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Newsletter 18th May 2007

- Galileo project - Awkward questions on behalf of our children - What is a natural habitat? - Eco-towns - Engineering more efficient photosynthesis

Galileo project

Many of us take for granted satellite navigation. Like all the best technologies, the complex science behind it is hidden. For the user, it is just a question of keying in a destination and, hey presto, directions are provided. While not absolutely infallible – as we are made aware on slow-news days when some unfortunate driver ends up on a railway line or in a river – they are pretty useful, and many people rely heavily on them. What most of them will never stop to think about is the network of 27 satellites which enables the system to operate so well. Sat-nav means the thing on the dashboard, not a multi-billion dollar network of complex electronic equipment orbiting the earth.

This network is the US Global Positioning System, universally known as GPS. It is primarily a military system, enabling precise targeting of missiles, for example. However, it is also available, in a slightly downgraded form, to civilians around the world. And, even better, it is free. There is an option, in principle, for the Pentagon to shut the civilian system down in the event of nuclear war or other major security threat. Despite the troubles the world has seen in the last few years, and the current US military involvement overseas, the system has never been shut down, so it is safe to assume we will probably have somewhat more important issues on our minds than loss of sat-nav if the GPS service was withdrawn.

Nevertheless, the EU has a major programme to introduce an alternative satellite navigation system, called Galileo. After preparatory work, the first phase of implementation began in 2002, with all 30 satellites originally due to be launched by this year. However, only one satellite is actually in orbit to date and the current deadline for completion of the project is 2012. At this stage, the Galileo system should be able to provide positioning to an accuracy of one metre, somewhat better than the present GPS system. However, an upgrade of GPS is also in the pipeline, and this could well be operational before its putative European rival.

Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the saga is the failure of a consortium of eight companies this week to agree a way forward for the private sector. This is generally considered to be because they see no likelihood of a decent return for their investment, despite the commercial applications having been talked up by the European Commission. This particular public-private partnership seems to be becoming increasingly public: it is likely that EU taxpayers will fund an additional €2.4billion to get an apparently unnecessary prestige project up and running.

Galileo will not address the problem of how to get people from A to B safely, affordably and without delays. It seems a pity that the money could not have been directed towards a project which would.

Awkward questions on behalf of our children

Paul Klemperer, professor of economics at Oxford, had an interesting article published in the Financial Times recently (11th May). This explored the thorny issue of discount rates used by the Stern review and others. Sir Nicholas took the view that we should value the future as much as the present; that there should be an essentially zero discount rate. This goes against all conventional economic thinking, but is the only way significant expenditure by this generation can be justified in cost/benefit terms. It is as much a moral and ethical argument as an economic one.

In broader terms, the only way we can rationally justify enormous costs now (and the general feeling seems to be that they would be far in excess of the 1% of GDP suggested in the Stern review) is to say that the outcome if we do not take such action would be catastrophic. Indeed, this is the rhetoric we hear increasingly. It is the language used by Al Gore, and an alarmist approach which has been criticised by Professor Mike Hulme amongst others.

In Professor Klemperer’s view, our decisions need to be guided not just by scientists but also by sociologists, to tell us what future generations will think and philosophers to tell us how much we should care about this. To this we would add the rider that we should form our own opinions rather than simply be told what to do by others, but the issues raised in the article are important and perhaps go some way towards explaining the intensity of the current debate.

What is a natural habitat?

Readers in the UK may have heard an item on the Radio 4 Today programme on 15th May. This was about the Natura 2000 scheme, which designates rare, important or vulnerable habitats for special protection. This particular report took the form of an outside broadcast from an ancient hay meadow near Huntingdon, highlighting the threat to established wildflower species from the higher levels of nutrients now found in the water which regularly floods the central portions.

One of the interesting statements was that the meadow had been mown for hay regularly over the past 600 years, so creating the particular habitat we see today. In other words, this habitat which we prize is entirely man-made and requires our intervention to maintain it. Protect such sites by all means, but let’s not forget the role of humans in creating them.

The moral surely is that we should be a lot more cautious about making an artificial distinction between the natural world and human actions. Our species is as much a part of nature as any other. We are in the so-far unique position of being able to make decisions about our impact on the environment, and should use our capabilities wisely and responsibly. But our forefathers six centuries ago did not set out to create a wildflower habitat. They cleared and managed land to produce winter feed for their livestock, with habitat creation being a happy but unintended consequence.


New prime minister (soon), new eco-towns. Gordon Brown has announced the intention to build five new towns of carbon-neutral housing,100,000 houses in total. The first one is to be built near Cambridge, on the current Oakington barracks site, already designated for residential development.

This initiative deserves a warm welcome. Houses in the UK are notoriously less energy efficient than, for example, those in Scandinavia. Any worthwhile energy policy has to have at its heart energy security. Taking serious steps towards more efficient homes is an important part of this. Call them carbon neutral if you will, but the key factor is their efficiency.

Engineering more efficient photosynthesis

Last but not least, a paper in Nature Biotechnology from a group at Aachen university reports their work on genetic engineering of Arabidopsis to increase its photosynthetic efficiency. This changes part of the biosynthetic pathway in relatively inefficient C3 plants by addition of five bacterial genes to avoid wasteful photo-respiration. This holds the potential for major crops such as wheat and rice to give high yields while using less fertiliser and water. There will be a long road ahead from this proof of concept in Arabidopsis, but the rewards could be immense in a future world of 9 billion people where water security has become a major issue.