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The Italian Presidency

Adam Tooze has a remarkably thorough Substack post on the upcoming presidential election in Italy, which complicated mechanisms will set in motion on January 24. This is not a direct election but an indirect one. Italy is a parliamentary democracy and…

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Adam Tooze has a remarkably thorough Substack post on the upcoming presidential election in Italy, which complicated mechanisms will set in motion on January 24. This is not a direct election but an indirect one. Italy is a parliamentary democracy and the President is elected, on a secret ballot, by the House, the Senate and a number of regional delegates: a total of 1,009 people. In the first three rounds of votes, the President needs a two-thirds majority to be elected; after that, a bare majority is enough. This year, Covid-positivity may be a factor for attendance.

As a rule, the election of the President of the Italian Republic does not attract much of international attention, but this time is. As Tooze puts it, “the question has arisen of whether Mario Draghi should remain as Prime Minister for a limited term that expires in 2023 at the latest, or gamble on his elevation to the Presidency, which would keep him in power for seven more years”. The New York Times also has a piece by Jason Horowitz on the matter.

Why is this election that relevant? Italy’s debt to GDP ratio is, after the pandemic, 162.5%. The country recorded strong growth in 2021 (6.2%) after a tragic 2020 (-8.9%). Moreover, it is the major beneficiary of the “Next Generation EU” program. “Having that money in the hands of Mr. Draghi has reassured global markets and European Union leaders and given Italy its best shot at modernization in decades.”, writes Horowitz. Its international credibility is good at the moment (such things in Italy come and go), largely because of former ECB Chairman Mario Draghi, who was appointed prime minister one year ago. Draghi’s government is supported by all major political parties, with the exception of the right-wing, nationalist “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy).

The rationale for Draghi’s appointment is so explained by Tooze:

How can Italy be steered through the rapids and set on a more positive course of development? Since this is a hard task for elected politicians, five times in recent decades the job of Prime Minister has been handed to a non-parliamentary figure.

The most recent parachutist is Mario Draghi, recently retired from the ECB. He took office in January 2021 to oversee the spending of the NextGen EU package. This allocates over 200 billion Euro to Italy in grants and credits. This, if you like, is Europe’s gamble on using investment to accelerate Italian growth.

Tooze is referring to governments led by former Bank of Italy governor Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (1993), former Bank of Italy General Director Lamberto Dini (1995) and former European Commissioner Mario Monti (2011). I guess the fifth PM Tooze has in mind is Giuseppe Conte, who headed the last two governments before Draghi’s. But though a non-parliamentary figure, Conte, a university professor who is now the head of the Five Stars Movement, cannot be considered a technocrat.

Ciampi’s, Dini’s and Monti’s cases are quite different from each other. Let’s stick with the last two. Dini was called to form a government after Silvio Berlusconi had his first stint at governing the country for six months. One of the parties supporting Berlusconi, the Northern League, left its coalition. Hence Dini was entrusted with a caretaker government, which was not supported by Berlusconi and the right. In that circumstance, he succeeded in reforming the pension system and implemented a number of less visible reforms.

Likewise, Monti was appointed after a Berlusconi’s government, in 2011. Italy was in the midst of a financial storm. Berlusconi’s credibility was very low, largely because a number of the most controversial aspects of his private life had emerged. Monti was supported by everybody but the “nationalist” right: Salvini’s Northern League opposed his administration and a group of right wingers left Berlusconi’s party, to establish Brothers of Italy, to be led by Giorgia Meloni. Monti reformed again the pension system (which had been “reformed back” after the Dini reform), increased taxes to cope with the financial crisis, and attempted some liberalisation.

Draghi’s circumstances are quite different: he was appointed to spend money, not to put a check on spending. In the last year there weren’t many reforms which he can claim to his credit, though he can certainly claim a very successful COVID vaccination campaign. Other than this, his management of the pandemic has been “in line” with his predecessor, the Five Stars prime minister Conte, which is hardly surprising since they both counted on the same Health Minister, Roberto Speranza. The Draghi government was certainly less eager to renationalise everything than its predecessor, but it too emphasized the importance of public investment too and did not stop any of the nationalisations which begun with Conte.

