Man’s best friend?

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The idea that a dog is man’s best friend, and that children derive, not only enjoyment, but also valuable skills such as empathy and responsibility from owning a pet is so widely accepted in western societies that it has rarely been systematically investigated by researchers. Nevertheless, while some pet owners may well feel that their animal companions are a great comfort, or in some other way profoundly beneficial to them, others might view their pets as a nuisance, an unnecessary responsibility or expense, and even a source of stress.

While it may seem clear that pets are sometimes a profoundly positive influence on the lives of their owners, people vary enormously in terms of the quality of their relationships, human and animal alike, and the benefits derived from them. For that reason we need empirical research to determine how important pets really are to children, whether they are generally beneficial, and under what circumstances.

An evolving relationship
Humans and animals have a long history together. Cave paintings dating back over 30,000 years depict animals such as buffalo, horses, reindeer, wolves, and boars. For most of the Palaeolithic period, the relationships between humans and animals were ones of simple necessity; early humans competed for resources with animals, hunted them and were hunted by them. In the last 150,000 or so years, however, these relationships started to change with the domestication of animals for food, materials and labour. Early modern humans began relying increasingly upon, and spending more time alongside, animals, which were at the same time becoming evermore well suited to life with humans. Eventually, animals inevitably became providers of companionship and objects of affection to their human counterparts.

Today, pets are more common among North American and UK families with young children than are resident fathers. Nevertheless, their importance to children relative to other close relationships has received scant attention from researchers, as have the factors associated with the quality of child-pet relationships. This is in large part owing to a lack of valid tools for measuring human-animal relationships. I have endeavoured to redress these issues by examining the properties of a new pet attachment scale adapted from an established and psychometrically validated measure of human attachment.

Adversity
The results have supported not only the validity of this new tool, but also the validity of considering human-animal relationships in similar terms as human-human relationships in general. Having established its validity, this tool could then be used to see what factors were related to stronger relationships with pets, and also to compare children’s pet and sibling relationships.

Child-pet relationships were stronger among children struggling with various measures of adversity, including environmental adversity, emotional distress and academic difficulties. Nevertheless, stronger child-pet relationships were also associated with positive behavioural adjustment. This finding is striking given adversity is strongly associated with behavioural problems, in this sample and in general.

In terms of demonstrating the importance of children’s relationships with their pets, they were at least as strong as their relationships with their siblings, if not stronger. Moreover, children who suffered higher levels of adversity were more likely to prefer pets over siblings, indicating that not only do children turn to their pets for support when faced with adversity, but that they do so even more than they turn to their siblings.

Having demonstrated that children’s relationships with their pets are functionally similar to their relationships with their siblings, can be measured by the same instrument and are equally if not more important to them, many possibilities open up for further research in this burgeoning field. While more work certainly needs to be done, I hope that this research provides valuable groundwork for empirical studies of child-pet relationships.

*Matt Cassels [2014] is doing a PhD in Psychiatry. Picture credit: Witthaya Phonsawat and www.freedigitalphotos.net

 

Translating Africa’s tech enthusiasm into an enterprise ecosystem

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Technology is disseminating across Africa and technology consumer markets have grown rapidly as a result. But so far, only a few local technology entrepreneurs have seized the economic opportunities that ensue. In contrast to consumer markets, entrepreneurship ecosystems may take more time and resources to grow than enthusiasts of Africa’s technology boom anticipated.

Various media stories regularly celebrate the surges in mobile phone penetration, the distribution of laptops in rural schools and the steadily growing base of internet users, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, 10 years ago, less than 20 per cent of Africans owned a mobile phone; today, roughly 80 per cent do. The initial hype around Africa’s rapidly emerging technology markets was significant. Development and economic experts alike predicted that technology would allow local people to solve local problems and therefore drive innovation: rural farmers might access market information through feature phones and individuals in remote places could benefit from mobile healthcare and virtual education services. With technology consumer figures in East Africa growing at double digit rates every year, it seemed likely that the next big technology start-up would come out of Africa.

Multinationals profiting from tech boom

But now, a few years in, patience is starting to wane. Although technology is helping address local problems, the major start-up boom that angel investors and venture capitalists hoped for has not yet happened. Instead, the big economic opportunities of Africa’s technology catch-up are largely being seized by traditional multinationals. For instance, Kenya’s mobile service provider Safaricom, owned by Britain’s Vodafone, offers the mobile money service MPESA, which is returning million dollar profits across seven African nations. South Korea’s Samsung has a 50 per cent share in Africa’s overall smartphone market.

