Analysing Trump voters, Jupiter mission launch, and COVID oximeter test
In this edition: What links Trump voters, how we’re going to investigate Jupiter’s moons, and why it’s a good idea to ask if a medical trial is fair.
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News: Surface COVID transmission and the sounds of space – We hear about the first evidence of COVID-19 transmission occurring through hands and surfaces within households, and find out how the public can help space research by listening to the sounds of plasma.
Hello everyone. I'm Gareth Mitchell, and today, what happened when academics in the United States tried publicizing research about voting patterns and Donald Trump?
We actually wrote the press release and it was about to go out and a few days before it was going to go out, some people higher up at the administration shut down the press release. Apparently they said that it was going to upset the Republican state legislature.
So what might have worried that university? We'll take a closer look at that study. Also today...
Lift off to the icy moons of Jupiter. The payload includes kit from Imperial. And also, we hear about a study into remote blood oxygen monitoring during the pandemic. How fair was the initiative?
All right, folks, thanks very much for being with us and we're going to start by having a little chat with Conrad Duncan and SARS-CoV-2 is back on the agenda for Imperial College. Anyway, not that it ever went away, but the whole issue of hand washing, about which I haven't heard so much in recent months, but very much back on the agenda in this study, this newly published study from Imperial. So perhaps take us through this, Conrad.
Yeah, so this is a study that's been led by Professor Ajit Lalvani from Imperial, and it provides the first empirical evidence for COVID transmission via people's hands and frequently touched surfaces.
So a bit of context, as you say, we haven't heard a lot about hand washing recently, but in the early weeks of the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about washing hands and cleaning household surfaces as a way to stop COVID transmission. Then we learned that COVID was an airborne virus and you could catch it from the air, and that kind of went to the background a little bit and we kind of focused more on airborne transmission.
So what they did in this study is they recruited household contacts for people who are living with 279 newly diagnosed COVID cases, that's people who recently caught COVID, and this is between August 2020 and March 2021. And they went into these homes and they took swabs of people's hands, that's the primary case, and the household contacts, and also took swabs of frequently touched surfaces. So that's doorknobs, kitchen taps, those sort of things.
What they found is quite interesting. They were looking at relative risks, this is the increased risk in these scenarios, and they found that if the virus was found on frequently touched household surfaces, they were 1.7 times more likely to get COVID. If the virus was found on the primary case's hands, then the household contacts were 1.7 times more likely to get COVID. And then if the virus was found on a household contact's hands, they were 2.1 times more likely to get COVID.
So lots of numbers there, but I think the key thing is basically that this data shows a quite strong correlation between the virus being on people's hands and being on surfaces and then eventually going on to be infected with COVID. Professor Lalvani actually says that the results show that as well as frequently washing hands, decontamination of surfaces could prevent transmission, and that's one of the key messages that he wanted to put forward with this study.
Where does this leave us in terms of airborne transmission then? Is that less important now in the light of these results?
Well, probably not. So an important caveat is that obviously this is an observational study so it can't prove causation, but also, the researchers weren't able to sample household air at sufficient scale to analyze that alongside the virus on household surfaces. So it's likely that these two forms of transmission are happening in parallel and we can't say for sure which is the primary route of transmission. The results of this study basically suggests that it's not an either/or scenario. It's likely that you can get COVID from the air and you can get it from household surfaces, and if you really want to stay safe, if you're in a house where someone has the virus, you need to take all those factors into account.
All right, thank you for that. That's Conrad Duncan.
Now, let's talk to Julie Hoeflinger, who's first time on the podcast. Nice to have you on, Julie. And we're going to be talking about the sounds of the cosmos. What an amazing story. So what do we mean by the sounds of the cosmos?
Yeah, so Imperial has teamed up with NASA and they are studying the plasma in outer space. And plasma is essentially just charged particles that are released from sources like the sun. And initially, they didn't think there was a lot of activity from plasma, but it turns out that as it interacts with the Earth's magnetic shield, which protects us from harmful solar rays, turns out that they're producing these super, super low-frequency waves called ultra-low frequency waves. And that activity has been sped up into a range within human hearing so that we can actually hear it, and it is available for playing among citizens so that they can actually detect different activity that's happening with this plasma as it interacts with our atmosphere.
All right. Well, let's listen to one of these recordings.
All right, so the idea is that as part of a Citizen Science project, a whole load of people can listen to a whole load of these recordings and somehow help the science. They can help to identify the plasma and characterize it. Is that it?
Yeah, exactly. So you can actually go right onto their website, listen.spacescience.org, and it is sped up, again, to a range that humans can hear it, so you can get year's worth of data in just a few minutes. Just by having virtue of having ears, you can detect any subtleties in patterns that are happening and help them discover something that's happening in space.
How will this help the scientists?
