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Astronomer Royal on science, environment and the future

Professor Martin Rees, Astronmer Royal addressed an audience at the British Science Festival 2013, held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This is a transcript of his speech:

It’s always a pleasure to speak at the British (Science) Association, but there are two special reasons why I’m glad to be here today. I was myself the Association’s president last time the Festival was held here, in 1996. But the first time the BA (which it was called then) came here was back in the 1830s – when a highlight was an open-air geological lecture, given on the beach, by Adam Sidgwick. It’s recorded that he spoke to 3000 “colliers and rabble”.

We can’t gather such crowds today for live lectures – but that decline is compensated by the multitudes that can now follow us via the internet. Someone who certainly has a huge following in all media is this year’s president, Lisa Jardine. And the second reason I’m glad to be here is that she’s an old friend, whose energy and achievements I hugely admire.

I’m mainly going to be scanning future horizons, but I’ll start with a flashback – to the 17th century, on which Lisa writes and broadcasts with vivid expertise. The Royal Society was founded in 1660. At their regular meetings its Fellows peered through newly-invented microscopes; they heard travellers' tales. They experimented with airpumps, explosions, and poisons. And some meetings were more gruesome. Samuel Pepys recorded in his famous diary a blood transfusion from a sheep to a man – who, amazingly, survived. (Health and safety rules render Royal Society meetings duller these days!)

These men were “ingenious and curious”. But they were also immersed in the practical agenda of their era – improving navigation, exploring the New World, and rebuilding London after the Great Fire. They were inspired by Francis Bacon – they were, in his phrases, “merchants of light”, but committed also to “the relief of man’s estate”.

Today’s scientists have the same motives as these pioneers – the curiosity to probe nature’s laws; the delight in ingenious devices; the aim to improve human lives. But they can’t now be polymaths. Research is now professionalised, arcane and technical. There’s consequently a communication barrier between scientists and the wider public — indeed between different specialisms too. Moreover, scientists are in general too disengaged from politics. That’s why organisations like the BSA that straddle these barriers are more important than ever.

By the way, I’m using the word “science” in a broad sense, as the BSA does, to encompass technology and engineering – this is not just to save words, but because they’re symbiotically linked. “Problem solving” motivates us all – whether one is an astronomer probing the remote cosmos, or an engineer facing a down-to-earth design conundrum. The latter is at least as challenging – a point neatly made by an old cartoon showing two beavers looking up at a hydroelectric dam. One beaver says, “I didn’t actually build it, but it’s based on my idea.”

Science isn’t just for scientists – it’s not just a training for careers. Today’s young people – all of them – will live in a world, ever more dependent on technology, and ever more vulnerable to its failures or misdirection. To be at ease in this fast-changing world, and to be effective citizens, they will all need at least some “feel” for science – enough to prevent them being bamboozled by propaganda and bad statistics, or over-deferential to experts.

Society already confronts difficult questions like: Who should access the “readout” of our personal genetic code? How will lengthening life-spans affect society? Should we build nuclear power stations – or wind farms – to keep the lights on? Should we plant GM crops? Should the law allow “designer babies” or cognition enhancing drugs?

Such questions matter to us all: they involve science, but they involve economics, politics and ethics as well – areas where scientists speak as citizens without special expertise. But democratic debates won’t rise beyond Daily Mail slogans unless everyone has a feel for basic science, and for risk and uncertainty. As we know, many people don’t have this “feel”. Some can’t tell a bison from a boson. That’s a situation that we scientists routinely bemoan. But ignorance isn’t peculiar to science. It’s equally sad if citizens don’t know their nation’s history, can’t speak a second language, and can’t find North Korea or Syria on a map – and many can’t. This is an indictment of our education and culture in general – I don’t think scientists have a special reason to moan. Indeed, I’m gratified and surprised that so many people are interested in dinosaurs, the Hubble Telescope, the Higgs Boson – all blazingly irrelevant to our day-to-day lives.

And this leads to another reason why science education is important. Scientific insights should be valued for their own sake.

Science as culture

In the 19th century, these festivals spread the ideas of Darwin and the geologists to a broad and “curious” public. Today, it’s a real intellectual deprivation not to understand our natural environment and the principles that govern the biosphere and climate. And to be blind to the marvellous vision offered by Darwinism and by modern cosmology – the chain of emergent complexity leading from a “big bang” to stars, planets, biospheres and human brains able to ponder the wonder and the mystery of it all.