The reason is that, just like anywhere in the world, suddenly owning a mobile phone does not automatically make people relentless tinkerers and innovators. Instead, skilled developers, graphic designers and other technology experts tend to prefer stable employment to the start-up world. Given that unemployment rates are as high as 40 per cent in some African nations, this is not surprising. Add to that the risks associated with starting a business. Globally, an average nine out of 10 technology start-ups fail. Locally, starting a business tends to be even riskier: in the absence of personal savings and alternative employment options to fall back on, entrepreneurial success often becomes a matter of livelihood.

Forging a technology entrepreneurship ecosystem

One example of how to encourage entrepreneurs to seize the opportunities of Africa’s technology boom is through business incubation and acceleration. Across Africa, roughly 40 such organisations provide co-working and networking spaces, intensive business development programmes and sometimes seed funding. Although the basic parameters of African business incubators and accelerators are similar to those of their counterparts in Silicon Valley or London, their role couldn’t be more different. Instead of selectively fostering individual start-ups, Africa’s innovation hubs are driving the much more fundamental emergence of a technology entrepreneurship ecosystem.

For instance, innovation hubs are helping build technology skills by offering a space for collaboration. Before their existence, technology enthusiasts met irregularly in coffee shops or at universities. Now, there are dedicated spaces brimming with developers, graphic designers, hackers and bloggers every day. Business accelerators and incubators are also legitimising technology entrepreneurship as a profession, particularly in the eyes of parent generations. “Now you can actually say, I’m going to the hub. Before, it was like: I’m at the coffee house. It looked kind of like idleness,” a young technology entrepreneur explained to me. Finally, hubs’ seed funding for technology start-ups significantly reduces the financial risks associated with business creation or makes starting a business possible in the first place.

The question of how many vastly successful technology start-ups have come out of Africa might therefore not yet be one to ask. Instead, entrepreneurship takes more than the availability of technology. Although technology entrepreneurship ecosystems are emerging across Africa, often with the support of business incubators and accelerators, they are one example of how not everything can be leapfrogged.

*Marlen de la Chaux [2013] is doing a PhD in Management Studies.

Meeting global food demand through gene transfer

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The current exponential growth of human population places incredible demands on agriculture. It is estimated that agricultural production must double in order to meet projected demands by 2050. This increase must be made despite a steady loss of arable farmland, dwindling fertiliser reserves, increasing salinity of soils, limited irrigation water, climate change and shrinking of genetic variation in agronomic crops. Based on current agricultural increase, yield trends are inadequate to meet food demands by 2050.

Even now, about 870 million people are chronically undernourished. Over one billion people live on less than one pound per day and must spend over half of their income on food. Each year approximately eleven million children living in impoverishment die before reaching their fifth birthday and every day about 25,000 people die due to starvation related complications – making malnutrition one of the largest contributors to human mortality.

Inventive solutions

Meeting global food demands in the coming decades will require inventive and sustainable solutions. The scientific community agrees that one of the best ways to meet this demand for food is to enhance the ability of crops to harness energy from the sun.

Both food and biofuel production require photosynthesis to utilise abundant solar energy and store it in biomass via carbon fixation. However, photosynthesis is often limited by the availability of carbon dioxide. All plants use a photosynthetic mechanism known as C3 photosynthesis. Plants that use only C3 photosynthesis for the uptake of carbon dioxide are greatly hindered by oxygen, a waste product of photosynthesis. Interestingly, about 4% of plant species are able to overcome inhibition of oxygen and enhance their photosynthetic efficiency with a more efficient carbon fixation process, termed C4 photosynthesis, which acts as turbo charger to operate in parallel with the existing C3 pathway. In hot climates, C4 plants are more productive, drought tolerant and require less nitrogen than C3 plants.

Gene transfer

The specific objective of my research is to work towards comprehensively identifying the genes required for C4 photosynthesis with the goal to transfer them into economically important C3 crops, in particular rice and wheat which together account for about 40% of human food supply. Introducing C4 photosynthesis into these crops will potentially increase current yields by 50% while adding greater nitrogen- and water-use efficiency. If rice and wheat alone were to be converted to C4 and given the right environment, theoretically 1.4 billion more people can be fed per year without need for more farmland or agricultural inputs. This would be an incredible and sustainable solution to global food security and supply!

Transferring C4 photosynthesis into C3 crops involves alteration to leaf anatomy and partitioning the biochemical reactions encoded by existing C3 genes into different cell types, which facilitates more efficient carbon fixation. Thus, understanding how these photosynthesis genes are regulated paves a path to engineer more efficient crops for increased food and biofuel production. Transfer of C4 photosynthesis into important C3 crops could yield considerable gains by boosting world food supply at a time when agricultural production is predicted to drop beneath global demands.

*Gregory Reeves [2014] is a Plant Sciences PhD Candidate in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge.