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Scottish independence: what’s at stake in May elections

Nicola Sturgeon and Douglas Ross stand behind podiums during televised election debate.
Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland and Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative Party leader, in a pre-election debate. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This is a transcript of episode 13 of The Conversation Weekly podcast “Scotland: why May election is crucial for independence movement, and the UK”. In this episode, as Scotland prepares to vote in landmark parliamentary elections on May 6, we explore why the question of independence from the UK is dominating the debate. And a team of researchers working with fruit flies, has discovered a biological switch that can turn neuroplasticity on and off in the brain. What might that mean?

Dan Merino: Hello and welcome to The Conversation Weekly.

Gemma Ware: This week, as Scotland prepares to vote in parliamentary elections on May 6, why the question of independence is dominating the debate.

Kezia Dugdale: If there’s a majority for independence you will see the SNP demand the right to hold a referendum and you’ll see Boris Johnson say no to it very quickly.

Dan: And – a team of researchers working in fruit flies, have discovered a biological switch that can turn neuroplasticity on and off in the brain.

Sarah Ackerman: Plasticity is really important for us to form and maintain connections in the brain.

Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London.

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino in San Francisco. You’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, the world explained by experts.

Gemma: People in countries around the world are clamouring for independence – or to secede from the nations that govern them. From Kurdistan in the Middle East, to Kashmir in India, or the Anglophone Ambazonia region of Cameroon.

Dan: Yep, there’s even a secessionist movement here in California, though it’s relatively tame in the grand scheme of things.

Gemma: In recent decades, some parts of the world have voted in referendums for independence. South Sudan became an independent country in 2011 after a brutal conflict, as did East Timor in 2002.

Dan: Elsewhere, independence movements have led to constitutional and political crises. In 2017, Catalonia in Spain held an independence referendum which was ruled illegal by the country’s constitutional court.

But the Catalan parliament went ahead and unilaterally declared independence anyways. This was accompanied by a brutal crackdown by the Spanish police and the eventual arrest of Catalan pro-independence leaders.

Gemma: And that brings us to Scotland, where there is loud and growing support for independence from the United Kingdom. Now Scots are heading to the polls on May 6 in elections for the Scottish parliament.

Dan: Scotland held an independence referendum seven years ago in 2014, and voted to remain in the UK. But a lot’s happened since then.

Gemma: Yes, and the Scottish National Party – known as the SNP – led by Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon – is arguing that the circumstances have changed so significantly that they warrant a second referendum, or indyref2.

Gemma: If pro-independence parties win a majority in the Scottish parliament – Sturgeon will ask the UK government in Westminster, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for a second referendum on Scottish independence. To find out more about what’s at stake in these upcoming elections, I’ve spoken to three experts, including one high-profile politician turned academic, to explain the situation.

Kezia Dugdale: Hello, I’m Kezia Dugdale. I’m the director of the John Smith Centre at the University of Glasgow, where I also teach public policy.

Gemma: Before that, Kezia was a politician. She served as leader of the Scottish Labour Party between 2015 and 2017 and represented Edinburgh and the Lothians in the Scottish parliament, for nearly a decade. I asked Kezia why questions about the constitutional arrangements between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom are dominating the debate ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections on May 6.

Kezia: So we’ve had a Scottish parliament since 1999. So this is the 21st year or so of devolution. The parliament’s very much coming of age and it’s matured and it has substantially more powers than it did when it first opened its doors in 1999. So it’s largely responsible for health, education, housing policy, justice and communities. It’s increasingly got more powers around welfare, certain powers to do with, for example, disability benefits, and also increasing tax powers. But the vast majority of the social security system, foreign policy, defence are all still reserved to the UK parliament. So is the constitution, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t completely dominate Scottish politics.

Read more: 'Brexit has changed people's minds on independence': Q&A with Kezia Dugdale, former Scottish Labour leader

So after the 2011 Scottish parliament elections, the SNP had a majority, and they used that majority to call for an independence referendum. There was a two and a half year campaign with the referendum taking place in September 2014. The no side won that with 55% of the vote to the yes side’s 45%. And we thought that that would be the end of the constitutional question, but I’m afraid that’s not been the case. Because it was a relatively close margin, questions around the settlement that the Scottish parliament has and it’s continued place in the United Kingdom have continued to dominate. And they’re dominating this election campaign.

