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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

20.10.2017
Two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an advisory body to the World Health Agency, published an apparently damning report on glyphosate, one of the most widely-used herbicides around the world, and marketed by Monsanto under the Roundup brand. This was extensively reported, for example by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US (Glyphosate herbicide linked to cancer - IARC World Health Organization assessment). The IARC put glyphosate in Group 2A of its classification, as a ‘probable’ human carcinogen. This was commented on by the Scientific Alliance...
13.10.2017
As most readers will already be very well aware, toxicity is a relative term. But for the general public, this simple but important concept is all too often misunderstood. For many people, if something is toxic, then it’s dangerous, end of message. To complicate this, many of us are easily capable of a rather bizarre form of Orwellian double-think: we may strive to avoid all traces of synthetic pesticides, for example, while being perfectly willing to consume a wide range of natural chemicals that are demonstrably carcinogenic. In both cases, the dose makes the poison, but one is ‘good’ and...
06.10.2017
Last year, the UK government gave a cautious go-ahead to fracking, after years of a moratorium following concerns about minor earth tremors near the Caudrilla exploration site in Lancashire. The company has since restarted test drilling in the area, against intense opposition from activists determined to prevent the birth of a viable onshore gas and oil extraction industry in the UK. These activists may not have managed to sway the government in Westminster, but they have the Scottish government on their side (Scottish government backs ban on fracking). Although the intention to continue the...
29.09.2017
I was interested to see this week the seemingly ubiquitous Sir James Dyson announcing that his company is developing a novel electric car (Dyson to make electric cars from 2020). Since a prototype does not yet exist, this is a pretty ambitious goal but if anyone can do it, it’s probably Dyson. And bullish statements like this are not uncommon in this new sector; Elon Musk is perhaps a role model in this case. What this new car will look like is anyone’s guess. According to the report, “Important points that are undecided or secret include the firm's expected annual production total, the cost...
22.09.2017
I make no apologies for talking about the thorny issue of climate change yet again. There’s a good reason why: after a decade or more of unwillingness to listen to criticism of the IPCC story on climate change, this week a mainstream paper was published in Nature Geoscience that to all intents and purposes shows many of the criticisms to be justified. Even the most objective-sounding paper is open to different interpretations, and this one is no exception, despite its apparently unambiguous title: Emissions budgets and pathways are consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. The message from...
14.09.2017
This is proving to be a pretty bad season for Atlantic hurricanes, after several years in which few intense ones made landfall. Hurricane Harvey, which started in late August, was the first major hurricane to hit the United States mainland since 2005 (Hurricane Wilma, in the same year as the flooding of New Orleans caused by Katrina). Irma, coming along a few days later and only dissipating this week, was a category 5 storm bringing destruction to the Caribbean and Florida. Despite the intensity of the storms, the total death toll so far is around 150. Each fatality is a personal tragedy, of...
08.09.2017
While many people pay lip service to objectivity and provide evidence in support of their assertions, true objectivity is very rare. Science is supposedly a body of knowledge assembled dispassionately by researchers looking at all available evidence in a totally unbiased way. This, at least, is the utopian vision encapsulated by Karl Popper, who argued that any scientific hypothesis should only be regarded as valid until falsified (for which even a single verifiable piece of evidence is sufficient). All very straightforward, but such a purist view of science ignores the facts that scientists...
01.09.2017
Electric cars may well be the future of personal transport, but only if consumers choose to buy them in preference to the cars of today or if governments effectively ban the internal combustion engine. In both France and the UK, politicians are leaning towards the latter, announcing a cut-off date of 2040 for the sale of conventional petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars. Actually, it’s not really as clear-cut as that. In July, the heady early days of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, the new government announced that the sale of new conventional cars would be illegal from 2040 (France to ban sales of...
21.07.2017
Major infrastructure projects can be fraught with difficulties of various kinds, not least political, where the UK planning system can drag out decision-making for years. Even before reaching that stage, governments are loath to make decisions that are subject to significant local or national opposition. The intended third runway at Heathrow is a case in point. A number of major new airports have been built in other countries while each government of the day in Westminster has failed to bite the bullet. In the meantime, the country’s primary airport – and one of the world’s busiest –...
14.07.2017
Electrification is the future if the world’s energy use is to be radically ‘decarbonised’ as the IPCC says is necessary. The somewhat contentious Paris accord is the latest stab at a concerted approach to this, albeit without the involvement of the USA and with a number of other countries – notably Turkey – apparently wavering in their support. Debating the extent of human influence on climate is, unfortunately futile at present; this is one issue where there is precious little common ground, despite the best efforts of some people. But what we do still need to think long and hard about is...

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