In what might be described as the science policy Christmas lecture, former Royal Society President Lord Rees offered a tour de force of recurrent issues in science policy. Speaking at the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, Rees navigated issues from energy supply to food security, with a nod to the BSE and MMR controversies, as well as the effects of global population dynamics. Via an extended discussion of the role of scientists in international climate change discussions, he reaches the conclusion that there is a “special obligation” on scientists to engage with public policy debates that lie close to their academic work.
What makes this speech worth reading in full is Rees’s careful explanation of what this obligation entails. Scientists provide direct, technical advice to government. But Rees argues that for many long-term policy issues, this specialist knowledge informs the debate without providing a solution. Deciding whether to build wind farms or nuclear power plants to keep the lights on is not a technical decision, but an economic and social one. Technical expertise means that scientist can play a privileged role in these debates. But Rees argues that this privilege must not be abused; scientists must show humility about the bounds of their expertise. In many areas, they are informed citizens or, as Rees puts it, scientific citizens:
“Wide discussion is even more crucial when what’s in contention is not the science itself, but how new findings should be applied. Such discussions should engage all of us, as citizens…”
This lecture expands on one of Rees’s Reith lecture series in 2010, which you can still hear on the BBC World Service website and which have been turned into a book, ’From Here to Infinity — Scientific Horizons’.
As an aside, his section on generalities includes some very quotable home truths from a senior scientist. I have picked out a few from the full text:
“We’re all depressingly ‘lay’ outside our specialisms — my own knowledge, of recent biological advances, such as it is, comes largely from ‘popular’ books and journalism.”
“ It’s surprising and gratifying that there’s wide interest in topics as far from everyday concerns as dinosaurs, cosmology, or the LHC. Some people, admittedly, can’t distinguish a proton from a protein. But just as many are ignorant of their nation’s history, and can’t find Korea or Syria on a map – that’s just as sad, and an equal impediment to a proper democratic debate.”
“Noisy controversy need not signify evenly-balanced arguments.”
“‘Outsiders’ can all access far more information and want to weigh up evidence for themselves. Such scrutiny should generally be welcome.”
“Science is sometimes described as ‘organised scepticism’ and at its best it should be ‘self correcting’.”
Here is the full, uncorrected transcript from Lord Rees’s 5 December lecture. You will notice the Royal Society science policy centre namechecks – apologies for the inadvertent self-promotion.
What challenges does the future hold for the relationship between science and policy?
Science is becoming ever more pervasive in our lives and in public policy. My theme today will be how the political system can mesh more closely with the scientific community, and thereby improve policy decisions that have a scientific dimension.
I speak with diffidence — there are some people here this evening with far deeper experience than I have. But my years as President of the Royal Society, where we had a policy unit excellently led by James Wilsdon, gave me a privileged breadth of perspective, as well as international links that offered a comparison with other countries.
I’m going to be critical of some things in this country, but I should emphasise at the start that in many ways we handle these matters well. As compared to the US, for instance, the interface with government is closer, the respect for evidence is stronger and the rapport between scientists and legislators is certainly better. And, unlike any other European Country except Switzerland, the UK has a chief scientific adviser to the government. We also have ‘chief scientists’ in most government departments.
The range and level of advice that’s needed is plainly very different in different parts of Whitehall — the Ministry of Defence offers more demanding challenge than the Ministry of Culture, Media and Sport. Generally the chief scientists come from outside Whitehall for 3-5 years — they may keep a foothold in a university or research lab for one or two days a week. They have the handicap of needing to learn the ways of the civil service in order to operate, but external appointees are thought to be best. As compared to career civil servants, they’re more likely to be plugged in to recent research , and to international science, And they’re more willing to speak truth to power — their careers don’t depend on ingratiating themselves with the hierarchy.
There have been very capable and energetic incumbents in these roles — it would be invidious to mention names. But some have been frustrated at not getting the access to ministers and the permanent secretary that’s a prerequisite for influence; and by the lack of a discretionary budget so they can commission their own studies. Of course, no individual has the breadth of expertise to cope with all they’ll encounter. In particular, the issues are often more engineering than academic. For instance, the commitment to a huge number of offshore wind-turbines by 2020 — constructing one per two days — is widely regarded as unrealistic. It might have been better to have had more engineering scrutiny at the department Board when this policy was promulgated.