So whether you are yes or no, what you were in 2014, what you are today, is still the biggest dominating factor over how you will vote in party political terms. So if you’re a Yes voter, very likely SNP, perhaps Green, if you’re a No voter, the vote splits three ways between Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Gemma: Over the past few years, calls for a second independence referendum have been growing louder. To understand where the support for this indyref2 is coming from, we need to go back to what’s happened since Scotland voted to remain part of the UK in 2014.

Darryn Nyatanga: My name is Darren Nyatanga and I’m a final year PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, where I’m researching the constitutional impacts of Brexit on the UK’s unionship.

Gemma: Darren explains that in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum, the UK government in Westminster moved to devolve more powers to Scotland.

Darryn: So during the campaign for that referendum on independence, the three main parties in Westminster – so at the time that was the Conservatives and the Lib Dems who were in coalition together, and the Labour party – made a pledge to devote more powers to Scotland if they voted to remain within the UK. So they honoured this vow, it was known as “the vow”, by passing a law, known as the Scotland Act of 2016, which devolved extensive powers, including fiscal powers to Scotland, and it also insured the permanency of the Scottish parliament and the Scottish government within the UK’s constitutional order, something which meant a lot to nationalists, because the debate really was about Scottish institutions making Scottish decisions.

Gemma: But then, a few months later, the UK held another referendum, on whether to leave the European Union. The UK as a whole voted 52% to leave, 48% to remain, and the path to Brexit was set in motion. But in Scotland, 62% of the population voted to remain as part of the EU.

Darryn: So this meant that Scotland was taken out of the EU against its democratic will. So this is the point that the Scottish government have been hammering on in relation to their need to have a second vote on independence because for them there’s a significant change in circumstances prevailing from the 2014 vote.

Gemma: Economically, Scotland’s situation has also changed significantly since 2014. To find out more about the state of its economy, I called up economist Graeme Roy, a colleague of Kezia Dugdale’s at the University of Glasgow, where he’s dean of external engagement at the School of Social Sciences.

Graeme: The UK is one of the most unequal economies on a regional basis in Europe. But within that Scotland, outside of London and the southeast, the really strong parts of the UK economy, Scotland comes in pretty much next on most indicators. And it has core strengths in areas that you’d expect in things like energy with the North Sea, but also in other areas such as financial services, and that’s propelled it to be a relatively strong economy within the UK. There are challenges though as well, like many other parts of Europe: de-industrialisation, issues around social inequality et cetera. So it’s very much a mixed bag, it’s got its core strengths but its also got its challenges.

Gemma: You mentioned there the North Sea so you’re talking oil there but the oil economy has has actually shifted dramatically even in the last few years, hasn’t it?

Graeme: Very much so. So North Sea oil is fairly much in its twilight years. There’s still potential there for the next couple of decades but it’s on a much smaller scale than it has been in the past. The opportunity, and where policy makers are focusing their attention both at a Scottish and a UK level is the ability to shift into new forms of energy.

Gemma: As you’ve written in a piece for The Conversation, the economic questions were kind of a big part of the of the independence referendum that Scotland had in in 2014, but what’s changed since then?

Graeme: So quite a lot has changed actually. So firstly, there’s been quite a number of changes to the economic context. The changes in the oil and gas industry has removed a significant potential source of revenue for any future independent Scotland. Oil prices are lower and the tax system is now much more generous in terms of taxing less than it had in the past. And that really matters in a Scottish context because it’s got higher public expenditure than the rest of the UK so oil revenues would have been one way to help it support that. I think the other change is obviously COVID and Scotland like every other country in the world has gone through a tremendous economic upheaval.

I think the second thing is about the politics of all of this, and the politics have clearly also changed since 2014. Brexit being the obvious example of that, where in 2014 the argument was that voting to stay part of the UK was a way to guarantee and be, retain membership of the European Union. But obviously then the subsequent referendum in 2016, and the UK now leaving, has changed that. And that has a number of implications, in particular for issues around borders, issues around potential currency choices. The whole dynamics of that debate has changed.

