Biodiversity loss mars SDG success, report finds

This piece was first published on SciDev.Net on 07.05.19

An “unprecedented” loss of global biodiversity threatens the progress of more than 80 per cent of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and puts 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction, a landmark scientific report has warned.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a global assessment – the most comprehensive to date – at its 7th plenary meeting in Paris, France, on 6 May.

The assessment found that the world will likely fail to meet 35 out of the 44 SDG targets as loss of species and land degradation damage agriculture and economic growth, particularly in the Global South.

“We have to make it much, much clearer that, if you want to have success on the SDGs, they must be underpinned by nature.”

EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity, Oxford University

IPBES chairman Sir Robert Watson said humans were “eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”.

Some 25 per cent of species on the planet are threatened and one million face extinction because of direct human influence, according to the report, which also highlights the economic implications of biodiversity loss.

Land use for crop production has increased by 300 per cent since 1980, for example. But the productivity of 23 per cent of land globally has declined through overuse, while up to US$577 billion worth of crops annually are at risk from pollinator loss.

Eduardo Brondizio, a Brazilian anthropologist and co-chairman of the assessment report committee said climate change was also starting to play a role in driving biodiversity loss.

Since 1980, greenhouse gas emissions have doubled, raising average global temperatures by at least 0.7 degrees Celsius, the report notes.

“Land use change used to be the biggest driver [of biodiversity loss], followed by resource extraction, but now climate change is more pronounced – and most pronounced in the Global South,” Brondizio told SciDev.Net.

This loss is slowing down progress towards most SDGs, including those related to healthy oceans, well-being, economic equality, clean water and responsible use of resources, the assessment found.

“At the moment, people move forward on the SDGs by running down our natural capital,” EJ Milner-Gulland, professor of biodiversity at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, told SciDev.Net. “We have to make it much, much clearer that, if you want to have success on the SDGs, they must be underpinned by nature.”

Accelerating species extinction has also all but destroyed the Aichi targets on improving biodiversity, agreed by 27 international organisations in 2011. This set of 20 targets was meant to be achieved next year, but Sandra Diaz, a Spanish ecologist and IPBES co-chair, said that only four of the targets stood any chance of succeeding.

The assessment was compiled over three years by 145 scientists from 50 countries. The final report was voted on and approved at 3am on 4 May, after 45 hours of intense negotiation between IPBES member governments.

Brondizio said developing countries, in particular South Africa, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, formed a “joint voice” calling for recognition of the regional and local impact of biodiversity loss.

The problem is most deeply felt among poor and indigenous populations in the Global South, the report found.

The assessment warned that the conservation status of lands belonging to or managed by indigenous people was worsening, with 9 per cent of domesticated mammals used by them for sustenance having become extinct by 2016.

Brondizio and his team assessed more than 450 indicators of land use change in territories inhabited by indigenous people and found that 70 per cent of these indicators showed decline.

However, the report pointed out that local involvement and indigenous knowledge can lead to huge improvement in species protection.

“Thirty-five per cent of the most diverse areas on the planet are managed by indigenous people, so they are central to the discussion,” said Brondizio. “We found that biodiversity is declining less rapidly in those areas. When we include local communities in governance, it tends to have a positive impact on their livelihood and on the biodiversity outcome.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global edition.

Climate now biggest driver of migration, study finds

First published on SciDev.Net, 08.05.19

The effects of climate change, including floods and extreme temperatures, have become more important push factors in migration than economic inequality or conflict, according to a global study.

The study, undertaken by a team at the University of Otago in New Zealand, looked at migration data from 198 countries of origin to 16 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) between 1980 and 2015.

Researchers developed a model to understand the causes of migration, divided into effects of climate change, economic performance and political strife.

“Both developed and at-risk countries need more planning and policy to prepare for what is likely to be a growing trend of people wanting to move,”

Dennis Wesselbaum, economist, Otago Business School

The model showed that rising temperatures and a growing number of weather-related disasters now cause more migration than lack of income or political freedom.

Each 10 per cent increase in temperature in an origin country caused an increase of 3 per cent in migration from that country to the 16 destination countries, which included Australia, Italy, Spain and Germany.

The study, published last month in the journal Global and Planetary Change, also found that this migration happens in stages.

Dennis Wesselbaum, the lead researcher and an economist at the Otago Business School, explains that migration actually decreased for around five years after a temperature anomaly, before increasing for the next 20 years.

“One explanation is that people move to places further away and have to save more money to finance migration cost, [or] that it takes time to identify the temperature shock,” Wesselbaum told SciDev.Net.

