OU is a winner at the 2015 Annual Telly Awards

Telly Award for 60 Second Adventures in Astronomy

Telly Award for 60 Second Adventures in Astronomy

The Telly Awards has named The Open University as a winner in the 36th Annual Telly Awards for their animated shorts 60 Second Adventures in Astronomy. This year the Telly Awards had nearly 12,000 entries from all over the world.

60 Second Adventures in Astronomy

Voiced by David Mitchell, this series of twelve 60 second animations examines different scientific concepts from the big bang to relativity, from black holes to dark matter.  The series also explores the possibility of life beyond Earth and considers why David Bowie is still none the wiser about life on Mars.

60 second Adventures in Astronomy was produced by Catherine Chambers, with academic support from Janet Sumner, David Rothery, Stephen Serjeant and Andrew Norton. It was funded by a Science in Society public engagement award from the Science and Technology Facilities Council,

The Telly Awards was founded in 1979 and is the premier award honouring outstanding local, regional, and cable TV commercials and programs, the finest video and film productions, and online commercials, video and films.  Winners represent the best work of the most respected advertising agencies, production companies, television stations, cable operators, and corporate video departments in the world.

Watch 60 Second Adventures in Astronomy on YouTube

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The Open Media Unit and Health & Social Care Present: Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant

Faculty of Health and Social Care

Friday 24th July 2015 @ 9pm on BBC THREE

Today, sees the first episode of a 2 part series on BBC Three at 9pm – Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant.  This OU/BBC series forms part of the BBC Three Season “Defying the Label” a collection of programmes tackling perceptions about disability.

Life with a disability can be one challenge after another.  Finding the right carer can open up a world of possibilities.  In this two part documentary series, four young ambitious disabled people are cared for by unemployed people their own age.

There are currently around 300,000 young disabled people in the UK who rely on carers for their daily needs.  For many of these ambitious young people finding the right carer is the difference between achieving their ambitions or a life unfulfilled.  But as a young disabled person in Britain your options are limited, as the majority of people working in care are over 40 years old.  But with three quarters of a million young people under 24 currently looking for work, could the solution being staring us in the face?

This ground breaking 2 part series explores what happens when four young ambitious disabled people put all their care needs in the hands of unemployed people their own age.  But there’s a catch, to ensure applicants come to the roll with an open mind the exact nature of the job and the employers disabilities aren’t revealed until the final job interview.

Will seeing the world from a different point of view help break down preconceptions of disability and unemployment.     Could challenging shared experiences lead to lasting friendships and even a rewarding new career?


OpenLearn has extensive resources and information on topics related to this series.  How do you think the right care partnerships can be achieved?  Have your say, share your views, and find out more visit: OpenLearn Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant

This 2-part series was commissioned by the  Open Media Unit, and is supported by The Faculty of Health and Social Care, with particular relevance to BA/BSc (Honours) Health and Social Care (Q18).

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The Open Media Unit and Social Sciences present: The Met: Policing London

The Open Media Unit and Social Sciences present:

Monday 8 June 2015
9pm on BBC1
10.35pm on BBC1 Scotland
Monday 8 June, sees the first episode of The Met: Policing London on BBC1 at 9pm, a new 5-part series, filmed over the course of a year.

This series follows officers of Britain’s biggest and busiest police service as they deal with life, death, crime and it’s victims, all across the capital.

Episode 1

The killing of a young black man called Mark Duggan by a Met officer sparked the 2011 riots. Now an Inquiry is about to decide if the killing was lawful and Scotland Yard is anxious about renewed racial tension and more riots in London.

In 2011, a 29-year-old black man and suspected gang member called Mark Duggan was fatally shot by a firearms office in Tottenham. The officer believed Duggan had a gun and that he might use it. The Met’s handling of the situation in the days that followed sparked some of the worst riots in London’s history. Now, an Inquiry is about to announce whether the killing was lawful or unlawful. It’s creating anxiety in Scotland Yard and tension on the streets of Tottenham, one of the most racially diverse areas of Britain and home to the Duggan family.

Management at Scotland Yard is busy planning around the verdict: whatever the outcome they are anxious that it may spark fresh riots. Victor Olisa is one of just 5 Borough Commanders in the Met from a black or ethnic background. He was moved to Tottenham after the riots to try to heal the Met’s relationship with some of the community.  When the verdict is announced, his station becomes the focus of community frustrations and the pressure is on Victor to manage the situation which he does by asking for help from community leaders.

In the weeks that follow, tensions between some of London’s black community and the Met are running high. Police think it’s time for a new approach. At the annual Splash street party in Brixton they work with the black community to police the event the way the community wants it policed.  But can this approach work when gangs have caused chaos in previous years?  And can there ever be a long-term solution to the troubled history of London’s police and some of the city’s black community.