Gemma: After a prolonged Brexit negotiation period with many twists and turns, the UK finally left the EU on January 31 2020. But the full effects of Brexit weren’t felt until January 1 this year, when a transition period ended and the new rules governing the relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU came into effect.

Graeme: The immediate challenges have been concentrated largely in a relatively small number of sectors so things like fishing and the ability to get products, fresh products to market quickly have been impacted negatively impacted by some of the challenges at borders during the switchover to the new Brexit arrangements.

I think the biggest challenge, though, I think for the Scottish economy, as for the UK economy, is less about the immediate impact of Brexit but more about the longer-term challenges. So about nearly half of all Scottish international exports go into the EU. We have an ageing population so we rely on migrants coming in to Scotland to help support our economy, and Scotland’s done well through universities and businesses with that collaboration with Europe. So it’s those things that will gradually be eroded over time that I think are the greatest concern for the Scottish economy.

Gemma: All this has increasingly boosted support for an independent Scotland. Here’s Kezia Dugdale again.

Kezia: Since January 2020 there have been 25 opinion polls on the constitutional question. Twenty-two of them have shown yes ahead of no which is very new. I think there were only two polls ever in the run up to 2014 that had yes ahead of no. So now you’re looking at for the past nearly 18 months yes being consistently ahead.

Gemma: There have been some recent exceptions, with a few polls showing no just back in front, which some analysts suggest may be down to the success of the UK’s coronavirus vaccine rollout. But in general, Kezia says the reason people have moved from no to yes, in favour of independence in the past few years, has to do with Brexit.

Kezia: What’s changed since 2014? Again you need to look at who they are. They are people age 25 to 45, tend to live in urban centres like Edinburgh or Glasgow or along the central belt, where at least two thirds of Scotland’s population can be found. They are educated to a university degree level, mostly. They are socially centre-left but economically centre ground or to the centre-right. So by that I mean there are supporters of gay marriage but they don’t want high taxes, right. So they’re that type of voter. They are passionately proudly pro-European in their identity and almost all of them voted Remain and they’re very angry about it.

So if presented with a binary choice and that binary choice is an independent Scotland in Europe with a progressive leader or staying in the United Kingdom led by, by Boris with a sort of “Little Britain Brexit” mindset they’re choosing the progressive independent Scotland in Europe. They might not like it. They certainly don’t love it but it’s better than what they’ve got.

Gemma: All these issues are now swirling around as Scotland goes to the polls on May 6, in an election campaign taking place in the shadow of the pandemic. Scotland relaxed some of its coronavirus restrictions on April 26, but still, this has been an election campaign like no other. I asked Graeme Roy what the pro-independence movement’s economic case for independence is now going into these elections.

Graeme: The case for the economics of independence is very much built around gaining powers of an independent country like many other small independent countries in Europe and using them in a way that is explicitly targeted to the challenges and opportunities within the Scottish economy. And they often point to other countries that they would like to be comparable to, so Denmark, Norway, places like that that they can say well look these countries are successful and arguably more successful in the UK in many ways, have better outcomes. If Scotland was to be independent then we could seek to follow their lead and have the same quality of life and same strong economy as they do. Of course that’s easy to say. The ability to actually do that is much harder.

Gemma: And let’s look at the flip side there. So the unionist parties, the main one being the Conservative party but also Labour is also a unionist party, is against independence – what is their argument, I guess for economically remaining part of the United Kingdom?

Graeme: One is their argument that Scotland actually does well within the UK. They would also argue that Scotland receives higher public spending per head than most other parts of the UK and therefore again that’s an advantage that Scotland gets by being part of the UK that would be removed if it tried to go on its own and pay for everything on its own. And I think the other strand then is just to, to highlight the point that any transition from the status quo to a new model would be challenging and there’d be uncertainty and particularly in a post-COVID world or when we’re trying to recover from one of the greatest economic shocks we’ve ever had, this challenge of trying to do that at that point in their view wouldn’t make sense.

