Category Archives: Policy

Showcasing the importance of Sport and Exercise Science

By Jamie McPhee, Manchester Metropolitan University, @McpheeJS

As a physiologist and a Sport & Exercise Scientist, I am always keen to be involved in opportunities to showcase the importance of Sport and Exercise Science (SES) and the exciting, important research taking place. That’s why it has been a real pleasure to work with The Physiological Society’s staff, GuildHE and SES departments across the UK to develop the Sport & Exercise Science Education: Impact on the UK Economy report that is being launched by the Shadow Minister for Higher Education in Parliament today.

The report can be broadly categorised into two parts; a quantitative section and qualitative case studies. The quantitative section combines data compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and data on student numbers and demographics provided by UK universities and colleges. It is on this information that the report’s headlines are based – SES students currently employed in the workforce contribute £3.9 billion per annum in added income to the UK’s economy. They also contribute an additional £1.4 billion to the public purse over their working lives. In addition, the qualitative case studies provide insight into how this economic impact is translated into improved health and well-being at an individual and public health level, as well as recreational and elite level sports boosting local economies and providing greater job opportunities. Indeed, the data suggests that SES courses make a financial contribution to the UK economy equivalent to over 147,300 jobs.

Physiology is at the heart of the new testing methods and data we are using at Manchester Metropolitan University, in concert with our colleagues at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, to better understand impairments affecting para-swimming competitors. By quantifying how different kinds of conditions and impairments affect technique, efficiency, drag, and power in competitive swimming, our research has created better definitions for the competitive classes in para-swimming.

The proposed revisions, including the use of 3D kinematic data and other forms of testing, offer an evidence-based classification currently being tested and evaluated by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to ensure that the IPC Classifications are kept up-to-date by the most accurate and rigorous science available in time for the Paralympic Games, hosted by Paris in 2024.

In addition to the work taking place at MMU, this project showcases case studies from other universities and colleges in this project offering SES courses, all of which can be read in the report http://www.physoc.org/sportscience. I hope that colleagues in the field will find the report’s conclusions useful in continuing to champion the economic and social benefits of SES in the UK.

Sport and Exercise Science is at the heart of tackling global challenges

By Professor Bridget Lumb, President, The Physiological Society and Professor Karen Stanton, York St John Vice-Chancellor, Vice-Chair, GuildHE

If you’re a Tottenham or Liverpool fan still rejoicing from last week’s Champion League triumphs, we don’t need to explain the power and excitement of sport. Those miraculous, edge-of-the-seat turnarounds may have only come to fruition in the final minutes of the matches, but are the result of countless hours of preparation and training by the players on the pitch. This work rests on an army of sports scientists, focused on improving performance and preventing injury. Our continued improved scientific understanding of how the body works is on display every time an athlete pushes themselves that little bit further, or runs that little bit faster.

The importance of Sports and Exercise Science extends far beyond elite athletes. Obesity, diabetes, cancer, depression: all areas in which Sport and Exercise science research is playing a pivotal role in improving the health of everyone. Research in these areas is preventing and treating conditions and diseases that cost the NHS billions every year and are becoming ever more important as we face the challenges of an ageing population.

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Sport and Exercise Science is a vital scientific discipline that plays an important role in the health and wealth of the nation. And yet too often it faces an image problem that does not match the reality. That is why The Physiological Society and GuildHE have come together to launch a major new report looking at the economic benefit of Sport and Exercise Science. The findings are clear: as well as being academically rigorous, Sport and Exercise Science courses provide enormous contributions to the UK economy – to the tune of almost £4 billion every year, supporting almost 150,000 jobs.

As well as benefiting the nation, individual students benefit financially, with graduates earning nearly £670,000 more over the course of their careers. For every £1 a student spends on their education, they get gain £5.50, which is a tremendous return on investment. The report also provides a snapshot as to how related research in Sport and Exercise Science addresses a variety of national challenges.

