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Consciousness: How can I experience things that aren’t ‘real’?

When I see red, it’s the most religious experience. Seeing red just results from photons of a certain frequency hitting the retina of my eye, which cascades electrical and biochemical pulses through my brain, in the same way a PC runs. But nothing happening in my eye or brain actually is the red colour I experience, nor are the photons or pulses. This is seemingly outside this world. Some say my brain is just fooling me, but I don’t accept that as I actually experience the red. But then, how can something out of this world be in our world? Andrew Kaye, 52, London.

What’s going on in your head right now? Presumably you’re having a visual experience of these words in front of you. Maybe you can hear the sound of traffic in the distance or a baby crying in the flat next door. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit tired and distracted, struggling to focus on the words on the page. Or maybe you’re feeling elated at the prospect of an enlightening read. Take a moment to attend to what it’s like to be you right now. This is what’s going on inside your head.

Or is it? There’s another, quite different story. According to neuroscience, the contents of your head are comprised of 86 billion neurons, each one linked to 10,000 others, yielding trillions of connections.

A neuron communicates with its neighbour by converting an electrical signal into a chemical signal (a neurotransmitter), which then passes across the gap in between the neurons (a synapse) to bind to a receptor in the neighbouring neuron, before being converted back into an electrical signal. From these basic building blocks, huge networks of electro-chemical communication are built up.


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These two stories of what’s going on inside your head seem very different. How can they both be true at the same time? How do we reconcile what we know about ourselves from the inside with what science tells us about our body and brain from the outside? This is what philosophers have traditionally called the mind-body problem. And there are solutions to it that don’t require you to accept that there are separate worlds.

Ghost in the machine?

Probably the most popular solution to the mind-body problem historically is dualism: the belief that the human mind is non-physical, outside of the physical workings of the body and the brain. According to this view, your feelings and experiences aren’t strictly speaking in your head at all – rather they exist inside an immaterial soul, distinct from, although closely connected to, your brain.

The relationship between you and your body, according to dualism, is a little bit like the relationship between a drone pilot and his drone. You control your body, and receive information from its sensors, but you and your body are not the same thing.

Dualism in a nutshell. Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Dualism allows for the possibility of life after death: we know the body and the brain decay, but perhaps the soul lives on when the body dies, just as a drone pilot lives on if his drone is shot down. It is also perhaps the most natural way for human beings to think about the body-mind relationship. The psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that dualism is hardwired into us, and that from a very early age infants start to distinguish “mental things” from “physical things”. Reflecting this, most cultures and religions throughout history seem to have adopted some kind of dualism.

The trouble is that dualism does not fit well with the findings of modern science. Although dualists think the mind and the brain are distinct, they believe there is an intimate causal relationship between the two. If the soul makes a decision to raise an arm, this somehow manages to influence the brain and thereby set off a causal chain which will result in the arm going up.

Rene Descartes, the most famous dualist in history, hypothesised that the soul communicated with the brain through the pineal gland, a small, pea-shaped gland located near the centre of the brain. But modern neuroscience has cast doubt on the idea that there is a single, special location in the brain where the mind interacts with the brain.

Perhaps a dualist could maintain that the soul operates at several places in the brain. Still, you’d think we’d be able to observe these incoming signals arriving in the brain from the immaterial soul, just as we can observe in a drone where the radio signals sent by the pilot arrive. Unfortunately, this is not what we find. Rather, scientific investigation seems to show that everything that happens in a brain has a physical cause within the brain itself.

Imagine we found what we thought was a drone, but upon subsequent examination we discovered that everything the drone did was caused by processes within it. We would conclude that this was not being controlled by some external “puppeteer” but by the physical processes within it. In other words, we would have discovered not a drone but a robot. Many philosophers and scientists are inclined to draw the same conclusions about the human brain.

Am I my brain?

Among contemporary scientists and philosophers, the most popular solution to the mind-body problem is probably materialism. Materialists aspire to explain feelings and experiences in terms of the chemistry of the brain. It is broadly agreed that nobody has the slightest clue as yet how to do it, but many are confident that we one day will.

This confidence probably arises from the sense that materialism is the scientifically kosher option. The success of science in the past 500 years is after all mind-blowing. This gives people confidence that we just need to plug away with our standard methods of investigating the brain, and one day we’ll solve the riddle.

The trouble with this common viewpoint, as I argue in my book Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, is that our standard scientific approach was designed to exclude consciousness.

Galileo was the first person to demand that science should be mathematical. But Galileo understood quite well that human experience cannot be captured in these terms. That’s because human experience involves qualities – the redness of a red experience, the euphoria of love – and these kinds of qualities cannot be captured in the purely quantitative language of mathematics.

