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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

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...
22.04.2016
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 150...
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...
08.04.2016
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 generous and see this as an encouragement to more...

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