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Newsletter 1st December 2006

- The future of European science - Meanwhile, in the UK... - New recruit at the Gates Foundation - Apocalyptic visions and optimism

The future of European science
The European Parliament has this week approved the plan for the next wave of EU-funded research. Framework Programme 7 (FP7 in typical Brussels jargon) will commit €54 billion to a range of R&D initiatives from 2007 to 2013. The programme is due to be formally adopted by Council on 5th December. The fact that FP7 has not even been finally agreed yet may come as a surprise to many people who are interested but not directly involved in the process. In the way of EU initiatives, this has been a matter for discussion for so many years that it almost comes as a shock to realise that it doesn’t even begin to operate until next year. In a similar, way, it won’t be too long before we begin to hear about FP8.
 
On the face of it, FP7 is a big step forward, providing about 40% more funding each year than under the current programme. But, if we look a little deeper, things are less rosy. For a start, big though the number seems, this is only some €7 billion annually, and European GDP is now over €10 trillion. So the EU funded research budget is less than 0.1% of the total. To put into a different perspective, it is approximately the same as the amount the EU spends on administration annually, and is dwarfed by the Common Agricultural Policy budget.
 
Another problem is that getting at all the money is not necessarily easy. Application for EU money is via arcane procedures which are even less user friendly than those used by national governments. Those with the resources and the know-how often have no problem, but smaller organisations in particular often find the barriers too great. This complaint has been listened to, and we are assured SMEs will find life easier under the new regime, but time will tell.
 
While EU institutions are often sclerotic and seemingly incapable of timely, rational decision making, there are still big ambitions. Not least is the Lisbon agenda, which aspires to Europe becoming the world’s most competitive, knowledge-based economy within the next five years. Ambitions are good but, despite a review and relaunch, the objective is still no closer to becoming a reality. Indeed, it is probably receding as China and India produce increasing numbers of science graduates, while young Europeans seem to have lost their enthusiasm for anything technical.
 
The Lisbon agenda at least recognises that R&D drives innovation, which drives growth. It therefore aims for an R&D spend of 3% of GDP, but there is little sign of us moving far beyond the 1.9% currently allocated (lower still in the UK). The increased spend from FP7 is, of course, welcome, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the funding from national governments and the private sector. Until we have policies which encourage science, research and innovation, nothing is going to change.
 
Meanwhile, in the UK…
Lord Sainsbury resigned as Science Minister earlier this month. This is a matter for regret, since he clearly had a commitment to science and has been by far the longest serving minister with this responsibility. Before he was appointed in 1998, science ministers had come and gone with alarming frequency, and most of us would probably be hard put to name any of them (a previous Conservative one, Ian Taylor, paid tribute to his successor, but this may have been partly to draw attention to the fact that he heads the Conservative Science and Technology Task Force).
 
He has been replaced by Malcolm Wicks, previously Energy Minister. While this may be a perfectly sound appointment, it is unlikely that he will provide the drive and enthusiasm that his predecessor brought to the job. This also highlights another sad fact: our primary legislative body has very few trained scientists among its ranks. That doesn’t mean that there are not a number of intelligent MPs with a good grasp of scientific principles, but it would be good to see more science graduates in parliament. Of course, Margaret Thatcher was a chemist: readers will have their individual opinions about her influence.
 
New recruit at the Gates Foundation
Bob Horsch, until October a senior VP at Monsanto and the person who led much of their earlier work on genetically modified crops, has retired and moved to a new role as senior program officer for agricultural development with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates has made an enormous fortune from a business sector he helped to create, and is now intent on spending the greater part of this for the benefit of the developing world. He is one of a new breed of philanthropists: he doesn’t just give his money to deserving causes, but brings in the best people available to define their own potential solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. He brings the drive and open-mindedness of private business to a sector which has been dominated by public finance and international bureaucracies.
 
Monsanto will forever be associated in many people’s minds with a wrong-headed approach to the introduction of commodity GM crops in Europe. But we should not forget that this is an extraordinarily innovative and sophisticated science-driven company, and Bob Horsch was one of their top scientists. He will have the tools of biotechnology available to him, and will use them if other techniques can’t deliver the goods. But his primary focus will be on results rather than how they are achieved. We wish him and the Gates Foundation well.
 
Apocalyptic visions and optimism
James Lovelock (he of the Gaia hypothesis) shared his apocalyptic vision of what he now calls global heating with an audience at an Institute of Chemical Engineers lecture this week. In recent years, he has come out in favour of nuclear power as the only means to reduce carbon emissions sufficiently, but since then has become even more pessimistic about the future. In his latest book “The revenge of Gaia” he muses on the planet becoming essentially uninhabitable, with perhaps a few breeding couples of humans occupying the Antarctic until Gaia has recovered from the pestilence we have inflicted on her.
 
It seems now that he is becoming more optimistic (perhaps it’s the good autumn we’re having). He now thinks that an inevitable 8 degree C temperature rise will make continental land masses uninhabitable, and the remaining humans (maybe 500 million, according to his latest thoughts) will survive in high-tech, high-rise communities on temperate islands such as the UK and New Zealand. We look forward to more pronouncements.
 
In the meantime, Stephen Hawking has said in a radio interview that he thinks the future of the human race lies outside our solar system. In his view, advances in space travel technology (he suggests rockets powered by matter-antimatter engines) could take colonists to safer planets, to escape the natural or man-made destruction of our own. On one hand, this is a somewhat pessimistic – some might say realistic – view of Mankind’s destructive capacity. But, on the other hand, it speaks of a faith in our inventiveness, and so could be seen as essentially optimistic. Whatever the case, it’s good to see two such prominent scientists thinking of solutions to major problems and recognising in Mankind the ability to adapt which has served us so well. So much environmentalism these days is deeply pessimistic, but we hope that the majority of our readers have a more positive view of the future.