Raya Muttarak, senior lecturer of geography and international development at the UK’s University of East Anglia, believes another reason for the apparent delay is that people at first try “in-situ adaptation”.

“If you experience climatic shocks in the first year, you try different ways to cope, such as planting different crops, changing jobs, borrowing money,” said Muttarak, who was not involved in the study. “You’re probably not trying to move straight away.”

The researchers found that global temperatures increased by an average of 0.8 degrees Celsius in the study period. They counted 100 weather-related disasters in 1980, but by 2015 this number had risen to 300 a year.

Around 244 million people – 2.8 per cent of the world’s population – were classed as migrants in 2015 by the UN. However, the UN has said it will not define climate migrants as refugees, a status that comes with more international support, citing concerns about watering down support programmes for those fleeing violent conflict.

A report by the UNFCC, the UN’s climate change body, found last year that, globally, countries are largely failing to deal with climate migration adequately.

“Recognising the causal factors behind this forced migration would require governments to apportion responsibility, both for the initial migration and for the solutions to it,” said Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, which lobbies on environmental issues in the Global South. “In many countries this is politically toxic and, without international agreement on shared and coordinated action, proves politically very hard to deal with.”

Wesselbaum is confident, however, that the problem will be recognised “sooner or later”, adding that the results of his study offer a more nuanced understanding of how people respond to climate shocks.

The climate migration model showed that migration remained stable after storms and drought, but increased significantly after floods and extreme temperature events.

“Both developed and at-risk countries need more planning and policy to prepare for what is likely to be a growing trend of people wanting to move,” Wesselbaum added.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global edition.

Government loyalist appointed new UK science minister as Brexit woes continue

This article was first published in Nature on 05.12.18

Amid the carnage of Brexit, the UK government has gained a new science minister. Chris Skidmore was appointed on 5 December, succeeding Sam Gyimah, who resigned last week over the direction of Brexit negotiations.

Skidmore takes over responsibility for the universities and science portfolio, a brief divided between the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The post, a junior ministerial position, has had high turnover in recent years: Skidmore is the United Kingdom’s fifth science minister in eight years.

A Conservative member of parliament since 2010, Skidmore studied history at the University of Oxford, and represents a constituency in southwestern England that has strong links to science and innovation: it is home to aircraft manufacturer Airbus and the UK National Composite Centre, a government-funded research institute focused on developing composite materials and technologies. He is also a historian who has written several books on British monarchs.

“Delighted and honoured to have been appointed Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation,” he tweeted.

Skidmore favoured Britain remaining in the European Union in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. But, importantly for embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, Skidmore is regarded as a government loyalist. His voting record demonstrates continuous support for May’s policies, including her stance on Brexit. This might have been a factor in his appointment, because ministers are expected to vote with the government — and he has publicly supported May’s divisive Brexit divorce deal.

Read more on Nature.

Europe’s academics fail to report results for 90% of clinical trials

This article was first published in Nature on 13.09.18

European academics are failing abysmally when it comes to reporting the results of clinical trials, a study has revealed.

An analysis of data from the European Union’s Clinical Trial Register — published in The BMJ1 on 13 September — shows that around 50% of the listed trials have not complied with guidelines that say results must be reported within 12 months.

The researchers who conducted the analysis found that only 11% of trials run by academic centres — such as those led by universities, governments, hospitals or charities — had published outcomes after completion (see ‘Failing to comply’’).

Source: BMJ 2018;362:k3218

Furthermore, only 11 of the major sponsors of clinical trials — entities that are responsible for at least 50 trials on the register — had reported 100% of results, all of which were companies.

This compares to a total of 32 major sponsors that had not reported any results from their trials. All of these are academic institutions, rather than companies.

Ben Goldacre, head of the Evidence-Based Medicine DataLab at the University of Oxford, UK, and lead author of the study, says this is a serious concern for science. But he thinks that “chaos, rather than malice” is behind academics’ poor reporting of trial results.

Read more on Nature.

Iron-rich rock helps oceans sink atmospheric carbon

First published in Chemistry World, 05.04.18

Adding crushed rocks containing magnesium and iron minerals to seawater allows it to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere, geoscientists have shown.

Oceans are the world’s most efficient carbon store. Around a quarter of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are sequestered into the sea, and oceans could take in up to 80% of manmade carbon if the process, which usually takes centuries, could be sped up.

A team led by Eric Oelkers from University College London, UK, spread finely milled peridotite – an ultramafic rock that is rich in iron – in tanks of seawater with simulated wave activity. As the powdered rock dissolved it raised the pH of the water, enabling it to react with more atmospheric CO2. The sequestered carbon mineralised into aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate, which sank to the bottom of the tanks.

If powdered peridotite was added to actual oceans, the researchers say, the aragonite would sink to the ocean floor and become sediment, storing carbon permanently. And in nature, aragonite is important for the calcification of corals, so it may even have the added bonus of supporting coral growth.

So far, the approach has only been tried in laboratory simulations. Oelkers says the method needs further scrutiny before it could be seen as a viable way to reduce atmospheric CO2.

‘With upscaling, there are many, many things to consider, some of them unexpected,’ he tells Chemistry World. For example, the extra iron in peridotite rocks could cause plankton blooms. The rocks also contain materials that are harmful to marine life, such as nickel, and it is not clear what impacts these would have on a large scale.

The energy and money required to mine and mill the peridotite also needs to be considered. The researchers propose that the method should be limited to coastal areas where peridotite is common, in order to limit carbon emissions from transport.

Juerg Matter, a geoengineer at the University of Southampton who was not involved in the research, says further refinement of the method could help lower the energy costs of peridotite powder production and save on emissions.

‘The question is really what the acceptable grain size could be,’ he says. ‘Is it really necessary to produce ultrafine particles, or could we tune the process [so] less milling time is required?’

Bulgaria in the cold as European Union freezes its innovation funding

First published in Nature, 1 February 2018

European Union science ministers are due to meet on 2 February in their bloc’s poorest member state — Bulgaria — to discuss future EU research policy. For the host nation, it was supposed to be a chance to showcase its ambitious plans to boost economic growth by attracting international research institutes to the country.

But the timing of the event is awkward, to say the least. In July, Bulgaria had been due to receive €150 million (US$186 million) from the European Union to build facilities for research and innovation, under a programme that aims to boost economic growth in poor regions. The programme, which was expected to give Bulgaria €700 million between 2014 and 2020, is designed to help with the costs of research infrastructure.

However, the EU authorities withheld the money after Bulgaria failed to identify enough sufficiently qualified scientists to evaluate the proposals. The authorities had demanded experts with three or more publications with at least five citations in the top journals in their subjects. Then in November, the Bulgarian government cut its 2018 science and higher-education budget by around 25%, a move it had planned in anticipation of the windfall.

The decision has frustrated scientists in Bulgaria, because they had wanted to use the new infrastructure to forge links with researchers outside the country. “Now, we cannot prepare proposals because we are not going to have the infrastructure,” says Ana Proykova, a physicist at Sofia University and an adviser on European research infrastructure to Bulgaria’s government. She says that the government should reinstate the funds it cut from the 2018 science budget. “We are still fighting very strongly for the funding procedure to be re-opened, even if it is in the middle of this year. Otherwise, our budget is going to be very tiny.”

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European drug regulation at risk of stalling as agency prepares to leave London

First published in Nature, 12.10.2017

Drug regulation in Europe could temporarily freeze if the European Medicines Agency (EMA) loses staff during its post-Brexit move from London. Up to 70 per cent of its 900 staff have said they would quit if the agency relocated to some of the cities bidding to host the organisation.

According to a battle plan drawn up by agency management, failure to retain enough staff would result in a shutdown of essential operations until more people could be hired. If fewer than 30% of the staff move with the agency to its new destination — to be decided next month — it would cease operation, Guido Rasi, the agency’s executive director, told Nature.

The EMA, an agency of the European Union, needs to leave London — where it has been headquartered since 1995 — as a result of Brexit. In addition to its permanent staff, the agency hires many other experts on a short-term basis. Following an internal staff survey undertaken in September, the agency urged European heads of state to pick a location to which at least 65% of staff would relocate.

Bids for a home

Some 19 cities across Europe have applied to host the prestigious organization. Last week, the EMA released its own assessment of the applications, and warned that several locations are entirely unsuitable for the agency’s location. Proposals for Sofia, Malta and Warsaw met almost none of the requirements put forward by the agency and could result in huge staff losses, Rasi warned. Amsterdam was the most popular alternative to London.

“The best case is, of course, a continuum of our activities, with only about 20% staff loss,” he says. “The worst case scenario we have come up with is 94% staff loss. For our business-continuity plan, we found three levels of activities we can delay, put on hold or stop completely.”

According to Rasi, the agency’s core mission — the regulation and monitoring of innovative drugs across Europe — would be the last thing to stop. But even with 50% staff loss, the agency would have to reduce advisory support to new research projects, which could stall work on innovative medicines, he says (see ‘European Medicines Agency chief raises alarm at forced relocation‘).