These concepts are part of human culture. More than that, science is the one culture that’s truly global – protons, proteins and Pythagoras’s theorem are the same from China to Peru. It should transcend all barriers of nationality. (And, by the way, it should straddle all faiths too. The scientists who attack mainstream religion, rather than striving for peaceful coexistence with it, damage science, and also weaken the fight against fundamentalism – but that’s a theme for another talk. But it reminds me that one of the speakers at an earlier Science Festival was Lord Habgood, then the Archbishop of York and a one-time researcher in physiology. His talk was reported under the inspired headline: “Monkeys may have souls, says primate”).

It’s important that everyone realises how much scientists still don’t know – how patchy our current understanding is. And that commonplace phenomena are often the most perplexing. It may seem odd that astronomers can speak confidently about galaxies billions of lightyears away, whereas the gurus who pronounce on everyday matters like diet and childcare, change their advice from year to year. But it isn’t really so odd. What makes things hard to understand isn’t how big they are, it’s how complex they are. It’s harder to forecast the weather than to predict eclipses. An insect, with its layer upon layer of intricate structure, is far more complex than a star. Human beings and their interactions are far more complex still.

What breakthroughs in our understanding can we expect? Let me focus just on my own subject. Astronomers have discovered a whole menagerie of exotic objects; they’ve surveyed millions of galaxies. The volume and precision of astronomical data is unprecedented. We can trace cosmic history back confidently towards the first nanosecond. Maybe, indeed, much further still: The wonderful sky-map from the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft tells us what the entire visible universe was like when it was only the size of a tennis ball, and embryo galaxies were no more than microscopic quantum fluctuations – it’s surely amazing that such claims can now be made with a straight face. These advances are owed to advanced technology and computing – arm chair theory alone doesn’t get us far.

And I’m excited by another discovery: retinues of planets orbiting other stars. These “extra-solar” planets are not detected directly, but inferred by carefully observing the star they’re orbiting. We can look for their shadow – a star would dim slightly when a planet was “in transit” in front of it. And these dimmings would repeat at regular intervals.

The Kepler spacecraft spent three years measuring the brightness of 150,000 stars, to a precision of one part in 100,000 – and doing this several times an hour for each of them. It found several thousand transiting planets some no bigger than the Earth – and further data-analysis will reveal many more. There’s huge variety. Proxima Centauri has a planet the size of the Earth, orbiting so close that its “year” lasts only four earth-days. And there’s one planet that has two suns in its sky – it’s orbiting a binary star.

We’re specially interested in possible “twins” of our Earth – planets the same size as ours, on orbits with temperatures such that water neither boils nor stays frozen.

The real goal, of course, is to see them directly – not just their shadows. But that’s hard. To realise just how hard, suppose an alien astronomer with a powerful telescope was viewing the Earth from, say, 30 light years away – the distance of a nearby star. Our planet would seem, in Carl Sagan’s phrase, a “pale blue dot”, very close to a star (our Sun) that outshines it by many billions: a firefly next to a searchlight. But the aliens could learn quite a lot about us. The shade of blue would be slightly different, depending on whether the Pacific ocean or the Eurasian land mass was facing them. So they could infer the length of our “day”, the seasons, the gross topography, and the climate. By analysing the faint light, they could infer that our Earth had a biosphere.

Within 20 years, the European Southern Observatory will hopefully have its unimaginatively named Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) – with a mosaic mirror 39 metres across. This huge instrument will allow us to draw inferences like this about planets the size of our Earth, orbiting other Sun-like stars – as well as, of course, extending the furthest bounds of the observable universe

Would there be life – even intelligent life – on these faraway planets? We still know too little to set the odds.

Even if simple life is common, it is of course a separate question whether it’s likely to evolve into anything we might recognise as intelligent or complex – and what and where this might happen. Science fiction writers have many ideas (And I tell my students that it’s better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science. It’s more stimulating, and no more likely to be wrong.)

When the archetype taxi driver has finished telling me how he can set the world to rights, the question he’s most likely to ask is: “Are there aliens out there?” I’m hopeful that scientists now beginning their careers will learn enough about how life began, to be able to give him firm answers.

The environment in 2050

So much for science as culture. What kind of world will today’s young people be living in by mid-century? One of the few things we can predict is that they’ll surely be in a more crowded world.