Why should Draghi become Head of State? Those who support him see this move as instrumental, leveraging his reputation for the next seven years. As a prime minister, he has another year ahead of himself, before elections are due in 2023. Very broad coalitions are seldom well behaved and, particularly in election years, they tend to create trouble, as all the parties will be busy finding ways to make their constituencies happier.

Is the Head of State role non-executive and, thus, a bit detached from the possibility of having an impact over policies?

Tooze mentions a very good article by Carlo Fusaro, that explains the importance of the President of the Republic. Such office is hardly merely ceremonial: Italy’s President is not Queen Elizabeth. In part, because of recent constitutional reforms, the office has increased its powers over time. In part, because, as Fusaro writes:

…a political system that for years has not been able to bring forth stable governments and that appears to be in permanent evolution, ends up thinking that much (if not everything) may depend on who will be its guardian.

The President is supposed to be the guardian of the Constitution, but is also the guardian of the political system. Italy’s political system has experienced a number of crises in the last few years, which coincided with the appointment of non-parliamentary figures as prime ministers that Tooze refers to. These crises were in part triggered by financial problems, but were also genuinely political crises: in 1994, Berlusconi looked inadequate to govern the country but the left did not feel like they could reorganise and win elections if they were called. The Northern League (that “seceded” from the Berlusconi coalition) did not want to go to the ballot, because, as a consequence of a pre-election deal with its former coalition partner, it was over-represented in Parliament. In 2011, the left again would have been a major beneficiary of the breakdown of the Berlusconi government, but no one wanted to be responsible of governing a country which appeared on the brink of default.

In the last parliamentary term, things were a bit different: the absence of a clear parliamentary majority, together with the electoral success of the populists of the left and the right, made strange bedfellows. So we got first a government that put together left and right populists and then a government supported by the moderate and the populist left (ironically, the prime minister was the same). Then, on the one hand, the pandemic weakened the social fabric and advised for a larger majority; on the other, the fact that Italy was to benefit from “European solidarity” with the Next Generation EU fund created the conditions for a wider agreement among political forces, as the social groups supporting them each wanted to get their slice. But in a much embittered political scenario (like in the US, there is no question that the political rhetoric is far more destructive now than it was in the 1990s), for harmony to be engineered you needed a highly credible prime minister. Hence, Draghi.

In his piece, Tooze sees a Draghi presidency as a stabilizing factor for Italy’s EU relationships, therefore pretty much in Brussels’s interest.

The idea is that if Draghi were made President, in the event of a right-wing populist electoral breakthrough, he would have the authority to resist a government that embarked on an aggressive nationalist course that put Italy’s euro membership in doubt, thus risking a devastating sovereign debt crisis that through its entanglement with the Italian banking system would spill over into a banking crisis. For Europe this doom-loop is ominous.

That is true, but you can look at it from another perspective. it is almost inevitable that the right will win the next elections. I see a Draghi Presidency not as a safeguard against such an event, but somehow as a life jacket for those very right wing politicians. Those who would gain the most out of a Draghi’s presidency are the right wing leaders Salvini and Meloni: they become far more plausible (or, at least, less alarming) candidates for the prime minister office, with such a pro-Europe champion as head of state.

A man who is so internationally reputed as Draghi could not so much prevent the right from forming a government, but rather help them in adjusting their agenda and convince European partners that they are not so threatening as they seem. This explains why both Salvini and Meloni do actually look favorably at a Draghi presidency, though they have problems in openly advancing the hypothesis (at least, as of today) because it clashes with their rhetoric. Isn’t Draghi, after all, the “eurocrat” par excellence?

Tooze makes much of President Mattarella’s (his mandate is due to end in a few days) veto on Paolo Savona as a Treasury Minister. Savona is a senior Italian economist, not necessarily right of center, who flirted with the idea of quitting the euro. He was not appointed Treasury Minister but was appointed European Affairs Minister, and later he was made President of the Italian SEC.