Gemma: The SNP’s election manifesto says that the party will seek to hold a second referendum “after the COVID crisis is over” – a timeframe widely interpreted as being within the five year term of the next parliament, so before 2026. But under UK law, the Scottish government cannot agree to unilaterally hold an independence referendum. It must seek the permission of the government in Westminster to do so – via something called a Section 30 order. Here’s Darryn Nyatanga again.

Darryn: So the UK government has thus far continued to refuse to grant this order in council, with the prime minister, Boris Johnson, stating that the vote in 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote.

Gemma: And if Scotland should choose to have a referendum on its own that might spell further kind of questions down the line?

Darryn: Yes, I think this would turn more from a political question into a legal question because the Supreme Court will probably be tasked with looking into the competencies of the Scottish government on, basically unilaterally, holding a referendum.

Gemma: If Scotland did decide to hold a referendum without Westminster’s approval, and then unilaterally declare independence, like Catalonia did in 2017, this could lead to serious questions about the legitimacy of the outcome. And damage any future SNP bid for Scotland to rejoin the EU.

Darryn: International recognition of a newly independent state is much more likely to be forthcoming if the independence process is perceived to have been legitimate. So for Scottish independence, then, it needs to be done in a legitimate manner. And the decision must be accepted by the UK, the EU and the rest of the international community. This is key because the Scottish government want independence, but with EU membership. So if the EU does not recognise the legitimacy of the independence, then they most likely wouldn’t be forthcoming in terms of accepting them as a member state.

Gemma: So the way it’s held really matters?

Darryn: Really does matter, yes.

Gemma: Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out making a unilateral declaration of independence. But this makes the results of the upcoming elections – and the size of the majority – all the more important. Here’s Kezia Dugdale again.

Kezia: So we have 129 members of the Scottish parliament, you’ve got 73 constituency seats. The remaining 56 seats are made up of eight regions which each elect seven MSPs proportionately, using a formula called the De Hond’t system. And this combination of first past the post and PR means that we’ve had a more colourful parliament than you would expect in the UK system. But this system of PR, where it’s called the additional member system overall, is designed to produce coalitions. In fact it’s supposed to stop outright majorities.

Gemma: And that is what happened, until 2011, when the SNP won a majority in the Scottish Parliament for the first time. It was this majority that then led the Conservative prime minister at the time, David Cameron, to agree to the Scottish independence referendum. At the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, in the wake of the defeat for the yes campaign in that referendum, the SNP narrowly lost its overall majority, falling short by two seats. But Nicola Sturgeon still remained as first minister of a minority government.

Ahead of May 6, the polls have the SNP well in the lead, but it’s unclear whether they have enough support to get an overall majority. Kezia Dugdale thinks this will be difficult.

Kezia: We’re now back in the strange situation where because it happened once people think it can be recreated, which is quite unfair actually on the SNP because they found the sweet spot in 2011, this imaginary sweet spot where they broke the system. It will be very difficult for them to replicate that.

Gemma: But the Green Party is also running on a pro-independence ticket, as is a new party, called Alba, lead by Alex Salmond, the former leader of the SNP who split from the party in bitter and controversial circumstances after allegations of sexual assault. He was acquitted of all charges in 2020, but the affair led to a flurry of other legal challenges and government inquiries that at one point earlier this year appeared to threaten Sturgeon’s own position as first minister.

Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon.
Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon in 2019. Stewart Attwood/EPA

Even if the SNP doesn’t win an outright majority in May, if more than half of the seats in the Scottish parliament go to parties running on a pro-indepenence platform, the pressure will mount on Boris Johnson to grant Scotland a second referendum. I asked Kezia what options Nicola Sturgeon has available.

Kezia: She has zero options because she’s ruled out what’s commonly referred to as UDI, a universal declaration of independence. I think she’s right to rule that out. So this all boils down to mandates and morality really, right? So if there’s a majority for independence you will see the SNP demand the right to hold a referendum and you’ll see Boris Johnson, I think, say no to it very quickly. The question is how long that no will hold for and what the argument that underpins it is.

So the first thing they’ll say is not during a pandemic. They might say not now, not ever, you said once in a generation. That’s a much riskier strategy for the UK government to take. And there’s a growing school of thought that says if the majority is big, if independence or a second independence referendum feels somehow inevitable, it’s in the UK government’s interest to go now rather than delay for a long period of time.