Episode 2

Mistaken identity leaves a young father dead and detectives struggling to catch his killers. Brixton CID hunt a violent sexual offender before he attacks again and Notting Hill Carnival sees London’s biggest police operation.

A quiet after work drink ends in tragedy when a 34-year-old father is mistaken for another man and stabbed to death outside a pub in central London. With little evidence to go on, murder detective John Sandlin hopes that CCTV will give him the vital answers he needs to bring the killers to justice.

In Brixton, CID officer Tracey Miller is on the hunt for a very particular sex offender who has been targeting Muslim women in the area.  With only a photo of the man and no name, it’s a race against time to catch the attacker before he strikes again.

Notting Hill Carnival is one of the biggest street parties in the world and the biggest event in the Metropolitan Police’s calendar. With 14 thousand cops on duty over the party weekend, at a cost of £7 million pounds, the pressure is on for the officers to balance the carnival spirit with keeping the public safe.

Episode 3

London by night has it own challenges. From abusive drunks to high value robberies, burglars caught in the act and the stresses of mental health, tackling the cities crime is different after dark.

On an average night, the Met receives over 4000 emergency calls, keeping London’s 800 on-duty response cops busy from dusk ‘til dawn.

Crimes thrives in the shadows and in the residential streets of North London, a burglar has been caught in the act and it’s down to  PC Waz Din to, literally, talk him down when the suspect is found hanging from a first floor window.

8 miles away, on the busy streets of Soho, something sinister is lurking behind the bright lights. For the past two years, Detective Superintendent Kevin Southworth has been gathering evidence on the thieves and drug dealers exploiting the area. Tonight, with the help of 400 riot-trained officers, he’ll make his move.

After dark, London’s clubs and bars come alive but as the punters spill out onto the city streets, it’s up to the cops to take the abuse from punters who can’t hold their booze. And the long night can be a lonely time for those suffering from mental health issues as Constables Ian Gray and Christine Wratten rush to help two Londoners who are feeling suicidal.

Episode 4

Trident, the Met’s specialist gang unit, tackle drug dealers in South London, police in Camden are overwhelmed by violent moped-enabled attacks and officers in Brixton deal with the terrible repercussions of knife crime.

Gangs are a major problem for police in at least 20 of London’s 32 boroughs. Detectives Stuart McNaughton and Bob Dolce work for Trident, the Met’s specialist gang unit. As increasingly younger boys and girls are being lured into the gang lifestyle, Bob and Stuart have focused on London’s most dangerous gang, working undercover to take down it’s leaders and stop the lucrative drug trade thriving on the streets of South London.

Wealthy residents of Camden, North London, have been plagued by a wave of violent snatch-and-grab thefts by robbers using mopeds to evade police. Suspects are often only in their teens and cops are discouraged from chasing the criminals. Public confidence in the police is running low and it’s up to Borough Commander Richard Tucker to win back local trust and wipe out the problem.

Police Constables Tim Dawes and Steph Mills have been patrolling the streets of Brixton for over 5 years and deal with knife crime on an almost daily basis. But nothing can prepare them for the shock of a vicious knife attack in broad daylight when it’s up to them to try to save the life of an innocent teenage boy.

Episode 5

A new Met recruit must learn his way around the London streets, Camden officers deal with the highs and lows of policing the public and Homicide investigate the tragic death of a four-month-old baby.

In the past year, over 2000 officers have joined the ranks of the Metropolitan police, tasked with keeping the streets of London safe for it’s 8 million residents, 24 hours a day. Over 50% of new Met officers are from outside London and recruit, Yorkshireman Tom Hebblethwaite, has his work cut out finding his way around the city streets. During Tom’s on-the-ground training he must achieve some vital goals from making an arrest to learning to march before he can graduate and ‘pass out’ in front of top cop and fellow northerner, Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe.

The streets of London are a challenge for even the most experienced police constables and response officers Caroline Hay and Karl Davies are old hands at dealing with the ups-and-downs of policing the public in Camden, North London. Whilst putting up with verbal abuse from angry buskers is just part of the job, it’s protecting some of societies more vulnerable individuals that makes Caroline reflect on why she joined the service.

In East London, Detective Jason Weald is nearing retirement and must call on his years of experience to get to the bottom of the tragic death of a four-month-old baby. His team struggle to keep their personal and professional opinions separate as the quest to find justice in this emotional case divides the homicide detectives.

To find out more:

To accompany the series, OMU has produced a free poster looking at the way police fight crime and how it has changed over the years. Copies can be obtain by visiting OpenLearn.

This 5-part series was commissioned by the  Open Media Unit , and is supported by the Social Science Faculty, with particular relevance to Q57 BA (Hons) Social Policy and Criminology and  Q48 BA (Hons) Criminology and Psychological Studies.

