earlier this year. The latter is an achievement that long eluded the MMD.

At the same time, it will be hoping to sidestep scrutiny of its management of the economy. This has been marked by persistent power shortages and worryingly high debt levels. While Zambia’s elections are usually held in September or October, they were moved earlier this year ahead of an anticipated deal with the International Monetary Fund. Any ensuing austerity would be felt after the elections.

Unequal playing field

However, the ruling party is not leaving anything to chance and has brazenly created an unequal playing field for its opponents. The only genuine opposition newspaper, The Post, was shut down in June. The newspaper had been instrumental in Sata’s rise but became increasingly anti-PF when the party entered office. Its closure was ostensibly over unpaid taxes but many have pointed out that pro-government newspapers were also in arrears but continued to operate.

Despite more competitive bids from South African companies, the Electoral Commission for Zambia (ECZ) chose a Dubai-based firm to print the election ballots. This has led to speculation over potential vote rigging. Moreover, attempts by the UPND to campaign have been repeatedly blocked, both through the courts and with the use of PF cadres.

Indeed, electoral violence has been worryingly high this year compared with past elections. Based on media reports recorded by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, there have been more than 50 incidents of electoral violence in Zambia between January and July 2016. Many resulted in severe injuries or the death of party supporters. The violence became so extreme that the electoral commission suspended campaigning in Lusaka for 10 days and President Lungu called for a national day of prayer on July 25 for peaceful elections.

Why the violence has spiked

Why have these elections been particularly violent? One reason is the significant new constitutional requirement for the winning presidential contender to win by an absolute, not just a simple, majority. In 2015, Lungu beat Hichilema with less than two percent of the vote � 48% against 46.6%. Since then, mine closures in the populous and traditional PF-stronghold of the Copperbelt have undermined confidence in the ruling party and may generate enough swing voters to give Hichilema the majority that he needs.

Secondly, Sata’s leadership style contributed to a high level of PF infighting and suspicion, with many defections as result. Sata’s populism resonated with the poor and underprivileged and contributed to his victory in 2011. But like populist leaders elsewhere, he built the party around his personal image and marginalised anyone seen to disagree with him or prove a potential successor.

He also manipulated the rules for the PF’s gain. Notable examples included the enticement of opposition MPs, especially those from the crumbling MMD, to defect to the PF to help secure the party a parliamentary majority. He also used the Public Order Act to prevent the opposition from holding rallies or meetings.

In the year since Lungu’s election, a number of prominent PF politicians have joined the UPND. These include Guy Scott, Sata’s son and wife, and another former PF minister, Geoffrey Mwamba, who is now Hichilema’s running mate. This makes the UPND not just a formidable opposition competitor but also the refuge for those who posed a threat to Lungu’s faction within the PF and who fuelled Sata’s paranoia about potential successors.

If history is anything to go by, the current political tumult will subside after the elections and result in a new configuration of political parties. And if some key provisions in the new constitution are indeed upheld, including preventing sitting MPs from switching party affiliations without losing their seats, then Zambia’s repeated pattern of democratic backsliding and party fissures may hopefully become less pronounced over time.

Source: The Conversation

Brazil’s sewage woes reflect the growing global water quality crisis

All eyes are turned toward Rio de Janeiro to watch top athletes from all over the world compete. Yet the headlines continue to highlight the problems with the water quality and the risks to the athletes who swim, row and sail, and even to tourists simply visiting the beaches.

Large concentrations of disease-causing viruses have been found in the aquatic venues, particularly in the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic rowing will take place, and the Gloria Marina, the starting point for the sailing races. These viruses � adenoviruses, rotaviruses and noroviruses � are coming from human fecal wastes, untreated and/or inadequately treated sewage, and cause a variety of health problems, ranging from milder symptoms such as headache, respiratory infection or diarrhea to severe illness impacting the heart, liver and central nervous system.

But Brazil’s wastewater woes are hardly unique. The water quality of lakes, rivers and coastal shorelines around the world is degrading at an alarming rate. In fact, pollution of the 10 largest rivers on earth is so significant that it affects five billion people.

One of the root problems in Rio and other places is how water quality is tested. Monitoring for a broader set of viruses and other microbes in water would be a big step in improving public health.

Beyond e.coli testing

Human fecal waste remains one of the most important sources of pathogens. Today, water quality is most often measured by testing for E.coli bacteria, and this is the standard used around the world. But we have better ways to identify the microbes that cause problems when pollution, such as sewage, is released in our rivers, lakes and shorelines.