That’s why a chief scientist needs to have a network of contacts. It’s why there are numerous standing and ad hoc committees of experts across Whitehall — and why the guidelines about their independence are crucial. It’s also why independent bodies like the Royal Society and other learned societies are important — and I’ll allude later to some of the in-depth reports that such bodies have produced.
It was really during World War II that scientists first became really engaged in government. Winston Churchill valued their advice, but kept them in their place: he insisted that they should be “on tap, not on top.”
It is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But I think we’d want to emphasise nowadays that scientific advisers shouldn’t just proffer facts, still less should they merely buttress policies already decided. Experts should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties.
This was recognised in the US by President Obama. He opined that scientists’ advice should be heeded “even when it is inconvenient — indeed especially when it is inconvenient”. He filled some key posts in his administration with a ‘dream team’ of top-rate scientists. They’ve had a tough and frustrating time, but it’s good for all of is that Steve Chu, John Holden, Jane Lubchenko and the rest are still ‘hanging in there’.
But there’s one thing that scientific advisors in any democratic system mustn’t forget. When really big and long-term policies are in contention — whether about nuclear weapons, nuclear power, drug classification, or health risks — political decisions are seldom purely scientific: they involve ethics, economics and social policies as well. And in domains beyond their special expertise, scientists speak just as citizens, with no enhanced authority. I’ll come back later to discuss how scientists should engage more with the public and with the political process.
Sometimes, governments need urgent advice on an issue where one can separate out the science. For instance, the Icelandic eruption that disrupted air travel last year raised urgent questions about vulcanology, about wind patterns, and about how volcanic dust affects jet engines. In that instance, the knowledge was basically there: what was lacking was coordination, and an agreement on the acceptable level of risk.
And this year, John Beddington was asked what advice should be given to Brits in Japan after the Fukushima episode — was there a radiation risk even in Tokyo? Here again, the situation on the ground was unclear but the underlying science was basically known.
Sometimes, though, there’s an urgent question where the key science isn’t known. An example was the outbreak of BSE or ‘mad cow disease’ in the 1980s. At first, experts conjectured that this disease posed no threat to humans, because it resembled scrapie in sheep, which had been endemic for 200 years without crossing the species barrier. That was a reasonable conjecture — and comforting to politicians and public. But it proved wrong. The pendulum then swung the other way. Banning ‘beef on the bone’, for instance, was in retrospect an over-reaction, but at the time seemed a prudent precaution against a potential tragedy that could have been far more widespread than it actually turned out to be.
Likewise, the government was advised to stocked up on vaccines against swine flu – that was surely right, even though, fortunately, the last epidemics proved milder than feared. Indeed, if we apply to pandemics the same prudent analysis whereby we calculate an insurance premium — multiplying probability by consequences — we’d surely conclude that measures to alleviate this kind of extreme event should actually be scaled up. And world-wide coordination is crucial… Whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge, for instance, on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness.
Incidentally, there’s a mismatch between public perception of very different risks and their actual seriousness. We fret unduly about carcinogens in food and low level radiation. But we are in denial about ‘low-probability high-consequence’ events that should concern us more. The recent financial crash was one such; but others that haven’t yet happened — lethal pandemics among them — should loom higher on the agenda.
In the examples I’ve mentioned, governments, businesses, and individuals need the best available specialist advice — advice that fairly presents the level of risk, and the degree of uncertainty. But what’s more contentious is how best to address long-term policy issues where there’s a major scientific element but where politics, economics and ethics enter more strongly.
Should we build nuclear power stations — or wind farms — if we want to keep the lights on? Should we use more insecticides, or plant GM crops? Should the law allow ‘designer babies’ or cognition-enhancing drugs? How much should computers invade our privacy? How do we respond to long term environmental and climatic risks?
Such questions didn’t feature much in last year’s election campaign. That’s partly because they transcend party politics. But it’s also because they’re long-term— and tend to be trumped by more urgent items on political agendas.
Moreover the stakes are getting higher — and the issues more global. Indeed ever since the invention of thermonuclear weapons the main threats to the world have come from humans and not from the rest of nature — we’ve entered a new geological era, the anthropogenic.
