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  • NATURE PODCAST

Greenland's ice will melt faster than any time in the past 12,000 years

Hear the latest from the world of science, brought to you by Benjamin Thompson and Shamini Bundell.

In this episode:

00:45 Greenland’s historic ice loss

Climate change is accelerating the loss of ice and glaciers around the world leading to unprecedented levels of disappearance. Researchers have drilled samples from deep in the Greenland ice sheet, to model how current, and future, losses compare to those seen in the last 12,000 years. Research Article: Briner et al.; News and Views: The worst is yet to come for the Greenland ice sheet; Editorial: Arctic science cannot afford a new cold war

09:23 Coronapod

Despite recovering from an initial COVID-19 infection, many patients are experiencing severe symptoms months later. We find out about the impact of ‘Long Covid’ and the research that’s being done to try and understand it. News Feature: The lasting misery of coronavirus long-haulers

18:55 Research Highlights

A robot defeats humans at yet another sport, and extreme diving in Cuvier’s beaked whales. Research Highlight: A robot triumphs in a curling match against elite humans; Research Highlight: A smiling whale makes a record deep dive

21:20 A radiation detector made of graphene

Radiation-detectors known as bolometers are vital instruments in many fields of science. This week, two groups of researchers have harnessed graphene to make super sensitive bolometers that could be used to improve quantum computers, or detect subtle traces of molecules on other planets. Research Article: Lee et al.; Research Article: Kokkoniemi et al.

27:49 Briefing Chat

We discuss some of the latest stories highlighted in the Nature Briefing. This week we chat about the lack of diversity in academia, and an animal ally that can protect wildlife during forest fires. Nature Careers: Diversity in science: next steps for research group leaders; National Geographic: How beavers became North America's best firefighter

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

Other links

Nature Milestones in Vaccines

Milestone multimedia: Vaccines 101

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02784-6

Transcript

Hear the latest from the world of science, brought to you by Benjamin Thompson and Shamini Bundell.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, unprecedented ice melt in Greenland…

Host: Shamini Bundell

And graphene-based radiation detectors. I'm Shamini Bundell.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I'm Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

First up on the show, we're heading to the Greenland Ice Sheet. A paper out in Nature this week reports that this vast area is melting at a rate never seen before. Reporter Nick Howe has been talking to one of the authors of the paper, and has been looking into the possible geopolitical consequences of a less icy Arctic. Here’s Nick.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Climate change is causing ice and glaciers across the world to disappear. This disappearance is well evidenced and makes logical sense. Warmer temperatures equal less ice. What is less well known is how what we're seeing now compares to what's happened throughout Earth's history. Over geological time, the temperature on the planet has fluctuated and the ice along with it. So, what was happening to glaciers thousands of years ago?

Interviewee: Jason Briner

So, that's my line of work, is to try to reconstruct what glaciers did 10,000, 5,000, 4,000 3,000, 2000 years ago.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

This is Jason Briner, a geologist from the University of Buffalo. This week in Nature, he and a team of scientists have published an article about how glaciers in Greenland have changed throughout the past 11,700 years and what this might mean for the next 100 years. To do this, they combined on the ground observations from Greenland with a computer model that was fed a range of information about the past climate. I asked Jason what sort of information was used in the model.

Interviewee: Jason Briner

So, the climate information that we fed the computer model comes from ice core data. So, scientists who go to Greenland and they go all the way on top of the ice sheet, 10,000 feet in the atmosphere, and they drill through the ice all the way to the bed of Greenland. It’s basically one huge giant core of ice. And from those cores you can understand past climate of Greenland, and they do that largely in the in the form of analysing isotopes of the snow that fell onto Greenland thousands of years ago. The isotopes of water, of oxygen and hydrogen, they're still locked in the ice sheet, so they're still there waiting for us to analyse them, and they give us clues about what the climate conditions were like when that snow fell thousands of years ago.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, could you give me an example, like what would give like an indication that there was more ice or less ice or something like that?

