Friday, 8 May 2009

Friday Seminar

An interesting one today, David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government.

The style of the talk was smooth and engaging, kind-of what one might expect from a former chief scientific adviser. The content of the talk was mostly familiar information about climate-related topics, viewed through a policy filter. However, there were quite a few interesting tales woven into it.

One was to do with GM crops. King strongly played up the role that these could (and, in his opinion, should) play in the global food mix. He illustrated it by means of a digression into the food prices rises of early 2008. While this was largely down to the channelling of (inefficient) maize into biofuels in the US (which then caused trouble for developing nations who'd previously been buying/receiving this), it also stemmed from the loss of the rice crop due to excessive flooding. King pointed out that flood-resistant rice strains were developed using GM techniques the better part of a decade ago, but have only come to be used once more conventional plant breeding techniques have "engineered" the same change. A missed opportunity in his book, and it was clear that he was more than slightly miffed by "greens" in Europe who've held back GM. He was certainly dismissive of a later question from the audience that suggested equating GM with the technological disaster of (indiscriminate) DDT use.

Another aside dealt with future directions and what sort of decision making is likely to help in the future. He identified national democracy that focuses solely on narrow national interests as a potential problem (i.e. acting to "solve" a problem at home without considering its consequences elsewhere). But he took this off in a very interesting direction that brought in Gulf War II as a potential example of the sort of resource war that this decision making could lead to. As he was chief scientific adviser from 2000, he was privy to general government discussions before 11th September 2001. In some of these he heard that Iraq was on the table for invasion long before it could be tarred with the terrorism brush. He puts this down to the depletion of US reserves of oil, and stakes his claim that Gulf War II will be identified by future historians as the first major resource war of the 21st century. In passing, he then went on to put the cost of Gulf War II at around $3 trillion ($3 x 1012), and rhetorically asked if it would have cost US science this much to come up with a technological solution to US energy problems.

He also gave an interesting account of why climate change came to be quite so high on the agenda at the G8 summit in 2005. Back in early 2001, the UK began to experience what became one of the worst ever outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Relatively new to his government post, King found that his scientific advice was not sought on this issue, but he met with some other scientific experts and formulated a plan that, ultimately, brought the epidemic to an earlier close than models suggested the standard procedure would have. This gave him a credibility within the UK government that he was able to capitalise on when the time came to discuss climate issues (and which he was also able to use as leverage for other changes to government). King told this story in response to a question about what we, as scientists, should do to influence government, but it seemed not to answer this but instead illuminated a certain arbitrariness of government operation (i.e. you won't be taken seriously unless a crisis rolls along that you can prove yourself with).

Anyway, he made a lot of other interesting points along the way, and certainly wasn't afraid of being seen a technophile. He was clear about the role that population plays (and will increasingly play) in the problems that face us, but was also positive about its levelling off during this century, noting that high birth rates continue for around 2 generations after the child mortality drops off.

Overall, as a malcontent when it comes to much of what passes for green ideology (while subscribing to most of its key tenets), I was certainly quite pleased with what he said. Another quality Friday Seminar.

Further to the above, my cycle ride home furnished more thoughts. One of the ideas that King introduced was the idea that the economic statistic GDP should be replaced by something which also considers factors usually viewed as externalities but which helpfully encompass sustainability. All well and good, but he didn't give us any ideas about how such a thing should come to pass, and as already noted, he wasn't exactly forthcoming on what scientists can do to shift governments (short of being the chief scientific advisor and having a scheme to stop a major epidemic up your sleeve).

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