Yeah. So plasma can contribute to space weather and space weather can damage GPS, weather satellites, it can interfere with our transportation systems, and have really detrimental effects here on Earth. So they're hoping to see what kind of things that these waves are capable of on earth and what kind of impact they can have. And it seems that they can't always catch these subtleties and the activity by themselves, so it's really helpful to have a whole bunch of people all agree on something subtle that they heard in the data instead of going through tons of line plots or years' worth of data.
All right, we'll leave it there. That's Julie Hoeflinger.
Well now, there's a big political couple of years ahead in the United States as the November 2024 presidential elections approach. Yes, the crunch moment is less than two years away now. Will Donald Trump be the Republican nominee? His indictments, actual and anticipated, seem to be improving his electoral prospect if anything and some recent research from the Imperial College Business School has been trying to understand where that support comes from. The headline finding, "Regions with high levels of neuroticism appear more likely to have voted Trump in the last two elections." But the authors of this study have also picked up firsthand evidence of the current atmosphere of attacks on universities in the United States as we'll hear.
Sanaz Talaifar is Assistant Professor in Organizational Behavior in the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at Imperial.
I guess you have to kind of go back to more traditional theories of why people are attracted to what I would call authoritarian leaders. So after World War II, there was a lot of scholarship about this, why would people vote for leaders like Hitler or Mussolini? People, when they experience fear or negative emotions, they seek leaders that are going to give them that sort of reassurance. They have these negative emotions and they want someone who will assuage their negative emotions, speak to their fears.
So you can see that in Trump's rhetoric. He doesn't say, "Oh, you shouldn't be fearful of immigrants." He says, "You should be fearful of immigrants, and not only should you be fearful, but I'm going to make sure immigrants don't come here." So he addresses the root feelings of threat that people might feel. And so people who are high on neuroticism are those people who are more likely to have these feelings of threat.
The two most robust findings that we had were that regions that scored higher on neuroticism where people were likely to agree with statements like, "I tend to worry a lot," were more likely to vote for Trump, but we also found that regions that were just suffering economically were more likely to vote for Trump as well. So looking at both those personality dispositional things that might make people feel threatened, but also the structural factors as well.
Yeah, and it's interesting that point about places and regions where people feel as if, frankly, they're just not very well-off and they're looking for somebody to blame, they're looking for scapegoats. And we saw this in Brexit, didn't we? And you can tell me if this is an oversimplified narrative, but basically that people feel that they're impoverished, they want to blame people for it, and then populist leaders come in and they talk about immigrants and so on. And so that amplifies feelings of neuroticism that might lead people to make more populous choices in their voting.
Yeah. So actually, some of my colleagues have also published work showing that neuroticism predicted the Brexit vote as well. So regions that scored higher on neuroticism in the UK also were more likely to vote for Brexit.
Yeah, I think there's this supply and demand equation going on where it's easy to blame leaders like Trump for fomenting populism, but also, there is clearly a demand for these leaders.
And one of the limitations that you point to in your own paper of this research is really looking for a causal relationship here, and do we have one, and do we know is it people's personality traits that causes their political preferences or is it the political scene that then leads to feelings of neuroticism or whatever? And you say yourself, that's a limitation. We just don't know, do we, the cause and effect here?
Yeah, we really don't. Historically, people thought that it was the personality traits that caused the voting behavior because personality is something that is relatively stable over time and doesn't change that much. That view is changing actually. There's a lot of really interesting research about personality change over the lifespan, which makes that other causal direction slightly more plausible than people used to think, where maybe the political circumstances can potentially also change people's personality traits, at least maybe in the moment.
And finally, what can we pull out of this paper in terms of maybe expectations? What are we likely to see as we head towards another presidential election in a couple of years’ time? Well, less than that.
We found that Trump actually made gains in ethnically diverse regions from 2016 to 2020. So he improved on his performance, basically, in those ethnically diverse regions in the second election. And I'm just really curious to see if that trend continues where he tries to expand his base beyond more ethnically homogenous regions.
I think the other thing that I really want to touch on is the variable that had the highest correlation with Trump voting was lack of a college degree. The correlation was 0.62. I don't know if this is relevant, but I've personally felt the attack on higher education in the US as a result of publishing this paper. So the University of Texas at Austin, where one of my collaborators is based and where I received my PhD, wanted to put out a press release about this paper, and we actually wrote the press release and it was about to go out. And a few days before it was going to go out, some people higher up at the administration shut down the press release. Apparently they said that it was going to upset the Republican state legislature.
And so yeah, I'm very happy to be on this podcast telling you all about this paper since some of my previous efforts at getting the word out about it have been unsuccessful.