Interviewee: Jason Briner

One of the pieces of information is temperature. So, the types of isotopes that are formed in the snowfall are a function of what the temperature was like at the time the snow fell. The second piece of information is how much snowfall there was. That's basically in the form of how thick the annual layer is. So, you can basically tease apart year by year by year how much snow fell. So, we drive our computer model with that knowledge of temperature change and precipitation change, and those are the things that allow the modelled ice sheet to get bigger or smaller.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And throughout the period of time you looked at – I think it was 11,700 years – the ice sheet was growing, shrinking, like what was happening with it? How did it change over that time?

Interviewee: Jason Briner

There is a pretty well-known period in Earth history from about 10,000 to 7,000 years ago, that was a warm period in Earth's history. And so, we've known about this warm period for a long time and we were really interested in seeing how the Greenland Ice Sheet responded to that past warm period. And it turns out the ice sheet retreated a lot during that warm period and both the computer model and our in the field reconstructions show that that was a time period of really rapid ice wastage.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And I guess the big question is how does that compare to what's happening today?

Interviewee: Jason Briner

What we discovered was that today and the near future rates of ice mass loss will probably be about four times higher, four times more ice loss, than anything the ice sheet experienced even during that warmest interval between maybe 10,000 and 7,000 years ago.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

It's well understood that the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting rapidly, but the extent to which the data showed it was happening and is going to happen really surprised Jason and his team. However, it adds yet more weight to the idea that the Arctic is in trouble. The Arctic is warming at about twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and this past summer has seen wildfires and record-high temperatures afflict the region. As with many of the challenges caused by climate change, international cooperation will be key to tackling these issues in the Arctic. To better understand the geopolitical situation there, I reached out to Alex Witze, a journalist who's been reporting on the Arctic for about 25 years.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

The Arctic is a really unique place in terms of governance. So, the Arctic is ringed by a number of nations, some of whom have been fighting since the Cold War. So, if you imagine sort of looking at a map of the North Pole and sort of the land surrounding it, you've got Russia on one side and the US on the other and Canada has a very long stretch of Arctic coastline. Then there's the Scandinavian nations, Greenland. There are just a lot of different entities that have a stake in the Arctic, and that's not even counting the indigenous groups who are the ones who primarily live there.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

These nations have been jostling for power in the Arctic for a while now, and with climate change accelerating ice loss, like in Greenland, there are opportunities to access new shipping routes and natural resources. The concern is that nations competing for these resources could cause breakdowns in relations between them and distract from tackling climate change. There is, however, a forum to promote cooperation between the Arctic nations and indigenous groups – the Arctic Council.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

So, the Arctic Council has been really successful in getting people to work together and to confront climate change. One of the things they do is they put together a series of reports about how things are changing in the Arctic, how can we address questions like pollutions across the Arctic? So, they've been real effective at highlighting these pan-Arctic problems.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

With the unprecedented melting of Greenland predicted by Jason and the team of scientists this week in Nature, I asked Alex how this should shift priorities for the Arctic Council.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

It's another piece of evidence kind of adding to the drumbeat of the urgency to take action. The shrinking sea ice, the rising temperatures, the wildfires, all of these make it crucial for the council to really take an effective and leading role in coordinating efforts to fight climate change. We really have to get past this notion of, ‘I’m the US, I'm going fight you, Russia, as a Cold War superpower.’ Or, ‘I'm some nation who's trying to go in and get oil and gas.’ We have to get past that and we have to cooperate to fight climate change. That's our common enemy.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Despite the incredible loss of ice in Greenland that was predicted this week in Nature, if nations are able to cooperate, Jason is optimistic about the future.

Interviewee: Jason Briner

I think the fact that when we did our future simulations using the low carbon emission scenario, by the end of the century, the Greenland Ice Sheet is recovering, starts to recover, and it starts to get back close to being a healthy ice sheet. And so, that tells us that if humanity really stepped up its game and became carbon neutral, it is conceivable that within 100 or 200 years, the Greenland Ice Sheet might become stable, and not quite be a runaway of massive sea level rise worry.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That was Jason Briner from the University of Buffalo in the US. You also heard from reporter Alex Witze. To find out more about the Greenland melt, you can find Jason's paper, along with a link to a Nature editorial on the subject, in the show notes.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Next up on the show, it's time for Coronapod. This week, I'm joined by Noah Baker and, making her Coronapod debut, it's Kerri Smith. Hello to you both.

Kerri Smith

Hi, Ben.

Noah Baker

Hi, Ben.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Kerri, long-term listeners to the Nature Podcast will know your voice very well, but for those who have maybe joined more recently, who are you and what do you do here at Nature?

Kerri Smith

So, I edit features for Nature now, having done some work on the podcast for some number of years, and I specialise in biological topics and, this year, of course, that just means all COVID, all the time.

Noah Baker

Absolutely. I feel like you've just had your head in long-form COVID ideas continuously for our whole lockdown period and onward.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Kerri, one of the features you've been editing that's come out recently is looking at maybe the long-term effects of COVID-19. Now, we've talked a lot about the disease in the short term, what it does to the human body, but it seems like it could be quite an insidious thing that can last for a really long time. So, what is ‘long COVID’, as it's been called?

Kerri Smith

Yeah, as you note, there's been quite a lot of focus on the short-term effects of severe infection and on the amount of deaths that COVID-19 has caused, but that's kind of the tip of the iceberg in some ways because there are thousands of people who have been left with lasting symptoms having had a coronavirus infection. And these aren't just people who've had severe cases. Many people anecdotally report symptoms persisting who've had quite mild cases of the disease, who certainly weren't hospitalised, and you didn't necessarily even get a test for SARS-CoV-2 at the time. So, lots of this is quite anecdotal, but several studies are now starting to follow patients who've ‘recovered’.

Noah Baker

Yeah, and I guess it's quite important at this stage, with such a new disease, to have these studies because there's a relatively large amount known about long-term effects of established conditions, but when you have a disease that literally pops up out of nowhere sort of de novo, researchers really don't know what happens until enough time has passed to see what the long-term effects are in the first place.

Kerri Smith

Exactly, and, in fact, we've been wanting to write this feature for the longest time, but because we wanted to look at existing scientific analyses of the long-term effects, there wasn't actually a great deal to say in the early days of the pandemic because nobody knew what those long-term effects were. And of course, we still now haven't had very long, but there are a few studies that have come out and a few studies of past coronaviruses and the effects that they have that can shed a bit of light.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And it seems like long COVID can affect multiple parts of the body. I mean, you assume the lungs, but it seems like potentially all over the place.

Kerri Smith

It's quite surprising, actually, because it is a respiratory infection and, of course, one of the systems that's most troubled by it is the lungs, but the heart can be affected, there can be symptoms of fatigue and breathlessness, which are really quite systemic, and there can be neurological complications like stroke and swelling. It's kind of unclear whether the virus can actually invade the nervous system in the brain but, of course, if you get these sorts of symptoms as a corollary then they can have their own lingering effects. Another thing that's a little unclear is whether the immune system itself is affected. So, some other diseases like measles can actually make you more susceptible to other infections down the line. We just don't know if that's the case with SARS-CoV-2 yet.

Noah Baker

I guess there's also the additional possibility that people that have had more severe coronavirus might have undergone more extreme treatments such as long-term intubation. There are impacts from that as well which can have long term consequences, and sometimes that can make it even more difficult to pick apart what might be an impact of the virus and what might be an impact of the treatment to get a good picture of what the sort of future for people that have recovered from this coronavirus looks like.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, and in terms of long-term outcomes, Kerri, you mentioned that researchers are starting to look into this, and I guess there is a lag phase really, because what is ‘long-term’? We’re only sort of a few months in, but what sort of picture is being painted by what they found?

Kerri Smith

So, the studies so far that have been published in peer-reviewed journals are relatively small in number. There was a study from Italy of nearly 150 patients – so not a giant group – and they showed that after two months since their symptoms began, about half still suffered from fatigue and about 40% were still reporting shortness of breath. There's a study out of China, which was one of the longer follow ups we could find, still only three months after infection, they found that 25% of people still had abnormal lung function and a smaller number still fatigued. I mean, fatigue is a slightly nebulous symptom, I suppose, and it's a little difficult to measure. Some of these studies go on self-reports. But it does seem that some damage does lessen with time. There was an Austrian study showing that lung damage actually decreased. But still 12 weeks after their initial infection, some patients had visible damage on CT scans.