Fifty years ago, world population was below three billion. It now exceeds seven billion. And by 2050 it’s projected to be between 8.5 and 10 billion, the growth being mainly in the developing world. And the world’s intellectual and physical capital will shift to Asia – the end of 400 years of hegemony by Europe and North America.

The growth is slowing. In many countries fertility has fallen to the replacement level of about 2.1 births per woman – or even lower.

But numbers are still rising fast in some parts of the world. India’s population is projected to overtake China’s by 2030, and could exceed 1.6 billion by 2050. And by then there could be a billion more people in Africa, where the fertility rate is still more than seven in some countries.

Global population seems currently under-discussed. That is because doom-laden forecasts made in the past have proved off the mark, and because it is deemed by some a taboo subject – tainted by association with eugenics in the 20s and 30s, with Indian policies under Indira Gandhi, and more recently with China’s effective but hardline one child policy.

We can’t specify an “optimum population” for the world. That’s because we can’t confidently conceive what people’s lifestyles, diet, travel patterns and energy needs will be beyond 2050.

To take two extremes: The world couldn’t sustain anywhere near its present population if everyone lived like present-day Americans. On the other hand 20 billion people could live sustainably, with a high quality of life, if all adopted a vegetarian diet, travelling little, but interacting via super-internet and virtual reality (though this particular scenario is plainly not probable, nor very alluring).

So it’s naive to quote an unqualified headline figure for the world’s “carrying capacity”.

But nine billion needn’t signal a catastrophe. Modern agriculture – low-till, water-conserving, and perhaps involving GM crops – together with better engineering to reduce waste, improve irrigation, and so forth, could sustainably feed that number by mid-century. And other advances, especially in healthcare and information technology, offer grounds for hope. It’s amazing, for instance, how fully mobile phones have already permeated even the most deprived parts of the world.

But though we can be technological optimists, it’s hard not to be a political pessimist. There’s been slow progress in improving the lot of the world’s “bottom billion”, despite the moral imperative. And there’s been still less progress towards the other millennium goals. 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. There is a depressing gap between what we could do and what actually happens. We can’t be so optimistic about nations achieving the cooperation that’s needed if these benefits are to permeate the developing world.

This so-called “demographic transition” is a consequence of declining infant mortality, availability of contraceptive advice, women’s education, and so forth. But we must surely hope for a turnaround in those countries whose populations are still rising fast, because the higher the post-2050 population becomes, the greater will be pressures on resources – especially if the developing world, where most of the growth will be, narrows its gap with developed world in its per capita consumption of energy and other resources.

Humans appropriate around 40% of the world’s biomass, and that fraction is rising. We are running up against so-called “planetary boundaries”. The resultant “ecological shock” could irreversibly impoverish our biosphere – and the risks are aggravated by climate change. Extinction rates are rising – we’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it. And biodiversity is a crucial component of human well-being. We’re clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction; there are plants in the rain forest whose gene pool might be useful to us. But for many environmentalists these “instrumental” – and anthropocentric – arguments aren’t the only compelling ones. For them, preserving the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right, over and above what it means to us humans.

Climate and energy

These pressures will be aggravated by climate change. And climate change exemplifies the tension between the science, the public and the politicians.

One thing isn’t controversial. The atmospheric CO2 concentration is rising – and that this is mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Straightforward physics tells us that this build-up will in itself induce a long-term warming trend, superimposed on all the other complicated effects that make climate fluctuate. So far so good.

But what’s less well understood is how big the effect is. Doubling of CO2 in itself just causes 1.2 degrees warming. But the effect can be amplified by associated changes in water vapour and clouds. There’s a factor of two or three uncertainty in the overall sensitivity of climate to CO2 because we don’t know how important these feedback processes are. The IPCC reports present a spread of projections. And I think it’s the smallish probability of catastrophic warming, rather than the expectation of the IPCC’s median trajectory, which presents the most compelling argument for keeping climate change high on the agenda.

The science is intricate. But it’s a doddle compared to the economics and politics. Climate change poses a unique political challenge for three 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 for mitigation 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. And third – it’s uncertain just how bad the problem will be: how rapidly the climate will change and what “insurance premium” we should be willing to pay to avoid the worst case scenarios.

There’s little consensus – and still less action. But 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% cuts by 2050 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 carbon capture and storage) 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.