The threat of global nuclear annihilation has been in abeyance since the Cold War ended. But new technologies with huge ‘upsides’ are also opening up new vulnerabilities. For instance, global society depends on elaborate networks – electricity grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and so forth. Unless these are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system. And the threat is terror as well as error; concern about cyber-attack, by criminals or by hostile nations, is rising sharply. Synthetic biology, likewise, offers huge potential for medicine and agriculture — but it could facilitate bioterror.
And devastation could overtake us insidiously rather than suddenly, through unsustainable pressure on energy supplies, food, water and other natural resources. Humankind now appropriates around 40 percent of the world’s biomass. And our collective ‘footprint’ is growing fast. This ‘ecological shock’ could irreversibly degrade our environment. This is a much-studied scenario of course. But the message is that the impediments are political and economic, not technical.
Two important reports a couple of years ago — one from the Royal Society and another government ‘Foresight’ exercise — emphasised that modern engineering and agriculture could provide food and energy for the entire world’s population. But it’s crucial to introduce advanced techniques to (for instance) Africa to feed a fast-rising population, given constraints on land and water. GM was part of the prescription but only part — improved irrigation, low till farming, better refrigeration to cut waste, and so forth are equally necessary.
But population is an issue. The higher it gets, the more serious all these pressures will become – especially if the developing world, where most of the growth will be, narrows its gap with the developed world in its per capita consumption.
World population is now 7 billion – there’s actually a year or two uncertainty in when this milestone is passed, but the UN officially marked it last month. The rise is projected to continue at least until 2050: by then, numbers will reach 9 billion. Whether the rising trend continues beyond 2050 will depend on what people now in their teens and 20s decide about the number and spacing of their children. Hundreds of millions of women are denied such a choice. Enhancing the life-chances of the world’s poorest people – by providing clean water, primary education and other basics – should be a humanitarian imperative, and a readily achievable one. But it seems also a precondition for achieving, especially in Africa, the demographic transition that’s already occurred elsewhere.
One think I did before leaving the Royal Society was to initiate a study, chaired by John Sulston, called ‘People and the Planet’ , which will be reporting next year in time for the Rio + 20 conference. It should be important and timely. It will emphasise that the world’s ‘carrying capacity’ isn’t a single headline figure, but depends on lifestyle, technology and so forth. And also the huge regional variations. The growth will be fast in Africa and India; but in Europe, we’ll have a falling and ageing population.
(This of course means, but the way, that the world’s intellectual and commercial centre of gravity will move to Asia — signalling the end of four centuries of European and North American hegemony. But we’re not engaged in a zero sum game. We should welcome an expanded and more networked world, where China and other countries follow the trajectory of Singapore or South Korea)
And now to another imponderable that might impact especially severely on the developing world: climate change. On this topic the Royal Society has been thoroughly engaged — with the science, the politics and the public perception.
When I’m asked about the science I always start with the measured rise in atmospheric CO2 (the Keeling curve). This rise isn’t controversial; nor is its attribution mainly to the burning of fossil fuels. Straightforward chemistry tells us that the CO2 build-up will induce a long-term warming trend, superimposed on all the other complicated effects that make climate fluctuate.
What is still poorly understood, however, is the ‘feedback’ from water vapour and clouds. The IPCC reports present a spread of projections, depending on how much this feedback enhances the blanketing by CO2. Nonetheless, even the existing uncertain science convinces me that the threat of seriously disruptive climate change is high enough to justify its priority on the political agenda.
The science is intricate. But it’s a doddle compared to the economics and politics of climate change. Nick Stern has averred that it needs ‘all the economics you ever learnt, and some more. It’s a market failure on a colossal scale’. It poses a unique political challenge for two reasons. First, the effect is non-localised: CO2 emissions from this country have no more effect here than they do in Australia, and vice versa. That means that any regulatory regime has to be broadly international. Second, there are long time-lags — it takes decades for the oceans to adjust to a new equilibrium, and centuries for ice-sheets to melt completely.