In 2018, the veto by President Mattarella changed the composition of the first Conte government, the one supported by the populists of the right and of the left at the same time. Tooze sees the matter in terms of protection of Italy’s euro-membership and devotes much of his article to the nature of the EU/Italy relationship. I think perhaps some more context here is needed. The 2018 elections saw the the Five Stars Movement and the Northern League emerging as the two winners. They did not campaign on the possibility of a mutual alliance and, in spite of being the two main anti-system parties, they ended up forming a majority in Parliament, in perfect accord with the system’s rules. The President had the very difficult task of exploring different majority possibilities and arranging such a marriage. While both the Five Stars Movement and the Northern League were largely euro-skeptic, they did not campaign on a program for Italy to leave the euro (the League brought some strong eurocritics in Parliament, but that’s another matter), nor their electoral alliance was predicated on such an explicit platform. The Northern League was in an electoral coalition whose other main pillar, Forza Italia, was certainly committed to defend euro-membership.

The President was concerned with the financial turmoil that the appointment of Paolo Savona, since the latter played with the idea of euro-exit in books and articles, might have triggered. The President’s concerns were more immediate and they, again, had a largely political background: a euro-skeptic government was not the outcome of elections in which this issue was in any way central to the debate. The main themes of that election round were immigration, security, tax reform. So, I do not consider this reading as particularly “kind” to President Mattarella. Plus, as said, Savona was made Minister for European Affairs: certainly not a portfolio as important as Treasury, but nonetheless one which brought him in touch with the European institutions.

Sure enough, Italy’s President is more of an alchemist of the political system, particularly because the latter is often in a situation of instability with an inability to produce effective government coalitions. This increases the latitude of its power. A Draghi presidency would have its main strength in the fact that Draghi is personally credible with Brussels and other EU member states. But how big should a single man’s shoulders to be, to support a three trillion euros debt? Italy is “too big to fail and too big to bail”, as Tooze writes. Plus, its political system has problems in bringing together consensus and ability to govern: the people who have votes tend not to have much of a policy agenda, nor very visible administrative skills. How much of problem the country can represent for the Eurozone, we will see in the coming years.

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Lab, crab and robotic rehab

I was in Berkeley a couple of months back, helping TechCrunch get its proverbial ducks in a row before our first big climate event (coming in a few weeks,…

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I got previews of a number of projects I hope to share with you in the newsletter soon, but one that really caught my eye was FogROS, which was just announced as part of the latest ROS (robot operating system) rollout. Beyond a punny name that is simultaneously a reference to the cloud element (fog/cloud — not to mention the fact that the new department has killer views of San Francisco and frequent visitor, Karl) and problematic French cuisine, there’s some really compelling potential here.

I’ve been thinking about the potential impact of cloud-based processing quite a bit the last several years, independent of my writing about robots. Specifically, a number of companies (Microsoft, Amazon, Google) have been betting big on cloud gaming. What do you do when you’ve seemingly pushed a piece of hardware to its limit? If you’ve got low enough latency, you can harness remote servers to do the heavy lifting. It’s something that’s been tried for at least a decade, to varying effect.

Image Credits: ROS

Latency is, of course, a major factor in gaming, where being off by a millisecond can dramatically impact the experience. I’m not fully convinced that experience is where it ought to be quite yet, but it does seem the tech has graduated to a point where off-board processing makes practical sense for robotics. You can currently play a console game on a smartphone with one of those services, so surely we can produce smaller, lighter-weight and lower-cost robots that rely on a remote server to complete resource-intensive tasks like SLAM processing.

The initial application will focus on AWS, with plans to reach additional services like Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure. Watch this space. There are many reasons to be excited. Honestly, there’s a lot to be excited about in robotics generally right now. This was one of the more fun weeks in recent memory.

V Bionic's exoskeleton glove shown without its covering.