And that, dear listener, is one of the scariest and most depressing things I've heard so far this year. That's Sanaz Talaifar of the Business School, one of the co-authors on that study. And if you want to look it up, it's titled, "Fear and Deprivation in Trump's America: A Regional Analysis of Voting Behavior in the 2016 and 2020 US Presidential Elections." The paper is in the journal Personality Science, and Sanaz has also written a helpful and accessible summary. It's on the IB Knowledge pages via the Business School website.
A mission to Jupiter launches atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana. It went up earlier this month and the payload included kit from Imperial College. This was the J- MAG magnetometer instrument to help study Jupiter's environment and three of its largest moons. Just before launch, Hayley Dunning caught up with Professor Michelle Dougherty, head of Imperial's Physics Department.
Professor Michele Dougherty:
JUICE is a mission that's going to go to Jupiter. From my perspective, the most important thing that JUICE is going to do is it's going to be focusing on three of Jupiter's moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. We are almost certain there are subsurface oceans at those moons, but we want to confirm them, but we also want to characterize in particular Ganymede's ocean, how deep it is, what its solar content is.
One of the most important realisations that planetary scientists have come to in the last 25 years is the fact if you are looking for liquid water in the solar system, you don't have to be close to the sun. You can be much further away from the sun. It's not going to be liquid on the surface, but it can be liquid underneath the surface. And so there's been a real move away from we have to be close to the sun to find liquid water and potentially the environment for life to form. You can find liquid water far away from the sun and we are almost certain there is at Jupiter's moons and we know there is at Saturn's moons.
So confirming whether there are liquid water oceans at Jupiter's moons is only one step in the process of understanding whether potentially life can form. You need there to be four things. You need there to be liquid water, you need a heat source, you need organic material, and you need those first three ingredients to be stable enough over a long enough period of time that something can actually happen. And so the instrument suite we have on JUICE will allow us to resolve those first three ingredients and then we'll know whether it's viable that life could actually form.
So your team is in charge of the magnetometer instrument. What does this instrument do?
Professor Michele Dougherty:
So the magnetometer measures the magnetic field, and we want to make sure the magnetic field we measure is due to the environment we're in and not due to the spacecraft that we are on. So whenever you see spacecraft with very long booms, the instruments we build are on those booms.
So what it does is it measures the magnetic field, and if we focus only on Ganymede, which is going to be our main focus, it's going to measure the internal dynamo field of Ganymede. Ganymede is the only moon in the solar system that has an internal dynamo field, and we want to try and understand why. So it's going to measure that, it's going to measure the environment around Ganymede, but the most difficult measurement it's going to make is it's going to measure very small magnetic fields that are generated by electrical currents flowing in the liquid water ocean at Ganymede.
So I might be biased, but from my perspective, the magnetometer is the most important instrument on the spacecraft and it's important particularly to resolve the characteristics of the ocean because using the magnetic field measurements, we can actually measure the electrical currents that are flowing in the ocean. We don't measure the current, we measure the magnetic fields that are generated by the currents. And the reasons that these currents are generated is if you've got a conducting body like Ganymede and it's embedded in a magnetic field that's changing, which Jupiter's field is, that changing magnetic field of Jupiter generates an electrical current. That electrical current generates a magnetic field that we can actually measure.
So we're going to use those signatures to work out how deep the ocean is and what its salt content is, and if we're really lucky, we're going to work out whether it's a global ocean or whether it might be focused just on one part of the moon.
Now, the spacecraft is going to take eight years to get to Jupiter. So what are you doing in the meantime?
Professor Michele Dougherty:
We're going to be getting ourselves ready for the data once we get there because what we are trying to do is really hard. The way I like to describe it, it's like trying to find lots of needles in the haystack and those needles are changing shape and color all the time. So we need to be able to model all the different fields that we measure and put the different models together so once we get there, we can subtract them away from the data. So I've got postdocs working with me, I've got PhD students. We're going to look at old data sets. We are going to do a lot of work preparing for actually getting there.
So I often get asked if I'll still be working on JUICE in eight years' time, and the answer is yes, I couldn't not. I've spent a long time in my career getting ready for this, but I won't be the only one. We've got a lot of younger scientists on the team, and in some ways, JUICE is a training ground for future work on planetary missions as well. So we've got a combination of senior experienced scientists and lots of younger scientists too.
I was at a science meeting a couple of weeks ago and a project scientist of JUICE showed a presentation and a timeline. And from his perspective, we are right in the middle of JUICE because we first started thinking about it 15 years ago. We've now built it and we are ready to go and we'll be getting the last data in 15 years' time. So it's a long, slow process, but I can't wait for launch to happen because that's the next milestone for us.
Well, sure enough, the launch happened and it’s well worth the watch. Pretty spectacular. You can find it on the European Space Agency YouTube channel. And there's more about the launch and the mission on the Imperial News pages.