There’s a balance to be struck between mitigating climate change and adapting to it. And there are other questions. How much should we sacrifice now to ensure that the world is no worse when our grandchildren grow old? How much subsidy should be transferred from the rich world, whose fossil fuel emissions have mostly caused the problem, to the developing nations? How much should we incentivise clean energy’? Should we gamble that our successors may devise a technical fix that will render nugatory any actions we take now? How far should we already prepare for geoengineering as a possible ‘Plan B’?
On all these dilemmas, there’s as yet minimal consensus.
As I already noted about science advice in general. It’s crucial to keep ‘clear water’ between the science on the one hand, and the policy response on the other. Risk assessment should be separate from risk management.
What’s unfortunate about the climate debate is that this boundary has become blurred. It’s appropriate, indeed important, to debate whether the UK should stick to the target of 80 percent cuts if no other nation does; and to point out that we could more cheaply meet our intermediate 2030 targets by a dash for gas (even without CCS) than by building wind farms. But the debate would be more constructive if, instead of rubbishing all that scientists have already achieved, those who oppose current policies recognised the imperative to refine the science, and firm up the predictions — not just globally but, even more important, for individual regions.
Incidentally, anyone who trawls the internet will find contradictory and confusing claims that could well induce utter scepticism about all climate science– or indeed about any scientific topic. But I’d offer an analogy.
Googling any disease reveals a bewildering range of purported remedies. But, if you developed some ailment and your own health were at stake, you wouldn’t attach equal weight to everything on google: you’d entrust yourself to someone with manifest medical credentials and a successful record of diagnosis. Likewise, we get a clearer ‘steer’ on climate — though not of course a complete consensus — by attaching more weight to those with serious credentials in the subject
But — and this is important – even if there were complete certainty about how the world’s weather responded to CO2 changes, there would still be divergent views on what governments should do about it. And scientists should engage in these debates — though on the more general issues they should do so not as experts but as ‘scientific citizens’.
In that spirit, I’d add that I myself strongly support the Climate Change Act, and hope that our government exerts strong influence in Durban this week. It’s true that UK carbon emissions constitute only 1 or 2 percent of the problem. But we have international leverage because of our government’s leadership ever since the Gleneagles G8 Summit in 2002. It’s important to give credit to several politicians. Not only Blair and Brown, but several Labour ministers — the Miliband brothers, Hilary Benn, and others – worked hard to sustain these issues high on the agenda even though long-term altruism is plainly not a vote-winner; and the coalition has not backtracked.
Next, some comments on energy supply and security. This is a key issue in its own right, quite apart from its impact on the climate. The world spends more than 5 trillion dollars a year on energy and its infrastructure. But currently far too little is invested in developing techniques for economising on energy, storing it and generating it by low-carbon methods. The main US investments are in small start-up companies, especially in solar energy. (And in the UK energy R and D has barely crept back up to its level in 1989 before it plummeted after the privatisations that occurred at that time.). The ‘clean energy’ challenge deserves a commitment akin to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing. Indeed it would be hard to think of anything more likely to enthuse young people towards careers in engineering that a firmly-proclaimed priority to develop clean energy for the developing and the developed world.
It’s surely in our interest not to fall behind the Chinese in developing some of the technologies that the world will need for a low-carbon economy. What are the options?
Wave and tidal energy may be a ‘niche market’ but it’s one where the UK has a competitive advantage. This island nation has the geography — capes round its coast with fast-flowing tidal currents — and also expertise in marine technology spun off from North Sea oil and gas projects.
What about biofuels? There’s been ambivalence about them because they compete for land use with food-growing and forests. But in the long run GM techniques may lead to novel developments: bugs that break down cellulose, or marine algae that convert solar energy directly into fuel.
Another need is for improved energy storage. In the US, Steve Chu has given priority to improving batteries — for electric cars, and to complement unsteady power sources such as sun and wind.
What is the role of nuclear power? I’d myself favour the UK having at least a replacement generation of power stations. But the nuclear non-proliferation regime is fragile. One can’t be relaxed about a world-wide programme of nuclear power unless internationally regulated ‘fuel banks’ are established to provide enriched uranium and remove and store the waste. Despite this ambivalence, it’s surely worthwhile to boost R and D into ‘fourth generation’ reactors, which could be more flexible in size, and safer. The industry has been relatively dormant for the last 20 years, and current designs date back to the 1960s. Indeed a new report from the House of Lords select committee deplored the plummeting of the UK’s R and D effort to a level when we can’t replace the safety regulators when they retire, let alone participate in any innovation.