Gemma: She says that’s because of the current state of pandemic in the UK.

Kezia: As the health element of the pandemic crisis comes to a close. The economic element of the crisis just begins. There are serious concerns now about what happens to business, when the furlough payments end, the system that was supporting so many jobs. Huge number of lost opportunities for young people. A suggestion we could have seriously high rates of youth unemployment come Christmas. Knowing all that, the government are currently spending a lot. We’ve got one of the most right-wing chancellors we’ve seen in my lifetime and he’s spending like a left-wing socialist.

So there’s lots of money swishing around and there’s lots of money coming to Scotland just now and there’s lots of means by which you can demonstrate the value of the United Kingdom to Scotland just now, because of the receipts that are coming in to Scottish bank accounts, whether that be in government or elsewhere. In 18 months time that spending has to stop. It’s going to run out and the UK government will then have to decide what taxes have to go up and what public sector saving decisions or cuts have to be made in order to balance the books. So the longer you wait to hold a second independence referendum, the less advantageous the circumstances are for the UK government to make the arguments they want to make.

Gemma: Your prediction is that she will ask for one. Westminster will say no. Do you then see there being kind of this, this big standoff or will there just be continual asks? How will it, how will it play out?

Kezia: Yes there’ll be a lot of Punch and Judy-style back and forth politics and every time the UK government says no, it will work in the SNP’s favour to be quite honest, because it reaffirms everything they tell the electorate about the UK government not observing the will of the people of Scotland.

Gemma: For Darryn Nyatanga, the UK is heading towards a constitutional crisis, where it’s quite possible that a majority of people in Scotland don’t want to be part of the UK, but haven’t got a way to leave.

Darryn: For the Conservative party, they are more than happy to continue with the current arrangements of centralisation, but with devolution. Longer-term, if Scotland is to remain within the UK’s union, then its constitutional settlement definitely needs to be reformed. So the best way to do so in my opinion is to radically alter the constitutional status of the United Kingdom as a whole. So moving from a unitary state where power is centred within London, so within the capital, to a federal state. So Canada, for instance, has proven that nationalism can be contained within a federal system. So the largest secessionist party in Quebec, despite spells in government, has so far been unsuccessful in leading the province to succession from Canada. So this is mostly owed to the fact that Quebec under federalism enjoys high levels of autonomy and central representation, something which Scotland lacks at the moment.

Gemma: I asked Graeme Roy what options might be put on the table, to alleviate the inevitable anger of the SNP and its electorate if Westminster continues to refuse Scotland a second referendum even if there is a pro-independence majority.

Graeme: So it’ll be really interesting to see whether part of any response from the UK parties and the UK government is to open up a conversation about what more powers could be given with the hope of trying to satisfy the people who might be on the borderline between wanting Scotland to have more autonomy and the decisions in Edinburgh to be taken at a much more local level and bespoke level for Scotland, but they maybe would be happy with that rather than going to full independence.

Dan: What always interests me about these kind of secessionist movements is that the people can vote and do whatever they need to do, but at the end of the day, the ruling government really has all the cards and that creates interesting scenarios.

Gemma: Yeah and whatever the outcome on May 6, politicians in Edinburgh and in London are gonna have to weigh up their options very carefully.

Gemma: If you want to hear more from Graeme Roy and Kezia Dugdale, you can listen to their podcast Spotlight, from the University of Glasgow, discussing public policy and the political process through a Scottish lens. Search for Spotlight on Spotify to listen.

You can also follow The Conversation’s ongoing coverage of the Scottish elections by clicking the links in the show notes, where you can also find a link to a recent article by Graeme Roy on how Scotland’s economic circumstances have changed since 2014.

Dan: For our next story this week we’re going to join a researcher named Sarah Ackerman to talk about her new paper on neuroplasticity – and that is the ability of the brain to basically change its structure. Her team was running experiments in fruit flies to try and study why brains in young animals can change so much more easily than the brains in old animals.

Gemma: This heightened neuroplasticity when we’re younger is why kids can learn languages much more easily than adults.