And of course we should deprecate “cherry picking” of evidence. Some campaigners have been disparaging – and worse – about the Royal Society’s climate change assessments, while being happy to cite the Society’s reassuring report on fracking.

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 how governments should respond. 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. It’s true that UK carbon emissions constitute only 1% or 2% 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 formally backtracked, despite rumblings.

Many still hope that our civilisation can segue towards a low-carbon future without trauma and disaster. But politicians won’t gain much resonance by advocating a bare bones approach that entails unwelcome lifestyle changes. Especially if the benefit lies far away and decades into the future. A high priority for all developed countries should be to implement measures that actually save money – by using energy more efficiently, insulating buildings better, and so forth. And also to focus on reduction of pollutants, methane and black carbon. This won’t substitute for measures to tackle CO2 but would have a shorter-term impact and more manifest side-benefits.

But above all we need a real step-change in the scale and urgency of research and development into new energy sources – be they wind, tides, biofuels, solar or nuclear. And into new ways of storing energy – storage batteries, supercompacitors, compressed (and liquid) air, and so forth – for cars, and to complement unsteady power sources such as sun and wind.

Just a parenthetic comment on nuclear energy. Even those of us who are ambivalent about nuclear power should surely favour research and development 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 any power stations we build will be state-owned, but by the French or Chinese state and not by us. This is the legacy of the privatisations and cuts of the Thatcher era. A recent report from the House of Lords select committee deplored the plummeting of the UK’s nuclear research and development effort since privatisation to a level when we can’t replace the safety regulators when they retire, let alone participate in any innovation.

When he was still energy minister, Chris Huhne gave a very frank speech at the Royal Society. He quoted Churchill’s famous comment on the Americans – that they can be relied on to do the right thing after having tried all possible alternatives. He accepted nuclear power’s disastrous history and legacy, but nonetheless offered hope for the future.

As regards the familiar renewables, wind is the most “mature” technology – and for that reason it holds less scope for cost-cutting. Wave and tidal energy may be a “niche market,” but our island nation has propitious conditions for it: a big tidal range and fast-flowing tidal currents.

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, plants that grow where nothing else does, or marine algae that convert solar energy directly into fuel.

Maybe the best long-term option for Europe is solar energy – huge collectors in the sunniest countries, 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.

Be that as it may, 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.

What will happen to atmospheric CO2? My pessimistic prediction is that global annual emissions won’t be turned around in the next 20 years; that means that the CO2 concentration can’t be held below 500 parts per million.

But by then, 20 years from now, we’ll know – perhaps from advanced computer modelling, but also from how much global temperatures have actually risen by then – just how strongly the feedback from water vapour and clouds amplifies the effect of CO2 itself in creating a “greenhouse effect.” If the effect is strong, and the world consequently seems on a rapidly-warming trajectory into dangerous territory, 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.

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. Geoengineering would be an utter political nightmare: not all nations would want to adjust the thermostat the same way. There could be unintended side-effects. Regional weather patterns may change. Moreover, the warming would return with a vengeance if the countermeasures were ever discontinued; and other consequences of rising CO2 (especially the deleterious effects of ocean acidification) would be unchecked.

But we shouldn’t despair. It may take 50 years to decarbonise the world’s power generation, but this could be achieved if we start now.

We can predict that the world in 2050 will be more crowded, and warmer. And we can predict something else. There’ll be a growing gap between what science allows us to do, and what it’s prudent or ethical actually to do. Technology will offer amazing prospects, but will opens up new threats and poses new ethical dilemmas.

Runaway technologies?

But what we can’t predict are the actual technical advances. The iPhone would have seemed magical even 20 years ago. So, looking 50 years ahead we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to what may now seem science fiction.

Scientists have a rotten record as forecasters. One of my predecessors as Astronomer Royal said, as late as the 1950s, that space travel was utter bilge. I’m not an astrologer – I have no crystal ball.

But let me, undaunted, venture a few thoughts. Human nature and human character have changed little for millennia. Before long, however, new cognition-enhancing drugs, genetics, and “cyborg” techniques may alter human beings themselves. That’s something qualitatively new – and disquieting because it could portend more fundamental forms of inequality if these options were open only to a privileged few. Indeed some – like the futurist Ray Kurzweil – think that intelligent machines will “take over” within 50 years – the so-called “singularity.” And should we worry about another science fiction scenario – that a network of computers could develop a mind of its own and threaten us all?