And of course, nuclear fusion still beckons as an inexhaustible source of energy. The biggest current effort is the ITER, internationally funded and based in France (Involving ‘magnetic confinement’ of ultra-hot gas. An alternative concept, whereby tiny deuterium pellets are zapped by converging beams from immense lasers, is being touted by the Livermore Laboratory in the US, but this facility seems primarily a defence project to provide lab-scale substitutes for H-bomb tests, where the promise of controlled fusion power is a political fig leaf — I got angry e-mails from Livermore when I said this last year. I’ll say it again now).
Maybe the best long-term option for Europe is solar energy — huge collectors, most perhaps in North Africa, generating power that’s distributed via a continent-wide smart grid. Achieving this would require vision, commitment and public-private investment on the same scale as the building of Europe’s railways in the 19th century.
Many of us still hope that our civilisation can segue towards a low-carbon future without trauma and disaster. But no politician will gain much resonance by advocating a bare bones approach that entails unwelcome lifestyle changes. The priority for all developed countries should be to implement measures that actually save money – by using energy more efficiently, insulating buildings better — and to incentivise new clean technologies so that (as fossil fuel prices rise) a transition to clean energy is less costly. But what is very important is to prioritise the development of those new energy sources – be they wind, tides or solar or nuclear.
In twenty years, we will know — perhaps from computer modelling, but also from how much global temperatures have actually risen by then — whether or not the feedback from water vapour and clouds strongly amplifies the effect of CO2 itself in creating a ‘greenhouse effect’. If so, and if the world consequently seems on a rapidly-warming trajectory because international efforts to reduce emission haven’t been successful, there may be a pressure for ‘panic measures’. These would have to involve a ‘plan B’ — being fatalistic about continuing dependence on fossil fuels, but combating its effects by some form of geoengineering.
One option is to counteract the ‘greenhouse warming’ by (for instance) putting reflecting aerosols in the upper atmosphere, or even vast sunshades in space. The political problems of such geoengineering may be overwhelming. Not all nations would want to turn down the thermostat equally, and there could be unintended side- effects. Moreover, the warming would return with a vengeance of the countermeasures were ever discontinued; and other consequences of rising CO2 (especially the deleterious effects of ocean acidification) would be unchecked. An alternative strategy (which currently seems less practicable) would involve direct extraction of carbon from the atmosphere. This approach would be politically more acceptable — we’d essentially just be undoing the unwitting geoengineering we’ve done by burning fossil fuels.
It seems right at least to study geoengineering — to clarify which options make sense and perhaps damp down undue optimism about a technical ‘quick fix’ of our climate. However, it already seems clear that it would be feasible and affordable to throw enough material into the stratosphere to change the world’s climate — indeed what is scary is that this capacity might be within the resources of a single nation, or even a single corporation or individual. Very elaborate climatic modelling would be needed in order to calculate the regional impacts of such an intervention. That is why it is crucial to sort out the complex governance issues raised by what’s called ‘Solar Radiation Management’ — and to do this well before urgent pressures for action might build up.
Back now to some generalities.
I’ve sketched some of the ‘live’ issues where science and government overlap. I’ve mentioned the role of government scientific advisors (and their networks); the role of Foresight and Royal Society Reports; and so forth. But despite all these worthy efforts, there are habitual grumbles that such inputs don’t have much traction. For politicians, the urgent trumps the important. And getting re-elected trumps almost everything. Anything that gets them into the press, or makes their postbag bulge, will get attention. It’s volume not quality that counts.
So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly — via raising the profile of their work among the public and in the media and letting them do the campaigning — rather than by more official and direct channels. This is one reason — over and above the general cultural value of our findings –why ‘outreach’ by scientists is important, so let me say a word about it.
