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Newsletter 12th October 2006

- Science Education - Ecological debt or ecological exuberance? - Business opportunities in climate change mitigation

First, an apology to our readers for the lack of a newsletter last week. However, we hope to continue to publish weekly, with a few exceptions.
Science Education
The new CCSE science curriculum – in common with many other subjects, seemingly in a continual state of flux – is now under attack from several quarters. The BBC gives a good roundup: Critics attack new science GCSE. Sir Richard Sykes, Baroness Warnock and others have weighed in to condemn the new “Scientific literacy for the 21st Century” course, to be taken by the majority of pupils instead of individual chemistry, physics or biology options. Sir Richard, rector of Imperial college London, is particularly concerned that the “dumbing down” of the syllabus will leave many pupils poorly equipped to move on to single-subject A-levels and be sufficiently well-qualified to study science at such prestigious institutions as his own.
His concern is in fact that the majority of school-leavers with good science A-levels will be from independent schools. So, although the new GCSE course is meant to make science more accessible and inclusive, it may actually discriminate against many of those sufficiently interested to study it at university. This cannot be healthy.
Scientific literacy should mean grasping the concepts of how science is done, being able to understand basic concepts and having a broad knowledge of key theories, observations and scientific laws. In practice, it seems this course will be an attempt to encourage children to discuss topical science issues rather than the latest episode of Eastenders (that’s probably for the English class). That’s all well and good, but we need to continue to educate and encourage those who will be the working scientists of the next generation. Interesting others in some scientific issues is good in itself, but it is not scientific literacy, and it is no substitute for a rigorous grounding in basic science.
Ecological debt or ecological exuberance?
Each year, the Global Footprint Network publishes its report on the human race’s “ecological footprint”. This year, they suggest that the “ecological debt day” – the day by which we have consumed as much of the Earth’s resources as it can regenerate in a year – was 9th October. The UK-based New Economics Foundation contributed to the report and, by their reckoning, the UK’s own ecological debt day fell on 16th April. This is covered in another BBC report: Planet enters “ecological debt”.
This, of course, is good for headlines, but is built on the basis of a range of assumptions which most people reading the article will not read about, let alone be aware of. It is true that it is perfectly possible to overuse a particular local resource, sometimes with drastic consequences, as for the Aral sea and Atlantic cod. However, it’s much more difficult to do any meaningful sort of global environmental profit and loss account.
Indeed,  Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (Ecipe) was quoted in the same article as saying that he “found the whole concept of ecological debt is quite ludicrous…the way they are collecting and assessing information is wrong. We don't really get any serious information out of
this.” He goes so far as to say that it might be more accurate to talk about “ecological exuberance” rather than “ecological debt”. Whatever the answer, this highlights the danger of taking reports at face value without questioning the assumptions behind them.
Business opportunities in climate change mitigation
Shell Springboard is a programme which provides grants of £20-40,000 to small companies to progress their work on low-carbon technologies. This week, they released a piece of research work which estimates that there is a £30bn business opportunity in the UK over the next ten years in tackling climate change. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. To get a copy of the full report, follow the link from the press release: 2006 New Shell Springboard Research Released.
For those of us still sceptical about our ability to control climate when we don’t really understand what influences it (whatever the IPCC may say), this might be expected to be unwelcome news. Actually, far from it. Innovation is to be welcomed, and grants to SMEs – where most of the really innovative ideas are developed – are doubly so. These particular projects may be predicated on uncertain science, but if they help energy efficiency that must be good. To predict a £30bn market for a “climate change” industry is also no bad thing, as long as its products have a genuine, unsubsidised market, and the funding of this area does not hinder activities in sectors such as biotechnology. Fostering innovation is good, whatever the motivation.
A final word
If readers are able, they should make time to watch the Adam Boulton show on Sky News on Sunday morning. There should be a piece about the politics of climate change at about 10:30.