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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

19.01.2018
In today’s world of blacks and whites, plastic waste is becoming a major target both of environmentalists and policymakers, and the benefits are being forgotten. This is an unfortunate trend, but typical of the highly precautionary mind-set that has put so much pressure on synthetic chemicals in general and crop protection and agricultural biotechnology in particular. Without a balanced view of risks and benefits, there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But it wasn’t always like that. As synthetic polymers became commercially available in large quantities from the mid-...
12.01.2018
Early civilizations evolved after the development of arable farming about 10,000 years ago. This enabled settled communities to grow and some people to specialise in skills other than hunting and foraging. Life was still unbelievably hard by today’s standards, but the basis for development of modern societies was established. During the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution transformed the lives of vast numbers of people. Families moved from the land as cities grew further and factory jobs rocketed. Not all the change was for the better initially, but this phase of development was another...
05.01.2018
Being of a naturally optimistic disposition, I’ve often thought that the environmentalist movement has a deep streak of pessimism running through it. At the extreme, the world view is one of our species – and our species alone – being both outside Nature and with a negative impact on all other forms of life. Of course, most environmentalists don’t take nearly such a black and white position, but many still see humankind’s impact with a negative halo. Over the Christmas period, I came across two articles that cast some light on why pessimism seems so prevalent. Why things might not be as bad...
15.12.2017
Another year has nearly finished. For the EU, the combined tensions of Brexit, Catalonian nationalism and a much-weakened Chancellor Merkel seem to be doing little to disrupt normal life. On the other hand, the underlying contradictions inherent in a 27-member bloc technically united by a single currency – but in practice divided by very different economies and cultures – will surely be difficult to resolve, particularly with the current unwieldy and opaque system of governance. The fudge of contradictions is very apparent in the supposedly evidence-based systems for approval of GM crops and...
08.12.2017
The human capacity for self-criticism is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, we can recognise that we have caused harm and do something about it, but on the other hand this tendency can go so far that we think of nearly everything we do as being negative. At the extreme end of the spectrum, so-called Deep Greens consider humankind to be a blot on the planet, which would be better off without us. Not so for most of us, of course, and at the other extreme there are those who refuse to recognise – or at least try to minimise – the negative impacts of something they have done. Overall...
01.12.2017
As they say, forecasting is very difficult, particularly about the future. Hackneyed as this may be, it nicely encapsulates the need to take what anyone – however expert – says about the future with a large pinch of salt. This is particularly important as we are bombarded with projections about the future these days, largely because today’s IT makes it easier both to do the maths and to share the results. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need forecasts, simply that we should put them in the right context and not assume they are automatically right. Those making the forecasts should be very...
24.11.2017
Electric cars are now a daily sight on our streets, what were previously token charging points in public places are often in use, and people are now beginning to think of the implications of the much-touted transition away from the internal combustion engine. The assumption by enthusiasts is that this is going to happen sooner rather than later but, as with any major technical change, its course (and even the end point) is very difficult to predict. Most major changes such as this come about by a combination of innovation and market pull. Two hundred years ago, railways provided the first...
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...

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