Research is professionalised, and technical. There’s consequently a communication barrier. Darwin was the last great scientist whose discoveries could be fully presented in accessible prose – indeed in fine literature. I believe nonetheless that the essence of today’s research can be conveyed, without undue distortion, in a form accessible to all. Science writers and journalists do an important job — and a difficult one. I know how hard it is to explain in clear language even something I understand well. But journalists have the far greater challenge of assimilating topics quite new to them, often to a tight deadline; some are required to speak at short notice, without hesitation, deviation or repetition, before a microphone or TV camera. And professional scientists are an important part of their audience. We’re all depressingly ‘lay’ outside our specialisms — my own knowledge, of recent biological advances, such as it is, comes largely from ‘popular’ books and journalism.
Incidentally, scientists habitually bemoan the meagre public grasp of their subject. But I think they protest too much. On the contrary, it’s surprising and gratifying that there’s wide interest in topics as far from everyday concerns as dinosaurs, cosmology, or the LHC. Some people, admittedly, can’t distinguish a proton from a protein. But just as many are ignorant of their nation’s history, and can’t find Korea or Syria on a map – that’s just as sad, and an equal impediment to a proper democratic debate. It’s among the ‘gatekeepers’ to the media, and among the politicians themselves, that there’s a specific ‘knowledge deficit’ in science.
When reporting a particular viewpoint, journalists should clarify whether is widely supported, or whether it is contested by 99 percent of specialists (The MMR vaccine episode was in this latter category). Noisy controversy need not signify evenly-balanced arguments. Of course the establishment is sometimes routed and a maverick vindicated. We all enjoy seeing this happen — but such instances are rarer than is commonly supposed. The best scientific journalists are plugged into an extensive network that should enable them to calibrate novel claims and the reliability of sources, so that they can give a fairer ‘steer’ to the public.
Scientists shouldn’t shun the media. But in return they should expect media scrutiny. There’s now less readiness accept any ‘authorities’ without question — not just in climate science. ‘Outsiders’ can all access far more information and want to weigh up evidence for themselves. Such scrutiny should generally be welcome.
In fact the Royal Society is now, in this context, addressing the protocols for dealing with large data-sets. Current practice in archiving and managing data is not uniform across all fields, nor across all countries. Nor is there a consensus on the appropriate guidelines for making such information available. It’s not obviously right that anyone, whether a UK taxpayer or not, whether they have good reason or not, can impose burdensome demands on researchers by repeated requests, as can currently happen under the Freedom of Information Act. On the other hand, we surely need to make data as accessible and ‘user friendly’ as possible. to data as much as we can, to ensure that scientific claims are exposed to the widest scrutiny. Science is sometimes described as ‘organised scepticism’ and at its best it should be ‘self correcting’.
Wide discussion is even more crucial when what’s in contention is not the science itself, but how new findings should be applied. Such discussions should engage all of us, as citizens — and of course our elected representatives.
Sometimes this has happened, and constructively too. In the UK, dialogue with parliamentarians led, despite divergent ethical stances, to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells — a contrast to what happened in the US. But we’ve had failures too: the GM crop debate was left too late — to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other. Mindful of that failure, the Royal Society and the Academy of Engineering some years ago did a report on nanotechnology — with the aim of engaging with the public ‘upstream’ of any concrete applications.
It’s welcome that we have chief scientists embedded in Whitehall. But I think we need to have more input from experts independent of government too.
Let me expand on this point with a flashback to World War II. The scientific community was then immersed in the war effort; most monumentally in the Manhattan Project, but also in radar, operations research and code-breaking. When the war ended, most scientists returned with relief to peacetime academic pursuits. But for some, especially those who had helped build the bomb, the ivory tower wasn’t a sanctuary. They continued not just as scientists but as engaged citizens — promoting efforts to control the power they had helped unleash.
Essentially none of that scientific generation survives — Hans Bethe, Rudolf Peierls, and Jo Rotblat are no longer with us… In the US, they have however been replaced by an impressive cohort of younger scientists — people who have done a spell in government, or in high-tech industry, and who serve regularly as consultants to the Pentagon or on advisory committees.