More than just a degree

Our project also highlights the exciting range of ways this research addresses a variety of national challenges.  At York St John University, as a core part of their studies, students volunteer their time with sports clubs, sport and exercise therapy clinics and smaller businesses, providing valuable support to organisations that would otherwise be unable to afford it at the same time as developing their own skills. Elsewhere, the University of Portsmouth undertakes research that plays a critical role in the development of new approaches to drowning prevention and water safety education. For example, this research underpins the RNLI’s “Respect the Water” National Water Safety Campaign, informing its “Float First” approach to cold-water survival.

One of the most striking things is just how many universities and colleges of all shapes and sizes are working in this space – our sample covers 30 institutions across Scotland, Wales and England and draws on data from across the UK. There are large institutions, such as the University of Exeter, and others, such as AECC University College in Bournemouth, involved in teaching, research and knowledge exchange in Sport and Exercise Science. It really is a diverse mix that supports and delivers high-quality education.

National importance

Sport and Exercise Science graduates and researchers are working in fields that are becoming increasingly important for the UK. Many graduates go on to work directly in fields related to sport and exercise, such as physiotherapists or coaches, and in turn supporting the sports industry, a major part of the UK’s cultural offer.

Sports and Exercise Science is also improving the quality of life of patients with life threatening diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. For example, Plymouth Marjon works with the NHS and others to help thousands of patients with fibromyalgia and chronic pain lead better lives. Exercise research at Northumbria University is looking at how to improve the duration and quality of life of people with cancer. Work taking place at Liverpool John Moores University is minimising the risk of stair falls, which is the leading cause of accidental death in older people. This week the British Heart Foundation found that the number of people dying from heart and circulatory diseases before they reach their 75th birthday is on the rise for the first time in 50 years, making this research even more important (the full press release can be found here).

Such research is vital as we consider how we address the global challenge of how to age well, and improve the health and welling being of us all. This will become ever more important for the UK as the government seeks to deliver its mission, defined in the Industrial Strategy, to ensure that people can enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life by 2035, while narrowing the gap between the experiences of the richest and poorest. Sport and Exercise Science research is at the heart of tackling these big issues and these courses produce dynamic and engaged graduates that are committed to addressing some of the major challenges facing society.

Forging links between the scientific community and the devolved nations

by Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer

Politics does not only happen in Westminster. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a complex system of internal devolution, with Parliaments or Assemblies in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, as well as London. The Physiological Society is always keen to engage with the devolved administrations to discuss local industries and university research specialities, as well as the impact of their unique local political situation on UK-wide concerns such as the Industrial Strategy. Our policy team has just come back from Edinburgh, where Science and the Parliament 2017 was taking place in the city’s impressive science centre, Dynamic Earth.

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Talks being given at the Welsh Assembly for “Science and the Assembly”

The theme of Science and the Parliament was “Science, Innovation and the Economy”, but of course this was broadened in everyone’s mind to include Brexit. The UK government has claimed that science, technology, and innovation will be at the heart of our post-Brexit economy, and the discussion centred on what this means for Scotland (an area that voted to remain in the EU, which was also a big issue in the Scottish Independence referendum). Despite being a hotbed of commercialisation of university-derived research, there was much discussion about how to improve the progress of start-up companies in Scotland. They take longer to reach a turnover of £1m than anywhere else in the UK or most of Europe. It was felt that the new structures around research and innovation funding, UK Research and Innovation, need to include significant representation from Scotland (and the other devolved nations) not to become too England-centric. There was also general concern that fundamentals such as infrastructure and connectivity affect start-up companies, so investment has to be made to make areas of Scotland attractive places to base a company.

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Physiological Society Members who visited our stand at “Science and the Parliament” in Edinburgh

Earlier in the year we also attended Science and the Assembly in Cardiff, and Science and Stormont in Belfast. Each of these events has a slightly different take on how to explore science in the local area. Cardiff focused on antimicrobial research, while Belfast titled their event “Skills for Science and Innovation”. The research discussed in Cardiff was very impressive, both from local universities and companies based in the area. The talks in Belfast had a much more political focus, with concerns being raised about the effects of the ongoing suspension of the Northern Irish Assembly. This was halting new initiatives, including those designed to address the serious problem of the supply of science teachers in Northern Ireland.

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Society Members who visited our stand at “Science and Stormont” in Belfast

At each of these events we were delighted to have an exhibition stand to raise the profile of physiology and increase recognition of the policy work we are undertaking. These events present great opportunities to mingle with people involved locally in scientific research and outreach, in order to discuss everyone’s projects and initiatives. We were pleased to also welcome Physiological Society members based locally to discuss our policy work with them, find out their views and concerns for The Society to address, and generally catch up about the exciting physiology research being done across the UK.

Thanks are due to all the Members who visited us, all the politicians who attended and spoke at the events, and the Royal Society of Chemistry for arranging these valuable opportunities to connect with politicians and scientists across the UK.

Government fails to reassure over post-Brexit science

by Henry Lovett, Policy & Public Affairs Officer

Nothing about Brexit has been decided yet. This was made plain at the recent Labour and Conservative party conferences, which The Physiological Society policy team attended. Many of the fringe meetings at both events were either explicitly about Brexit, or had their discussion influenced by the shadow of Brexit hanging over them. The twin questions of “what will it look like?” and “how will we handle it?” do not yet have even proto-answers, let alone settled consensus. I worry that a sense of complacency exists around some aspects of the transition from EU member to a situation unspecified beyond not an EU member. Many of the facets of EU membership which are of great significance to science fall within this category.

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The UK has done well from European programmes for funding scientific research, with Horizon 2020 (H2020) being the current iteration of this scheme, winning more funding than it has contributed to the programme. There are other advantages beyond money, too, including access to facilities overseas, and an easy route to setting up collaborations. We are happy with this participation, and Europe is happy to have us. The government has suggested, without giving details, that it is willing to continue to buy access to useful activities such as this. But, examining the fine print, it may not be as easy as that. A number of non-EU countries have “associated country” status to H2020, individually negotiated to allow them to participate. One of these, Switzerland, had access severely restricted in 2014 after a referendum meant the Swiss government would not ratify Croatia’s inclusion in EU freedom of movement. Access was only restored in 2016 after a government compromise. One of the UK government’s stated aims from Brexit is to “control immigration”, i.e. restrict free movement from Europe. There is no reason to assume this will not also result in being disallowed from being awarded H2020 funds, should we wish to participate or not. It will take delicate negotiation, not a blithe assumption, for us to continue to enjoy the benefits of association to the programme.

The Treasury has said it will underwrite Horizon 2020 grants applied-for before our leaving date of March 2019, and signalled it may be willing to extend this. However, this short-term reassurance could also be seen as a long-term worry. The successor to Horizon 2020, Framework Programme 9, has not been mentioned. Underwriting grants is not the same as participation in the programme, and if the intention was to retain full participation in EU research programmes, underwriting would not be necessary.

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Scientists working on the continent, foreseeing these future difficulties in working with UK collaborators, are in some cases acting pre-emptively. British researchers have been asked to remove themselves from H2020 funding applications, or at least to switch from leading bids to being junior partners. About a fortnight after the Conservative conference, Science Minister Jo Johnson told the Science & Technology Select Committee, in response to fears of further exclusion of UK scientists from Horizon 2020 bids, “We have terrific scientists in this country; why wouldn’t you want them to play central roles in your consortia, wherever you’re from in the world?” Unfortunately that doesn’t acknowledge the reputational damage we know is already being done to UK science. We know from research we have carried out that European researchers could reply with any number of reasons, including fears of a lower chance of bid success, being unable to travel to the UK or facing much higher costs, fears of the UK collaborator being forced to drop out before the project’s conclusion, potentially facing incompatible regulatory regimes, or just an overall air of foreigners’ presence not being particularly welcome in the UK.

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Data from our Brexit survey about physiologists’ reactions to the vote.

The vastly-enhanced global mobility of the last decades has also been good to science. Ideas can be proposed and critiqued in person rather than by correspondence, and people can bring their knowledge and experience to bear at the forefront of their discipline, wherever that research happens to be conducted. However, the rights of EU citizens post-Brexit, to either remain in the UK or migrate here in future, are still very uncertain. None of the statements issued by the Prime Minister or the government have given full clarity, despite repeated insistences that EU citizens will not be part of the Brexit bargaining. Scientists are demonstrating their opinion of this with their feet, leaving the country or declining offers of employment that would bring them here. Other countries are taking full advantage of this disincentive to the UK, aggressively marketing their science facilities and available grants (including EU funding). Ireland in particular is painting itself as attractive to UK scientists, especially those currently in Northern Ireland, for whom a move over the border would retain their EU status while being geographically close.

