Saturday, 31 May 2014


The new head of the NHS in England, Simon Stevens, has said there needs to be new models of care built around smaller local hospitals. In recent years the health service has emphasised the benefits of centralised services.

Centralised specialist services have brought significant benefits in recent years, in areas such as stroke care and major trauma.

But this policy has raised questions about the future of many smaller district general hospitals.

Mr Stevens said that smaller hospitals should play an important part in providing care, especially for the growing number of older patients who could be treated closer to home.

Mr Stevens took up his post in the NHS in England after 11 years working for private health care firms in Europe, the US and South America.

Comment: This is a welcome policy change. There are important roles for both the smaller local hospitals, and the centralised specialist centres. Both are needed. The move away from local services has gone too far, with some evidence the policy was fuelled increasingly by funding cuts in the NHS. Services for the elderly, and for mental health, in particular, should be available locally. Budget cuts leading to fewer NHS beds have in some areas meant patients moving to hospitals at distance from their homes, with the NHS having to buy provision in the private sector. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014


The European Space Agency's (Esa) Rosetta spacecraft has lit its thrusters for a near-eight-hour burn to put it on just the right path to meet up with Comet 67P/C-G in August.

There will be eight further manoeuvres, but yesterday's was the big one.

Rosetta is currently 500 million km from Earth. Comet 67P/C-G is travelling round the sun on a big loop that takes it out beyond the orbit of Jupiter and then back in to just inside the orbit of Mars.

Comment:  Plenty of chances for things to go wrong before the August rendezvous, but hopefully this exciting mission will be successful.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014


A new European Space Agency (Esa) Cryosat satellite study shows that Antarctica is now losing about 160 billion tonnes of ice a year to the ocean, twice as much as in the last survey. 

Cryosat was launched by Esa in 2010. It has two antennas slightly offset from each other, enabling the detection of not just the height of the ice sheet but the shape of its slopes and ridges. Cryosat is thus more sensitive to details at the steep edges of the ice sheet, where the thinning is most pronounced. 

The ice loss is sufficient to increase global sea levels by around 0.43 mm per year. By comparison, total loss of the Antarctic ice could cause a 58 metre sea level rise.

The new study divides Antarctica into three regions;  West Antarctica, East Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.  All three regions are losing ice, but the Western ice sheet predominates. In particular, the six huge glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment are all being eroded, with the Smith Glacier surface lowering by 9 metres per year.

Professor Andy Shepherd of Leeds University said 'The peninsula is extremely rugged and previous satellite altimeters have always struggled to see its narrow glaciers. With Cryosat, we get remarkable coverage - better than anything that's been achieved before'

Comment:  Two other recent studies have focused on the melting of the Amundsen ice sheet. These increasingly accurate measurements of the rate of ice loss in Antarctica are important in understanding the future impact of global climate change.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


A NASA study team has analysed 40 years of observations of six big ice streams draining into the Amundsen Bay and concluded that the melting is irreversible.

The glaciers are the Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith, Haynes, Pope and Kohler. 

Professor Eric Rignot said 'We present observational evidence that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has gone into a state of irreversible retreat; it has passed the point of no return. This retreat will have major consequences for sea level rises worldwide. It will raise sea levels by 4 ft, but its retreat will also influence  adjacent sectors of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which could triple this contribution to sea level.'

Another paper, from a team led by Dr Ian Joughlin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory, includes computer modelling and also indicates that a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier is inevitable, over a timescale of the next 200 to 500 years. 

Professor Andy Shephard from the University of Leeds commented that the EU's newly launched Sentinel-1a radar satellite would have a unique capability to assess the glaciers' grounding lines. The grounding line is the junction of a glacier with the ocean.  'As soon as the satellite reaches its nominal orbit, we will turn its eye on Thwaites Glacier to see whether it has indeed changed as predicted.'

Comment: The scientific evidence continues to point to highly significant melting of these glaciers. Further research on the timescales will be important.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014


Talks have resumed between Iran and the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany seeking agreement on a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

The aim is to build on an interim deal at earlier negotiations that saw uranium enrichment curtailed by Iran in return for sanctions relief.

Iran is being asked to scale back its sensitive nuclear activities permanently to ensure that it cannot assemble a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear work is peaceful, and wants the economic sanctions to end.

The three key issues are:

Iran's uranium enrichment capacity
The heavy-water reactor at Arak
The possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme

President Hassan Rouhani has said that Iran will not surrender its right to nuclear development.

