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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

Scientists may lay claim to objectivity, but we should always be cautious in accepting the conclusions of others. Take, for example, a news item from this morning: Pesticide ban to save bees ‘based on flawed research’. The argument made by Norman Carreck, who works at the University of Sussex on bee research, is that other scientists had used unrealistically high levels of neonicotinoid insecticides in experiments with bees, so wrongly concluding that these chemicals are a likely cause of a decline in numbers. To add further interest to this intellectual spat, one of the...
New year, same old issues. Climate change negotiations continue with glacial slowness, with attention now focussing on what is touted as a landmark Conference of the Parties in Paris in December. Negotiators hope that this will see a binding international agreement on emissions reduction signed, but there must be many crossed fingers, given the abject failure of the similarly crucial Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions continue to rise inexorably in the absence of anything other than regional policies. Plus ça change… And the issue of GM crops...

Plus ça change…

19.12.2014
Christmas time again, and an opportunity to look back over the last year. Twelve months’ ago, I wrote “Perhaps 2014 will be seen as the year when the international will to seek to control the climate via energy policy begins to wane more noticeably. Already, even the chairman of the UK Committee on Climate Change has recently admitted that unilateral action is useless. Perhaps next year will be the one in which the UK government – still the only one with supposedly legally-binding emissions targets – begins to prioritise energy security and affordability over failing...
European environmental policy is made at EU level and, like most policy areas, legislation is agreed by qualified majority voting. This requires not just a majority of Member States to be in favour, but for them to represent normally at least 60% of EU citizens. The nature of this means of course that not all countries are equally enthusiastic about particular decisions, but will compromise as part of the normal semi-democratic horse-trading that goes on in Brussels. The net result has been a steady move towards a highly precautionary stance on environmental matters, accompanied by...

Misuse of science

05.12.2014
Scientists are human and have their opinions. Although we may like to think of science as a purely objective search after truth, we have to be realistic. It would be all but impossible for a researcher to start an experiment without having some idea about the expected outcome. Objectivity then comes in the form of a willingness to accept evidence which points to a different answer. Nevertheless, in most cases there is likely to be a tendency towards confirmation bias: giving more weight to observations which conform to your expectations or opinions. A well-known example of this is the...

Hard choices

28.11.2014
According to climate models, we could be in for a rough time later this century. The Royal Society has published a report this week detailing what to expect and how societies can deal with it (Resilience to extreme weather). This is reported by the BBC as Risk from extreme weather set to rise. The working group was chaired by Prof Georgina Mace, Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at University College London, and included fifteen other eminent scientists, and it is she who has commented to the BBC’s Roger Harrabin. In her words, “This problem is not just about to come...
The role of government Chief Scientific Adviser in the UK is now deeply embedded in the political system of the country – the first, Sir Solly Zuckerman, was appointed in 1964. The CSA is the face of science at the highest level of government. He (no woman has yet held the position) will inevitably be an Establishment figure reflecting mainstream opinion. Of the 11 holders of the position to day, all but two were knighted. This is clearly no role for an outsider who may offer alternative views, but it is important that governments have that formal scientific input, even if they do...
The long drawn-out saga of the EU’s relationship to genetically modified crops rumbles on. This week we read, for example, EU one step closer to law on national GMO crop bans. Individual crops are recommended for approval by independent scientists on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority, and will continue to be approved across the bloc by a vote of Member States in the Council. In practice, this means there is never a qualified majority for approval or rejection, and the Commission then normally makes a formal decision based on the EFSA recommendation (although even this was a...
This is certainly not the first time this has been said, but it’s worth repeating: a reliable energy supply is vital for a developed economy. It was concentrated energy in the form of coal which literally powered the Industrial Revolution, and it is coal, oil and gas which have underpinned the enormous changes in modern societies over the last century. Take that away, and the fabric of everyday life would quickly unravel. On the other hand, if we have an assured supply of affordable energy, almost anything is possible. In principle, water no longer becomes a constraint on...
Energy security has quite rightly become a high-profile issue, with regular newspaper articles and letters to editors. Talk of power cuts or brownouts is common and, despite the current unusually mild weather in many places, these could become a reality if we get cold spells this winter. The chaotic nature of weather systems makes it impossible to predict what will happen, and the UK Met Office’s shiny new supercomputer (Met Office to build £97m supercomputer) won’t make any difference to that. The government assures us that all will be well and that their energy policy...

Current Issues

To see UK electricity demand
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What's New

The Scientific Alliance has published a new report on wind energy, jointly with the Adam Smith Insitute:  Wind Power Reassessed: A review of the UK wind resource for electricity generation.