Dealing with the Perfect Storm

Last night, the BES Policy Team attended the CaSE Annual Distinguished Lecture, given this year by Prof. John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Advisor. Over the course of the hour, Prof. Beddington gave a wide-ranging talk, covering the swine flu epidemic and how structures set up in Government had helped to deal with this; the ‘perfect storm’ of factors with the potential to threaten human health and well-being by 2030, and finishing with a discussion of the Government’s Foresight horizon-scanning programme.

Prof. Beddington began the lecture with a discussion of one aspect of his role; head of the science and engineering population in Government. The perception in the past had been that betraying your background in science and engineering as a civil-servant would be tatamount to career suicide and that there had existed a ‘glass-ceiling’ for scientists and engineers in government. Prof. Beddington said that he was working hard to change this, with the result that around 3,000 of the estimated 16 – 18,000 scientifically trained and qualified people working in government had now come forward. Prof. Beddington had organised a number of workshops to bring many of these people together to explore issues such as communicating science and engineering to policy-makers.

Prof. Beddington’s slides illustrating the spread of swine flu were alarming; showing the rapid transmission disease through our modern globally-connected population, but perhaps of most interest to BES members was the section of his talk outlining the challenges we face due to a ‘perfect storm’ of factors. By 2030, we need 50% more food production, to feed a population set to reach 8.3 million people, on less land, with less water, using less energy, fertiliser and pesticide, whilst not increasing greenhouse gas emissions. This is obviously a huge challenge for society to meet but Prof. Beddington said that he was optimistic we would do so.

The negotiations currently ongoing in Copenhagen, he said, were crucical to start us on a path to meet the challenge of climate change: anything more than 2 degrees centigrade of warming would be catastrophic to life as we know it, as Prof. Beddington’s slides illustrated. With an increase of 4 degrees, maize and wheat yields in Africa could decline by 40%; changes in rainfall patterns could mean that California (responsible for 50% of the USA’s agricultural production) could no longer produce food, and in Europe, there would be a 70% reduction in river and stream flow, rendering the Mediterranean uninhabitable and leading to mass migration.

During the question and answer session, Prof. Beddington was asked, perhaps unsuprisingly, for his view on the £600 million cut to research funding announced in the pre-budget report. Prof. Beddington said that he had stressed, and would continue to do so, that the only way forward for the UK was to continue to invest in science and engineering. He said that the pre-budget report was ‘ambiguous’, in terms of where cuts would fall and that the Government would at least maintain their commitment to the ten-year Science and Innovation Investment Framework (due to expire in 2014). He said that if this tracked GDP this would lead to a small drop in the science budget, as GDP had fallen. However, the forthcoming review of student fees may lead to an additional source of revenue for universities in time.

Members of the audience were aware that the forthcoming election would bring a turnover in MPs, with many of those who have championed science in parliament over the years, standing down. What could Prof. Beddington do to promote science amongst the new cohort of parliamentarians? Prof. Beddington answered that he could do little apart from make sure that he is available to speak to those MPs who wish to consult him on scientific matters and make himself available to Select Committees. He did however contast the UK with Japan, where five members of the cabinet are scientifically trained, including the Prime Minister, who has a PhD related to science and technology.

CaSE is organising a debate in London between the science spokespeople of the three main UK political parties. To find out more about this event or book (free) tickets, taking place on 13th January 2010, see the CaSE website.