Uncertainty and expertise in geopolitics, health, and infrastructure

20 February 2023


Uncertainty and expertise in geopolitics, health, and infrastructure

Reported by Meg Groom and Caitlin Kearney, Policy Interns at CSaP

CSaP's Horn Fellowship and members of the Policy Fellowship network took part in a series of talks with Cambridge academics to highlight research and identify opportunities for future collaboration and engagement. Discussions with academic experts shed light on some of the uncertainty witnessed in 2022 and what we might expect to see in 2023.
As influential political powers on the world stage, Russia and China were the first themes of the discussions

In a gripping roundtable discussion, Professor William Hurst from the Department of Politics and International Studies, summarised three emerging findings based on recent observations following Chinese politics: building a secure rule-based authoritarian regime by Xi Jinping, ending some previously important PRC policies, and PRC’s complex relationship with Zero-COVID. Several questions followed around the PRC’s intentions with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including what that means for Taiwan, and the discussion concluded on the economic future of China.

Taking a historical approach to China, Dr Daniel Knorr, Faculty of History, Modern Asian History, compared the events and intentions from China’s Destiny to China’s Dream. Knorr compared the vision of China as constructed by former president of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek during the middle of the 20th Century to the contemporary vision of China’s future that is being moulded by current President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping. His cautionary findings in this comparison revealed that the uncertainty observed in the PRC is less surprising when considering the historical context of China’s claim and aim to be harmonic, unified, and peaceful compared to Western counterparts.

Professor Hubertus Jahn, Faculty of History, History of Russia and the Caucasus, reflected on Russia’s political and social history, in connection to the current Russian attack on Ukraine. Comparing today’s war and the events at Holodomor, he stated that instead of death by starvation, today Ukrainians face death by freezing. He further described the historical and psycho-social factors that affect everyday Russians, including history-based propaganda. He concluded his discussion by returning to how this has influenced the reoccurrence of war in Europe and also recommended EU to invests in counter-propaganda, in tandem with supporting independent journalists and political opposition. On the other hand, the participants were interested in exploring the “de-Putinization” of Russia, imagining a Russia without Putin, particularly the possible scenarios in which this could occur.

A period in history steeped in religious and political pressures

Drawing us deeper into history to the 17th Century, Dr Clare Jackson, Director of Studies in History at Trinity Hall, started talking about a turbulent tale of England in what she describes as a nearly continual crisis. Dr Jackson started arguing why this period is so influential in Britain’s history and sparked interest in participants. She further continued her discussion by detailing the evolution of the crown’s relationship with parliament, the formation of the Bank of England to finance Protestant William of Orange’s war against Catholic France and the impact on the island of Ireland. The audience was also interested in discussing the lens through which this period of history is taught in UK schools, and the resulting impact on British perspectives of its place within Europe.

Emerging technologies in cancer, ageing, and health

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, Director of the Early Cancer Institute, described the current landscape of early cancer detection. Fitzgerald highlighted the recent advances in scientific tools, access to larger cohorts and investment appetite create an opportunity for the formation of the UK’s only institute related to early cancer detection. Fitzgerald emphasized the main objectives of the institute and she further discussed the ethics of practice within these three objectives: risk prediction, detection and interception of cancer. Embedding the importance of partnership and interdisciplinarity into the Early Cancer Institute, Professor Fitzgerald stressed that she hopes to address these challenges as they discover new science, develop new tests and deliver them into NHS pathways.

Dr Inigo Martincorena, Group leader, Wellcome Sanger Institute, opened his discussion by asking how and why we age. Interested in understanding the very first steps that cells take in their evolution towards cancer, Martincorena stressed that there are many theories for why we age, but how we age is currently an active area of research. He compared mutation rates in normal and damaged tissue from the skin and oesophagus and highlighted the results that reveal mutations in healthy tissue occur at a much higher rate than expected, dominated by ageing. He further explained how this work motivates investigating the opportunities for prediction and intervention in ageing, cancer and non-cancer diseases.

Ben Woodington, PhD candidate, Department of Engineering, and Elise Jenkins, PhD candidate, Department of Engineering started their discussion by informing the audience about implantable microscale bioelectrical devices that dramatically improve understanding and treatment of conditions such as spinal injury, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and brain cancer. They talked about their work on treating conditions where pharmaceutical interventions have limited impact or significant side effects: such as current radio and chemotherapies for the aggressive brain cancer, glioblastoma. After referring to more than 80 billion neurons in the brain, they described electricity as a secret communication language that is powering a bioelectronic revolution.

Levelling Up, the importance of electricity markets in reaching national climate goals, and the role of policy in addressing these challenges in the UK

While London is simultaneously the political, economic, and cultural capital of the UK, the national consequence of London’s success was explained by Professor Robert Martin, Emeritus Professor of Economic Geography. By examining the performance across various regions across the UK, Martin described the gaps in education, health, innovation, and transportation shared amongst rural areas with special emphasis on northern cities. After referring to the policy paper Levelling Up, which addresses the regional economic growth inequity between urban and rural areas across the UK, Martin further reflected on how areas which feel economically left behind can sow discontent politically and, in some cases, weaken democracy. Martin also suggested that the UK government consider the following key levers for Levelling Up: infrastructure connecting major cities (especially across the north) to give everyone access to the labour force, target areas with underperforming education, address regional inequity of health, and incentivize firms to invest and innovate in strategic regions.

Professor Ying Jin, Professor Ying Jin, Director of Martin Centre for Architectural and Urban Studies started his discussion by stating the challenges and potential solutions facing Cambridge and the UK with regard to urban planning. He emphasized that the severity of the socioeconomic divide between prime and subprime locations in the UK is one of the key challenges. He further recommended to policy makers creating new jobs in new places and proposed connecting key cities such that door-to-door travel is two hours or less. He discussed that connecting key cities would allow work and travel between cities to be achievable within a day.

Professor David Newbery, Director of Research for the Energy Policy Research Group, highlighted that the government have set the objective of decarbonising by 2035 and stressed that this ambition requires significant reform of the electricity markets. He emphasized that the necessary reform scale is clear when you compare the energy capacity mixture from 2020 to 2030 scenarios, where a trebling of zero carbon technologies to 134 Gigawatts is required. Newbery called for renewable investment reform and for reform in transmission grid operation through contracts, to encourage new generations to locate at specific geographical locations on the grid and reduce the risk of investment. He also recommended a reform of the pricing of variable renewable energy to be long-term and low-risk.

Image by Marcos Luiz from Unsplash