Noah Baker

And I guess that studies like this are only going to bring us more information as time goes on. Are there more studies that are planned or more studies that are ongoing that are hoping to bring results in the coming months, years, however long?

Kerri Smith

Yes, thankfully, there are quite a few now starting. So, in the US, there's a project starting that will monitor hundreds of people. In the UK, the PHOSP-COVID study will follow 10,000, I think, people and check clinical samples, blood samples and, in some patients, they'll look for biomarkers of ongoing symptoms. And then there's lots of clinical registries that exist of data that will provide a really good repository of information that can be analysed maybe six months or a year from now. But I mean, we're so close to the beginning of this. I mean, there's some studies have been done on other coronaviruses. There's one that's just been published actually this year, and it covered 15 years of follow up from SARS patients who had that virus in 2003. So, it's going to be a while until we really know the consequences of this and get an idea of how widespread the numbers are.

Noah Baker

Yeah, these studies are all coming and, in the meantime, I feel like the anecdotal accounts of what long COVID feels like are coming thick and fast. I mean, even in my own, just personal life, I have various friends that I know that have recovered after having positive COVID tests, and they're sort of long-term symptoms range all the way from ‘I still can't run the 5K that I used to run every week because I get too out of breath too quickly,’ all the way through to a friend of mine who was on a ventilator for quite some time, still cannot walk without a cane, and his doctors are suggesting that he will never be able to do that again. He's in his mid-40s. You wouldn't expect that. But people are coming together to start to report all of these different anecdotal symptoms via social media in various places, and I'm guessing these will eventually start feeding into studies to understand this anecdotal information in a more sort of scientific context.

Kerri Smith

So yeah, as you say, Noah, there are plenty of anecdotal reports and lots of people think they're not being taken seriously because they were ‘lucky enough’ not to die from having the infection, but there's still these really persistent and possibly long-term health consequences for people. And in some ways, that has echoes of chronic fatigue syndrome and how some people who've been diagnosed with that have felt that the medical profession doesn't know what to do with them or is ignoring their symptoms and their plight in some way. So, I think – I don't want to use the word ‘epidemic’ – but I think there could be another wave of post-viral kind of condition here that certainly researchers should be keeping an eye on.

Benjamin Thompson

Have any estimates been put on what that might be?

Kerri Smith

We couldn't find any estimates that seemed to be kind of robust. There was one source in the feature who had analysed some lung scans from hospitalised patients who said, of course, not everybody who's hospitalised and certainly not everybody with a mild condition, will go on to have these sorts of lingering symptoms. But it could be kind of up to 10%, in the worst possible case, of people who've had SARS-CoV-2 infection, which kind of boggles the mind. I mean, we should consider that the absolute upper bound, but given how many cases there have now been, that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who could be seeing some lasting effects of infection.

Noah Baker

As we discuss long COVID, I think it's just bringing, to my mind, something that has become another sort of feature of our discussion about COVID, ever since this pandemic began, which is that things are never as black and white as you think they're going to be. And I think that researchers and clinicians are very aware of this and have been for a long time, but certainly the general public might not have been aware of just how muddy a lot of clinical scenarios get, all the way through from, ‘Just because I've had COVID doesn't mean I'm now immune’. People sort of assumed that was the case. ‘When I get a vaccine that means that I'll be immune.’ That doesn't necessarily mean it's the case either. And also, ‘Just because I've recovered from COVID means that I'll be fine and happy and healthy afterwards.’ Well, that's not necessarily the case either, and in order to understand what the case is, we need a lot of research, and that's what people around the world are scrambling to do.

Kerri Smith

It could be an even more powerful public health message for younger people who think they're not so susceptible who were previously healthy that there are these long-term, kind of debilitating side effects that you could suffer with, even if COVID infection is unlikely to kill you.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let's call it there then. It does seem like whenever I do this outro it comes down to, ‘we're going to have to come back to this in a while to see what's going on,’ and in the case of long COVID, that does seem even more pertinent. So, Kerri, I hope you'll join us again to talk about this when we know more. Kerri and Noah, thank you so much.

