Month: November 2013

Going to London to visit the Queen … Boyd Orr Centre awarded Queen’s Anniversary Prize

CONGRATULATIONS to everyone within the Boyd Orr Centre; as announced just this past Thursday evening, the University of Glasgow has been awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education on the basis of the work of the Centre. The award commends ‘outstanding achievement at a world-class level’ and is assessed by a specialist panel over several months, and then put forward by the Prime Minister to the Queen for Royal Assent. What makes the award rather special, is that it is the only award in the Queen’s honours list that is awarded to institutions, rather than to individuals.  Only 20 of the biennial awards were made this year, across all of the higher and further education sector. That the Boyd Orr Centre would be awarded one, having only been in existence as a formal entity for just over six years, and building on a body of work that has largely been developed over the last ten years, is something rather remarkable. That the award is given to a group makes it, in my view, rather special – we can be rightly proud of the honours that the individuals around us receive, but this really does represent the work and dedication of the group.

Our submission included four case studies covering our work on rabies, foot-and-mouth disease, bovine Tuberculosis and with the Afrique One consortium. And yet these are only representative of a much larger body of work within the Centre – from malaria to E. Coli, from biodiversity measures to nematode parasites in sheep, the work of the Centre is diverse and bound together mainly by the general approach and ethos that the Centre operates under – high quality, interesting science where we work on systems of practical importance with an aim to make things better.

Much of the success of the Centre’s members is based on partnerships. Partnerships within the Centre, partnerships within the University (e.g. the Glasgow Polyomics Centre, and the MRC Centre for Virus Research), and a breadth of partnerships across the UK and abroad. It is this willingness to work with people on the basis of what they bring to us intellectually that has always impressed me, together with a willingness to expand personal intellectual boundaries in order to solve the problems at hand. I am very proud indeed to be a part of the Boyd Orr Centre.

Further details can be found in a news release. For those with an interest to see the impressive range of activities found deserving of a prize this year, the full list of winners is available here:


Typhoon Haiyan – The Perfect Storm


Image of Typhoon Haiyan from the Washington Post

For those of you who have seen me give a talk or a lecture, there is a good chance you’ve heard me use the analogy of ‘the perfect storm’ as a way of describing the unexpected consequences of nonlinearity. Nonlinearity can be viewed as a process of multiplication – multiple any series of numbers by zero, and the result is still zero. Change that zero to any non-zero value, and suddenly you can have an unanticipated, very large effect. The Goldsboro incident (thankfully one that did not happen). The emergence of an infectious disease. The collapse of an ecosystem. Or what some have called the largest recorded storm in history. This particular ‘perfect storm’ will undoubtedly cause others. Loss of infrastructure, increased stress on the resources that do remain, depletion of food supplies and clean water, stress on human health, loss of livestock are all issues, with an unpredictable impact on any number of diseases including dengue, cholera, dysentery and malaria. Their contribution to the already massive toll of human suffering is as yet unknown.

Around the world relief organisations have mobilised to provide help. As reported on BBC Newsnight, one unusual way that you can help is via a crowdsourcing initiative called Tomnod. Crowdsourcing is a way of using the massed power of human presence on the internet to accomplish specific goals. Tomnod is a company that has undertaken what is simultaneously a fascinating and extremely worthwhile project. One things that human beings are exceptionally good at, is identifying patterns. We do this much better than computers, and Tomnod is using this crowdsourcing ability to identify the areas of significant devastation across the Phillipines – follow the link, and you’ll be taken to a satellite image of a small area of the Phillipines where you can click on particular points of damage. Aggregating data over multiple contributors allows Tomnod to help in the targeting of relief efforts. While we all know that there are no simple solutions to the worlds problems, perhaps there is hope that the harnessing of these kinds of nonlinearities will create their own perfect storms.