The agency assesses all medicines, including veterinary products, to be sold on the European market, and passes on recommendations to the European Commission for authorization. It evaluates reports of adverse reactions and, if necessary, works with national agencies to ban medicines that are suspected of being dangerous. The EMA also has in-house scientists who provide advice to drug developers on which criteria they need to fulfil to get a product passed.

In 2016, the agency recommended 81 new medicines for authorization and answered more than 450 requests for scientific advice.

Medication mediation

The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, headquartered in Brussels, has called on member states to put the agency’s well-being first when choosing a location. “There are many cities that could have the right criteria for the agency to settle,” said a spokesman. “There is a potential for disruption, but also a potential for harmony. It all depends on what you choose.”

In the United Kingdom, pharmaceutical companies worry about how they will get their medicines approved after Brexit. The BioIndustry Association, a group of British life-sciences companies, has backed a UK government proposal to maintain authorizations for medicines granted before Brexit and the continuation of work with the agency during a transition period.

“The alternative — organizing and delivering a wholesale change — would be a gargantuan task for companies and regulators across the UK and Europe,” says Steve Bates, the association’s chief executive officer. “It would be extremely challenging to successfully deliver in the short amount of time left until Brexit in March 2019.”

Meanwhile, the uncertainty about the agency’s future is already causing problems. The agency has been unable to fill a position as head of veterinary medicine; all three potential candidates said that they would wait for the final location to be announced before deciding whether or not to take the job, according to Rasi.

Europe’s heads of state will meet on 18–20 October to begin hammering out an agreement. A decision is due to be announced on 20 November, at the next EU General Affairs Council meeting.

Lack of water and sanitation in hospitals mars SDG progress

First published on SciDev.Net, 25.01.18

[LONDON] Only 2 per cent of hospitals and clinics in lower and middle-income countries (LIMCs) provide patients with good quality services across the four key areas of water, sanitation, hygiene and waste management.

The finding comes from the first study to provide a baseline measure of environmental conditions in healthcare facilities to support progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It looked at more than 130,000 facilities worldwide, and found that half of them lacked regular access to piped water.

The study also warned that around 40 per cent of hospitals and clinics in LIMCs are short of hand-washing soap. The same percentage of facilities cannot provide infectious waste disposal, and three out of four do not have enough sterilisation equipment.

To come up with the estimates, researchers at the Water Institute of the University of North Carolina in the United States compiled data from various sources including UN reports and peer-reviewed literature.

“Nearly 60 per cent of facilities do not have reliable electricity, making it difficult to deliver babies at night, refrigerate vaccines, and provide other critical services,” says Ryan Cronk, one of the authors of the paper.

Without water we cannot do surgeries or flush the toilets, so conditions quickly become terrible

Julius Mollel

The study, published this month (11 January) in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, looked at six countries in detail: Bangladesh, Haiti, Malawi, Nepal, Senegal and Tanzania.

Among them, Bangladesh had the highest proportion of facilities with sewer access; but even then, only 17 per cent of hospitals and clinics pipe their wastewater into a sewage system. Access to clean water and wastewater treatment is one of the biggest problems healthcare facilities face in LIMCs.

Julius Mollel, a general surgeon at Nkoaranga Hospital in the Meru district in Tanzania, says getting water is a daily struggle for the hospital, as local groundwater resources are depleted. “Without water we cannot do surgeries or flush the toilets, so conditions quickly become terrible,” he tells SciDev.Net. “We always keep back 50 litres for [each toilet facility in] emergencies.”

According to the study, only 32 per cent of healthcare facilities in Tanzania have access to basic water services. Mollel says Nkoaranga Hospital is looking to international donors to install a 100,000-litre tank to ensure it has a steady water supply. “We get no money from the local government for this,” he says.

Faith-based healthcare facilities appear to be faring better than state-funded ones, and Cronk says this may be linked to more access to international funding making up for a lack of government support.

Where basic water and sanitation facilities are present, there are often secondary problems: more than 70 per cent of Nepalese healthcare facilities, for example, provided toilets for patients, but only 26 per cent had separate toilets for women, leaving female patients vulnerable and exposed.

The authors say that lack of these services threatens the achievement of the water and health-related SDGs. UNICEF, which works with the World Health Organization on implementing the SDGs, says this affects the most vulnerable patients most, especially mothers and newborns.

