The pointless, self-defeating burning of ash trees could have been avoided

If it hadn't been for a name-related confusion, the government might have imposed a ban on imports of ash and ash products years ago.

What’s in a name? Ash fungus by any other name would have burned as sweet in the recent bonfires. But the name does make a difference. Had it not been for name-related confusion, the government might have imposed a ban on imports of ash and ash products years ago. Then the pointless, self-defeating burning could have been avoided.

EU rules prohibit a ban on imports of a species if the threatening pathogen is already endemic. The ash fungus is widely reported as being Chalara fraxinea. This is widespread in the UK, and benign: no ban was possible. However, many fungi exist in two forms, one that reproduces sexually, and one that reproduces asexually. In 2009, researchers suggested that the pathogen was in fact Hymenoscyphus albidus, a sexually reproducing version of Chalara fraxinea. A ban, then, was still impossible. But last year Swiss researchers showed the pathogen to be a different organism that they named Hymenoscyphus pseudo-albidus. That could have been banned.

Things could get worse. A decision taken at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne last year means that mycologists – those who study fungi – will no longer be allowed to give separate names to the sexually and asexually reproducing variants of a species. Ironically, the idea is to limit confusion. With all the evolving variations of our forest pathogens, it’s likely to cause more problems than it solves.

Evolution is fearsome to behold. We’ve been watching it in our hospitals for years – it is what gave us our antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Put a wide variety of bacteria together in a confined space with plenty of very habitable niches and they will indulge in an orgy of gene-swapping. This creates new strains, many of which are resistant to all known toxins.

Ash dieback is another example of an evolved pathogen. It arose in Poland in 1992. There is nothing we can do about it except let the naturally resistant trees emerge as winners in the evolutionary arms race. It’s impossible to tell which trees will survive without carrying out a genetic analysis; that’s why burning swaths of ash trees is self-defeating.

In truth, the issue over naming the fungus is probably a convenient scapegoat. Researchers were advising an import ban years before anyone looked into whether the fungus was of an endemic species. Somehow, no one wanted to react to the threat, and it’s not just the UK’s researchers who didn’t want to see the coming evil: Danish experts pointed out an impending problem to the Swedes, and they did nothing either.

Import duty

What we can do now to safeguard the future of our forests is reduce the demand for imported plants. Read the scientific literature on plant pathogens, and you find that experts are issuing 13 times as many alerts on new plant-infecting fungi as they were in 1995. The ash fungus may be one of the relatively few natural mutations that have occurred in recent times: most of them are triggered by human activities. Plant pathologists put the blame squarely on the taste for imported plants.

Our craving for exotic plants and ready-grown trees for our gardens and public spaces has moved plants and their pathogens around the world in unprecedented numbers. In new environments, the pathogens swap genes and evolve into forms for which native species have no resistance.

The surging global trade in plants is essentially a huge microbiology experiment that is destroying the world’s forests. But perhaps we think that interesting suburban gardens are worth it?

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

 

Ash trees in Pound Farm Woodland, where many have been identified as having Ash Dieback Disease. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times