The government will not have a lot of “easy wins” during the negotiations with the EU, so in some ways it is understandable that they would concentrate on the trickier aspects. However, the certainty displayed that science will pass through the negotiations unscathed seems unwarranted, especially given that science and innovation are identified priorities in the Industrial Strategy; keystones of the future UK economy. The government would do well to pay rather closer attention.

Examining physiology as a global discipline

by Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is currently playing host to the 38th Congress of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS), which is a global network of physiological societies. Released at this event is the report Physiology – Current Trends and Future Challenges. This is a collaboration between the IUPS and The Physiological Society looking at the discipline of physiology and the state it is found in around the world. Physiologists and students of the subject have different experiences and face different challenges depending on their local environment in terms of funding, regulation, job opportunities, public attitude, and any number of other variables.

IUPS sought input from its member organisations, receiving 27 contributions, the content of which make up the data underpinning the report. These responses covered all six inhabited continents, and physiological societies large and small. Most were proud to describe the accomplishments in their country, but many set these against a background of declining government funding for research and greater difficulty in training for in vivo skills and conducting animal-based experimentation. One of the few exceptions is the UK, where the government has pledged to increase research funding over the coming years, although there are concerns around the impact of Brexit on international collaboration.

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Responses about the teaching of physiology varied widely; in some countries the discipline is not taught as an individual undergraduate subject, but others have a number of routes into physiology. It is covered in medical, veterinary, dental and nursing courses, and a number of countries are beginning to highlight the clinical relevance of physiological knowledge.

The general public in some countries can feel very far-removed from scientific research, which affects the perception when governments spend money on science. It is crucial to cement the link in people’s minds between research and health, prosperity, and being able to go about daily life. Many people are aware of pressing problems such as climate change, pollution, and ageing unhealthy populations, but do not necessarily support basic research when they cannot be told a direct application. It is hoped that societies will be able to share knowledge on how best to shore up support for basic research.

The survey also considered the career prospects of new graduates. Globally, physiologists have good opportunities in academic positions as post-doctoral fellows, research associates in research laboratories, and as faculty members. However, the academic sector does not produce enough opportunities to have a position for each graduate. Other professional opportunities are being sought by new PhDs as the struggle to obtain research funding support is very onerous. Career opportunities for physiologists in non-academic institutions appear to be good in several countries, be they related to science or more general graduate careers such as finance.

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The report compiled responses from 27 countries

An exercise such as this survey is not merely to take stock of the state physiology is found in, but to offer a route towards improving it. The report offers recommendations for member societies to work with IUPS and create programmes in their own countries. Due to differing situations it is not envisaged that these will be universally and identically implemented, but the IUPS is creating new Regional Representatives to work closely with individual societies to drive effective development.

While no organisation is yet in the optimum state for driving forward international physiology, there is hope in the future. This report is the first step in a unifying and momentum-raising process to bolster physiology worldwide and achieve its universal recognition as a vital and robust discipline.

Download the report here.

The dangers of careless press releases

by Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

This article originally appeared in Physiology News

Simon Cork

You open the morning paper and are excited to find an article about a newly published study in your area of interest. You start reading it and quickly realise that the journalist has completely taken the press release out of context. What was originally some preliminary cell culture work has turned into a front page splash solving an age-old problem or heralding a new cure. Sound familiar?

We live in a world of 24-hour rolling news coverage. The necessity to write punchy news headlines and be the first to break stories has never been greater. Because of this, it’s very easy for journalists to take press releases out of their original scientific context, and ‘sex’ them up in a way that sells. This is particularly the case for my own area of research, obesity.

The world is suffering from an obesity epidemic especially (but not exclusively) in the Western world. Reports suggest around two-thirds of people are dieting at any one time, and most of these diets don’t work. This is why stories about miracle weight loss cures and therapies are cat nip to journalists and readers alike.

Frustrated by the misrepresentation of obesity in the press, I decided to sign up to the Science Media Centre (SMC), not knowing it would lead to my television debut.

The remit of the SMC is to provide journalists with expert quotes on scientific studies that are likely to garner media attention. In the world of obesity and diabetes, this usually involves studies showing that eating too much of X will lead to diabetes, or that cutting Y out of your diet reduces body weight.

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I recently commented on a new study, which had followed approximately 20,000 children over a 10-year period, some born via caesarean and some born naturally, and found that those who were born via caesarean were more likely to be obese in later life. I was asked to comment whether or not the conclusions of the study were sound, and offer a possible explanation for the findings. In fact, this study adds to other literature supporting this relationship, and the most likely cause is exposure to different microbes when born naturally versus via caesarean, although the link hasn’t fully been proven.

Since the study used a large cohort, the results were more statistically significant. However, since it was an observational study there isn’t a causative link.

My comments were picked up by a number of news agencies, including The Guardian, Daily Mail and the BBC News website. Nerve-rackingly, I even got a call from the producer of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who was interested in picking this piece up and wondered if I would pop into the studio the next morning. This was swiftly followed by Sky News, Jeremy Vine and BBC News.

Now all of this was a far cry from the ELISA that I was planning on carrying out that day, but was an interesting insight into the angle journalists take on scientific stories. Having received the call asking if I’d like to go on the Today programme at 11 pm the previous evening, I spent a number of hours doing a comprehensive PubMed search of all the most recent meta-analysis studies investigating caesarean births and obesity risk. Turns out all they’re really interested in is why. If the Brexit debate has taught us anything, it’s that the public switch-off at the sight of a percentage symbol or talk of numbers. What people want to know is why and how it affects them. So my interviews mostly revolved around why caesarean births seem to increase the risk of obesity and whether there is anything we can do to mitigate the risk. That and trying to politely convince a caller to the Jeremy Vine Show that her child’s obesity was probably more the result of her confessed feeding of copious amounts of chocolate to him, rather than his method of birth.

If, like me, you find yourself at odds with journalistic reporting of science stories, I would urge you to join the database at the Science Media Centre. You’re not guaranteed to get TV time, but you might get your name in the paper. Just make sure that you at least know enough about whatever it is you’re commenting on to make it through a 30-minute conversation with Jeremy Vine and John Humphrys!

Parliamentary Links Day 2017: Connecting science and politicians

By Charles Laing, @spacecharlieuk

The largest science event in the annual parliamentary calendar was held last week, with scientists and engineers from all over the UK meeting Members of both Houses of Parliament. Parliamentary Links Day provides an opportunity for learned societies to have their views heard and represented in Parliament, and with Brexit looming this year was particularly important.

It was great to be invited along, after recently joining the Policy & Communications Committee of the Physiological Society, so I could listen to the discussion of some of the major issues facing UK science today.

 

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The title for this year’s event was ‘UK Science and Global Opportunities?’ and included talks from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow; the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson; and Chair Designate of UK Research and Innovation, Sir John Kingman. Interesting sessions included a panel hosted by BBC science journalist Pallab Ghosh, with several opportunities for the audience to engage and ask questions.

A key theme for all involved that emerged from the discussions was the real need to ensure that the level of UK science funding continues post-Brexit. Sir John Kingman noted that all major UK political parties had solid manifesto commitments indicating the importance of science to the UK and its wider economy – a hopeful sign as we exit the European Union.

Other matters of concern among the room full of scientists, policymakers, politicians, and leaders in the science sector included the issue of international collaborations and how this would be dealt with in the future. Consensus was that in order for the UK to access the full range of global opportunities moving forward, access to intellectual talent overseas should not be a barrier to fruitful collaborations.

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Following discussions, lunch was hosted out on the House of Lords’ terrace. A great way to finish off a packed day full of debates. The Physiological Society table was joined by Baroness Margaret Prosser and Lord Ronald Oxburgh – both members of the House of Lords – as well as Dr Sarah Main, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. The guest speaker after lunch was Professor Alex Halliday, Vice-President of the Royal Society, who spoke about the importance of the people in the room flying the flag for UK science.