According to Lizette Burgers, senior adviser on water, sanitation and hygiene at UNICEF, sepsis and pneumonia are the most common infections picked up in hospital settings. “We need to return to the pre-antibiotic era, when infection prevention was recognised as a priority,” she told SciDev.Net. “Governments and other relevant partners have a crucial role to play in making this a reality.”

The WHO is planning to publish a global update on hygiene in healthcare facilities later this year, as part of its monitoring of SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation.

London soil pollution worst on former Blitz bomb sites

First published on Chemistry World, 15.01.18

Study links heavy metal enrichment to destruction of housing in 1940s


The UK capital’s soil bears a poisonous legacy from the Blitz bombing campaign – with calcium, lead and zinc pollution highest in the most heavily damaged areas.

Researchers from the British Geological Survey found that anomalous high calcium, lead and zinc levels in some parts of London were caused by the distribution of building dust and debris following the large-scale destruction of historic housing stock. These elements were widely used in paints, piping and mortar during the construction boom of the 19th century.

The presence of large quantities of calcium, the main ingredient of lime, in central London soil had been previously observed. Don Appleton, a geochemist at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, and his colleague Mark Cave, were determined to find out why.

‘Traditional mortar contains a lot of lime, so if a building would be destroyed then the dust would spread in the surrounding area,’ Appleton explains. ‘We were thinking, was [the calcium enrichment] related to bomb sites?’

The team compared data on soil pollution with a map of the 31,373 sites bombed by the Luftwaffe – Nazi Germany’s air force – between October 1940 and June 1941. Areas bombarded in the 1940s had levels of calcium, lead and zinc that were up to 1.75 times higher than in areas built-up after the war or those that escaped the bombing.

(a) Number of bomb sites, (b) GM Pb (mg kg−1) 1km grid squares for sectors of the GLA with both soil chemistry and bomb site data underlain by Brickearth, River Terrace deposits or Thames Group clays

Source: © University of Portsmouth licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike

The bomb sites from the Blitz (left) correlate with the pollution of London’s soil with the poisonous metal lead (right)


Other built-up areas of London, however, also showed elevated heavy metal levels, if not quite as high as those bombarded during the Blitz. Appleton says that some of these metals, especially lead, are distributed by exhaust fumes from cars. The researchers found that lead enrichment in London soil increases with proximity to roads as well as bomb sites, hinting at a more complex pattern of pollution. ‘If you get closer to roads, that’s where the buildings are,’ Appleton says. ‘That makes it sometimes difficult to work out what exactly is the major cause.’

Heavy metal pollution is dangerous to human health, especially children who might ingest lead or zinc while playing on polluted land. Vegetables grown on such soil, for example in urban gardens, can also have enriched levels of toxic metals.

However, the chemical make-up of London’s soil provides some protection. London was built on large chalk deposits, which increases the pH of the soil and locks up heavy metals, says Mike Fullen, a soil technology professor at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘Even though these metals are there, it is not easy for them to get into the biological system.’

Many British cities are built on the most fertile land, as this is where ancient farming communities settled. The Thames terrace, for example, has some of the richest soil in England, but is now mostly covered by Heathrow Airport. As a result, even if land is subsequently freed, it loses much of its fertility due to urban pollution.

While the removal or chemical cleaning of soil is expensive, Fullen’s team are working on developing cheaper and environmentally friendly methods to remove heavy metals. In China, students from the University of Wolverhampton are planting carnations on soil polluted with cadmium. The plants act as so-called hyper-accumulators by drawing toxic materials into their roots.

Fullen says this method could be used on London’s brownfield sites, and even in parks created on former bomb sites. ‘If you are not looking to reuse the land straight away, the cheapest option is to plant something that will soak up the toxins, and that can then be burned in a safe place,’ he says.


United Kingdom sees dip in European research applications after Brexit vote

First published in Nature, 21.09.17

21 September 2017

The number of researchers applying for Europe-funded Marie Curie fellowships in the United Kingdom has dipped slightly since the country’s vote to leave the European Union, data released to Nature show. But there is no evidence yet of a sharp collapse in interest, which some scientists had feared in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Every year, the European Commission funds thousands of experienced researchers — most of them European — to undertake work in other EU countries, typically for one or two years, with individual fellowships usually worth between €150,000 (US$180,000) and €200,000. More than 9,000 academics have applied for the popular programme this year, in an application round that closed on 14 September. Of those, 1,997 people — around 22% of the total — requested to work in the United Kingdom. In 2016, the United Kingdom had received 2,211 applications, some 25% of the total that year; while in 2014, the UK share of applicants reached 28%.

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