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Succeed in the Workplace: free Open University course launches

Succeed in the workplace – ground-breaking FREE course

Succeed in the workplace badge

Succeed in the workplace badge

The Open University’s Open Media Unit and Careers Advisory Service have produced a free online course to help explore career opportunities and build foundations of career planning. ‘Succeed in the workplace’ is the seventh in a suite of OU “Badged Open Courses” or BOCs, all of which are completely free, accessible to anyone and available online.

The new short course (around 24 hours of learning) focusses on developing the skills to write strong CVs and application forms, and to handle different types of interviews. The course authors use their own experience and skills for employment to help learners understand the foundations of career planning to enable learners to build an action plan to help find a job and fulfil aspirations that suits their lifestyle. Enrolling on the Succeed in the workplace BOC also gives learners the opportunity to earn an OU digital badge and Statement of Participation certificate which demonstrates their interest in the subject and commitment to their career.

Clare Riding, Head of The Open University’s Careers Advisory Service describes the new course as timely and much needed –“This course will be valuable for anyone who is considering career change or career development – there are lots of practical opportunities to reconsider your future and take the first steps towards achieving your career goals”.

The OU’s OpenLearn website hosts an extensive and growing portfolio of open educational resources (OER) with over 860 free online courses.

The first six OU BOCs on OpenLearn were launched in February 2015 and are already proving very successful with over 500 digital badges issued within the first four months. BOCs are different from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) because they are perpetual, enabling students to return to them at any time to refresh their knowledge, unlike MOOCs which have a set start and finish date. OU Digital badges issued with each BOC and accompanying OU Statement of Participation certificate demonstrate learner achievement as learners will have read full online courses and passed an online assessment.

Follow OU Free Learning on Twitter @OUfreelearning

Why we do free learning at The OU http://www.open.ac.uk/about/open-educational-resources/

What are badged open courses? http://www.open.edu/openlearn/about-openlearn/frequently-asked-questions-on-openlearn

OU BOCs with digital badges and Statements of Participation

Link to BOCs http://www.open.edu/openlearn/about-openlearn/try#Badged open courses

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The Open University Presents: Dementiaville

The Open Media Unit and the
Faculty of Health and Social Care present:

Channel 4

9pm, Thursday 4 June 2015

Today, Thursday 4 June, a brave, new three-part series, Dementiaville, begins on Channel 4.   This observational documentary series, filmed over the course of a year, gains a unique insight into the lives of those suffering with Dementia.

Series overview:-

It is predicted that 1 in 3 people in the UK will be affected by dementia in the future.   This complex disease, with no known cure, can destroy recent memories but leave some older ones intact, causing patients to retreat to their past.  Dementiaville, uses archive footage to illustrate memories, whilst patients’ past and present are explored and new memories are created.

Episode 1: Poppy Lodge – Thurs 4 June @ 9pm

In the first of 3 episodes of Dementiaville the series takes us to Poppy Lodge, a care home leading the way with its controversial approach to dementia. With many residents travelling back in time to memories and places long ago, but forgetting the present, here the staff don’t correct the residents’ realities, instead they embrace what they think is true. We follow Matron Joanne & care worker Craig as they endeavour to reconnect some of the residents to their memories by recreating moments from their past. 56 year old John is taken back to his days in the Navy and for 91 year old Les, a 1940s themed day of celebration culminates in him taking a trip out in a beloved vintage car.

Episode 2: Families – Thurs 11 June @ 11pm

This film features families who are still caring for their loved ones at home.  To keep them at home requires huge commitment, love and adaptation as for them it’s like living with a new person.  It can often feel for the family that the person they love is slipping away and being lost to dementia.   This episode offers an insight into the family’s determination, the impact on their everyday lives and the inner strength that is required.  They attend a work shop run by Dr David Sheard, an expert in dementia care, who shows them ways to reconnect with their loved ones through shared memories and rediscovery of critical moments in their life, whilst building new memories.

Episode 3: Marriage – Thurs 18 June @ 11pm

Imagine if we could go back in time with our loved ones to discover the person they once were?  In the final episode of Dementiaville, the focus is on marriage, following the stories of four wives whose husbands all have dementia.  Jenny, June, Sheila and June meet regularly at Ivy House, a respite day centre in Eastbourne, run by Jane Lowe.  Jane’s approach is to help the wives hold on to their husbands for as long as possible – by encouraging them to build new memories. Whilst seventy-five-year-old Mike travels back to his time in Australia, his peer George travels to the Angel of the North.

OpenLearn has a wealth of information and resources in connection with the series, including a collection of articles and a short audio story about living with Dementia – Louise’s Story.  To find out more and have your say on a range of issues and different perspectives that arise around dementia care please go to OpenLearn

This three-part series was commissioned by the  Open Media Unit, and is supported by the Faculty of Health and Social Care, with particular relevance to BA/BSc (Hons) Health and Social Care (Q18)

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Supporting learning in healthcare practice – ground-breaking free mentorship learning

Press release: Mentorship Badged Open Course launches

Facilitating learning in practice badge

Facilitating learning in practice badge

The Open University’s (OU) Nursing Team and Open Media Unit have produced a free online course in mentorship to develop healthcare practitioners in their role supporting staff who are learning in practice.   ‘Facilitating learning in practice: an OpenLearn resource’ is the sixth in a suite of OU “Badged Open Courses” or BOCs, all of which are completely free, accessible to anyone and available online.