Image Credits: V Bionic

Let’s start with the ExoHeal robotic rehabilitation gloves. The device, created by Saudi Arabian V Bionic, nabbed this year’s Microsoft Imagine Cup. The early-stage team is part of a proud tradition of healthcare exoskeletons. In this case, it’s an attempt to rehab the hand following muscle and tendon injuries. Team leader Zain Samdani told TechCrunch:

Flexor linkage-driven movement gives us the flexibility to individually actuate different parts of each finger (phalanges) whilst keeping the device portable. We’re currently developing our production-ready prototype that utilizes a modular design to fit the hand sizes of different patients.

Image Credits: Walmart

This is the third week in a row Walmart gets a mention here. First it was funding for GreyOrange, which it partnered with in Canada. Last week we noted a big expansion of the retail giant’s deal with warehouse automation firm, Symbotic. Now it’s another big expansion of an existing deal — this time dealing with the company’s delivery ambitions.

Like Walmart’s work with robotics, drone delivery success has been…spotty, at best. Still, it’s apparently ready to put its money where its mouth is on this one, with a deal that brings DroneUp delivery to 34 sites across six U.S. states. Quoting myself here:

The retailer announced an investment in the 6-year-old startup late last year, following trial deliveries of COVID-19 testing kits. Early trials were conducted in Bentonville, Arkansas. This year, Arizona, Florida, Texas and DroneUp’s native Virginia are being added to the list. Once online, customers will be able to choose from tens of thousands of products, from Tylenol to hot dog buns, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Freigegeben für die Berichterstattung über das Unternehemn Wingcopter bis zum 25.01.2026. Mit Bitte um Urhebervermerk v.l.: Jonathan Hesselbarth, Tom Plümmer und Ansgar Kadura von Wingcopter GmbH. Image Credits: © Jonas Wresch / KfW

There are still more question marks around this stuff than anything, and I’ve long contended that drone delivery makes the most sense in remote and otherwise hard to reach areas. That’s why something like this Wingcopter deal is interesting. Over the next five years, the company plans to bring 12,000 of its fixed-wing UAVs to 49 countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. It will cover spots that have traditionally struggled with infrastructural issues that have made it difficult to deliver food and medical supplies through more traditional means.

“With the looming food crisis on the African continent triggered by the war in Ukraine, we see great potential and strong social impact that drone-delivery networks can bring to people in all the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by getting food to where it is needed most,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. “Especially in remote areas with weak infrastructure and those areas that are additionally affected by droughts and other plagues, Wingcopter’s delivery drones will build an air bridge and provide food from the sky on a winch to exactly where it is needed.”

Legitimately exciting stuff, that.

Image Credits: Dyson

In more cautiously optimistic news, Dyson dropped some interesting news this week, announcing that it has been (and will continue) pumping a lot of money into robotic research. Part of the rollout includes refitting an aircraft hangar at Hullavington Airfield, a former RAF station in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England that the company purchased back in 2016.

Some numbers from the company:

Dyson is halfway through the largest engineering recruitment drive in its history. Two thousand people have joined the tech company this year, of which 50% are engineers, scientists, and coders. Dyson is supercharging its robotics ambitions, recruiting 250 robotics engineers across disciplines including computer vision, machine learning, sensors and mechatronics, and expects to hire 700 more in the robotics field over the next five years. The master plan: to create the UK’s largest, most advanced, robotics center at Hullavington Airfield and to bring the technology into our homes by the end of the decade.

The primary project highlighted is a robot arm with a number of attachments, including a vacuum and a human-like robot hand, which are designed to perform various household tasks. Dyson has some experience building robots, primarily through its vacuums, which rely on things like computer vision to autonomously navigate. Still, I say “cautiously optimistic,” because I’ve seen plenty of non-robotics companies showcase the technology as more of a vanity project. But I’m more than happy to have Dyson change my mind.

Image Credits: Hyundai

Hyundai, of course, has been quite aggressive in its own robotics dreams, including its 2020 acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The carmaker this week announced that part of its massive new $10 billion investment plans will include robotics, with a focus of actually bringing some of its far-out concepts to market.

