Posted tagged ‘Environment’

Is Chemistry the Key to Sustainable Living? – A Review

November 28, 2010

This was a debate held by the Royal Society of Chemistry at the flash, newly renovated Chemistry Centre in Burlington House, Piccadilly.

The main speaker was Dr Mike Pitts from the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network, with Professor Tom Welton (Imperial College) and Bob Crawford (Unilever) backing him up in the subsequent debate.

Obviously his answer to the title question was yes, as Pitts admitted straightaway, otherwise the whole thing would have been rather pointless.

Pitts was a striking speaker, perhaps surprisingly for a scientist; he really knows how to communicate in non-scientific terms,which is just as well as this event was billed as a policy event and hoped to attract a broad audience. In the end, though the Chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology was present, there did not seem to be many other notable individuals present, and the audience mainly consisted of RSC staff, interested members and students, and the odd visitor from another learned society. I realise that the RSC deliberately kept the invite list small but the room was half empty in the end and it seemed that the event could have been more widely promoted.

I didn’t learn much new from the talk itself, which went along the lines of “here’s the doom and gloom” then “here are some generic ways in which we can change the way we think about chemistry to solve the doom and gloom”. Pitts focussed on the scarce natural resurces aspect of things; rare earth metals and carbon and other “poorly managed elments”, but also covered water and biodiversity (no explanation of how chemistry can help with the latter, though).

His solution, in general, was an interesting one that will, however require a great deal of change in the way society behaves. He proposed that we should not think so much about individual products and think instead about their overall life cycle. This was not just in terms of those designing them, though he was keen for designers and chemists to collaborate more together, but in terms of what we as society buy. He believes that in the future we will buy a service rather than a product, for example, for the experience of using a washing machine, rather than simply buying and owning a washing machine. This service would then cover “cradle to grave” of the machine rather than the current situation which covers cradle to point of disposal.

Such a way of viewing things would certainly enable and indeed encourage service providers to think more about the way they design products to make them recyclable etc. For the user, such a usage scheme could mean a seamless service even when things go wrong (and encourage longer-lasting products in the first place). But the fundamental tenet of this view is that the users would not be the owners of the “things”, simply the users. It would be like renting your TV in years gone by. As much as I like this idea personally, I am not sure that our highly capitalist, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses society is ready to own less. I’d be interested to see how this could be put to the man on the street in a way that would actually make him buy it.

Chemistry can certainly help to achieve this goal but it is going to take a lot more than chemistry to make it viable. Psychology, marketing, and probably policy decisions in parliament too. Scientists have been trying to change people’s behaviour for years with the dire warnings about global warming etc. It is going to take more than that to get us to alter our comfortable lifestyle in which we own houses, cars, furniture, white goods, etc.

The Climate Files

June 15, 2010

Now I have been itching to write something on this subject since the whole “Climategate” UEA email scandal happened. I had my own views on the whole thing, and actually they have turned out to be pretty much correct. I thought that there really was no scandal and that no-one at UEA had behaved wrongly. The leaked comments about stopping papers from being published and “re-defining what peer-review literature is”, seemed to me to be simply researchers who disagree with one point of view and think it to be wrong, trying to keep this view from propagating. The commments about hitting one of the opponents, though unfortunate, were meant in jest and were not intended for the public eye. In fact, none  of the emails were intended for consumption by anyone other than those people to whom they were addressed.

Of course what has come out is not quite as simple as that, but attending an event at the Royal Institution last night (15th June) has finally given me the chance to find  about more about this so-called scandal, and to write about it. The event was called The Climate Files, and was evidently a vehicle for one of the main journalists involved in the saga, The Guardian‘s Fred Pearce, to promote a new book he had written. Whether it was successful in this is a question I may answer later.

The debate was split into several sections. First, Pearce had the chance to describe his experiences and ideas on the subject. This half hour or so was follwed by two further speakers, each with their own differing experiences and responses to Pearce’s comments; Dr Myles Allen from University of Oxford, who is working on climate change modelling, and how scientific research informs policy, and Dr Adam Corner from Cardiff University, who is a psychologist looking at the comunication of climate change. Pearce then gave a brief response to their arguments, before the debate was opened up to questions from the floor.

The views of the individuals involved in the formal debate can be summed up as follows:

Pearce – Data, in particular the data at the centre of this debate, the instrument record data curated by Phil Jones at UEA and now held by the Met Office, should be publicly available. In general, the public should have access to information that affects them and that has been (if only partially) funded by public money. Jones’ main error was in his liberal interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, and in encouraging his colleagues to break this also by deleting emails etc. Questions are raised about the peer review system.

Allen – The whole scandal didn’t really affect the data and journalists generally don’t understand the science. Even those who did deliberately misquoted the academics involved to grab headlines. The peer review system works fine. Those who were going to do something useful with the data already did have access to it and it was only the people anticipated to be troublemakers who were not “allowed” to see it. This situation is acceptable.

Corner – Scientists understand the way science works but non-scientists do not. Therefore access to scientific data should be limited those who have qualifications in that area. The whole Climategate affair has not adversely affected public opinion about the realities of climate change in any long-term way.