Galileo got around this problem by adopting a form of dualism, according to which the qualities of consciousness existed only in the incorporeal “animation” of the body, rather than in the basic matter that is the proper focus of physical science. Only once Galileo had located consciousness outside of the realm of science, was mathematical science possible.

In other words, our current scientific approach is premised on Galileo’s separation of the quantitative physical world from the qualitative reality of consciousness. If we now want to bring consciousness into our scientific story, we need to bring these two domains back together.

Is consciousness fundamental?

Materialists try to reduce consciousness to matter. We have explored some problems with that approach. What about doing it the other way around – can matter be reduced to consciousness? This brings us to the third option: idealism. Idealists believe that consciousness is all that exists at the fundamental level of reality. Historically, many forms of idealism held that the physical world is some kind of illusion, or a construction generated from our own minds.

Idealism is not without its problems either. Materialists put matter at the basis of everything, and then have a challenge understanding where consciousness comes from. Idealists put consciousness at the basis of everything, but then have a challenge explaining where matter comes from.

But a new – or rather rediscovered – way of building matter from consciousness has recently been garnering a great deal of attention among scientists and philosophers. The approach starts from the observation that physical science is confined to telling us about the behaviour of matter and what it does. Physics, for example, is basically just a mathematical tool for telling us how particles and fields interact. It tells us what matter does, not what it is.

If physics doesn’t tell us what fields and particles are, then this opens up the possibility that they might be forms of consciousness. This approach, known as panpsychism, allows us to hold that both physical matter and consciousness are fundamental. This is because, according to panpsychism, particles and fields simply are forms of consciousness.

At the level of basic physics, we find very simple forms of consciousness. Perhaps quarks, fundamental particles that help make up the atomic nucleus, have some degree of consciousness. These very simple forms of consciousness could then combine to form very complex forms of consciousness, including the consciousness enjoyed by humans and other animals.

So, according to panpsychism, your experience of red and the corresponding brain process don’t take place in separate worlds. Whereas Galileo separated out the qualitative reality of a red experience from the quantitative brain process, panpsychism offers us a way of bringing them together in a single, unified worldview. There is only one world, and it’s made of consciousness. Matter is what consciousness does.

Panpsychism is quite a radical rethink of our picture of the universe. But it does seem to achieve what other solutions cannot. It offers us a way to combine what we know about ourselves from the inside and what science tells us about our bodies and the brains from the outside, a way of understanding matter and consciousness as two sides of the same coin.

Can panpsychism be tested? In a sense it can, because all of the other options fail to account for important data. Dualism fails to account for the data of neuroscience. And materialism fails to account for the reality of consciousness itself. As Sherlock Holmes famously said: “Once we have ruled out the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” Given the deep problems that plague both dualism and materialism, panpsychism looks to me to be the best solution to the mind-body problem.

Even if we can solve the mind-body problem, this can never dispel the wonder of human consciousness. On such matters, the philosopher is no match for the poet.

The Brain is wider than the Sky

For, put them side by side,

The one the other will contain

With ease, and you beside.


The Brain is deeper than the sea

For, hold them, Blue to Blue,

The one the other will absorb,

As sponges, Buckets do.


The Brain is just the weight of God

For, Heft them, Pound for Pound

And they will differ, if they do,

As Syllable from Sound.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1862


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‘Pharming’ for a vaccine: the answer to coronavirus may be in tobacco plants

We don’t know how long it will take to find a vaccine for COVID-19, but we do know this: if and when we find one, there will be unprecedented demand for the molecules that go into it.

Several different types of vaccine are currently being researched. These include those that use inactivated forms of the virus itself and molecules that look like the virus. The body recognises these molecules when they are injected and produces proteins called antibodies that protect us from threats like viruses. It may also be possible to treat COVID-19 patients with antibodies directly.

All of these approaches will require us to mass-produce active molecules, and quickly. But how do we do that? The question predates our current pandemic.

Last year, the search for an answer took us to the tobacco fields of Spain and Italy because, as strange as it sounds, the tobacco plant might provide a novel way to meet this huge demand.

Big farmer meets big pharma

Today, the basic components of vaccines are produced using mammal, bacteria and yeast cell cultures in containers called bioreactors. These basic components are produced in controlled environments to strict specifications.

For a number of years, however, researchers have demonstrated that plants can act as bioreactors just like cell cultures. Plants have been a rich source of pharmacologically important compounds throughout history, but it has only recently become possible – thanks to biotechnology – to modify plants to grow important compounds in a targeted way. This is known as “pharming”.

Not only might this be a cheaper way to produce in-demand molecules, but, potentially, vastly more scaleable.