Comment:  Iran has always insisted that it does not intend to produce a nuclear weapon. It has been pointed out that the nuclear states have failed to implement their commitment under the nuclear proliferation agreement to reduce their existing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Monday, 12 May 2014


Observations by the new European Union's Sentinel-1a radar spacecraft reveal a marked increase in the flow speed of an ice cap glacier in Norway.

This is the glacier at Cap Mohn on the Austfonna ice cap. Scientists had suspected this ice cap was losing substantially more ice through its main drainage glacier.

The Sentinel-1a results confirm this view. Sentinel-1a was launched only last month.

Professor Andy Shepherd from Leeds University said 'We've observed  Austfonna with various satellite radar datasets over the past 20 years, and it hasn't done very much. But we've now looked at it again with the new Sentinel-1 spacecraft, and it's clear it has speeded up quite considerably in the last two or three years.. It is now flowing at least 10 times faster than previously measured.'

Comment: These early findings from Sentinel-1a provide further scientific evidence of an increased rate of glacier melting in Norway. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014


The Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Margaret Hodge, has criticised the financial management of Free Schools. Problems identified by whistleblowers should have been found through official audit and review processes.

There are currently 174 Free Schools in England, with another116 approved to open from this September.

The committee said that high-profile failures at three Free Schools show that not enough is being done to ensure that public money is being used properly. To protect whistleblowers, it urges a ban on the use of confidentiality clauses in Free School staff contracts.

The Government said that many of the committee's concerns were 'misplaced'.

Comment:    A serious problem with the Free School programme is a mis-match between the location of Free Schools and the areas where there is the greatest need for resources and additional school places.  The overall cost of  the 'free' schools is also a serious concern.

Friday, 9 May 2014


Greater East Midlands (GEM) Commissioning Support Unit has been criticised for the standard of its NHS continuing healthcare services for patients with complex needs.

Leicester West Labour MP Liz Kendall, a shadow health minister, said a number of people had been 'badly let down' and 'no-one is taking responsibility.'

 She said that a terminally ill 21-year-old man was discharged from hospital after a 10-week stay without the right support, and in another case a company commissioned by GEM to provide night care for an elderly man with Alzheimer's failed to change the man's incontinence pads and he was left wet overnight.

GEM told Ms Kendall that it had only one part-time person monitoring the quality of all its home care providers. A spokeswoman for GEM said vacancies in its monitoring department had since been filled.

Comment: Yet another case of serious problems with a Commissioning Support Unit, apparently with no-one taking responsibility ie a failure of public accountability.

Thursday, 8 May 2014


The Rosetta spacecraft carried out a manoeuvre yesterday moving towards an orbit rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched Rosetta in 2004. Rosetta carries a lander called Philae due to touch down on the comet in mid-November.

Philae will report back on changes that occur on the surface o 67P as gas and dust lift away from the comet when the icy surface is heated as it moves closer to the Sun.

Comment:  As with many of the science probes sent to study distant objects in the solar system, patience is the name of the game. The Rosetta mission is already ten years away from launch, and yet to start the crucial part of its scientific research.  

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


Curiosity has drilled a second deeper hole in the rocked named 'Windjana' at the bottom of Mars' Gale Crater, a week after a test bore just a few centimetres away.

Professor John Grotzinger said his team was seeking further information on the role played by water in fixing the sediments that make up many of the rocks on the crater floor. 'We're most interested to find clues as to the aqueous geochemistry which resulted in cementation of the sedimentary rocks', he commented. The evidence indicates that the crater once held a lake, and the many rounded pebbles seen by Curiosity hint at the action of the water streams that may have fed that lake.

One obvious difference with the new sandstone hole in the Windjana rock compared to the previous drillings is the markedly darker colour of the particles.

Comment:  The new pictures show an obvious layered aspect of the rocks around Windjana, which look clearly sedimentary. It is brilliant that we are able to follow this scientific exploration of the Martian surface, as it happens.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


An investigation into the finances of the Education Fellowship Trust, which runs a chain of Academies mostly in Northamptonshire and Wiltshire, questions governors' expenses of £45,000, a £20.000 trip to New York, £600 for customised umbrellas, unadvertised jobs for family members, £915 on printing Christmas cards, expenses of £45,000 by two trustees, very high levels of private car usage, travel and subsistence and accommodation costs, significant breaches of the Companies Act 2006, Charity Commission regulations and the Academies Financial Handbook, and payment of its chairman £90,000 per year, including transactions with companies in which the chairman has a controlling interest.

The investigation into this use of public funds and, and the financial management and governance, was carried out by the Education Funding Agency. which delivers public funding to academies.

The first academies became part of the Education Fellowship Trust in October 2012. From September 2013 the trust had restructured with the chief executive stepping down.

Academies are independent state schools which operate outside of local authority control.