The new short course (around 24 hours of learning) focusses on mentorship skills and it explores the principles and best practices underpinning mentorship in healthcare practice. The course authors use their own experience in the nursing profession to help learners develop their knowledge, understanding and skills of mentorship practice which is relevant to many workplace environments. Enrolling on the Facilitating Learning in Practice BOC also gives learners the opportunity to earn an Open University digital badge which demonstrates their interest in the subject and commitment to their career via continuing professional development.

Practising nurses will find this course particularly relevant as it contributes towards The OU’s Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) approved mentorship programme (register online at The Open University website).

Professor Jan Draper, Head of The Open University’s Department of Nursing describes the new course as timely and much needed “A shortage of trained mentors is a serious challenge to the current plans to increase the registered nurse workforce. The OU’s new and innovative course will be a welcome option for employers seeking to develop mentors in the workplace and therefore help to grow the numbers of qualified nurses”.

The OU’s OpenLearn website hosts an extensive and growing portfolio of open educational resources (OER) with over 860 free online courses.

The first five OU BOCs on OpenLearn were launched in February 2015 and are already proving very successful with over 400 badges issued within the first three months. BOCs are different from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) because they are perpetual, enabling students to return to them at any time to refresh their knowledge, unlike MOOCs which have a set start and finish date. OU Digital badges issued with each BOC and accompanying OU Statement of Participation certificate demonstrate learner achievement as learners will have read full online courses and passed an online assessment.

Follow OU Free Learning on Twitter @OUfreelearning

Why we do free learning at The OU http://www.open.ac.uk/about/open-educational-resources/

What are badged open courses? http://www.open.edu/openlearn/about-openlearn/frequently-asked-questions-on-openlearn

OU BOCs with digital badges and Statements of Participation

Link to BOCs http://www.open.edu/openlearn/about-openlearn/try#Badged open courses

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The Open Media Unit and Social Sciences present: Wastemen

The Wastemen

The Wastemen

The Open Media Unit and Social Sciences present:

Tuesday 28 April 2015
9pm on BBC2
Today (Tuesday the 28 April) sees the first episode of Wastemen on BBC2 at 9pm. The episode will be broadcast in Scotland at 11.50pm. This is a new 3-part series. Britain generates enough rubbish to fill the Albert Hall every hour. But once we put our bins out to be collected very few of us know exactly what happens to what we throw away after it goes in the back of the truck.

Episode 1: The Home Front – 28th April at 9pm on BBC2

Every household in the country puts a tonne of rubbish out for the bin men to collect each year. In Newcastle the people tasked with dealing with it are waging a war on waste. Landfill is the last resort and is now highly taxed. Recycling rates are now on the rise. And on the streets bin men and council enforcement officers take the fight to the people as they try and get them to throw away less and recycle more. But one time of year always pushes the entire industry to breaking point – Christmas.

Episode 2: One Man’s Rubbish One Man’s Treasure – 5th May 9pm on BBC2

The war against rubbish never stops for the waste men of Newcastle. But the things we throw away have never been worth so much. On the streets of the city no bin, skip or piece of scrap metal is safe from the opportunists who have learned how to turn rubbish into cash. But, as the waste men working at the city’s tips know, the value of waste is not simply financial. Often it’s the emotional value that means that one man’s rubbish really is another’s treasure.

Episode 3: Big Problems Big Solutions – 12th May at 9pm on BBC2

As a nation we throw away more than ever. And with increasing landfill taxes and concerns over the environment, burying it all in a hole in the ground is no longer an option. Bigger and better solutions to our waste problems are needed and Newcastle and the Northeast are helping lead the way. Giant incinerators turn rubbish into electricity, industrial plants turn waste into compost and machines the size of jumbo jets shred old cars into fragments of metal that are sold around the world and reused. A new future for our rubbish is coming.