Using plants for a coronavirus vaccine could be a cheaper alternative to using cell cultures. from www.shutterstock.com

If plants can be harnessed for this purpose, it could lead to new industries and alternatives for pharmaceutical companies. Lower and middle income countries could particularly benefit from this low-tech option, because cell culture alternatives require greater upfront investment. To this end, dedicated pharming facilities have recently opened in Brazil and South Africa.

Pharming for molecules is not restricted to medical applications, either. It’s also possible to grow nutritional, cosmetic and industrial molecules in plants.

The lab mouse of the plant world

It may seem counter-intuitive that the answer to a global pandemic could be produced in the leaves of one of the world’s most deadly plants. But there are good reasons why the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its relative N. benthamiana are common plants for pharming.

Both are easily modified and together they have become known as the lab mice of the plant science world, in part due to tobacco’s economic importance.

Tobacco has all the properties we need when selecting a pharming platform: it is quick-growing, leafy and there are people familiar with growing it all over the world. Several laboratories have already seen success in using it to grow antibodies for the treatment of HIV and the Ebola virus.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that British American Tobacco recently announced its ambition to produce between one to three million doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine using tobacco.

Spain is one of the largest tobacco producers in Europe. from www.shutterstock.com

These efforts rely on contained, indoor production. But to produce at scale, we would need to pharm outdoors. That’s why we visited Spain and Italy – two of Europe’s largest producers of tobacco – last year, in order to speak with farmers and their cooperatives to see if they would be interested in becoming pharmers. The response, which will be published in a forthcoming research paper, was largely positive. Tobacco farmers saw this as an opportunity to increase profit in a shrinking European market and de-stigmatise a crop they want to keep growing.

Don’t bet the pharm yet

Pharming is not without its problems, some of which go beyond the technical.

It has been a long road since the first plant was used a vehicle for pharming, partially because of the need to demonstrate that plant-derived molecules are as safe and reliable as those that come from cell cultures, which we understand far better and are already the preferred platform for pharmaceutical companies.

But it is also because pharming requires genetic modification, a famously controversial issue with the public. (Concern over genetic modification does not appear to extend to cell culture technologies, which also often rely on modified microorganisms.)

European legislation is a huge barrier. This means pharming is currently confined to heavily controlled spaces such as laboratories and has limited one of pharming’s greatest assets: the fact that it could be done at large scale in open fields.

The strict rules around pharmaceutical production also pose a big challenge for outdoor pharming, despite the fact that at least one US-based company has demonstrated that it is possible to produce therapeutic molecules in the field.

Combining biotechnology with a crop surrounded by considerable controversy for understandable reasons could prove equally challenging, especially if Big Tobacco companies are involved.

But the potential is there for us to produce vaccines and therapeutics safely and at scale, using the tobacco plant for good instead of harming people’s health. And as COVID-19 sweeps the globe, there’s never been more of a need to do so.

Jonathan Menary, Senior Research Associate, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University; Julian Ma, Hotung Chair of Molecular Immunology, St George’s, University of London, and Pascal M.W. Drake, Lecturer in the Institute for Infection and Immunity, St George’s, University of London

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Not all twins are identical and that’s been an evolutionary puzzle, until now

When a mother gives birth to twins, the offspring are not always identical or even the same gender. Known as fraternal twins, they represent a longstanding evolutionary puzzle.

Identical twins arise from a single fertilised egg that accidentally splits in two, but fraternal twins arise when two eggs are released and fertilised. Why this would happen was the puzzle.

Beth Shepherd Peters/Shutterstock

In research published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution we used computer simulations and modelling to try to explain why natural selection favours releasing two eggs, despite the low survival of twins and the risks of twin births for mothers.

Why twins?

Since Michael Bulmer’s landmark 1970 book on the biology of twinning in humans, biologists have questioned whether double ovulation was favoured by natural selection or, like identical twins, was the result of an accident.


Read more: Curious Kids: why are some twins identical and some not?


At first glance, this seems unlikely. The embryo splitting that produces identical twins is not heritable and the incidence of identical twinning does not vary with other aspects of human biology. It seems accidental in every sense of the word.

In contrast, the incidence of fraternal twinning changes with maternal age and is heritable.

Those do not sound like the characteristics of something accidental.

The twin disadvantage

In human populations without access to medical care there seems little benefit to having twins. Twins are more likely to die in childhood than single births. Mothers of twins also have an increased risk of dying in childbirth.

In common with other great apes, women seem to be built to give birth to one child at a time. So if twinning is costly, why has evolution not removed it?

Paradoxically, in high-fertility populations, the mothers of twins often have more offspring by the end of their lives than other mothers. This suggests having twins might have an evolutionary benefit, at least for mothers.

But, if this is the case, why are twins so rare?

