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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

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...
Greenpeace had its origins in Vancouver in the late 1960s, initially to protest against a US underground nuclear test on the Alaskan island of Amchitka. For Europeans, it came into prominence during the mid-70s, when a high-profile campaign against whaling started. From its Canadian beginnings, similar groups were set up in other countries, which then all came under the auspices of (Amsterdam-based) Greenpeace International in 1979. From these beginnings, the organisation has become like many other multinational corporations, with subsidiaries adopting consistent positions on a range of...
Google, already ubiquitous in our digital lives, could soon have a major influence on how we travel. Having already done hundreds of thousands of miles in conventional cars modified to drive themselves, the company has recently talked of its intention to produce driverless vehicles from scratch.  This is yet another illustration of the importance of data handling and computing power; all the mechanical parts of the vehicle exist already, but the breakthrough is replacing a human driver by an autonomous computer. This has the potential simply to transform personal transport and...

When is GM not GM?

30.05.2014
This question may sound strange, but it is important in understanding the power of words and the nature of opposition to new technologies. Genetically modified crops continue to be opposed by activists, despite their great success with farmers and a complete lack of credible evidence of harm. Meanwhile, a veil is drawn over the use of GM micro-organisms in the pharmaceutical sector and even the food industry. Food, of course, is a uniquely emotive issue, and always likely to attract more concerns than processes which go on in stainless steel vessels in high tech factories. It is...
Questions of energy security are much in the news at present. Take, for example, the recent report that Europe’s ‘Energy Dependence Day’ is getting earlier each year. This is the notional day by which the EU has used up all its domestic supplies of energy and has to rely on imports. This was 11 June in 2011, considerably earlier than in 1995, when it was 26 July. This analysis was conducted by the European Alliance for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EuroAce) so, not surprisingly, their message is about how increased energy efficiency is the key to improving the...

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What's New

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