OpenLearn also has extensive content in connection with the programmes subject areas.  For more information go to OpenLearn

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OER15 conference

The Open University is represented at the Open Educational Resources conference this year (in Cardiff, 14th and 15th April) by several projects and people.  The Open Media Unit has a poster at the conference about ‘Why and how The Open University provides free learning’.  The abstract for the poster is below:

This poster will show how and why the OU provides free learning via its OpenLearn and OpenLearn Works platforms as well as other third party channels and how it continues to innovate to reach potential learners. The OU ensures it provides about 5% of its course materials as free open educational content every year. It does this because informal learning is part of the OU’s Royal Charter: “Advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge … to promote the general wellbeing of the community” In the beginning the OU shared course materials via its broadcast partnership with the BBC, however in recent years it has broadened the channels and platforms where OU free content is available to allow learners greater flexibility and help them develop new approaches to learning. Badged Open Courses (BOCs) are the new innovation offered via OpenLearn, they differ from MOOCs because they are perpetual, enabling students to return at any time to refresh their knowledge. The BOCs give users a consistent and coherent approach by providing structure to clusters of OER and complement the extensive growing portfolio of OER on OpenLearn. OpenLearn contains over 12,000 study hours of material in 12 subject areas and has received over 34 million visitors since it was launched in 2006. Informal learners can get a taste of what formal study is like by trying the adapted course extracts on OpenLearn, which helps them discover the right subject area for their needs and builds their confidence as they learn. Users mainly discover OpenLearn via the call to action in BBC/OU co-productions and via Google searches. The OU now syndicates free content to other third party platforms such as iTunes U, YouTube, AudioBoom, GooglePlay and Bibblio. This means that users have a choice of how to access OU free materials online and can participate in discussions via social media tools offered by the various platforms. OpenLearn Works is the sister platform to OpenLearn and enables users to create, upload and share their own OER materials on an OU hosted platform. The platform is currently undergoing further development to support communities and organisations make the most of OER and discover good open education practices. The developments will improve search functionality and user profiles, support alternative formats and badging and make OpenLearn Works interoperable with other platforms and technologies.
Reference: OU Royal Charter http://www.open.ac.uk/about/documents/about-university-charter.pdf

You can also see the abstract and the poster on the OER15 website at https://oer15.oerconf.org/sessions/why-and-how-the-ou-provides-free-learning-739/

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The Open Media Unit and Arts present: The International Radio Playwriting Competition

The Open Media Unit and Arts present:
The International Radio Playwriting Competition
Saturday 11th & 25th April 2015 @ 10.05pm
BBC World Service

The International Radio Playwriting Competition, run by the BBC World Service and the British Council, and co-produced with The Open University in partnership with Commonwealth Writers,invites anyone resident outside Britain to write a 53-minute radio drama for up to six characters. The competition attracted nearly 1,000 entries with plays from a record 86 countries.

Two award-winning radio plays, which scooped prizes at the 24th International Radio Playwriting Competition, are set to debut on BBC World Service this April:

Zimbabwean Virginia Jekanyika’s The Cactus Flowers won first place in the English as a Second Language category and will air on Saturday 11th April 2015 @ 10.05pm

Australian Alana Valentine’s The Ravens won first place in the English as a First Languagecategory and will air on Saturday 25th April 2015 @ 10.05pm

Other prizes awarded included the newly introduced Georgi Markov prize which went to Ana Gonzalez Bello from Mexico for her play Diablo and Romina. The new prize – which honours the script with the most outstanding potential from the competition’s shortlist – was set up in memory of the writer and BBC World Service journalist Georgi Markov who championed freedom of creative expression.

You can listen to the programmes through your digital/freeview television or online via the BBC World Service.

OpenLearn has extensive content in connection with the competition – offering a wide variety of podcasts, articles and study materials (including the free Start Writing Fiction course) to support you in your creative writing.  For more information go to OpenLearn

This co-production was commissioned by the Open Media Unit and is supported by the Arts Faculty, with particular relevance to A215: Creative writing and A363: Advanced Creative Writing

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#FLeco15: Ask an Academic: Q&A with Dr David Robinson

Introduction to Ecosystems

Introduction to Ecosystems

Thank you for sending in questions for the live session on 20th March which you catch up on in YouTube. There were lots of fascinating questions and I have tried to answer as many as possible either here or in the live session. Do continue the discussion that the questions have generated in the comments below.

Anneke: Could you name your top 5 threats to global biodiversity in order of priority, eg climate change, human population growth, decline in pollinators, spread of non-native invasive species, intensification of farming, spread of plastics in water and soil, increase of built-up land (buildings/roads). I realise most of these overlap, are each other’s cause or effect etc, but still, would like to hear an expert’s priority listing.

 David Robinson (DR): There are an awful lot of threats to global diversity so I suspect that we won’t all have the same list, but here is mine:

  • human population growth
  • unfettered demand
  • exploitation of natural resources
  • short-termism
  • lack of education.

James : Hi Dr. Robinson ! Would you say that human pollution could very well cause a chemical reaction that could result in genetic mutations of plants and animals within an ecosystem? If so, how should we be concerned about it and hopefully try to prevent the mutation from spreading?

DR: Chemical pollution could provide a selection pressure that would influence evolution. Also, hormones released into the environment have affected salmon. If a pollutant was mutagenic (causing mutations) it might be difficult to prevent an advantageous mutant spreading through natural selection. However, most mutations have negative consequences.

