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Research Developments and COVID-19 in the UK

We are facing an unprecedented situation across the world with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is becoming very real for us in the U.K. In the last few days we have seen a significant rise in those ill with COVID-19 symptoms and deaths that are becoming substantial in number. Given the pattern of spread of the virus in Italy and other nearby European countries and the recent ‘lock-down’ of the UK it is easy to see why people are feeling panicked.

Let’s focus on something positive. Behind the scenes, in Universities across the UK, researchers specialising in infectious diseases are working around the clock not only to understand the virus by deciphering its genetic code, but to produce and test vaccines, and also how best to deliver treatments. Surprisingly there is relatively little media coverage of this work in light of the fact that every media outlet is almost solely covering COVID-19. Brexit and Scottish Independence seem almost forgotten. There is piece upon piece on the mass daily life disruption, movement of people, stock-piling and economic cost of COVID-19. These are all central worries to our daily lives of course, but it would be good to see more coverage of the science.

Let’s take a look at a number of studies that have recently been funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Department of Health and Social Care through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Importantly the research has been co-ordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other funders to ensure the research teams are not duplicating other projects.

The projects cover testing of a vaccine, and developing therapies and improving understanding of how to treat COVID-19.  Let’s focus in on two of the studies funded.

Dr Sarah Gilbert and her team at the University of Oxford began vaccine development for COVID-19 as soon as the genetic information about the virus was released.  The team have now received funding from UKRI and NIHR to support testing and manufacturing of the new vaccine, and then to carry out clinical trials in people. Testing will first be done with adults aged 18-50 before extension to children and older adults. A vaccine candidate has now been identified and it is hoped it will be able to prime the immune system to recognise and attack this type of coronavirus. The Guardian and the Daily Mail has covered this work in an informative way and with language accessible to the general public. Other coverage by the Express included a sensationalist headline “scientist confirms rapid vaccine arrival in huge breakthrough”, but beyond the headline the coverage was informative with the reporter detailing why the researchers may be quicker at developing and testing a vaccine than the WHO estimate of 18 months. The article then goes on to describe how the research team had already been working on a vaccine against a distant relative of the virus known as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that was first reported in 2012 and had been identified as a likely cause for future epidemics.

Significant funding was given to a research team led by Dr Kenneth Baillie at the Medical School at the University of Edinburgh and involves researchers from 6 different UK Universities.  The team will collect samples and data from patients focusing on what is the best way to diagnose COVID-19, who is at the highest risk of severe illness, and what is happening in individuals with the disease that help or harm them. As the grant funding was only formally announced on Monday March 23rd there has only been local coverage of this work to date.

It will be exciting to see the developments from all of the projects funded over the coming weeks. As developments occur and are communicated it would be great to see a significant focus on these research projects with the media playing a crucial role in providing accurate information to the public. Not only is this science crucial to help end this pandemic it would be good to see children and young people take a positive focus on what we can do to solve this situation moving away from the spiralling anxiety they are being exposed to.

Looking back at Research the Headlines in 2019

2019 was another challenging year for evidence-based media reporting of research. Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to examine how research is portrayed in the media, and to give the public helpful advice and tools when trying to get to the heart of a news story.

During 2019 we again hosted a ‘brain blog’ series, showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. They wrote informative posts about alcohol and dementia risk and intellectual engagement and ageing. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines”workshops and competition for primary school children.

Our writers also continued with our Talking Headlines series with an interview with Debbie Kennett. This series seeks to gain insights from experts who have had a range of experiences in relation to the media  and their work. We also had a post on science communication and policy making highlighting the work of our member organisation The Young Academy of Scotland and their involvement in a pairing scheme with MSPs involving shadowing their respective MSPs who then visit their institutions.