In my own research, my colleagues and I have tested for the presence of an alternative virus (known as the coliphage) as an inexpensive indicator for evaluating sewage treatment. We also use a whole variety of other tests which allow us to monitor for specific pathogens including viruses.

Our analysis and others suggest we should be striving at a minimum for 99.9 percent reduction of viruses by the variety of sewage treatment designs. If we rely on testing only for E.coli bacteria, we won’t be able to remove viruses.

Testing for a broader set of microbes makes it easier to diagnose what the source of pollutants are. For example, these microbial source tracking tools allow one to trace the pollution back to humans, cattle or pigs. We have used these tests throughout the U.S. and Europe, and they are now being used in resource-poor areas including Africa and South America. While these methods are not routine and are slightly more expensive, the results provide valuable information that allows one to better remediate water quality problems.

Studies on how frequently pathogens occur can then be connected back to the sources, with recommendations on treatment in order to reverse pollution trends. Incentives can be used to enhance best management practices such as preventing runoff from farms, composting to reduce pathogens in manure and improved disinfection of wastewater to kill off viruses.

Moving targets

Globally, the challenge of implementing new tests and treatments is immense. In the last 60 years we have seen a great acceleration of population growth, and this, in combination with lack of sewage treatment and failing infrastructure, has caused a continual degradation of water quality, as demonstrated by increasing toxic algal blooms and fecal contamination that cause microbial hazards. Indeed, one of the United Nations’ Development Goals is access to improved sanitation facilities.

In international rankings, Brazil went from 67 percent to 83 percent access (1990 to 2015) for access to sanitation. Yet progress varies geographically across the states in Brazil. While rural areas may have on-site water treatment systems and urban areas are collecting wastewater, government reports show only 14 percent to 46 percent of the sewage generated in Brazil is treated.

Around the world, the regulations governing water quality for recreation are in urgent need of revisions in part because of the growing array of pathogens in wastewater.

Sewage contains well over 100 different viruses (adenoviruses, astroviruses, coxsackieviruses, enteroviruses, noroviruses and rotaviruses) among other pathogens like the enteric protozoa (Cryptosporidium). Newly emerging viruses such as Cycloviruses, which are causing neurological problems in children in Asia, are also showing up in sewage. Thus, the detection of these large concentrations of adenoviruses such as was found in Brazil is likely the tip of the iceberg.

It must be said clearly that the E.coli test simply does not work for viruses, and we must evaluate whether sewage treatment is properly removing viruses. While the World Health Organization, the U.S. EPA, the EU and the scientific community have known about the deficiencies of the E.coli indicator system for decades, little has been done to address this. Monitoring costs, lack of development of standard methods and no focus on a water diagnostic strategy are among the reasons for this lack of advancement.

Yet to my knowledge, many government agencies and even large nonprofits such as the Gates Foundation are not aware of these limitations. The E.coli approach alone cannot help resolve the questions that need to be answered to improve sanitation, sewage treatment and water reuse while protecting important aquatic ecosystem services.

Different paths of contact

New molecular tests can detect both live and dead viruses. Adenoviruses, for example, have been found in raw sewage around the world. If adequate treatment and disinfection are used, this contamination can be reduced to nondetectable levels.

The numbers of adenoviruses found in Rio were reported from 26 million to 1.8 billion per liter, which is essentially the level found in untreated sewage. It is not known how many viruses were alive but 90 percent of the samples did contain some level of live viruses.

Adenoviruses have been found in U.S. waters as well, posing a threat to public health. Our studies in Chicago found 65 percent of the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS) which receives treated wastewater tested positive for adenoviruses, with average concentrations of 2,600 viruses per liter in the canals and about 110 viruses per liter on the beaches. These data indicate some die-off as viruses move toward the beach, but some remain alive and would be able to cause disease. About 4 percent of the people using these waters for boating and fishing became sick. The presence of these viruses and the subsequent illnesses indicate the need for greater testing and treatment.

Around the world, those who swim in and boat on or use polluted surface waters for hygienic purposes such as bathing, cleaning clothes, washing dishes or even for religious purposes are all at risk of diarrhea, respiratory disease, skin, eye, ear and nose infections. This is the sad state of affairs and the reality for many people throughout the world. This does not even account for the risks associated with irrigation of food crops or use of the water for animals and drinking water.

While the spotlight is shining on the athletes over the next few weeks, let us also shine a spotlight on what we can do to improve and restore water quality around the world through our collective efforts, use of new tools and risk frameworks, moving the political will one step closer toward sewage treatment and protection of the biohealth of the blue planet.

Source: The Conversation