Jack: Do you have any advice on talking to politicians about environmental issues?

DR: Do plenty of research so that you are on top of the subject. A lot of politics is not evidence-based, but it should be and for us as scientists, evidence is fundamental. 

Deborah: Humanity is increasingly living beyond our means – we currently consume 50% more natural resources than the Earth’s ecosystems can replenish. Dr. Robinson, please can you give the forum 5 key things we can do at home and in our close by ecosystems for sustainable living?

DR: My five suggestions are – walk, cycle, upcycle and recycle, actively thermoregulate, buy local.  By ‘actively thermoregulate’, I mean that if living in a cool environment (like the UK and N Europe, for example) use clothing layers rather than heating to keep the body at optimum temperature.

Melanie: We heard that movement is difficult for phytoplankton and yet they migrate in a vertical direction on a daily basis. How do they achieve this?

DR: Most phytoplankton are motile, as they have flagella. However, vertical movement in the water is mostly through transport by currents.

Olwen: This year’s farm Single Payment Scheme rules do not promote a diverse ecosystem as trees, gorse, bracken and blackthorn are classed as ‘ineligible features’, thus not gaining agricultural status. Do you feel this government policy will harm our countryside diversity?

DR: I think that there is good evidence that agriculture does affect diversity and that the funding system even discourages diversity. For example, in the Cross-compliance Regulations, farmers must prevent ‘unwanted vegetation’ from growing on their land, even if their land is producing nothing. So, they must cut, graze or spray it with herbicides to get their money. This rule has particular effects on upland areas which continue to be bare of diverse vegetation and trees, leading to more rapid surface run-off of water.

Carol: I’d be interested to know your views on the translocation of ancient woodland and soils as mitigation for planning applications which would destroy the original site if implemented. Is the process of translocation justifiable, and what percentage loss (or range of loss) of original features might one typically expect?

DR: Translocation of animals and plants is not easy and personally, I doubt its effectiveness but have not located any references that have specifically analysed success and failure of translocation projects. I have seen some pretty depressing (unpublished) figures for decline in translocated newt populations. See also June’s comments below.

June: I have recently been reading Dr Oliver Rackham’s ‘Woodlands’, where I was surprised and saddened to find that it is very hard or indeed impossible to establish new woodland with its attendant flora, particularly on previously farmed land. Although I was angered by Owen Patterson’s biodiversity offsetting plans and realised that planting a few trees is no replacement for an ancient forest, I was still under the impression that we could plant fairly good and biodiverse woodland. Given the work by Dr Lee Su See in Malaysia with mycorrhizal ‘wood wide webs’ and other research, could we perhaps be more hopeful that we could reinstate or plant new biodiverse woodlands in the UK?

DR: Oliver Rackham also made the point that sourcing trees globally rather than locally also sources pathogens globally, with often catastrophic results.

Deborah: Step 4.1 spoke about Flu not being specific to humans but using many animal hosts. It got me thinking, can people catch kennel cough from a dog?

DR: Kennel cough is caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica, a bacterium. There are also viruses that make dogs more susceptible to infection. It seems to be possible for humans to be infected with the bacterium, but I have not found any publications that provide evidence of human’s contracting kennel cough.

Paul: Do the fungi in the woodland improve the soil for all seedlings, whatever the species? Or is there some recognition and promotion of growth to the saplings of the host tree? If it were the latter, it would suggest a closer symbiosis, would it not?

DR: The fungi in the soil link trees to seedlings and a fungus that is specific to one species is likely to be carrying nutrient to seedlings of the parent tree and others of the same species. The connection is a direct one, so it isn’t that the fungi are enriching the soil directly.

Francesco: Are there any cases study in Europe about using fungi in contaminated places as tools to enhance the soils and the ecosystems?

DR: You might find this paper interesting as it describes how a fungus can break down pesticide residues. http://www2.cnrs.fr/en/1561.htm

Dean: Conventional agriculture is responsible for a large proportion of the biodiversity loss we have seen in recent times. However, GM intensifies this trend by supporting singles species with toxic chemicals, which feed the plant but does nothing for the long term health of the soil.

What is your view on this? And why isn’t there any news on this issue?

DR: GM is a technique and its effect depends upon what the modification is intended to achieve. GM crops may help conserve diversity. An example, from South Africa, is a modification that makes a crop plant poisonous to insects that feed on it.  By removing dependence on spraying to keep the crops clear of herbivorous insects, other insects are not affected. Incidentally, in the South African example it reduced human deaths from misuse of pesticide sprays.

Marie: There has been little news about genetic modification in farming. I seem to recall a very early paper on the effect on wildlife in that those crops that are genetically modified do not require pollination in the natural way. A downside of GM farming was identified as making any insect that visited these crops, infertile. Do you have any opinion or up to date information as if this is so, then this method of farming is detrimental to ecosystems for insects/pollinators?