We are living longer – two or three years per decade. Indeed, a real “wild card” in population projections is that there could a really substantial enhancement in lifespan. This minority view has been espoused here this week by Aubrey de Grey: mainstream researchers are cautious about the prospect of improvements that are more than incremental. I was once interviewed by a group of “cryonic” enthusiasts – in California (where else!) – called the “society for the abolition of involuntary death.” They will freeze your body, hoping that in the far future you can be resurrected, or have your brain downloaded into a computer, thereby achieving immortality. I said I’d rather end my days in an English churchyard than a Californian refrigerator… They derided me as a “deathist”. But I was surprised to read recently in The Sunday Times, that three Oxford academics thought differently, and had paid good money for “cryonic” preservation: two had paid the full whack (US$ 80000) – the third had taken the cut-price option of just having his head frozen.

And what about robotics? Even back in the 1990s IBM’s “Deep Blue” beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But robots can’t yet recognise and move the pieces on a real chessboard as adeptly as a child can. They can’t tie your shoelaces. Later this century, however, their more advanced successors may relate to their surroundings (and to people) as adeptly as we do. Indeed one of the goals should surely be to help us, particularly when we’re old and frail. Moral questions then arise. We accept an obligation to ensure that other human beings, and indeed some animal species, can fulfil their natural potential. So what’s our obligation towards sophisticated robots? Should we feel guilty about exploiting them? Should we fret if they are underemployed, frustrated, or bored?

But one context where robots surely have a future is in space. In the second part of this century the whole solar system will be explored by flotillas of miniaturised robots. And, on a larger scale, robotic fabricators may build vast lightweight structures (solar energy collectors, for instance), perhaps mining raw materials from asteroids.

Advances in robotics weaken the practical case for human spaceflight. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots, though it will be as adventurers, rather than for practical goals – cut-price high-risk ventures driven by the same motives as early explorers, mountaineers, and the like. The most promising developments are spearheaded by private companies. For instance SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, who also makes Tesla electric cars, has launched payloads and docked with the Space Station. The involvement of Musk, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and other high-tech entrepreneurs with credibility and resources, is surely a positive step.

If I were an American, I would leave manned spaceflight to the private sector. And incidentally as a European I think that even more strongly. For historical reasons ESA has a much smaller budget than NASA. But NASA spends only a third on unmanned programmes. If ESA were to eschew manned projects and focus solely on space science, robotics and miniaturisation – we could surpass the US in those endeavours, just as we already have in particle physics at CERN in Geneva, and in ground-based astronomy too through the European Southern Observatory.

But we should cheer along the private enterprise efforts in space. Wealthy adventurers are already signing up for a week-long trip round the far side of the Moon – voyaging further from Earth than anyone has been before (but avoiding the greater challenge of a Moon landing and blast-off). I’m told they’ve sold a ticket for the second flight but not for the first flight.

And Denis Tito, a former astronaut and entrepreneur, may not be crazy in planning to sent people to Mars and back – without landing. This would involve 500 days – in isolated confinement. The ideal crew would be a stable middle aged couple – old enough to be relaxed about a high dose of radiation.

And there’s another scheme that would allow you to land on Mars – but to stay – no return ticket.

By 2100, groups of pioneers may have established “bases” independent from the Earth – on Mars, or maybe on asteroids. Whatever ethical constraints we impose here on the ground, we should surely wish these adventurers good luck in genetically modifying their progeny to adapt to alien environments. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species: the beginning of the post-human era.

But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. Nowhere in our Solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. Space doesn’t offer an escape from Earth’s problems.

Some new anxieties

And there are indeed grounds for anxiety. I’ve already mentioned the growing pressures on global environment and resources. But the advances in technology – hugely beneficial though they are – render us vulnerable in new ways. For instance, our interconnected world depends on elaborate networks: electric power 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. Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic but burgeoning megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion – rumours and panic – literally at the speed of light.