Modelling mothers

To resolve these questions, together with colleagues Bob Black and Rick Smock, we constructed simulations and mathematical models fed with data on maternal, child and fetal survival from real populations.

This allowed us to do something otherwise impossible: control in the simulations and modelling whether women ovulated one or two eggs during their cycles. We also modelled different strategies, where we switched women from ovulating one egg to ovulating two at different ages.

We could then compare the number of surviving children for women with different patterns of ovulation.

Women who switched from single to double ovulation in their mid-20s had the most children survive in our models – more than those who always released a single egg, or always released two eggs.

Author provided

This suggests natural selection favours an unconscious switch from single to double ovulation with increasing age.

A strategy for prolonging fertility

The reason a switch is beneficial is fetal survival – the chance that a fertilised egg will result in a liveborn child – decreases rapidly as women age

So switching to releasing two eggs increases the chance at least one will result in a successful birth.


Read more: Same same but different: when identical twins are non-identical


But what about twinning? Is it a side effect of selection favouring fertility in older women? To answer this question, we ran the simulations again, except now when women double ovulated the simulation removed one offspring before birth.

In these simulations, women who double ovulated throughout their lives, but never gave birth to twins, had more children survive than those who did have twins and switched from single to double ovulating.

Author provided

This suggests the ideal strategy would be to always double ovulate but never produce twins, so fraternal twins are an accidental side effect of a beneficial strategy of double ovulating.

Joseph L Tomkins, Associate Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Western Australia; Rebecca Sear, Head of the Department of Population Health, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Wade Hazel, Professor of Biology, DePauw University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Working from home: Twitter reveals why we’re embracing it.

The effects of coronavirus on the economy already appear bleak. Unemployment and government borrowing are soaring and a recession seems inevitable.

Yet amid these worrying developments there are positive elements to be found. Many of those who have kept their jobs have found they can keep working without the need for a daily commute. Recent research suggests that up to half of UK workers can do their jobs remotely.

And it’s not just office workers. Teachers, GPs, politicians and judges have all swiftly adapted to professional isolation. In just a few weeks, the traditional workplace has been transformed.

Recent tweets – Working from home

Suddenly fears that technology will destroy job have given way to relief that it can help save them. (Although the prospect of robot doctors treating patients, drones transporting vaccines and 3D printers producing face masks does not seem like a bad idea all of a sudden.)

Of course, working from home (WFH) requires considerable levels of adjustment. But data from our ongoing research shows that, on the whole, people seem seem quite positive about this aspect of their restricted lives.


Read more: Working from home? Why detachment is crucial for mental health


In the middle of March 2020, we collected tweets using the hashtags #Coronavirus and #COVID-19 to observe how people were reacting on social networks to the pandemic. After processing 60 million tweets and removing the retweets, we focused on 6,500 messages from March 14 to April 6 that contained the hastag #WFH.

The idea was to assess how people were feeling about working from home. Overall, we found that 70.6% of the tweets reflected a positive sentiment towards the idea. The tweets that came from UK users after the lockdown on March 23 saw a rise in the positive feedback sentiment to 78.6%.

We used something called “sentiment analysis” to assess the tweets. For our purposes this was a lexicon-based approach where every tweet is represented as a group of words, which are each scored on a scale from negative to positive. A mathematical algorithm is then applied in order to a make a final assessment of the tweet’s overall sentiment.

Overall sentiment before lockdown, limited to #WFH.
Overall sentiment after lockdown, limited to #WFH.

We were also curious about the topics people were talking about. One of the more popular methods to extract themes from text is called “topic modelling”, which is essentially a way of processing large amounts of data – in this case tweets – to find out what words and phrases are being used the most.

Word power

Words such as “respect”, “inspire” and “proactive” appeared between 1,000 and 3,000 times in the #WFH tweets, indicating a positive response to the concept of working from home over the course of the pandemic.

Generating a word-cloud to observe the frequency of the words appearing in the tweets during this period, we also found the overall sentiment of the social media response to #WFH to be positive. There is a clear sense of productivity, with words such as “team”, “tips”, “satisfaction”, “service”, “remote”, “support” and “good” among the most prominent.

Word-cloud for tweets from 27th to 30th of March 2020 #WFH.

To build a deeper understanding of these positive feelings, we then mapped the sentiment generated from the tweets per day before the lockdown in the UK.

As the effects of coronavirus and lockdown intensified, so too did the mentions of working from home on Twitter. But there were dips too, most noticeably at the end of March 27, where there was a steep drop in #wfh references of nearly 50% which lasted for three days. We believe this could align with media reports highlighting concerns about children’s wellbeing during lockdown and widely expressed worries about the security of online meeting software, which were also expressed in some of the tweets.