In the UK, there are fewer younger scientists who can match the credentials and expertise of their US counterparts in providing independent expertise. The reasons for this transatlantic asymmetry aren’t hard to find. In the US, senior staff shuffle between government jobs and posts in (for instance) the Brookings institute whenever the administration changes. There are always some who are ‘out’ rather than ‘in’. The UK, in contrast, doesn’t have a ‘revolving door’ system; government service is still generally a lifetime career. For this reason, and because secrecy is more pervasive, discussions, especially of defence issues, tend, in the UK, to be restricted to a closed official world.
But defence and arms control are a diminishing part of the agenda for today’s ‘citizen scientists’. The topics I’ve mentioned in this talk span all the sciences. They are far more open, and often global. There’s less demarcation between experts and laypersons. Campaigners and bloggers enrich the debate. But professionals have special obligations to engage — as the ‘atomic scientists‘ did 50 year ago — by involvement with NGOs or campaigning groups, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity. Scientists, whatever their expertise, shouldn’t be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas. Their influence may be limited, but they should try to foster benign spin-offs – commercial or otherwise. They should resist, so far as they can, dubious or threatening applications of their work, and alert the public and politicians to perceived dangers. And I think a special social responsibility lies on those in academia or who are self-employed entrepreneurs — they have more freedom than those in government service or in industry.
Prominent scientists can act influentially as global citizens, independent of any affiliation. For instance, John Sulston, who in the 1990s led the UK part of the human genome project, now campaigns to provide affordable drugs for Africa. The great American ecologist EO Wilson, argues eloquently for the preservation of biodiversity. And of course many less-known figures are active in NGOs, and government agencies, and in global organisations like the World Health Organization and the IPCC.
Finally, I wanted to comment as a Cambridge academic — about what we here can do here. We are privileged to have some influence over successive generations of students, who will go on from here to careers in any walks of life, and not just in the UK. I think we should try to do more to sensitise them, while they are here, to the issues which will confront them in the rest of the century.
And at a senior level, we can do more to ensure a richer network of contacts between academia and policy makers. This is the aim of our hosts this evening, the Centre for Science and Policy. Among this new Centre’s various activities are seminars for politicians and senior officials, and the ‘Policy Fellows’ scheme whereby individuals from Whitehall, business, and NGOs spend a week here, learning about a range of projects relevant to their brief.
And I want to float a further suggestion:
There is one distinctive activity in the US which has no parallel here. This is the JASON group. It was founded in the 1960s with support from the Pentagon. It involves top rank academic scientists — in the early days they were mainly physicists, but the group now embraces other fields. They’re bankrolled by the Defense Department, but it’s a matter of principle that they choose their own new members. Some — Dick Garwin and Freeman Dyson, for instance — have been members since the 1960s. The JASONs spend about 6 weeks together in the summer, with other meetings during the year. It’s a serious commitment– and they get paid for it. They have security clearance and they tackle applied problems and analysis from a ‘menu’ suggested partly by them and partly by the US government.
The sociology and ‘chemistry’ of such a group hasn’t been fully replicated anywhere else, — the nearest, which I read about recently, was the elite ‘Unit 8200’ in Israel. I think we should try to replicate it not for the military but in civilian areas– the remit of, for instance DECC, DEFRA, or the Department of Transport. There have been some experiments — for instance BP twice, to my knowledge convened groups for studies of climate-related science.
Perhaps we in Cambridge could spearhead a trial along these lines. The challenge is to assemble a group of really top-ranked scientists who enjoy cross-disciplinary discourse and tossing ideas around. It won’t ‘take off’ unless they dedicate substantial time to it — and unless the group addresses the kind of problems that play to their strengths .
Anyway. that’s a suggestion, perhaps for the Centre to consider
In conclusion, what I’ve tried to illustrate this evening, in a rather piecemeal way, is just this. Unprecedented pressures confront the world, but there are unprecedented prospects too. But despite the downsides, there seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than we in the west do today. (And there’s a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what it’s prudent or ethical actually to do). Politicians need the best ‘in house’ scientific advice in forming their policies. But, more than that, these choices should be part of a wide public debate, and such debate must be leveraged by “scientific citizens” — engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media, and with a public attuned to the scope and limit of science. They should aim to lift long-term global issues higher on the political agenda, where the urgent usually trumps the important.
And I’ll give the very last word to the great Peter Medawar:
“The bells that toll for mankind are — most of them anyway — like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and harmonious sound.”