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Newsletter 6th July 2007

New PM, new science minister

With Gordon Brown finally moving next door, everyone is looking for clues as to how government policy will evolve. Science has probably not been top of everyone’s mind, given the security issues the new PM was immediately landed with. Nevertheless, changes which could affect science policy have already been made and all those interested in the future of British science have their collective fingers crossed.
 
It was Mr Brown who was behind the formation of the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), designed to help one of our centres of scientific excellence learn from the success of the other Cambridge. This has, for example, given rise to a number of projects of broad environmental interest, including low-energy building design, the encapsulation of radioactive waste and the Silent Aircraft initiative (which may be held back by the current focus on energy efficiency, but which has many potential benefits for the future of air travel and those who live near airports).
 
So the omens are perhaps good: a Brown government should be one which sees the value of science, and should be keen to foster a competitive, innovative economy. Neither is the new prime minister shy about courting the to-date rather wary business sector, if the drafting in of Sir Digby Jones is anything to go by.
 
As part of the overall reorganisation of government, we have seen the Department of Trade and Industry disappear (to little surprise) and its responsibilities split and combined with those of other reorganised ministries. The responsibility for science policy now rests with the bravely named new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), and Ian Pearson moves in as Science Minister from his previous brief covering climate change in Defra. Mr Pearson has a business rather than a science background, but we should not hold this against him: David Sainsbury was the longest serving and most effective holder of the post, and running a supermarket chain is hardly an exact science.
 
The problem is that, whereas Lord Sainsbury was in post for eight years, his successor (and Mr Pearson’s predecessor) Malcolm Wicks held the science portfolio for a mere eight months. Unfortunately, this is the norm rather than the exception, and it bodes less well for science if we have a further quick succession of inexperienced ministers covering an important area which cries out for continuity and dedication.
 
Also in the new DIUS is the office of the government chief scientist, Sir David King. Sir David, as readers will be well aware, is a great supporter of the IPCC, and it is interesting to see that Ian Pearson moves from handling climate change policy. This may be no more than a coincidence, were it not for a further appointment: Robert Watson, first head of the IPCC is to move from the World Bank in September to become Defra chief scientist. Is there a pattern emerging?
 
Attitudes to climate change

The BBC this week published the results of an Ipsos-Mori survey of public attitudes to climate change. The headline finding was that 56% of respondents thought that scientists were still questioning climate change and that terrorism, graffiti, crime and dog mess were all higher priority for them. This, of course, has sent the Royal Society and others in the scientific establishment into a bit of a tizz. In their view, “most climate scientists believe that humans are having an unprecedented effect on climate”.
 
So, are people just apathetic, thoughtless or distrustful, or are they truly sceptical? The news media carry almost daily reports of climate change, extremes or projections, with a fair sprinkling of “things are even worse than we thought” stories. The number of items which are sceptical of the human-induced global warming hypothesis is rather small, and little air time is devoted to those who question the conventional view. And yet, according to Phil Downing, Ipsos-Mori’s head of environmental research, people have been influenced by counter-arguments.
 
Royal Society vice-president Sir David Read said: "People should not be misled by those that exploit the complexity of the issue, seeking to distort the science and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of climate change.” Roughly translated, this means that anyone who disagrees with the mainstream interpretation of science is deliberately spreading false information: a serious allegation indeed.
 
Why is the scientific establishment so concerned about dissent that it is willing to question the integrity of those who disagree with it? Science progresses by questioning and challenging. If the evidence and interpretation is sound, addressing the issues raised properly merely serves to strengthen the argument. If the basis is less sound, the questioning helps to move things forward to a more secure hypothesis.  But science is not served by ignoring legitimate criticism. And, in this case, long term, far reaching policies will be put into effect, which could affect the lives of all of us. Not allowing the science on which these are based to be properly questioned does not seem reasonable. Could it be that the Emperor really has no clothes?
 
Live Earth

On Saturday 7th (7/7/7) a series of concerts – Live Earth – will be held in seven venues to raise awareness of climate change. One concert will even take place in Antarctica in mid-winter, and a bigger waste of time and energy is difficult to imagine.
 
Live Aid, the inspiration for last year’s Live8 concert and now this weekend’s extravaganza, served a useful purpose in raising large amounts of money for charity. But using music for overtly political ends seems a far less promising – or, indeed, appropriate – thing to do. Live8 achieved little apart from giving exposure to a range of overpaid entertainers with varying levels of talent.
 
Live Earth may be even worse: organisation of a series of coordinated events on this scale seems a colossal waste of human ingenuity if it does not achieve anything (other than, perhaps, to launch Al Gore’s bid for the US presidency?). Vast quantities of energy will be expended, all no doubt to be “offset”. This will be a nice earner for the new carbon offset industry, but there are still significant doubts about how effectively the money will be spent.
 
In our view, Saturday’s concerts will do nothing to sway the opinions of a public which is already sceptical of the messages about climate change it receives on a daily basis.