DR: Some early concerns were about particular GM crops which were designed not to set seed, preventing spread into the wild. Farmers that used this GM crop were then tied in to buying new (and possibly high cost) GM seed from the supplier each year. GM as a technique is very valuable. However, each use has to be properly evaluated and some applications will have too many negative features while others are very positive in their effect

Khima: I am monitoring the vulture population in my city and have a very good sighting of more than 300 individuals of 3–4 species on a single site. Please suggest to me how we could sustain the population at that site? What are the measures I have to follow?

DR: Difficult to answer. Diclofenac used as a veterinary product was the cause of decline. Wild dog population has increased so now they are in competition for food with vultures.

Alison: Are there courses like this being set up schools to educate the younger generation?

DR: I am not aware of schools using this type of course.

Lindsey: What areas in Britain would it be possible to re-wild and do you think it will ever happen?

DR: Re-wilding is difficult but not impossible. Have a look at what Trees for Life in Scotland are doing (http://treesforlife.org.uk/ ). Wales Wild Land Foundation is another example of attempts at rewilding (http://www.cambrianwildwood.org/ )

Lindsey: Here in Wales we have brought the Red Kite back from the brink. In the early 1970s, I believe there were only 12 breeding pairs and our joy at seeing one was huge. The other morning I counted 5 on a 3 mile car journey. I see several every day. Have there been any studies on how their huge increase has affected the other species? I am sure I do not see so many buzzards as I used to.

DR: I have not found any studies on the impact of red kites on other species. I am seeing more buzzards than I used to and I also see plenty of red kites. However, these are just my observations. This year for the first time I saw two red kites circling over my garden, and for several days in a row. It is a great example of a successful re-introduction. It is not working so well in Scotland and there are suspicions that humans might be the cause.

David: Do we have many ecosystems that we know little about?

DR: Deep ocean ecosystems are not well studied for obvious reasons.

Wisdom: Describe one way in which species’ extinction can begin in ecosystems, and one way in which a species can be restored after destruction. Give a recent example in each case.

DR: Natural extinction can come about because there has been a change in some part of the ecosystem that an animal or plant cannot adapt to. Human activity, for example, may remove part of an ecosystem, like scavengers – examples are the shooting of red kites in the UK and the poisoning of vultures (via cattle carcases) in India.  In both cases, protecting the scavengers may allow their populations to recover.

Diane: I understand that ecosystems are reliant on a constancy of factors, but in this fast-changing world is it not conceivable that the micro ecosystems on which we and all life are so dependant will be changed beyond repair? What can we do to stop or slow down this damage and can it be reversed?

DR: The problem with ecosystems in general is that we rarely have complete knowledge and so it isn’t easy to spot damage and know how to reverse it. Diversity can make natural systems resilient and natural selection does drive responses to changing conditions.

War: I think ecology is a great course. In an ecosystem, green plants are primary producers, herbivores and carnivores are primary and secondary consumers and then the highest level are people that feed on all levels to bottom. How can we know the whole ecosystem in water and terrestrial life of mode in food chain and food web?

DR: It is very difficult to chart all the links and interactions. It is also worth remembering that we define an ecosystem in terms of energy flow and that the concept of an ecosystem is a human construct that enables us to study and understand the world around us.

Duane: In trying to define ‘ecosystems’ we have started from a biological or species perspective. Little has been made of the ecosystem perspective, where every living ecosystem is driven and fuelled by atmospheric energies ~ sun, wind, water and gravity. Plants and photosynthesis are major components as well as co-evolution with other organisms. How do we study the interdependency of systems over time and space? Will we be looking at how we can map complex open ecosystems spatially?

DR: We did define ecosystems in terms of energy flow, which includes atmospheric energies. Studying interdependence in terms of time and space is difficult, of course, but something that we need to do, despite such studies taking many years.

James: I read about a theory that the natural world vibrates at a frequency of 528hz, and that this vibration can impact the psychological aspects of mankind for the better. Do you think that the study of ecology will, in the future, start to focus more what we consider to be the peripheral scientific theories like this , or will it continue alongside the long-established linear paths laid down by Banks and Darwin?

DR: Theories have to be tested and remain just ideas if they cannot be verified from evidence. The 528 Hz theory is, as far as I know, not sufficiently evidence-based. I can’t really predict what peripheral theories might emerge in the future.

Steve: I have recently studied FutureLearn courses on renewable energy and on fracking. Do you think enough thought is given to ecosystems, and their conservation, when planning applications are assessed for energy supplies? Off-shore wind and tidal schemes have been in the news, in the UK, very recently.


DR: I don’t think that sufficient thought is given to ecological considerations in many planning decisions. For example, short term (in planet rather than human timescales) often dominates and the long term consequences are not considered – or considered relevant.