There were negative experiences recorded too. For workers with children to look after, the changed dynamic of domestic life created new and widespread challenges. Yet this also inspired moments of gratitude and offers of help. The tweets we looked at showed evidence of small online communities forming, with people very happy to share #WFH tips and ideas.

Of course, working from home is not a new concept. But coronavirus has, in a very short space of time, forced it to become a normality for much wider sectors of the workforce. And overall, our research shows that the response to this has been positive.

This raises a new quandary about what will happen after the lockdown is lifted. Will businesses start to widen the practice to allow more flexibility to their employees? And if they don’t, how will employees feel about a return to the “old” ways of doing things? No doubt the response on social media will give us some clues.

Fiona Carroll, Senior Lecturer in Computing and Information Systems, Cardiff Metropolitan University; Mohamed Mostafa, Senior Lecturer in Data Science, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and Simon Thorne, Senior Lecturer in Computing and ​Information Systems, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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ACE2: The Molecule that helps Coronavirus invade your cells

shutterstock. from www.shutterstock.com

David C Gaze, University of Westminster

ACE2

The more we learn about the science behind COVID-19, the more we are beginning to understand the vital role a single molecule in our bodies plays in how we contract the disease.

That molecule, Angiotensin Converting Enzyme 2, or ACE2, essentially acts as a port of entry that allows the coronavirus to invade our cells and replicate. It occurs in our lungs, but also in our heart, intestines, blood vessels and muscles.

And it may be behind the vastly different death rates we are seeing between men and women.

What is ACE2?

ACE2 is an enzyme molecule that connects the inside of our cells to the outside via the cell membrane.

In normal physiology, another enzyme called ACE alters a chemical, Angiotensin I, and converts it into Angiotensin II, which causes blood vessels to constrict. The tightening of the blood vessels leads to an increase in blood pressure.

That’s when the ACE2 molecule comes in: to counteract the effects of ACE, causing blood vessels to dilate and lowering blood pressure.

The spikes that make up the ‘crown’ of coronavirus bind to ACE2 enzymes to get into our cells. from www.shutterstock.com

You may have seen illustrations of the virus that show distinct spikes around the surface of the virus, which form part of the “crown” or “corona” that gives the virus its name. These spikes are called S1 proteins, and they are what binds to the ACE2 molecule on our cells.

The virus is then able to invade the cell by a process called endocytosis – where the cell membrane engulfs the virus and internalises it within a bubble called an endosome.

Once inside the cell, the virus interacts with the host cells’ genetic machinery, taking advantage of the existing structure to replicate extensively.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, has a high binding capacity for ACE2 – between ten and 20 times more that of the original SARS virus. This means it is much easier for SARS-CoV-2 to get into human cells compared to the original coronavirus, making it more infectious overall.

ACE2 and COVID-19

But there is still conflicting evidence on the precise role ACE2 plays in coronavirus infections.

In some cases, it can actually be of benefit: ACE2 has been shown to reduce injury to the lung tissue in cases of the original SARS virus in mice by doing its job and causing blood vessels to dilate.

In another mouse study, however, the binding of the SARS spike protein to ACE2 was shown to contribute to lung damage.

When it comes to the current coronavirus, early studies have shown that the introduction of a human-made form of ACE2 to human cells can block the early stages of infection by binding the spike protein, preventing it from entering the cells. ACE2 thus acts both as an entry port to cells but also as a mechanism to protect the lung from injury.

The structure of the ACE2 molecule. Emw, CC BY-SA

ACE2 and the male death toll

It’s well established that COVID-19 affects men and women differently. Out of a representative sample of 1,099 patients in China, 58% were men and 42% were women. Data from China has also shown that men die of COVID-19 at a rate two and a half times that of women.

Similar figures have been observed in the US and 60% of deaths in Europe have been men.

We don’t yet fully understand why men die of COVID-19 in higher numbers than women, but it’s possible ACE2 plays a role.

A large study of two independent populations of heart failure patients was recently published in which ACE2 concentrations were found to be significantly higher in men than in women. This could explain why men may be more at risk than women of COVID-19 infection and of dying from the disease.

ACE2 and other conditions

The other important factor in the outcome of patients is the presence of underlying health problems.

Recently, ACE2 has been identified in different cells of the heart. There are a greater number of ACE2 receptors on the surface of cells in the heart muscle in people with established cardiovascular disease compared to those without disease.

This may result in a greater number of virus particles entering the heart cells in COVID-19 patients with established heart diseases.

Given the role ACE2 plays in regulating blood pressure, there are also concerns about how it affects COVID-19 patients with hypertension. Men are more likely to have hypertension than women, especially under the age of 50.

