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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

17.11.2017
Farming often gets a bad press. In the developed world it is, for example, a protected sector enjoying relatively high levels of subsidy which, at least in the UK, goes disproportionately to larger landowners. More generally, farmers are often held responsible for environmental damage (for a recent example, see Scale of ‘nitrate timebomb’ revealed). This does not do justice to highly productive farmers who care deeply about the countryside. In particular, pesticides are considered by some as a scourge to be got rid of rather than an aid to efficient, environmentally friendly food production....
10.11.2017
It’s that time of year again. The latest climate change summit – COP23 – has opened in Bonn, this time with a surprisingly low profile. This annual event is, of course, an opportunity to highlight the key issues that activists and many mainstream scientists worry about, so there is an accompanying stream of news releases, featuring, for example, the claim that records are being surpassed: 2017 ‘very likely’ in top three warmest years on record. If this turns out not to be the case (quite possible after the end of the recent El Niño), the fact will quietly be ignored. This hype is not new, but...
03.11.2017
With apologies to Monty Python, this seems like as good a title as any for what I have to say this week, prompted by an essay on the BBC website by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, current president of the Royal Society (How science transformed the world in 100 years). In a world in which science is too often feared and distrusted, it’s good to see such a prominent member of the scientific Establishment speaking out in defence of the sector. He starts by saying “If we could miraculously transport even the smartest people from around 1900 to today's world, they would be simply astonished at how we now...
27.10.2017
Last week, I wrote about the apparent lack of balance in the present EU review of the ubiquitous weedkiller, glyphosate (Double standards in safety assessments). On one hand, MEPs showed themselves only too willing to be swayed by what they perceive as public opinion (in reality, essentially the active anti-pesticide lobby and public inability to understand that the dose makes the poison) while simply ignoring the expert opinion of independent scientists working on behalf of the European Food Safety Agency and the European Chemical Agency that use of glyphosate is safe. At the same time, the...
20.10.2017
Two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an advisory body to the World Health Agency, published an apparently damning report on glyphosate, one of the most widely-used herbicides around the world, and marketed by Monsanto under the Roundup brand. This was extensively reported, for example by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US (Glyphosate herbicide linked to cancer - IARC World Health Organization assessment). The IARC put glyphosate in Group 2A of its classification, as a ‘probable’ human carcinogen. This was commented on by the Scientific Alliance...
13.10.2017
As most readers will already be very well aware, toxicity is a relative term. But for the general public, this simple but important concept is all too often misunderstood. For many people, if something is toxic, then it’s dangerous, end of message. To complicate this, many of us are easily capable of a rather bizarre form of Orwellian double-think: we may strive to avoid all traces of synthetic pesticides, for example, while being perfectly willing to consume a wide range of natural chemicals that are demonstrably carcinogenic. In both cases, the dose makes the poison, but one is ‘good’ and...
06.10.2017
Last year, the UK government gave a cautious go-ahead to fracking, after years of a moratorium following concerns about minor earth tremors near the Caudrilla exploration site in Lancashire. The company has since restarted test drilling in the area, against intense opposition from activists determined to prevent the birth of a viable onshore gas and oil extraction industry in the UK. These activists may not have managed to sway the government in Westminster, but they have the Scottish government on their side (Scottish government backs ban on fracking). Although the intention to continue the...
29.09.2017
I was interested to see this week the seemingly ubiquitous Sir James Dyson announcing that his company is developing a novel electric car (Dyson to make electric cars from 2020). Since a prototype does not yet exist, this is a pretty ambitious goal but if anyone can do it, it’s probably Dyson. And bullish statements like this are not uncommon in this new sector; Elon Musk is perhaps a role model in this case. What this new car will look like is anyone’s guess. According to the report, “Important points that are undecided or secret include the firm's expected annual production total, the cost...
22.09.2017
I make no apologies for talking about the thorny issue of climate change yet again. There’s a good reason why: after a decade or more of unwillingness to listen to criticism of the IPCC story on climate change, this week a mainstream paper was published in Nature Geoscience that to all intents and purposes shows many of the criticisms to be justified. Even the most objective-sounding paper is open to different interpretations, and this one is no exception, despite its apparently unambiguous title: Emissions budgets and pathways are consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. The message from...
14.09.2017
This is proving to be a pretty bad season for Atlantic hurricanes, after several years in which few intense ones made landfall. Hurricane Harvey, which started in late August, was the first major hurricane to hit the United States mainland since 2005 (Hurricane Wilma, in the same year as the flooding of New Orleans caused by Katrina). Irma, coming along a few days later and only dissipating this week, was a category 5 storm bringing destruction to the Caribbean and Florida. Despite the intensity of the storms, the total death toll so far is around 150. Each fatality is a personal tragedy, of...

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