Martin: In an earlier lecture, the concept of succession was introduced. My question resolves around man’s perceived need to ‘manage’ ecosystems. Is this an absolute necessity or can we (should we) leave ecosystems to their own devices?

DR: This is a hard question to answer because small remnants of once extensive systems will probably need management. However, the ideal is to leave systems alone to re-establish themselves, after the initial set-up, and this might work well in some cases where trees are being planted on hillsides. Our lack of megafauna in the UK can make continual management of herbivores necessary.

James: We as humans pose the greatest threat but, somewhat strangely, are also the greatest hope for the survival of the planet (our intelligence v. our morals). Have we reached the point of no return for the planet, and if not, how close are we to doing so?

DR: No, I don’t think so but we do have a large problem to contend with and that is that both the numbers of humans and their demands are such that human impact is a global threat. The planet will survive, of course, but it may become a very different place. We can all make a difference individually and as groups. I commented earlier about short-termism being a problem and we have to find a way of enabling our societies to take a very long term view, because the damage that we are doing to the planet requires long-term solutions. Re-wilding is an example of something that we need to do that will take a long time.

This question generate a number of additional comments (below)

Elaine: I think we are in trouble because those with power to make a difference seem to have no morals when money is brought into any equation.

Gabrielle: But I would argue, Elaine, that each of us individually, and also many of us in combination, can make a difference. But then I’m known as what is called ‘an unreasonable’ person who believes in a vision no matter how unpromising the prospects may be for realization.

Duane: Visionaries are like guiding lights providing simple ways to solve often complex problems.

Luana: I would like to know Dr Robinson’s opinion on this matter too, James. I agree with Gabrielle that individuals can (and must…) make a difference, but also with Elaine that also “those with power” should take environment more than money into account. A dream.

Brigit: I don’t know how far things will go before we reach a tipping point of some kind, but the closer we get, the higher the stakes – and the higher the stakes, the more we (who recognise the damage being done) need to up our game. I notice more and more people every day waking up to this fact and that gives me great hope. Hope is a wonderful motivator! My understanding is that we may already have crossed the threshold regarding run away climate change with our past actions, but we don’t know this for sure. Climate models contain many variables and there are still aspects we don’t fully understand. In the mean time we can do a great deal to help increase biodiversity by allowing more areas to re-wild. Then, whatever happens to the human race, we will at least have left some natural ecosystems behind us to continue evolving as they might have done had we not intervened so much in the first place. I know it’s way more complex than this, but I feel sure that re-wilding is somehow extremely important I’m very interested to read Dr Robinson’s reply to this question

Rebecca: I’m pretty confident whatever happens to humans, nature will take back the Earth. Life has survived through five major extinction events before, if humans are going to cause the sixth, life will persist. I like to think that eventually we will find a way to live completely off clean, renewable energy, and will have perfected sustainable practices, but the main question is, will we do this in time? Or will things get so bad that the world suffers, large parts of the Earth will become uninhabitable, leaving the habitable parts overpopulated and over-polluted?

Brigit: Himalayan Balsam is the bane of many waterways and related habitats in the UK. However, it provides an extremely valuable and much needed forage resource for the Buff-tailed bumblebee which (because of warmer winters) has recently begun to establish winter colonies rather than going into hibernation. I appreciate the negative impact HB is having upon our native river banks and riverside flora, but what happens when an invasive species like this becomes so valuable to one of our native species of (in this case) bumblebee, that its elimination would impact negatively on that species? How do we balance this out?

DR: HB highlights the problems of dealing with invasive species. The standard answer would be that the native species is not dependant on the invasive so we should remove the invasive one. Removal of HB is difficult as the seeds survive for a long time in the soil seed bank, but I think it should really be removed because of its overall effect on habitats.

Andy: During election time we’ll probably hear lots of messages that £1 spent on an early social initiative will save £x later on the crime bill. Are there any ecosystem cost–benefit analyses out there that may persuade politicians / economists to act together as they seem to like such sound-bites?

Gill: There is a big push on getting UK politicians to take this seriously, with a campaign for a Nature & Wellbeing Act http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/NWA in the next parliament which would recognise the value of nature in terms of ecosystem services and also health and wellbeing, crime and so on – it’s been calculated that the right progressive, enlightened approach to valuing nature could save the public purse £33bn a year in the UK.

DR: You both raise some interesting points. George Monbiot (www.monbiot.com ) does highlight the costs of agricultural and environmental projects. He has pointed out in recent articles that the UK government has argued against the €300,000 cap on subsidy payments to individual farmers and has also nearly doubled the subsidy for grouse moors (from £30 per hectare to £56). He argues that subsidies damage the environment, are grossly unfair and very costly.


Dr David Robinson

Dr David Robinson


Thank you everyone for your questions, it was fantastic to speak with you, and I hope that you enjoy the final week of the course!

Dr David Robinson
Lead Educator
Introduction to ecosystems

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