Another week, another big round for logistics/fulfillment robotics, as Polish firm Nomagic raised $22 million to expand its offerings. The company’s primary offering is a pick and place arm that can move and sort small goods. Khosla Ventures and Almaz Capital led the round, which also featured European Investment Bank, Hoxton Ventures, Capnamic Ventures, DN Capital and Manta Ray.

Amazon Astro with periscope camera

The periscope camera pops out and extends telescopically, enabling Astro to look over obstacles and on counter tops. A very elegant design choice. Image Credits: Haje Kamps for TechCrunch

We finally got around to reviewing Amazon’s limited-edition home robot, Astro, and Haje’s feelings were…mixed:

It’s been fun to have Astro wandering about my apartment for a few days, and most of the time I seemed to use it as a roving boom box that also has Alexa capabilities. That’s cute, and all, but $1,000 would buy Alexa devices for every thinkable surface in my room and leave me with enough cash left over to cover the house in cameras. I simply continue to struggle with why Astro makes sense. But then, that’s true for any product that is trying to carve out a brand new product category.

A tiny robot crab scuttles across the frame. Image Credits: Northwestern University

And finally, a tiny robot crab from Northwestern University. The little guy can be controlled remotely using lasers and is small enough to sit on the side of a penny. “Our technology enables a variety of controlled motion modalities and can walk with an average speed of half its body length per second,” says lead researcher, Yonggang Huang. “This is very challenging to achieve at such small scales for terrestrial robots.”

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections responsible for spreading of COVID-19 less than symptomatic infections

Based on studies published through July 2021, most SARS-CoV-2 infections were not persistently asymptomatic, and asymptomatic infections were less infectious…

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Based on studies published through July 2021, most SARS-CoV-2 infections were not persistently asymptomatic, and asymptomatic infections were less infectious than symptomatic infections. These are the conclusions of an update of a systematic review and meta-analysis publishing May 26th in the open access journal PLOS Medicine by Diana Buitrago-Garcia of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues.

Credit: Monstera, Pexels (CC0, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Based on studies published through July 2021, most SARS-CoV-2 infections were not persistently asymptomatic, and asymptomatic infections were less infectious than symptomatic infections. These are the conclusions of an update of a systematic review and meta-analysis publishing May 26th in the open access journal PLOS Medicine by Diana Buitrago-Garcia of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and colleagues.

Debate about the level and risks of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections continues, with much ongoing research. Studies that assess people at just one time point can overestimate the proportion of true asymptomatic infections because those who go on to later develop symptoms are incorrectly classified as asymptomatic rather than presymptomatic. However, other studies can underestimate asymptomatic infections with research designs that are more likely to include symptomatic participants.

The new paper was an update of a living (as in, regularly updated) systematic review first published in April 2020, which includes additional, more recent studies through July 2021. 130 studies were included, with data on 28,426 people with SARS-CoV-2 across 42 countries, including 11,923 people defined as having asymptomatic infection. Because of extreme variability between included studies, the meta-analysis did not calculate a single estimate for asymptomatic infection rate, but it did estimate the inter-quartile range to be that 14–50% of infections were asymptomatic. Additionally, the researchers found that the secondary attack rate—a measure of the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 — was about two-thirds lower from people without symptoms than from those with symptoms (risk ratio 0.32, 95%CI 0.16–0.64).

“If both the proportion and transmissibility of asymptomatic infection are relatively low, people with asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection should account for a smaller proportion of overall transmission than presymptomatic individuals,” the authors say, while also pointing out that “when SARS-CoV-2 community transmission levels are high, physical distancing measures and mask-wearing need to be sustained to prevent transmission from close contact with people with asymptomatic and presymptomatic infection.”

Coauthor Nicola Low adds, “The true proportion of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection is still not known, and it would be misleading to rely on a single number because the 130 studies that we reviewed were so different. People with truly asymptomatic infection are, however, less infectious than those with symptomatic infection.”

