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Warnings that cliff edge threat over EU research funding could be devastating for Higher Education in Wales

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“Brinkmanship” by the Westminster Government regarding the future of the UK’s role in EU-led research programmes could have a devastating effect on the higher education and research sector in Wales and leave funding on a cliff edge according to the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

The claim by the Welsh Liberal Democrats comes as leaked Government papers emerged over the weekend outlining that the UK would be willing to walk away from the EU’s Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom research funding programmes.

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Horizon Europe is the EU’s flagship funding programme for research and innovation with a budget of over €95 billion. The funding aims to keep Europe at the cutting edge of technological innovation, helping boost competitiveness and growth while also aiming to tackle climate change and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Wales had previously secured €139 million of Horizon 2020 funding since the start of the programme, involving 375 participants and over 4,000 international collaborations. It had been hoped the UK could continue to maintain access to the scheme via the Horizon Europe association programme which sees non-EU states like Norway and Turkey access funding.

The Telegraph has reported that despite the UK Government continuing to fund Horizon to the value of £2.1 billion annually, the EU has not yet allowed UK scientists entry to the programme. This is despite other non-EU countries including Norway receiving formal association status.

This means that British institutions are missing out on research and funding opportunities – a move that leaked Government papers suggest is a deliberate bid by Brussels to create leverage in the Northern Ireland talks.

The Telegraph reports a senior UK Government source as saying: “Blocking the UK from joining Horizon is in no one’s interest – we can’t participate and they lose out our financial contribution. We’re having to look at alternatives in case the EU does block our access, which would be a breach of what we agreed less than a year ago.”

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The Welsh Liberal Democrats, who campaigned for the UK to rejoin the EU in the last general election, described this as “brinkmanship” and representing and unacceptable risk to Wales’ higher education and research sector, as well as to the long-term stability of the Welsh economy as a whole.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader, Jane Dodds MS said: “The higher education and research sector is vital to Wales with a 2020 study finding that universities contributed more than £5 billion to the Welsh economy and generated an average of 61,722 jobs per year.

“The sector has already experienced significant turbulence due to Brexit, with the number of EU students studying in the UK halving in the year 2021 and institutions facing troubles in recruiting and retaining EU staff.

“It also fell to Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Minister Kirsty Williams to clean up the Conservative’s mess and introduce the International Learning Exchange programme after they took the UK out of Erasmus, despite promising they would not do so. The last thing our higher education and research sector needs now is yet more uncertainty.

“While the Tories have stated they would replace funding with a domestic programme if they exit Horizon, how on earth can we trust them after every other replacement programme introduced by the Conservatives has been underfunded, under-resourced and inadequate.

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“We should be looking at repairing relations with the EU and increasing cooperation, not placing further threats.

“I am calling on the Conservative Party to cease this utterly irresponsible behaviour that places people’s jobs and livelihoods as well as the Welsh economy at risk, they must give the Welsh higher education and research sectors the security and stability they need.”

Brexit minister, Lord Frost has allegedly been working with Business Secrertary Kwasi Kwarteng, to create a British alternative to the Horizon Europe called ‘Discovery Fund’.

(Lead image: Chokniti Khongchum / Pexels.com)

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Health

Swansea scientists develop new method to detect viruses in a pinprick

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Scientists at Swansea University, Biovici Ltd and the National Physical Laboratory have developed a method to detect viruses in very small volumes.

The work, published in Advanced NanoBiomed Research, follows a successful Innovate UK project developing graphene for use in biosensors – devices that can detect tiny levels of disease markers.

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For many parts of the world that do not have access to high-tech labs found in hospitals, detecting viruses such as hepatitis C (HCV) – could save millions of preventable deaths worldwide. In addition, biosensors such as this could be used at the point-of-care – opening effective healthcare in difficult-to-reach settings.

What makes the detection of viruses in such small volumes possible is the use of a material called graphene. Graphene is extremely thin – only one atom thick – making it very sensitive to anything that attaches to it.

By carefully controlling its surface, scientists at Swansea University were able to make the surface of graphene sensitive to the HCV virus. These measurements were done with graphene specialists at the National Physical Laboratory.

In the future, it is hoped that multiple biosensors can be developed onto a single chip – this could be used to detect different types of dangerous viruses or disease markers from a single measurement.  

Ffion Walters, Innovation Technologist at Swansea University’s Healthcare Technology Centre said: “Highly sensitive and simplistic sensors have never been more in demand with regards point-of-care applications. 

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“This collaborative project has allowed us to realise proof-of-concept real-time sensors for HCV,  which could be especially beneficial in resource-limited settings or for difficult-to-reach populations.”

Professor Owen Guy, Head of Chemistry at Swansea University, said: “At Swansea University, we have now developed graphene-based biosensors for both Hepatitis B and C. This is a major step forward to a future single point of care test”

Dr Olga Kazakova, NPL Fellow Quantum Materials & Sensors added: “NPL was delighted to be part of this multidisciplinary team. Participation in this project allowed us to further develop our metrological validation facilities and apply them to the characterisation of graphene biosensors and aid in solving an important challenge in the health sector.”

Lead image: Graphene device chip attached to an electrical connector, with two 5 μL HCVcAg samples (one applied on each graphene resistor). (Image: Swansea University)

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Health

New study suggests four in 10 in need of social care in Wales did not access services during the pandemic

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As many as four in 10 people in Wales who may have needed social care did not access its services during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.

Commissioned by Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament) and led by Dr Simon Williams of Swansea University, the study explored public attitudes and experiences of social care in Wales two years on from the start of the pandemic.

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The study, which involved a survey of 2,569 respondents in Wales and a series of focus groups, found that the Covid-19 pandemic hit social care hard, exacerbating the social care crisis, and intensifying pressure on the workforce.

The study’s key findings reveal that four in 10 people who felt that they or someone in their household or close family needed social care during the past two years did not receive or make use of it.

The pandemic was cited as a major reason why many of those who may have needed social care didn’t access it – either out of fear of contracting Covid or because they didn’t want to burden social care services that were experiencing significant pressures.

Satisfaction with social care was variable, according to the study, with approximately one-third either very or quite dissatisfied, and a little over half either very or quite satisfied with social care services for themselves or a household or close family member.

Among those who felt that they or someone in their household didn’t receive or make use of social care despite needing it, the most common reasons people gave included: lack of availability or staff shortages (22%), not fitting eligibility criteria (17%), feeling too proud to access care (15%) and the application process being too complicated (10%).

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Most of the respondents (86%) felt that the social care system in Wales needs reform, and 94% of said that it should be a priority for the UK and Welsh Governments.

In the focus groups, participants argued that there is a need for consistency in the social care received, more personalised care, better integration between health and social care, and a need for more investment in social care. Some felt that reform should see the integration of social care into the NHS, while others argued for the establishment of a separate national care service.

Dr Williams said: “It is concerning that approximately four in 10 of those feeling in need of social care did not receive or make use of social care services. Social care policymakers and providers should seek to understand and address what people feel are the main barriers to accessing or using social care, including increasing provision for those who need it, encouraging and enabling those who feel they need social care to apply, consider broadening the eligibility criteria where appropriate, and simplifying the application process.

“As with healthcare services, another challenge for social care services may be the need to address a potential backlog in those needing care, who were either unable to access services due to restrictions or staff shortages, or did not want to apply because they were concerned about infection risk or did not want to bother services.”

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Lifestyle

Education and earning potential hold the key to online dating popularity according to a Swansea psychologist

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Money can’t buy you love but it does make your profile more attractive when it comes to online dating.

New research has revealed that level of education and income are particularly important, especially for men.

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Evolutionary psychologist Dr Andrew G Thomas, from Swansea University’s School of Psychology, was involved in the study which examined almost 2 million dating profiles and revealed that being more educated and earning more money increases the amount of interest received.

Dr Thomas said: “We wanted to find out if we could predict how much attention, – whether messages, winks or likes – a person’s dating profile received based on their level of income and education, factors which together we call competency.”

Using 1.8 million dating profiles from 24 different countries, Dr Thomas and his co-author Dr Peter Jonason, discovered that competency really did increase the amount of attention people received in every country studied.

Their research, just published in online journal Human Nature, showed that while both sexes received a boost in interest when they had a great ability to acquire resources, the increase was almost 2.5 times stronger in men than in women. 

He said: “This perhaps reflects the fact that women tend to look for more social status in their romantic partners than men do and again this was a pattern we saw worldwide.”

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The study also measured the attention gap between men and women online. Women receive around 7.5 times more attention than men. This sex difference was smaller when comparing men and high-earned educated women but it was still present. Even highly competent men failed to attract more attention than women from low income and poor educational backgrounds.

The attention dynamic is due to more men using dating sites to seek casual sex than women, coupled with ambiguous, low-investment mating contexts.

Dr Thomas said this behaviour results in an environment where women become so inundated with requests from men with short-term interests that engagement becomes one-way.

“Men looking for a long-term partner find their messages lost in a sea of superficial solicitation. Women find themselves having to wade through responses and so hold men to a high standard and judge them as promiscuous until proven committed.”

For male lonely hearts unable to become super-competent or women frustrated with sifting through countless superficial messages there may be a better option for finding happiness closer to home.

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Dr Thomas, who also writes about the topic on his blog Darwin Does Dating, said: “My recommendation would be to favour searching for mates in contexts that foster investment from both parties, such as local speed dating events. Not only do these require time and effort to attend, but you can rely on all of your senses and adaptations when making your mate choice decisions and have a smaller number of more meaningful interactions.”

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