Dan: And there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about this vital ability of the brain. Many diseases are caused by too little or too much neuroplasticity, so being able to turn it or or turn it off has some obvious medical benefits. Sarah and her team wanted to learn what controls these changes to help fight diseases, yes, but this work could also potentially unlock the super-powered learning that comes with a malleable brain.

Sarah: My name is Sarah Ackerman, and I am a post-doctoral fellow in the Doe Lab at the University of Oregon. I’m really broadly interested in how the body makes and maintains a functioning brain. And specifically what I have been focusing on in my research really for the last ten years since I was a graduate student, is on this special group of cells called glia.

So the human brain is made up of billions of neurons that talk to one another, and this communication is what allows us to do what we need to do. But 50% of the human brain is actually not made of neurons, but made up of these other cell types called glia. And the fact that there are so many of them means that they must be doing something important, but they’ve been largely ignored by the neuroscience community for a long time because we just didn’t know what they did.

So I’m interested in how these glial cells are instructing the neurons to form these connections that allow us, for example, to move through our environment.

Dan: OK. So we’ve got the brain, 50% neurons, 50% glia. What are they doing?

Sarah: We know that there are lots of different types of glial cells. They’re present both in the brain, the spinal cord, out on our nerves, in our limbs. And in general, we can say that they are necessary for the long-term health of neurons. And they’ve become really a focus of neuroscience research because there’s a lot of evidence that in different neurological disorders or neurodegenerative disorders that these glia are becoming sick and dying. So I think one of the most studied cases of this is in multiple sclerosis where you get loss of the glial cells that wrap around neurons in the brain. And when you lose those glia, the neurons die and then you end up with multiple sclerosis. And so we know there’s a lot of variety. They do a lot of things, but if we were to sum it up into one word, they’re there to allow neurons to survive for a long time.

Cause if you think about it, the neurons that are present in our adult brains, they’re the same neurons that were born when you were in the womb and so they have to make it a long time. And these glia are what are there to help them.

Dan: The importance of the cells that keep neurons alive – that has got to be huge. But your research was looking at something a little more specific than just the, like, maintenance, so to speak. What was it that you were looking at?

Sarah: Yeah, so there’s this one type of glia called an astrocyte and they’re called astrocytes cause they have this really beautiful star shaped structure in the brain. So if you, if you strain to look at them, you see these little stars kind of all throughout the nervous system and these are these astrocytes. And specifically what I was looking at is the role of these astrocytes in neuro-plasticity. OK, so neuroplasticity is this big word, but all it really means is the ability of neurons to change their shape and to change their signalling strength in response to, for example, experiences. And so what I was studying is how these glial cells are shaping or instructing the level of plasticity that occurs in the brain at different periods in well, in this case, the fruit fly’s life, but hopefully this will extend into how this works in humans as well.

Dan: OK, so we’ve got neuroplasticity allows basically neurons to change. Why is that important? What does that mean for me?

Sarah: Neuroplasticity allows for you to learn and embrace new tasks. So you have probably heard the phrase “practice makes perfect”. So when we practice a certain task, for example, playing a piano or learning a new sport, this engages or turns on plasticity in the brain, and this allows those neurons to start changing and strengthening their connections so that you become a better player over time. And so plasticity is really important for us to form and maintain those connections in the brain that enable us to do different tasks.

Dan: Your work was looking at how astrocytes – those star-shaped cells – can turn off plasticity. So what do you mean turn that off? It sounds like I’d always want my plasticity on full crank, 100%, right?

Sarah: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we know that neuroplasticity is really, really strong in a child’s brain. So for example, I’m sure many of your listeners like me have tried to learn a new language at some point in their adult life and found it to be like just impossible, where children can pick up multiple languages really quickly. So what is the deal with that?

Well, in childhood, the brain is super plastic or malleable and that allows kids to learn new tasks and skills really quickly. But then at some point in our maturing brain, this plasticity starts to wane. And so the question is why? Why would we not want to be like super plastic all the time? Well, there’s some evidence that prolonged plasticity, beyond childhood, is linked or can contribute to neurological conditions where you see kind of the activity of neurons is not controlled well in the brain. So think of epilepsy or schizophrenia. And so there’s a certain point in our life where we want these neural connections to be solid. We want there to be a little bit of flexibility for learning and memory, but not so much dramatic plasticity that the connections are constantly rearranging.