Two particular drugs to reduce hypertension also affect ACE and ACE2. These are Angiotensin Converting Enzyme inhibitors, or ACEi, and angiotensin receptor blockers, known as ARBs. In animal studies, both of these drug types increase the production of the ACE2 enzyme and so may increase the severity of COVID-19 infection.

Small independent studies have examined the effect of these treatments on COVID-19 with conflicting results. However a recent study on the subject has demonstrated that COVID-19 patients with untreated hypertension have a higher risk of death compared to those being treated with ACEi or ARBs.

That’s why many professional societies are advising people with high blood pressure to continue using their medicines during the crisis.

The role that ACE2 plays in COVID-19 is important in our understanding of the disease and could be used as a target for therapy. Drugs could be designed to block the receptor function of ACE2, but also there is promise in using the molecule itself in preventing entry of the virus into cells.

This would protect organs such as the lung, heart, kidney and intestine from extensive damage, and hopefully reduce mortality.

David C Gaze, Lecturer in Clinical Biochemistry, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Coronavirus: In Ireland hundreds of thousands have applied for government support – But is it enough?

Ireland, like many countries, has seen hugely increased levels of unemployment as a result of the measures taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. Figures released for March 2020 show that unemployment rates have risen from a modest rate of 5.4% to 16.5% when adjusted to take account of those who have become unemployed as a result of the crisis:

Screenshot. CSO

This rate is likely to have risen again since these figures were released. The recently published government draft stability programme is predicating a peak rate of 22% unemployment; peaking in the second quarter of the year, before gradually reducing as containment measures are eased. Of course, this is an employment forecast made in a very uncertain political and economic climate and just how this will actually play out in respect to the Irish labour market is very difficult to accurately predict.

The Irish government’s immediate response has been to introduce three key payment schemes; the COVID-19 pandemic unemployment payment, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the short time work support, the latter of which is available to those who continue to work but who are working reduced hours because of the crisis.

The pandemic unemployment payment is a wage replacement payment, paid at a rate of €350 (£308) per week. The payment was initially established at a rate of €203, which mirrored the basic adult rate of payment for Irish welfare recipients across already existing payments. However, it was quickly increased to the current €350.

It is available to anyone who has lost their employment or who has been temporarily laid off due to COVID-19, including part-time workers. It is also available to those who were self-employed but who have had to cease working due to COVID-19, and to certain categories of welfare recipients who may also have been working.

This support is expected to be a time-limited payment, lasting for a period of 12 weeks. But it has, in essence, created a two-tier welfare system in Ireland, at least in the short term. One group of welfare recipients is being paid far above what another group receives, raising questions of who is seen to deserve support.

The temporary wage subsidy scheme functions a little differently. It is targeted at employers in a bid to keep employees linked to their places of employment where possible. In effect, it allows employers to pay their employees during the crisis by offering them a government subsidy for wages. Since April 15 subsidies have been offered on a tiered basis of up to 85% of earnings, depending on how much employees are normally paid. The scheme has not been as highly subscribed to as the pandemic unemployment payment. It is also expected to last 12 weeks.

Looking again at the March figures, it is clear that a sizable number of people are currently reliant on both payment types. At the time, more than 513,000 people were registered for support. These figures have very likely increased since the most recent reports. The government draft stability programme reported on April 20 that 584,000 people had registered.

Screenshot. CSO

Radical thinking needed

Yet the policies these figures represent are in effect only temporary solutions to what, in the absence of definitive treatments or a vaccine for COVID-19, is likely to be a much longer-term problem. It is also worth noting that in a world where movement is greatly restricted, the usual safety valve of relieving pressure through high levels of economic migration is unlikely to be an option. Therefore, longer term and arguably radical solutions will be required.

One policy option that has arguably gained more traction as a result of COVID is universal basic income. Pre-COVID survey data from Ireland suggests that this might be something people could support in a post-COVID future.

The European Social Survey indicated before the outbreak that when respondents in Ireland were asked if they would welcome the idea of a basic income, 46.2% were in favour and 9.5% were strongly in favour. With no guarantee of a stable labour market for some time to come, it is certainly worth considering whether this is a way to help people over the longer term.

A further possibility might be the adoption of a jobs-sharing initiative through a reduced working week. If everybody works fewer hours, there are potentially more jobs to go round. Whatever choices are made, it would be a mistake to think we can just return to “normal”. Frankly in an Ireland where, in 2019, 122,800 workers were scraping by on a minimum wage of €9.80 per hour or less and where the “at risk of poverty” rate stood at 14%, it is hard to know why anyone would want to.

Joe Whelan, Lecturer, School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Five Workplace Trends Will Shape Life After Lockdown

Shutterstock

Dave Cook, UCL

We are experiencing the biggest remote work experiment in history – but many are beginning to imagine life after lockdown. Amid unprecedented global job losses, concerns about transport infrastructure and the continuing need for workplace social distancing, governments are launching back-to-work plans.

Meanwhile, the latest US research reveals that 74% of businesses want some workers to permanently work remotely and business leaders are actively shedding leased office space – hinting that not everyone will go back to the office.

Here are five key trends that will shape the future of how we work.

1. Commuting will change forever

We might miss the social interaction of the office, but most don’t miss commuting. This was one of the key findings in my four-year remote work study.

Before lockdown, US commute times reached record levels and most UK workers spent more than a year of their lives travelling to and from work. People tell me that a hybrid strategy of working from home two days a week, is one ideal scenario.

Nobody misses this. Shutterstock

Those eager to go back to the office will have to wait. Many will need to work from home for weeks or months to come. The situation is fluid, but governments are drawing up plans for workers to stagger working times, so public transport is not overwhelmed.

The genie is out of the bottle, and commuting is not going back to how it was.

2. Bad email etiquette won’t be tolerated

Workplace communication is rapidly transforming and email is a case in point. More than ever, creating a clear separation between work and leisure time is vital.

Research repeatedly shows that sending out-of-hours emails is not only bad etiquette – but creates a coercive work culture that requires people to be available 24/7. Social scientists argue this turns us into worker/smartphone hybrids and causes stress and burnout. Expecting quick answers to email is increasingly seen as bullying.

Many now realise that colleagues might need to work flexibly due to caring responsibilities. Lockdown has encouraged a new acceptance of flexibility. But this shouldn’t extend to having a culture that expects people to be available all the time.

3. Video calls will be limited

Zoom calls will remain part of our lives – but we will change and adapt how we use them. Research shows that video calls are more draining and tiring than in-person meetings.

Smile for the camera. Shutterstock

While video calls are appropriate for some meetings, we don’t need to use them for all our communication. Research suggests many are shifting back to phone calls – which as one manager explained to me “feels more spontaneous and flows better”.

4. More co-working spaces will emerge

Workers forced to continue working from cramped living spaces are desperate for alternatives. When lockdown lifts they will turn to the cafes and co-working spaces that are still in business. Before COVID-19 hit, co-working spaces were projected to increase more than 40% worldwide.

The paradox of remote working is that people crave the flexibility but know that being around others boosts productivity. My research shows that over time remote workers crave the physical closeness that comes with just being alongside other people. It’s exactly why in 2017 IBM pulled many employees back into the office, despite having previously published a 2014 white paper in support of remote working.

Coming soon to a high street near you. Shutterstock

Local co-working spaces, as opposed to big investor-funded brands such as WeWork, will do well. Independent co-working spaces in some areas were thriving before COVID-19 – they may become more mainstream if they survive lockdown.

5. Could we become part-time digital nomads?

Digital nomads are extreme remote workers that post Instagram stories from exotic locations. Right now, that lifestyle seems unrelatable, impossible and to many unethical.

Nonetheless, many decently paid workers in New York, London and Paris are stuck in uncomfortably small flats, dreaming of escape from lockdown. As a housing manager recently confided to me: “London living without nightlife and culture, isn’t fun. Everyone wants to escape to somewhere outdoorsy when allowed. I’m not sure I approve but it’s understandable.”

For now, remote working from different locations is not allowed. But the allure of relocating to a picturesque location remains – and Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnB, is banking on it. He sees COVID-19 as a business opportunity and told Bloomberg: “People are realising they can work remote … that’s a huge opportunity.”

Not all will agree – it could cause long-term sustainability issues – and many will not have this privilege. But when lockdown fully lifts, who’s to say more people will not work remotely from different parts of the world, beyond their living rooms.

Dave Cook, PhD Researcher, Anthropology, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Is it time for a ‘new way of war?’ What China’s army reforms mean for the rest of the world

The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said,

Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

Looking at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today, it’s hard to say which of these tactics is most germane.

Getting the answer right will have enormous consequences for the United States and the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Underestimating the PLA breeds complacency and risks costly overreach. Overestimating the Chinese military grants it unwarranted advantage.

Similarly, for the Chinese leadership, miscalculating its military capability could lead to disaster.

As such, any serious appraisal of Chinese military power has to take the PLA’s progress – as well as its problems – into account. This was the focus of a recent study we undertook, along with retired US Army lieutenant colonel Dennis Blasko, for the Australian Department of Defence.

The PLA’s new-found might

By all appearances, the PLA has become a more formidable force over the past decade. The massive military parade in Beijing last October to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China showed off more than 700 pieces of modern military hardware.