Well finally, imagine this scenario: it's mid-pandemic and you have COVID-19. Your blood oxygen levels fall, raising the alarm and then triggering an immediate medical response. And that was the case for patients given pulse oximetry monitors during the pandemic as part of an NHS-administered remote monitoring program. But did the scheme benefit some more than others? Was the National COVID-19 Pulse Oximetry Remote Monitoring Program delivered fairly?
That's just what Imperial research, just published in the Lancet Digital Health, set out to address. The lead author is Dr Jonathan Clark, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, in Imperial's Faculty of Natural Sciences. He's been speaking to Emily Medcalf of the Institute of Global Health Innovation.
Dr Jonathan Clarke:
So the Oximetry at Home Program was part of a wider effort by the NHS to deliver care to patients in a range of different settings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on in the pandemic, it was recognized that patients who had COVID-19 infection often had very low oxygen levels, but they didn't necessarily feel breathless or didn't feel as unwell as their blood oxygen levels suggested. And therefore, one of the key requirements was for doctors and other clinicians to be able to understand what a patient's oxygen levels were. But this wasn't something a patient could tell you, and therefore, they needed a means by which patients could use a medical device like a pulse oximeter to tell their clinician what their oxygen levels were so that they could either be sent to hospital or give another treatment as appropriate.
And the Pulse Oximetry at Home Program was a means by which these oximeters were given to patients, either following referral by their GP or after presentation to an A&E department. And these readings could be sent to a clinician who could keep track of things, and if things were taking a turn for the worse, they could be assessed and potentially attend hospital for further treatment.
What motivated you to investigate the program?
Dr Jonathan Clarke:
So as a department, the Institute of Global Health Innovation was involved from relatively early stages. We felt that often, evaluations of new medical programs focus a lot on whether the program worked, whether it saved lives or saved money, that sort of thing, but don't pay so much attention, particularly in an academic sense, on whether the program was delivered fairly.
But as a starting point, we had to try and determine what fair actually meant. It's quite clear, to us at least, that fairness didn't mean equality. It didn't mean everyone having an equal chance of receiving this intervention because that would've meant lots of people who were young, fit and well, and at very low risk of complications would receive the program with equal chance as someone who perhaps had far greater need for it. And therefore, we decided to look at fairness from the perspective of what doctors and what the NHS understood a patient's risk of severe COVID-19 infection to be.
And we were fortunate enough that a fantastic paper had been published in Nature using data from the UK a few months before the program was implemented. And that paper quantified the extent to which certain patient groups, based on their ethnicity or age or sex or socioeconomic status or clinical status, were at higher or lower risk of dying when they caught COVID-19. And that allowed us to approach the analysis through comparing the odds of being enrolled into the program with the odds of having severe disease if you were to catch COVID-19.
Broadly speaking, we found that the program was administered to those who were understood to be at higher risk. So we found the program was more likely to be administered to people who were older. We found the program was more likely to be offered to people who were not of white ethnicity or who were from more socioeconomically deprived backgrounds. So this aligned very neatly with a prior understanding of those who are at higher risk of COVID-19. But we did find that some groups were less likely to be enrolled into the program despite being of higher risk of complications from COVID-19. And those groups were, for example, care home residents or those who had chronic kidney disease or who were known to have dementia or have previously had a stroke.
Within the scope of the study that we conducted, we can't really say why this was the case, but what we can try to do is put forward some hypotheses or some reasons why this could happen. And to take the example of care homes, it is perhaps the case, and we have some anecdotal evidence, that care homes were monitoring patients with pulse oximeters anyway, and therefore there was no need for additional enrollment into a specialist program.
What's perhaps a little more concerning is those patients with a diagnosis of dementia or with a history of a stroke, it raises the potential issue of usability of the program. Is instructing patients with dementia or those who've had a previous stroke to use a pulse oximeter and record their observations via a web-based platform or a mobile phone app, is that something that's perhaps not suitable for these patient groups or is it something that places an additional burden on their carers, for example? It does suggest that there needs perhaps to be further scrutiny of this program and other programs to confirm that they are usable to all patient groups or that modifications are made so that they can be.
How might the results of your study be used to improve the design and implementation of future studies such as this one, both for COVID but also for other health conditions?
Dr Jonathan Clarke:
I guess every program is different and has to have its own unique considerations, but in general, what it does show is that giving clinicians autonomy by which to decide who should be eligible for a program can lead to a program being implemented according to those who need it most, which is a good thing. So you don't necessarily need extremely stringent or prescriptive eligibility criteria. Simple criteria plus clinical autonomy are enough.
Jonathan Clark there talking to Emily Medcalf and bringing this edition to a close.
There's the usual reminder, of course. You can listen to this podcast via all your favorite podcatchers and if we've missed one out, let us know, but we think we're fairly evenly distributed. But for now, from me, Gareth Mitchell and all of us here on the podcast team, thanks for listening and goodbye.