As usual we covered a wide range of topics! In keeping with current media focus we had several posts on climate issues. This included posts on pesticides that impair bird migration and extinction risk.  We also posted again about coverage that had arisen over early interventions in childhood disorders as we have done multiple times in the past. In most cases there was accurate reporting of the research but a lack of context of the relationship of the research to similar research could have distorted the inferences made. In others a sensationalist headline over-egged the conclusion that should have been drawn. Frequently we saw good examples of sound reporting such as use of references to NHS website information to describe a disorder.  We will continue with our range of activities in 2020 and look forward to continue working with early career researchers and offering them opportunities to develop their blogging skills!

Omega-3 supplements and ADHD

This post was written by Emily McDougal and Sinead Rhodes

Parents are often keen to hear about ways to support their child’s health and development. In recent years, media coverage regarding possible causes or risk factors for childhood disorders has increased. We have previously written about media coverage of risk factors for children’s development, such as our previous Autism and vitamin D in pregnancy blog post.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common childhood disorder, and around 1% of children are diagnosed with ADHD in the UK. People with ADHD might have difficulty paying attention, may fidget, move or talk excessively, act without thinking, or make careless mistakes. We have previously written about media coverage of ADHD, such as those relating to the profile and brain differences. ADHD is commonly treated with medication, such as Ritalin or Adderall, which aims to improve concentration and reduce hyperactivity.

The Daily Mail recently covered findings from a research study, using the headline, “Fish oil supplements could be ‘as good as drugs’ for treating ADHD”. Here we break down what the study actually did, and how well the newspaper article communicates the study’s findings.

What did this study do?

Ninety-two children in Taiwan, aged 6 to 18 years old, were given either Omega-3 (a nutrient found in oily fish) or a placebo (a substance that has no therapeutic effect) once a day for twelve weeks. Children completed a 15-minute computer task both before and after the supplements were taken, which measured changes in their ability to maintain attention and how impulsive their responses were.

Parents, teachers and children over 12 years old also completed a questionnaire to measure the child’s ADHD symptom behaviours before and after the supplement was taken, to see whether this changed at all.

After taking Omega-3, children’s ability to attend during the 15-minute task improved more than those taking the placebo. However, those taking the placebo improved more on a different measure, impulsiveness, than those taking Omega-3. The findings were therefore mixed: one ADHD-associated symptom seemed to improve more with Omega-3, whereas another didn’t.

Changes in ADHD behaviours reported by parents, teachers and children did not differ between children taking Omega-3 and the placebo, suggesting that the supplement did not improve ADHD symptoms of attention or impulsivity. This does not match with the findings from the computer task.

How well does the article describe the study?

The newspaper article headline said that the Omega-3 could be as good as drugs usually given to treat ADHD symptoms, but this is not an accurate statement. Since the study did not compare children taking Omega-3 to children taking medication such as Ritalin, we do not know how effective the supplement is compared to ADHD medication.

Towards the end of the article, the writer reports comments from another researcher who highlights some of the flaws with the study. We describe some of these below. It is therefore important to read articles such as this to the end, as usually any shocking statements are in the headline, with more balanced arguments given later on.

The article includes a description of ADHD written by the NHS, which was good to see. It offers a good overview of ADHD for anyone who is less familiar with the disorder.

Other things to keep in mind

The article is written about one study (with 92 children), so we do not know whether the same results would be found for all children with ADHD. As well as this, the study was conducted in Taiwan, so we do not know whether children in other countries such as the UK or USA would benefit from Omega-3 supplements.

The study also does not report whether children in each of the groups (Omega-3 or placebo) were of the same age. They were randomly allocated to groups, and since the age range of the children is so large, it could be that the age of the children affected the findings.

Our key advice here, as per our top tip of don’t stop at the headline, is to read through the whole article. Not only is the headline misleading, but the balanced arguments are not described until the end.

Use of a common pesticide that impairs bird migration

Ever since Rachel Carson published the Silent Spring in 1962, we have known that songbirds are in great danger from pollution and human activities. Recent research has made the causes and the consequences of pesticide pollution even more evident.

A journal article published this month in Science clearly shows that the use of a common pesticide, called a ‘neonicotinoid’, is likely causing bird population declines because it is hindering bird migration. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used type of agricultural pesticide worldwide. In this study, the authors combined an experimental approach of feeding sparrows a neonicotinoid with a telemetry approach – a method of tracking individual movements in natural habitats – to follow the birds’ migratory movements. The research used the white-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, which is a typical seed-eating songbird of northern latitudes. The exposure conditions that were used in the experiments were well within the dosage that a bird could realistically consume by eating even a few seeds that had been treated with a neonicotinoid.

The authors discovered that even a single exposure to low doses of a neonicotinoid caused negative effects on bird feeding and migration. Birds that were exposed to the neonicotinoid had significantly longer stop-overs, meaning that migration takes longer. The proximate mechanisms by which this effect occurred is that the birds stopped eating; they quickly lost weight from their fat reserves and this weight loss lasted for an extended period of time.  Fat reserves and fuel from feeding are critical for successful bird migration because it is very energetically challenging. The authors suggest that the longer stopover is caused by the fact that the exposed birds eat less and therefore have less fuel to continue. As every 1960s French movie star knows, nicotine suppresses appetite. Neonicotinoids are chemical sisters to nicotine and may well have the same effect on birds. Birds only continue their migration when they have enough reserves to meet the next bout of flight.

The press response to this paper has been high, especially in North America. The message and coverage has been consistent and, as far as I have seen, quite accurate and reflecting the dire state of bird health and its evidenced link to these pesticides. It seems to me that the media response is more on the side of reporting the science and biodiversity conservation now than even a few years ago, when for example in the UK media also presented the chemical industry perspective that neonicotinoids are necessary and not harmful. By now few disagree that birds are being lost at a staggering rate in the northern hemisphere; a different study in Science, on the heels of the pesticide one, found that 3 billion birds have been lost from North America in the last 50 years. Numbers in Europe are believed to be comparably drastic. Birds are indicator species for ecosystem health and evidence from this study shows that a major cause of that decline is likely a chemical that humans choose to apply.

What individual birds experience during migration has population-level consequences because it directly affects mortality and birth rates. In this case the birds were slower to continue migration, which means that they will have poorer quality breeding sites when they arrive at their destination. This is known to result in later breeding, and fewer and lower fitness offspring, with long-term effects on population viability. These consequences are evident in the results from another high profile journal article published this month, birds that are dependent on farmlands have declined in abundance by a staggering 74% over the past ca. 50 years. It is precisely these farmland birds, exemplified by the sparrows, that are most exposed to neonicotinoids and other pesticides. In fact, the authors note that some individuals may experience repeated exposure at successive feeding stopover sites, which would amplify these negative fitness consequences that were detected in their study.

The media coverage has been wide, perhaps because we are currently in a time of increasing awareness about the impact of human activities on the natural environment. The evidence that neonicotinoids inflict huge harm to bees and other pollinators has been growing. The effects are not only direct – as evidenced experimentally in this study on sparrows – but also indirect on ecosystems, for example when pesticides reduce natural insect numbers and therefore remove a valuable food source for bats, birds and other animals. Consequently, the EU, including the UK, banned neonicotinoids in 2018 (except for use in plants that live their entire life in greenhouses). The UK government says they will maintain the ban post-Brexit. However exemptions requested under ‘emergency situations’ may be a route by which neonicotinoids are still used. The fact that neonicotinoids are already banned in the EU and UK – i.e. it is now clearly accepted that they cause harm – might be the reason that the media coverage of this article has been somewhat less on this side of the Atlantic than in North America.

In North America, the timing of this study is particularly important and therefore the media attention is valuable for raising awareness on human and environmental health. Neonicotinoids are on almost all corn and canola seeds, and many soybean seeds, in Canada and are used very widely in the USA. The government agency Health Canada has proposed a phased in ban on agricultural use of neonicotinoids starting in 2019. There are few or no restrictions on their use in the USA. Trump reversed a limited Obama era ban on neonicotinoids in wildlife refuges. Hopefully the evidence that is accumulating from science will help motivate future bans across the globe.

Now it is clear that neonicotinoids are harmful to insects and vertebrates. To date, the burden of proof has clearly been laid on scientists and concerned citizens and public funds through university research to demonstrate these consequences. But other pesticides are dangerous to wildlife as well. For the sake of ecosystem health and biodiversity, let’s hope that the lessons that took so long to learn on neonicotinoids are applied more rapidly to other human actions that significantly harm nature.

 

Main paper discussed is:

Eng ML, Stutchbury BJM, Morrissey CA (2019) A neonicotinoid insecticide reduces fueling and delays migration in songbirds. Science, 365, 1177–1180.

Available at https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6458/1177

Brain blog showcase 2019: Alcohol: A Leading Health Risk or Protective Factor against Dementia?

All this week we’ve been showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow for more information and materials.

For our final “brain blog”, we have…

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Brain blog showcase 2019: Use it or lose it: Can intellectual engagement offset cognitive decline in older age?

All this week we’re showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow for more information and materials.

Next up in the “brain blog” showcase, we have…

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Brain blog showcase 2019: Students “research the headlines”

At Research the Headlines we explore how research is discussed in the media. We try to add additional details to existing coverage, or help our readers get a clearer understanding of how new research might make its way from “lab to headline”. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines”workshops and competition for primary school children.

Many of our contributors also use the ideas behind Research the Headlines in their teaching. In one of his undergraduate courses, Alan Gow (Heriot-Watt University) has his students find a recent media article related to lifestyle factors and brain health. Their task is to describe the original research that report is based on in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage. A key aim of these “brain blogs” is to explain the important concepts and take home messages, and to highlight issues in interpretation either in the media report or the underlying research.

Over the course of this week we’re showcasing the work of three students, all recent graduates in Psychology at Heriot-Watt. The blogs are presented as submitted by the students; they’ve not been edited. We hope you enjoy reading their work, and learning a bit more about the topics too! If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow for more information and materials.

Starting the “brain blog” showcase, we have…

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Biodiversity at risk or eco-propaganda?

The first Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment summary for policy makers was released on the day prince Archie was born and the Met Gala took place. While nothing can quite compete for press attention with the birth of a royal baby and celebrities in fancy dress, the IPBES global assessment received plenty of press attention. Since late April, IPBES has featured in over 23 thousand articles. I have not read them all! Examples of press media coverage can be found here and here.

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Science communication and policy making

The Young Academy of Scotland (YAS) is today launching an exciting new project that will bring politicians and academics together. Five YAS members will shadow their respective MSPs at Holyrood and in their constituency. The politicians will then visit the academics at their institutions. Through this approach each member of the pair will gain an understanding on how the other part works and what challenges they face. You can follow all the action on social media with this hashtag #YASMSPPairing. The scheme is inspired by the well-established and highly successful annual pairing initiative organised at Westminster by The Royal Society, in which I was lucky to participate during 2017. (See picture with paired MP, Stephen Gethins.)

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Talking Headlines with Debbie Kennett

Debbie is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London. She writes about DNA testing for Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine and Family Tree Magazine, and has written two books for the History Press: DNA and Social Networking and The Surnames Handbook. She promotes the responsible use of DNA testing as a tool for genealogical research. To this end she has helped to create educational resources for the genetic genealogy community, notably by co-founding the ISOGG Wiki. Her blog Cruwys News features articles on DNA, family history and surname research. She has been interviewed about genetic ancestry testing for BBC Radio 4, appearing on You and Yours and The Business of Genetic Ancestry. She is often asked to comment on DNA stories for the UK and US press and has been cited in numerous publications including The Times, The Observer, The Atlantic, Bloomberg News and The Washington Post. Debbie can be found on Twitter commenting and tweeting about anything to do with DNA.

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