Kerri Smith

Thanks for having me, Ben.

Noah Baker

Thanks, Ben.

Host: Shamini Bundell

More from the Coronapod team next week. Coming up on this week's show, we'll hear how researchers are using graphene to detect radiation. That's coming up after the Research Highlights, read this week by Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Robots can chalk up another sporting victory over their creators, as an AI-equipped machine has mastered the sport of curling. Players in a curling match slide stones across an ice rink towards targets. To succeed requires precision and strategy, which makes it a perfect test case for AI technologies. Using a method called adaptive deep reinforcement learning, a team of researchers have created an algorithm which can adjust for changing conditions like the surface of the ice, and position of other stones. The robot, nicknamed Curly, needed a few tests throws to calibrate itself before winning three out of four matches against elite human competitors. The algorithm reduced Curly's throwing error – the mean distance from the target centre – to about one-third that of another non-adapting robot. Slide on over to Science Robotics to read that research in full.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

A Cuvier's beaked whale has surprised biologists after it was recorded hunting underwater for more than 3½ hours. The whales, which live in deep waters around the world, are capable of reaching depths of almost 3,000 metres when hunting for squid and other food. Previously, it was estimated that they could hold their breath for about 30 minutes before needing to surface for oxygen. But new observations made off the coast of North Carolina suggest they can dive for far longer. Scientists fastened satellite-linked tags to 23 whales and obtained records for almost 3,700 deep dives over a five-year period. They found that the median duration of a foraging dive was about an hour, but one whale was recorded making two extreme dives. One of the dives, at 3 hours 47 minutes, is the longest time any mammal has been recorded diving. Dive into that research of the Journal of Experimental Biology.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Next up, reporter Adam levy is looking at the heated quest to build a better bolometer.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

How do we measure light waves? Well, one way is to absorb the incoming radiation and turn it straight into an electrical signal. This is how digital camera sensors work, for example. But there's another way to go about it – heat. Bolometers heat up when they absorb the electromagnetic radiation in just the same way that you heat up when you're wearing a black t-shirt on a sunny summer's day. This heating up can then be measured, allowing these devices to assess how much light has been absorbed.

Interviewee: Kin Chung Fong

A bolometer basically is sensing the electromagnetic wave, the light, by measuring the temperature rise of the detector.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

This is physicist Kin Chung Fong, author of a study out in this week's Nature. In fact, the study is just one of two papers out this week striving to build better bolometers. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. What are bolometers used for in the first place?

Interviewee: Kin Chung Fong

They are the working horse, actually, in many scientific experiments. For example, the temperature of the Universe is actually measured by bolometer. Today, we call it as a cosmic microwave background. That is the kind of landmark evidence of the Big Bang origin of our Universe.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Bolometers also come in handy for other scientific applications, such as the hunt for molecules in the atmospheres of other planets. But it's not all out of this world. Bolometers also come into their own for more down-to-Earth applications, like in construction. Researcher Mikko Möttönen has another application in mind, though. Mikko led the second of the two bolometer studies out in Nature this week, unrelated to Kin Chung’s, and he's particularly interested in quantum computers. He's hoping that if bolometers became accurate and fast enough they could be used to carefully measure qubits – the building blocks of quantum computers.

Interviewee: Mikko Möttönen

A bolometer has never actually been used to measure these very tiny energy differences, and it is a very different way of doing the measurement than the existing system.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Okay, but how do you make a more sensitive bolometer? Well, since they rely on measuring a temperature rise from absorbing light, to some extent, you have two paths to go down. The first is to make a more sensitive thermometer to measure that heating up, but the second is to make the bolometer heat up more for a given amount of radiation. The trick to this is picking the right material, and this is where both teams had the same eureka moment – graphene. Graphene is a wonder material made up of carbon atoms arranged in a two-dimensional honeycomb lattice. That's right. It’s 2D, meaning it's just one atom thick. Because of this, it has a minuscule volume and so should heat up hugely when it's absorbing radiation – perfect for a bolometer.

