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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

This, week, the CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) held a one day, high level event in New York: Development Dialogues 2014. This organisation is little-known outside development policy circles, but plays an important role. Its members – governments and various international bodies and philanthropic foundations – jointly fund a network of 15 Agricultural Research Centres, mostly in developing countries. Here, they work to fulfil their vision to ‘reduce poverty and hunger, improve human health and nutrition, and enhance ecosystem...
In 1995, Shell planned to dispose of a defunct North Sea oil platform – the Brent Spar – by sinking it in the Atlantic. Greenpeace started a high-profile campaign against this and eventually Shell changed their plans and agreed for the rig to be towed to shore and dismantled. This was a clear victory for the environmentalists, with a major company bowing to public pressure and taking action which they considered not to be in their best interests. The message was that an oil company was prepared to dump its dirty rubbish in the sea with no thought for the consequences; a large-...
Models of various kinds are routinely used by scientists either as a first stage of work to prove a concept or because experimenting directly on the main system of interest is impractical, impossible or unethical. So, animal models are used to develop and test medicines: strains of mice particularly susceptible to a particular disease may be used to screen a promising candidate molecule for effectiveness before developing it further and progressing to clinical trials. Plant scientists do something similar. If they want to show that a particular trait can be controlled by modifying certain...
Last week, it was reported that the UN is running a competition to find a number of young people to ‘vent their frustration’ at politicians for their failure to take decisive action against climate change (UN seeks ‘Malala’ on climate change). 38 will be selected to attend the next UN climate change summit in New York, another in a series of negotiating sessions leading up to the next Conference of the Parties in Paris where, yet again, there are hopes of a further significant agreement on global emissions reduction. One entrant, who must be a woman under 30, will...

Return of the Blob

25.07.2014
It may be somewhat parochial to write about an issue raised by the recent UK government reshuffle, but on this occasion it raises some important points which are more generally applicable. David Cameron has made some very significant changes to his ministerial team in a move widely attributed to his political strategist Lynton Crosby (‘wizard of Oz’ or ‘evil genius’ depending on who you listen to). The aim is very clearly to reshape the cabinet in a more voter-friendly mould. One of the key surprises in an uncharacteristically leak-free process was the removal of...

Evidence and Belief

18.07.2014
A debate which will surely never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction is that about the supposed benefits of organic food and farming. This week, publication of another study has reignited the controversy: Study sparks organic foods debate, according to the BBC. Headlines vary – Clear differences between organic and non-organic food, study finds, says the Guardian, while the Independent reports the story as An unhealthy row: report claiming organic food is better divides UK scientists– but the crux of the argument is that levels of antioxidants are consistently higher and...
Finding common ground in the debate on climate change is very difficult. On one hand this is surprising, because there is no argument about the fundamentals of the impact of burning fossil fuels, but simply about the degree of this impact. On the other hand, the policy implications are profound. The choice is essentially between making an effort now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible and leaving significant mitigation actions until we (or later generations) are both surer of what climatic changes are coming and also have an effective way to make a difference. That,...
The UK government, like other EU Member States, has allocated a certain pot of money to spend on expanding renewable energy capacity as part of its plan to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. A large part of this is in the form of guaranteed prices for wind and solar electricity generation, bridging the gap between the market price and the price needed to provide sufficient incentive for operators. The problem with any such mechanism is that it has to be planned well ahead and certain assumptions made. The Department of Energy and Climate Change forecast in March that the...

Science and farming

27.06.2014
Although attention in the EU is on the appointment of the new president of the Commission, there are still other things going on. After years of deliberation, it looks like the Council is finally poised to allow individual Member States the choice of whether or not their farmers should be allowed to grow GM crops (EU member states back compromise to allow GM crops: diplomats). Not that it’s quite a done deal yet: it has to be formally approved by ministers and finally be voted on by the new parliament later this year. This uneasy compromise has the benefit from the point of view of...
According to a recent BBC report Extreme flooding events influence UK climate views. This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, people are often accused of being complacent about climate change when they see no effect on them personally (a fact compounded by the lack of any upward trend in average global temperatures this century). However, if they are suddenly affected by unusual weather, be it flood, drought or extremes of temperature, it is quite likely that they would be more receptive to messages about such things being part of a trend. The story goes on to say that the...

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What's New

Letter published in The Times, 19 May 2014, A proper energy policy means tough choices