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In your coverage, please use this URL to provide access to the freely available paper in PLOS Medicine:

http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1003987  

Citation: Buitrago-Garcia D, Ipekci AM, Heron L, Imeri H, Araujo-Chaveron L, Arevalo-Rodriguez I, et al. (2022) Occurrence and transmission potential of asymptomatic and presymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections: Update of a living systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Med 19(5): e1003987. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003987

Author Countries: Switzerland, France, Spain, Argentina, United Kingdom, Sweden, United States, Colombia

Funding: This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation http://www.snf.ch/en (NL: 320030_176233); the European Union Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/en (NL: 101003688); the Swiss government excellence scholarship https://www.sbfi.admin.ch/sbfi/en/home/education/scholarships-and-grants/swiss-government-excellence-scholarships.html (DBG: 2019.0774) and the Swiss School of Public Health Global P3HS stipend https://ssphplus.ch/en/ (DBG). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


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Harsher COVID-19 restrictions associated with faster “pandemic fatigue”

Between November 2020 and May 2021, adherence to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions decreased in Italy, with the fastest decreases taking place during times…

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Between November 2020 and May 2021, adherence to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions decreased in Italy, with the fastest decreases taking place during times of the most stringent restrictions, according to a new study publishing May 26th in the open-access journal PLOS Digital Health by Laetitia Gauvin of ISI Foundation, Italy, and colleagues.

Credit: Ben Garratt, Unsplash (CC0, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

Between November 2020 and May 2021, adherence to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions decreased in Italy, with the fastest decreases taking place during times of the most stringent restrictions, according to a new study publishing May 26th in the open-access journal PLOS Digital Health by Laetitia Gauvin of ISI Foundation, Italy, and colleagues.

Pandemic fatigue, the decreased motivation to adhere to social distancing measures and adopt health-protective behaviors, represents a significant concern for policymakers and health officials. In the time period spanning November 2020 to May 2021 in Italy, tiered restrictions were adopted to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, with regions declared red, orange, yellow or white depending on their health data. Restrictions ranged from a nighttime curfew in the yellow tier to general stay-at-home mandates in the red tier.

In the new study, the researchers used large-scale mobility data from Facebook and Google captured in all 20 Italian provinces in 2020 and 2021 to analyze the timing of pandemic fatigue. Facebook reports the change in a user’s number of movements over time, while Google data estimates the change in time spent at home.

People’s relative change in movements increased an average of 0.08% per day and their time spent outside the home increased by an average 0.04% per day, leading to a more than 15% increase in relative mobility over the entire seven-month study period. During times of red tier restrictions, individual mobility increased an additional 0.16% per day and time spent outside the home increased an additional 0.04% when compared to the average. This means that during every 2-week period spent in the red tier, there would be an additional average 3% increase in relative mobility.

The authors conclude that changes to pandemic restrictions are faster during periods characterized by the strictest levels of restrictions. However, they acknowledge that the data used are subject to bias since they include only Facebook and Google users who opted-in to location sharing. In addition, untangling the combined effects of vaccination and new pandemic variants on adherence to pandemic restrictions was not within the scope of the study and requires more work.  It is also important to note that the study did not investigate on the effectiveness of each tiered restriction against the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Gauvin adds, “By analyzing mobile phone-derived mobility data in Italy, we investigated how adherence to COVID-19 restrictions changed over time, under different levels of increasing stringency. Our results show that adherence can be difficult to sustain over time and more so when the most stringent measures are enforced. Given that milder tiers have been proven to be effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, our study suggests policymakers should carefully consider the interplay between the efficacy of restrictions and their sustainability over time.”

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In your coverage, please use this URL to provide access to the freely available article in PLOS Digital Health: https://journals.plos.org/digitalhealth/article?id=10.1371/journal.pdig.0000035

Citation: Delussu F, Tizzoni M, Gauvin L (2022) Evidence of pandemic fatigue associated with stricter tiered COVID-19 restrictions. PLOS Digit Health 1(5): e0000035. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pdig.0000035

Author Countries: Italy

Funding: The study was partially supported by the Lagrange Project of the ISI Foundation funded by the CRT Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


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