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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

Nullius in verba

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...
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...
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...
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...

Stifling innovation

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 –...

Carbon budgets

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...
Today, April 22, is Earth Day. Launched in the USA in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson, it follows the proposal the previous year of a day to celebrate the Earth and the concept of peace, to be held of March 21. So, in 1970, there were actually two Earth Days. The US one went international in 1990 and is now marked in virtually every country of the world (although it is unlikely to be at the top of many people’s minds, particularly in less developed countries). It is now coordinated by the Earth Day Network, and this year focusses on trees. But, more than that, it is the day when over...

The power of prayer

15.04.2016
According to a report in the Times this week, Church uses shareholder power to sway oil giant. Of course, the activist investor is hardly a new phenomenon, but it is interesting to see the Church of England enter this particular fray. Many investors are quite passive, ignoring invitations to AGMs (or, at most, casting their proxy votes as the Board recommends), and just selling their shares when they need money or the price is right (even then, I doubt that most small shareholders check the share price frequently). But shareholders are the owners of the company and, as such, have the...
This quote from Chairman Mao – perhaps more correctly let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend – is usually interpreted as a brief experiment with free-ish speech in the early days of the People’s Republic of China. In practice, it was quickly followed by more repression of those who chose to follow this path of ‘rightist deviation’ and some historians consider the campaign a deliberate attempt to flush out opposition. Given the Great Helmsman’s lack of scruples, this does not seem at all unlikely. But let’s be...
Nuclear power seems to be on the brink of an existential crisis, at least in Europe. Construction of the much-trumpeted new Aveva EPR reactor at Olkiluoto (Finland) began in mid-2005. Originally scheduled to be connected to the grid in 2010, it is now at least eight years late, and the estimated cost has escalated from €3 billion (the fixed construction price due to Areva, the main contractor) to €8.5 billion currently. Meanwhile, the same company embarked on building France’s first EPR on the existing Flamanville site at the end of 2007, for a projected cost of €3.3...

Current Issues


Future costs of UK energy supply

The Scientific Alliance recently published part 1 of an examination of National Grid's Future Energy Scenarios, dealing with security of supply. We are now pleased to publish part 2 - cost of supply. The authors - Dr Capell Aris and Colin Gibson - conclude that building more gas and nuclear stations would be considerably less expensive than any of the NG scenarios, as well as offering better energy security.

What's New

14 October 2016: Read the new report by Dr Capell Aris, published jointly with the Adam Smith Institute - Solar power in Britain: the Impossible Dream