Interviewee: Kin Chung Fong

People have been, for decades, trying to make the bolometer smaller and smaller for higher and higher sensitivity. And there comes graphene, only one atom thick, and that could be one of the reasons that graphene could be a very good volumetric material…

Interviewee: Mikko Möttönen

That has a thickness of a single atomic layer, so it's the thinnest material you can have. And yeah, that really helped. It actually made the bolometer 100 times faster. It's now very promising to be used as a readout element for quantum computers.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Both teams are pretty pleased with the sensitivity of their new bolometers. Mikko compares his device’s sensitivity to that of the first bolometer ever made by Samuel Pierpont Langley in the 1800s.

Interviewee: Mikko Möttönen

I mean, Langley was saying that he can observe with the bolometer, from one-quarter mile away that there's a cow on the field or not. And, in principle, our bolometer could easily do that if the cow was on the Moon.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Just to clarify, measuring a cow on the Moon is not the standard metric of a bolometer’s skill. Plus, Mikko clarified that the Earth's atmosphere would also interfere with the measurement. And Kin Chung’s team's device is also incredibly sensitive, reaching the theoretical physical limit for bolometer.

Interviewee: Kin Chung Fong

I still remember when I look at the data for the first time, I feel like wow, is it really true, we are reaching the fundamental limit that we cannot surpass anymore. Unless, of course, we can go to lower temperature, we can use a different material. But the basic strategy itself, we are hitting the fundamental limit.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

For Mikko, his device is now sensitive and fast enough to potentially be incorporated into a quantum computer, something that he is eager to do.

Interviewee: Mikko Möttönen

This is an exciting moment and always in research you never know what the answer is before you've done it, so I think, we just try it out and see where we are.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Using bolometers in quantum computers wouldn't just be a breakthrough for these light-sensing devices. It could also allow for some additional flexibility in the design and operation of these computers. Kin Chung, on the other hand, is eager for some of the more research-driven applications of his team's devices, such as carefully measuring the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. Even though these two devices from the two teams use graphene as their secret weapon, there are still some subtle differences between the devices’ designs. And far from feeling like it's stealing his thunder, Kin Chung is thrilled to see Mikko’s parallel work on his graphene-based bolometer.

Interviewee: Kin Chung Fong

We face the same problem. We want to make a good bolometer. But then we take a little bit different approach. But we all come back and arrive at the same answer that we have. That is kind of exciting in the sense that I'm not alone out there in a big forest. Oh, someone is also hunting for the same thing. That is surprising.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That was Kin Chung Fong of Raytheon BBN Technologies in the US, as well as Mikko Möttönen of Aalto University and VTT, both in Finland. Head over to the show notes for links to their papers.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Finally, on the show, it's time for the weekly Briefing chat, where we discuss a couple of articles that have been highlighted in the Nature Briefing. What's caught your eye this week, Shamini?

Host: Shamini Bundell

So, this week, I have been reading an article from the Nature Career Guide, and it's about diversity in science, and particularly looking at diversity in academic institutions, and what the sort of top management and research group leaders at these kinds of institutions can do about this sort of ongoing issue of lack of diversity.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Which, of course, has been rightly under the spotlight a great deal this year. And what are sort of the headline figures?

