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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

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...
This week has seen two important meetings on climate change policy taking place in the EU. In Bonn, negotiators are trying to make progress on wide-ranging issues which could lay the foundations for the Holy Grail of a binding international agreement to be concluded at the major climate change meeting in Paris next year. These are large, multi-stream negotiations, which are part of an ongoing international circuit of meetings between the annual Conferences of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This year’s is to be held in Lima, but it is the December 2015...
This week, the House of Lords Science and Technology committee has published the written evidence it has received for its current inquiry into the resilience of UK electricity infrastructure. This may not sound very sexy, but it is nevertheless important. Also this week Owen Paterson, who until the last Cabinet reshuffle was Secretary of State for the Environment, gave a much-trailed speech at the invitation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, in which he lambasted current government energy policy and called for the suspension or repeal of the Climate Change Act. These two events are...
This week’s Sunday Times magazine featured a spread on Drax, the UK’s largest power station, which is in the process of converting a large part of its capacity from coal to biomass firing (Power Struggle). To quote from the introduction: “Britain’s most toxic power station, Drax in North Yorkshire, is going green — by burning trees ripped from the forests of Mississippi. Is this eco-madness?” Cutting through the journalistic hyperbole, this actually tackles an important issue. With a capacity rating of just under 4GW, Drax is the largest power station...
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...

Current Issues

To see UK electricity demand
and the contribution from
wind, see www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk

 

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.