Malign or foolhardy individuals or small groups have far more power and leverage than in the past. Concern about cyber-attack, by criminals or by hostile nations, is rising sharply. Advances in synthetic biology, likewise, offer huge potential for medicine and agriculture – but they amplify the risk of bioerror ot bioterror. And last year some researchers who’d shown that it was surprisingly easy to make an influenza virus both virulent and transmissible were pressured to redact some details of their publication.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think that all those with the technical expertise to pursue such work will be balanced and rational: expertise can be allied with fanaticism. And there will be individual weirdos with the mindset of those who now unleash computer viruses. The global village will have its village idiots – and their idiocies can have global range.

Some years ago I wrote a short book on these themes, which I entitled “Our Final Century?” My UK publishers deleted the question-mark. The American publishers changed the title to “Our Final Hour.” The US public seeks instant (dis)gratification!

In a future era of vast individual empowerment where even one malign or careless act could be too many, we’ll need more intrusion and less privacy. Indeed the rash abandon with which people put their intimate details on Facebook and our acquiescence in ubiquitous CCTV suggest that such a shift would meet surprisingly little resistance.

Some would dismiss these concerns as an exaggerated Jeremiad: after all, societies have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes and pestilence. But these human-induced threats are different: they are newly emergent, so we have a limited timebase for exposure to them and can’t be so sanguine about the ability of governments to cope if disaster strikes. Technological advances bring with them great hopes, but also great fears.

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. It seems to me that our political masters should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened – events that could arise as unexpectedly as the 2008 financial crisis, but which could cause world-wide disruption. In future decades, events with low probability but catastrophic consequences may loom high on the political agenda. That’s why some of us in Cambridge – both natural and social scientists – plan, with colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere, to inaugurate a research programme to compile a more complete register of these existential risks, and to assess how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones.

Science and politics

Much of what I’ve said would seem uncontroversial or even platitudinous to the scientifically-attuned audiences here in Newcastle this week. But there’s one thing that scientific advisors in any democratic system must not 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. Such discussions should engage all of us, as citizens – and of course our elected representatives.

Sometimes this has happened, and constructively too. The 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. And Lisa Jardine has chaired the HFEA, another fine precedent. 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. Scientists have a special responsibility to engage – though they should accept that on the economic, social and ethical aspects of any policy they speak as citizens and not as experts.

But despite many worthy efforts, there are habitual grumbles that such inputs don’t have much traction with politicians. For them, the urgent trumps the important. The local trumps the global. And getting re-elected trumps almost everything. Anything that gets headlined in the media, or makes their postbag bulge, will get attention. It’s volume not quality that counts. So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly – by publicising their research and letting the media 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.

And there are special things universities teachers can do. We’re privileged to have influence over successive generations of students. We should try to sensitise them to the issues that will confront them in their careers – indeed, polls show, unsurprisingly, that younger people who expect to survive most of the century, are more engaged and anxious about long-term issues.

We fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, and so forth. But the wide public is in denial about two kinds of threats: those that we’re causing collectively to the biosphere, and those that stem from the greater vulnerability of our interconnected world to error or terror induced by individuals or small groups.

The issues impel us to plan internationally (for instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge, for instance, on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness). And many of them – energy and climate change, for instance, involve multi-decade timescales – plainly far outside the “comfort zone” of most politicians.

One issue that should be addressed is whether nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of IAEA, WHO, etc.

Final message

Unlike our 17th century forebears who I cited at the beginning of this talk, we know a great deal about our world – and indeed about what lies beyond. Technologies that our ancestors couldn’t have conceived enrich our lives and our understanding. Many phenomena still make us fearful, but the advance of science spares us from irrational dread. We know that we are stewards of a precious “pale blue dot” in a vast cosmos – a planet with a future measured in billions of years, whose fate depends on humanity’s collective actions.

But all too often the focus is parochial and short term. We downplay what’s happening even now in impoverished far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for our grandchildren.

We can truly be techno-optimists. But the intractable politics and sociology – the gap between potentialities and what actually happens – engenders pessimism. We need a change in priorities and perspective – and soon – if we are to navigate the challenges of the 21st century: to share the benefits of globalisation, to prioritise clean energy, and sustainable agriculture; and to handle the Promethian challenge posed by ever more powerful technology.

To survive this century, we’ll need the idealistic and effective efforts of natural scientists, environmentalists, social scientists and humanists. They must be guided by the insights that 21st century science will offer, but inspired by values that science itself can’t provide.

And I give the last word to a great scientist who was himself once the president of the BA – the biologist Peter Medawar:

The bells that toll for mankind are […] 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 tuneful and melodious sound.

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