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Newsletter 3rd November 2006

- Encouragement of UK science - Over-fishing versus fish farming - The Stern review - The New Scientist

Encouragement of UK science
It is widely reported today that Tony Blair has made a speech encouraging the country to “stand up for science”. This is good. It is important that our political leaders recognise that scientific knowledge underpins the very fabric of modern societies. However, we have a paradoxical situation where science continues to be overlooked or undervalued – even distrusted –  by many.
The good news is that the present government has overseen a significant increase in funding for research and development. The bad news is that, at the same time, a number of universities have found it necessary to close chemistry and physics departments, recruitment of school science teachers is becoming increasingly difficult, and the numbers of students studying science has fallen significantly. The lesson seems to be that supportive words and extra money, while welcome, are not the complete answer.
The UK is not alone in this. Most developed countries seem to have the same problems in maintaining interest in science as a career. We are able to foster elite science institutions – the MITs and Cambridges of the world – while the overall number of trained scientists falls. Many developing countries, on the other hand, are producing large and increasing numbers of science graduates. Their brightest and best will successfully compete for the prestige of places at MIT and Cambridge, but the critical mass of well-trained but not elite scientists will give a sound basis for the increasing growth and competitiveness of China, India and others.
And as for those of us in the European Union, it is important that all scientists should try to encourage those around us to take an interest in science. This, of course, is particularly important for the generation still in primary school. If we can persuade enough of them that it is good to study science to A-level and beyond, then perhaps we are not fated to become just a backwater in the future global economy.
Over-fishing versus fish farming
There are also plenty of reports of a new study published in the journal Science (Worm et al; Science 3 November 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5800, pp. 787 - 790). The BBC’s headline – ‘Only 50 years left’ for sea fish – is typical. The authors argue that a combination of pollution, loss of biodiversity and over-fishing will, over the next half century, effectively eliminate sea fish as a source of food.
We should not be surprised by this. Some North Atlantic fisheries have already been devastated, and North Sea cod stocks have been severely depleted. On land, hunting wiped out all large land mammals in New Zealand, and nearly all the North American bison. In the case of land animals, hunting has been almost entirely replaced as a source of food by farming. Will we see the same happen with fish?
At first glance, the answer should certainly be yes. The European fish farming industry has grown enormously over a generation, making salmon in particular an easily-affordable, everyday dish rather than an expensive luxury. In parts of Asia, land-based farming of prawns, and even fish farming in rice paddies, has become an important source of protein.
Nevertheless, there are question marks hanging over salmon farming in particular. The problem is that salmon have to be fed on other fish, which in turn have to be caught. In the long run, this does not seem to be a viable option. As our consumption of carnivorous farmed fish increases, so does the catch of other sea fish. We replace hunting of one species by another, and so ultimately just displace the problem of over-fishing. In the longer term, we surely have to develop a more efficient farming system which produces fish for which there is good consumer demand.
One of the issues is that oily fish, which we are all encouraged to include in our diet, derives its valuable omega-3 fatty acids ultimately from the marine algae which synthesise them. If we had a commercially viable alternative source of this, it could enable fish to be fed on a suitable non-fish diet and still thrive and provide a healthy nutritional profile for us. Biotechnology and our existing knowledge of biosynthetic pathways should make this possible.
The Stern review
Given the blanket coverage given to the Stern review, we will keep our comments brief. Suffice it to say that, despite the apocalyptic tone of many reports, there has also been room for some critical comment. Whether this will lead to a healthy debate is another issue entirely, but we would certainly encourage this.
Climate change has become one of the defining issues of the early 21st Century. None of us can be sure what the future may bring, but the current paradigm is that we must act decisively to cut carbon dioxide emissions, on the understanding that this could mitigate the inevitable temperature rise. This is a perfectly legitimate policy route and, many would argue, the one we have a moral duty to take. The problem is that there is absolutely no sign that the undemanding targets of the Kyoto agreement will be met by most countries. What chance then of a much more stringent global regime of emission reductions being effective?
Sir Nicholas quite rightly talks about the need to adapt to climate change. We fully concur, and would add that such adaptation needs to cope with change in either direction. We are currently worried about warming, but 30 years ago the main concern was cooling. In another generation’s time, this may again be the issue.
The New Scientist
Finally, some of you may remember that the New Scientist was rather uncomplimentary about the Scientific Alliance in a leader a few weeks ago. We are pleased that, better late than never, they have printed the following two letters:
From Martin Livermore Cambridge, UK
It may come as a surprise to New Scientist that some people quite legitimately hold different views on climate change science than your own rigid dogmatism allows (30 September, p 5). The Scientific Alliance exists to promote rational debate in areas of genuine uncertainty. We do not "lecture" people, but present our own interpretations of evidence and ask others to look at them open-mindedly. Neither do we indulge in "politically and commercially motivated abuse of science", and we are certainly not the ones doing the bullying.
Science is not democratic: the fact that the majority of the scientific establishment subscribes to a particular view does not automatically make it right. Evidence is evidence, and is open to differing interpretation. I challenge New Scientist to return to scientific principles.
From Anthony Trewavas, University of Edinburgh
I am both a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Scientific Alliance Advisory Forum and I was unable to recognise any of your apparent assertions about the latter organisation. What the Scientific Alliance opposes is the current panic generated among sections of the media and some politicians that has led to the shambles of current energy policy and engendered the simplistic view that destroying the countryside with wind turbines will somehow stop climate change.
If all fossil fuel power stations worldwide were switched off tomorrow, global temperatures would continue to rise for another 50 years. What is desperately needed are calm, balanced and thought-through policies incorporating adaptation, and recognition that those can only be achieved if economic capability is not damaged.