Dan: OK, so we’ve got this need to shut down plasticity or control it or limit it in some way. Why fruit flies?

Sarah: Fruit flies are really an excellent model for neuroplasticity because while they’re simple, they have many of the same cell types, including astrocytes and neurons. And they have many of the same genes that are present in humans. And in fact, there have been six Nobel prizes awarded for research in flies that changed our understanding of how biology works in humans.

A colorful microscope image of a developing fruit fly brain.
In this image showing a developing fruit fly brain on the right and the attached nerve cord on the left, the astrocytes are labeled in different colors showing their wide distribution among neurons. Sarah DeGenova Ackerman, CC BY-ND

And so I wanted to use the fruit fly in order to identify different ways that the brain restricts plasticity to these earlier developmental stages or these young brains. And fly is a great model for that, because we have the ability to change the activity of neurons, in other words, to induce plasticity at different stages and see what happens under different manipulations.

And so what I found is that the neurons in the fruit fly brain are really plastic early in life as, as we know for humans as well, and then this plasticity wanes. But if I got rid of these astrocytes, these glial cells, these neurons maintain their plasticity much later in development.

Dan: This stuff could potentially have relevance to humans and people, and you know, potentially other animals too. But what are some of those potential applications?

Sarah: There are a lot, they’re all kind of a ways down the road, but in humans, like spinal cord injuries or neck injuries, for example, there’s very limited recovery for these patients because of failure to re-engage in the mature nervous system. So my goal is to use the fly to identify common and core principles that regulate plasticity so that we might take advantage of these pathways or try to find therapies or drugs that alter or work through these pathways to either increase or dial up plasticity or dial down plasticity whenever it’s needed. Or even, you know, age related, memory loss that doesn’t shoot all the way to dementia. All of these conditions are somehow influenced by plasticity mechanisms, just going awry, whether too much or too little or at the wrong time. And so if we can really understand the basic mechanisms that are shaping plasticity, this could become a way that we could really impact a lot of lives.

Dan: Awesome. Well, Sarah, thanks to you and to your undergrad for making a difference.

Sarah: Thank you.

Dan: You can read an article that Sarah Ackerman has written about her research on We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Gemma: To end this episode. We’ve got some reading recommendations from our colleague, Moina Spooner at The conversation in Nairobi, Kenya.

Moina: Hi, this is Moina Spooner from The Conversation, based in Kenya. We’ve had a couple of big stories in the East African region this week. The first is on Somalia, where there have been clashes between militia groups and soldiers of the federal government. Claire Elder, a lecturer from the London School of Economics and Political Science, explains how the current government’s decision on April 12 to seek a two-year extension has thrown Somalia’s fragile political process into disarray. With the situation now escalating, she argues that external mediation is needed as toxic elite politics take root and the political window for a Somali-led process is closing.

Another big story in the region is Kenya’s announcement that it’s going to close the country’s two main refugee camps, Kakuma and Dadaab. This means that all the refugees will now need to be repatriated. It would affect over 400,000 people, most of whom are of Somali origin. Kenya is trying to legitimise this action by labelling the refugees as a threat to national security.

The pretext is that the camps are abetting terrorists, namely Al-Shabaab. Oscar Mwangi, an associate professor of political science from the National University of Lesotho, argues that in doing so, Kenya has failed to comply with international law by compromising the refugees’ rights. And that Kenya has also disregarded its commitments to international humanitarian obligations. That’s all for me for now. Take care and I hope you enjoy the reads.

Gemma: Moina Spooner there in Nairobi. That’s it for this week. Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode. And to The Conversation editors Laura Hood, Steven Vass, Jane Wright, Moina Spooner and Stephen Khan for their help. And thanks to Alice Mason, Imriel Morgan and Sharai White for our social media promotion.

Dan: You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or send us an email at And if you want to learn more about any of the things we talked about on the show today, there are links to further reading in the shownotes, and you can also sign up for our free daily email.

Gemma: The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, Gemma Ware, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino. Thanks so much for listening everyone.

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