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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

01.07.2016
In the last few days, we have seen reports such as this: Electric cars will be most popular with drivers ‘in a decade’. The source of this bullish pronouncement is Go Ultra Low, which presents itself ‘the new national campaign for electric vehicles’, funded by the government (via the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, OLEV) and eight motor manufacturers (Audi, BMW, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Renault, Toyota and Volkswagen). So, this is effectively a marketing organisation, and we as taxpayers are footing part of the bill. OLEV itself has a wider role. According to its website, it is “a team...
24.06.2016
For European readers, the fact that the Brexit referendum is finally over will be very welcome. Weeks of highly polarised campaigning have seen the rhetoric become increasingly strident and the personal attacks increasingly unpleasant. That, to the great surprise of many of us, the Leave campaign emerged the winner will not be the end of the matter. Across the UK political scene, there are personal scores to be settled and, hopefully, bridges rebuilt. The issues raised will not disappear overnight and now it is down to the winning side to show their vision of a bright future is a...
17.06.2016
In a world where people want certainty, the provisional nature of scientific knowledge can be worrying. Non-scientists want to be reassured that something is safe, rather than have nuanced advice about relative risk. On the other hand, perhaps people find this lack of dogmatism welcome; scientists regularly come high on lists of trusted professions unless, that is they are employed by government or industry. Despite this intrinsic uncertainty, we talk rather loosely about the ‘proof’ of a particular hypothesis. We have seen recently that gravity waves, predicted by Einstein as a...
10.06.2016
At one time, investment in a company was simply a financial transaction, made in the expectation of a better return than from a bank deposit account. More recently, we have seen the rise in the activist private investor, whose objective is to influence the future direction of the company, with returns being secondary in many cases. Company policies are also important for some institutional investors, although they also have an obligation to invest the funds they control wisely (see The power of prayer, for example). This has led to ‘ethical’ funds divesting from the tobacco and arms...
03.06.2016
Often translated as ‘take nobody’s word for it’, this is the motto of the Royal Society. It nicely encapsulates the basic critical outlook expected of scientists; in effect, listen to others but come to your own conclusions. Scientists, by nature and training, should be both curious and sceptical. They should be seeking to discover, but also continue to question their conclusions in the light of new evidence. Non-scientists often think that scientists deal in facts and certainties, but this is a misrepresentation. All the evidence may support a certain hypothesis, but this can in...
27.05.2016
Glyphosate – the active ingredient of the ubiquitous Roundup herbicide – is under pressure. It has for a long time been regarded as perhaps the most benign and least toxic of weedkillers, although that hasn’t stopped constant attacks on its use from green groups such as the Pesticide Action Network. But now, the pressure is really on. It started with a reclassification of the chemical as ‘probably carcinogen to human’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary body of the World Health Authority. This in turn has catalysed a range of reactions from different...
20.05.2016
This week, the prestigious US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report Genetically Engineered Crops – Experience and Prospects. Unfortunately, at $64, the complete report will not be gracing many bookshelves, but the panel of scientists came to some pretty clear conclusions. As their announcement says, they found that “…new technologies in genetic engineering and conventional breeding are blurring the once clear distinctions between these two crop-improvement approaches. In addition, while recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-...
13.05.2016
In our everyday lives, we make certain assumptions that allow us to get on with things without having to decide on every simple issue from scratch. Some assumptions are very well grounded, for example that the Sun will rise and set at known times, that our electricity supply will be there when we want it and that train and bus timetables will be at least approximately right. However, this trait extends far beyond the commonalities of everyday life. Most of us have an opinion on a wide range of topics (there are rather few professional ‘don’t knows’ among us) and in all cases, having come...
06.05.2016
Europe has an ambivalent attitude towards innovation. On one hand, we celebrate the growth of successful businesses and new home-grown products but, on the other, the natural desire to guarantee safety creates barriers that few companies – particularly small, innovative ones – can overcome. The point of balance between innovation and safety varies from sector to sector. In general, we worry less about computers, smart phones and similar hardware. Most of haven’t a clue what goes on behind the screen, but we don’t know what we’d do without them and – with the possible exception of concerns...
28.04.2016
In November last year, the independent Committee on Climate Change delivered its advice to the Westminster parliament on setting the fifth carbon budget, covering the period 2028-2032. This week, the Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change has recommended acceptance of the budget, to no-one’s great surprise. It has also gone further and proposed a ‘carbon intensity target’ for the power sector of 100g/CO2 per kWh. Under the terms of the Climate Change Act, the government is now obliged to give this budget legal force before the end of June. The country is already committed...

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