Host: Shamini Bundell

So, the figures aren’t great, probably not to many people’s surprise, but these are the figures that institutions need to be focusing on. So, they have figures for people in faculty positions in the US in STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – and 6% of those positions are held by Black people, and that's compared to 13% of the population, so clearly a discrepancy there. And similarly, in UK universities, for example, we have here around 2.5% Black academic staff compared to 3.3% of the population. And the disparity gets really noticeable as you go up the chain, so to speak. So, they have taken some data from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency on people in senior roles in academia, so managers, directors, senior officials, and in this particular dataset, there are no Black people in senior roles in the UK.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, sobering numbers indeed, there, Shamini, definitely.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Part of this goes way beyond STEM and science and universities. Systemic racism is this really broad issue, but the way it comes in is things like admissions policies or hiring. That's where things like inequalities of income and access to STEM education and networking opportunities, all these different problems come in to mean that our system of grades and standardised tests and interviews and things doesn't result in a meritocracy, which is what we want. But there are sort of more personal issues, as well, of bias, which has been talked about a lot but can be really hard to see if it doesn't affect you directly. So, they give an example of a study in the article that just very simply put forward CVs for assessment in different faculties in US universities, and found that CVS with white and Asian names at the top were perceived to be more competent than Black or Latin American candidates. And in physics, there was a gender discrepancy as well. And this article also comments on the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has differentially affected people from different minorities, and people who are disadvantaged already, that's then exacerbated. The whole system seems to be set up to sort of counter attempts at diversity and inclusion.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, the deck is stacked so heavily against minority groups, Shamini, that it's almost seems glib to say, ‘What's to be done?’ But I mean, does this article put forward any things that are being put in place to improve things?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, the sort of suggestions range from the small scale to the big. One of the researchers talked about ensuring the safety of her students when they were accessing labs after hours, and certain students were having trouble getting stopped by campus security or campus police, and that's the kind of thing that if you don't ask and if you don't show that you're interested in learning about this sort of experience that you might not have had, you're not, as a PI, able to step in and do anything about that. So certainly, everyone's individual responsibility to make sure you're aware of the different challenges faced by the different people you work with or you teach or you manage is very important, and it really needs support from the higher levels of these institutions. I think pretty much most institutions think it's important to say that they're sort of committed to diversity but, doing the legwork, that has to follow through and a lot of big efforts have to be made.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, nice one, Shamini. Clearly, an incredibly important issue, and one that we are going to keep talking about here on the Nature Podcast.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Absolutely. So, what have you got for me this week, Ben?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So, a couple of weeks ago, Nick and I were talking about the fires that are still burning in parts of the US, but there's a story that's come out recently looking at, well, an animal ally that could help to protect areas where these fires are happening,

Host: Shamini Bundell

Right, so I'm picturing something cute and furry in a firefighter outfit.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Shamini, I know you love a cute animal story, and you're almost there, although I don't think these animals are wearing a uniform. In this case, the story centres on the North American beaver, and I've seen their handiwork close up when I was in Canada. They built these amazing dams and formed these ponds in areas of wetlands with sort of streams tracking along them.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Beavers are cute, and if they’re saving the landscape from fires, then, bonus. But how exactly can you prove that building a dam essentially helps with wildfires?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, previous work looks at the sort of aftermath of a giant fire in the state of Idaho in 2018, and it showed that there was some quite lush areas left after the fire had gone, and these lush areas matched with where the beavers were working. And now, some ecologists have taken that even further and they've been looking at wildfires since 2000 in five American states, and they use satellite images to sort of see what the state of the vegetation was, and it turns out you can actually see the beavers’ handiwork from space, which is kind of amazing.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Oh, wow.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And what the team did, they looked at the kind of the plant verdancy, I guess, before, during and after a fire, and what they showed is that the areas where the beavers had built these kind of wetlands, these areas were of course saturated, and sort of the wet vegetation didn't burn. But it's not necessarily sort of just about stopping fires. The research showed that these verdant areas provide a refuge for animals that couldn't escape the fire – reptiles, birds, small mammals, and even farmed animals like cattle – and they could go to these areas to hide from the fire if they couldn't run away.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And so, is this good news for beavers? Is everyone going to be more pro beavers now and sort of making sure that they've got plenty of habitat to live in?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, the research who did this work said that it’s this animal thing that's key. These areas don't help the woodland grow back any quicker because it doesn't matter whether the beavers are there or not. But they say that the beavers could help maintain cost-effective natural fire resistant areas, rather than having to sort of engineer or build them.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, I think that totally counts as a cute animal story, so I appreciate that, Ben, and I'm really glad that the people are realising the benefit of the beavers.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Shamini, you're very welcome. And listeners, if you would like more stories like these then make sure you check out the Nature Briefing, and we'll put a link on where to sign up and links to the stories we've chatted about in this week's show notes.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That's all for this week, but just before we go, there is time to highlight not one, but two animations we've got for you all about vaccinations. They look at how vaccines work and how they're made – useful facts to know as labs around the world race to test coronavirus vaccines. They're part of a Nature Milestone all about vaccination, and we'll put a link to the videos and the Milestone in the show notes. I'm Shamini Bundell.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening.

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