The audience itself was of some interest. Apart from the people I already knew (my husband and some of his colleagues), much of the rest of the audience was made up of RI members (distinguishable by their advancing age and smart suit-style clothing) and journalists, many of whom introduced themselves by asking questions. For an institution supposedly aiming at enlightening the public, there was a surprisingly low number of members of the public present. The RI might want to consider how and to whom it is marketing such events, and what it is really trying to achieve.

My own views have come out of the debate largely unchanged. In my opinion, Pearce and his journalist colleagues do not understand how the peer review system works, and they have not been successful in conveying a true impression of this to the public. I do not find the system to be perfect, however it must be recognised that it is not possible for a single academic, or even group of academics to prevent the publication of every paper with which they disagree. The decision to publish is made by the journal editor based on his/her knowledge of the field and using advice from various referees and, when controversial, probably also from journal board members. Papers that go against popular opinion are more difficult to publish (I disagree with Allen here) but, providing they are justified with a good level of evidence, journal editors will publish these to promote debate and, more cynically, to encourage citations to their journal. The whole Climategate affair was at root a problem of how science and scientific methods, including methods of publishing it, are communicated to the public. In order to engender trust, it is important that the public are given more information, not only (and possibly not even including) raw data, but also more detail about what is being targeted, and how this is being done. Journalists do not appear, in general, to have the time or the will to do this. Pearce spent three months researching his book but has still apparently failed to understand some of the most fundamental principles involved in the quality control of the science; how can we then expect journalists who are writing ten stories a day that may or may not make it out into the world to invest enough time to understand the complexities of each subject? This motivates my personal belief that there is a place for, and indeed a need for, science communication by scientists rather than or in addition to journalism by journalists.

So how did Pearce and his book come out of this debate? Yes, the debate raised the profile of a book I would probably not otherwise have heard of. Yes, I believe that the book probably contains an interesting account of Pearce’s experiences and interviews with the academics involved. No, I did not buy the book and I do not intend to. I would rather give my money to someone who is more open to the idea of improving communication between scientists and the public, than to someone who appears to wish to allow the scientists to be cut out of the debate by taking complex data to people who are not equipped with the understanding to be able to interpret it correctly. Journalists are not experts in anything except journalism, and they need to accept this. Phil Jones’ account of the events would make much more interesting reading, if he ever decides to go public with this.

Review of Sara Mukherjee talk on 7th June 2010

June 8, 2010

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk by the ex-BBC environment correspondent Sara Mukherjee. This was hosted by the relatively new Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy as part of their Distinguished Lecture series.

The Centre itself opened only in 2009, and is staffed by an equivalent of three full-time employees. They have a big job on their hands to ensure that the Centre is viewed  as a national resource rather than just “the Cambridge lot”, as Executive Director Chris Tyler told me after the lecture. It will be interesting to see if they succeed in this laudable aim. They certainly seem to be going about things in the right way, by working with people from all over the country and facilitating the communication of government officials with academics and, to an extent, with industry. The Centre is funded by an independent donor, which means that it is not heavily tied to the University and should hopefully weather the storms of the economic situation, although more funding is being sought.

The title of the lecture was “Our Easter Island Moment – is it already too late to save the environment?”, and Mukherjee returned to her metaphor of the Easter Island statues and the lost civilisation they represent throughout her talk. What did the last person, chopping down the last “tree”, think as he did it? And how do we view this preventable disaster now?

Mukherjee informed us right from the start that she had recently taken voluntary redundancy from the BBC and was relieved to be able to tell us her own views rather than putting on a balanced BBC face. What follows is my own understanding of the main points, so I apologise for anything that I have misunderstood or reported incorrectly.

She painted a gloomy picture of a doomed environment, apathetic public, politicians who care only about what the newspapers say, and newspaper journalists and editors who simply don’t understand or care about what is happening, but are out to find the next story. Her main point was her belief that the Climate Change Act will be thrown out at the exact time when it would be easiest and most beneficial to take it forward.

Apathy: According to an Ipsos Mori poll, the percentage of people in the UK who believe that climate change is real has gone down from 44% to 31% in the last year, probably largely as a result of the UEA “Climategate”. The fact that the scientists involved were exhonerated of any wrongdoing was apparently not an interesting enough story for the tabloid papers to give it as much attention as the gave to the possibility that the wrongdoing might have happened.

Newspapers and their journalists: Newspapers have a disproportionate hold over politicians, and journalists and editors care more about headlines than about getting the story right, or if there is really a story there at all.

Politicians: Most of them do understand the issues around climate change, but they are slaves to public opinion (which is really newspaper headlines). Yesterday the climate was big news but now it is the economy, so politicians have abandoned all the good work that was done.

Her solution  to all this doom and gloom was to suggest better education of bright students from all backgrounds, perhaps a system akin to the old grammar school system to enable those from poorer backgrounds to learn more, and to pay those in positions such as physics teachers enough to attract the best people to the profession and to keep them there. A well-educated workforce equals a financially stable workforce, and the public can vote for their politicians based on a good understanding of the issues they are campaigning on.

Mukherjee does seem to have a big chip on her shoulder about her own origins in an Essex Council estate, but perhaps this is not without some cause. In a democracy, the majority need to recognise there is a problem before it can be addressed. I for one hope that we still have the time to address it.