One of these weapons, displayed publicly for the first time, was the DF-41, China’s most powerful nuclear-armed ballistic missile. It is capable of hitting targets anywhere in the US.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ayi8ddu_eZg?wmode=transparent&start=0

Under President Xi Jinping, China has also expanded its military footprint in the South China Sea. Military experts say China has used the global distraction of the coronavirus pandemic to shore up its position even further, drawing rebukes from neighbours. Tensions have heightened in recent days as the US and Australia have sent warships into the sea for drills.


Read more: With China’s swift rise as naval power, Australia needs to rethink how it defends itself


In the past few years, China has also stepped up its military exercises around Taiwan and disputed waters near Japan, and last December, commissioned its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, into service with the PLA Navy.

The most recent annual assessment of the PLA by the Pentagon acknowledges China’s armed forces are developing the capability to dissuade, deter or, if ordered, defeat third-party armed forces (such as the US) seeking to intervene in “a large-scale, theatre campaign” in the region.

The report also expects the PLA to steadily improve its ability to project power into the Pacific and beyond.


Read more: Despite strong words, the US has few options left to reverse China’s gains in the South China Sea


recent study commissioned by the US Congress goes further, saying China’s strategy aims to

disrupt, disable or destroy the critical systems that enable US military advantage.

The report called for a “new American way of war”.

All of these highlight the increasing capabilities of the PLA and underscore the challenges China’s rising hard power pose to the United States and its regional allies. But what of the challenges the PLA itself faces?

A Chinese destroyer taking part in a naval parade off the eastern port city of Qingdao last year. Jason Lee/Reuters

Overcoming the ‘peace disease’

Interestingly, many of these problems are openly discussed in official Chinese publications aimed at a Chinese audience, but are curiously absent when speaking to a foreign audience.

Often, pithy formulaic sayings of a few characters summarise PLA shortcomings. For example, the “two inabilities” (两个能力不够), a term that has appeared hundreds of times in official Chinese media, makes reference to two shortcomings:

  • the PLA’s current ability to fight a modern war is insufficient, and
  • the current military commanders are also not up to the task.

Another frequent self-criticism highlights the “peace disease” (和平病), “peacetime habits” (和平积习) and “long-standing peace problems” (和平积弊).

The PLA was last at war in the mid-1980s, some 35 years years ago. Today’s Chinese military has very little combat experience.

Put more pointedly, far more soldiers serving in the PLA today have paraded down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing than have actually operated in combat.


Read more: Xi Jinping’s grip on power is absolute, but there are new threats to his ‘Chinese dream’


Owing to these and many other acknowledged deficiencies, Xi launched the most ambitious and potentially far-reaching reforms in the PLA’s history in late 2015.

This massive structural overhaul aims to transform the PLA from a bloated, corrupt and degraded military to one increasingly capable of fighting and winning relatively short, but intensive, conflicts against technologically sophisticated adversaries, such as the United States.

But, recognising how difficult this transformation will be, the Chinese political and military leadership has set out a decades-long timeline to achieve it.

DF-17 ballistic missiles on parade in Tiananmen Square last year. Xinhua News Agency handout/EPA

In Xi’s estimations, by 2020, the PLA’s mechanisation will be “basically achieved” and strategic capabilities will have seen major improvements; by 2035, national defence modernisation will be “basically completed”; and by mid-century, the PLA will be a “world-class military.”

In other words, this transformation – if successful – will take time.

At this relatively early point in the process, authoritative writings by PLA leaders and strategic analysts make clear that much more work is needed, especially more realistic training in joint operations, as well as improved leadership and greater communications integration across the services.

PLA modernisation depends more on “software” — human talent development, new war-fighting concepts and organisational transformation — than on the “hardware” of new weapons systems. This underscores the lengthy and difficult nature of reform.

‘Know the enemy and know yourself’

The many challenges facing the PLA’s reform effort suggest the Chinese leadership may lack confidence in its current ability to achieve victory against a strong adversary on the battlefield.

However, none of this means we should dismiss the PLA as a paper tiger. The recent indictment of PLA personnel for the 2017 hack of Equifax is a cautionary reminder of the Chinese military’s expansive capabilities.

Better hardware is not what China needs at the moment – it needs to improve its software. ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA

Rather, it means a prudent assessment of the PLA must take its strengths and weaknesses into account, neither overestimating nor underestimating either one. Should strategic competition between the US and China continue to escalate, getting this right will be more important than ever.

So, is China appearing weak when it is strong, or appearing strong when it is weak? Much current evidence points to the latter.

But this situation will change and demands constant reassessment. Another quotation from Sun Tzu is instructive:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

He added,

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sources: Bates Gill, Adam Ni, Macquarie University. The Conversation