The Royal Society promotes scientific excellence in many ways. One is by the awards just presented—congratulations to all the recipients. Stephen Hawking's Copley Medal brings me special pleasure. I've known him ever since we were both students of the late Dennis Sciama in the 1960s. Astronomers are used to colossal numbers, but few are as vast as the odds I'd then have given against this event today. We honour Stephen's astonishing crescendo of achievement—a research career sustained for more than 40 years against all the odds.
The Royal Society's founders were inspired by Francis Bacon. He believed that scientific discovery should be driven by the quest for intellectual enlightenment—in which Stephen has achieved so much—but also by a second imperative: ‘the relief of man's estate’. In the twenty-first century, more and more aspects of public policy have a scientific dimension. The Society is engaged on a broader front with government and with public opinion. I'll start with global issues, and home in on more parochial topics towards the end of this address.
In his ‘farewell address’ as President last year, Bob May surveyed the challenges facing tomorrow's world. Growing populations, especially in the mega-cities of the developing world, lead to rising energy consumption, greater vulnerability to epidemics and so forth. We're collectively mounting a many-faceted assault on the interwoven fabric of atmosphere, water, land and life. One of the Royal Society's aims is surely to highlight crucial long-term issues like these, which tend to get sidelined in favour of local and immediate problems. I'll focus on one of them: climate change.
Climate and energy
Because of the fossil fuels already burnt, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been for at least half a million years—perhaps even the past 20 million years. Moreover, the global economy is generating CO2 at an accelerating rate. These uncontroversial facts, combined with simple ideas on greenhouse warming dating back to Tyndall and Arrhenius, should in themselves motivate deep concern, but of course the science has firmed up immensely. The Society is hosting a major conference on 1 and 2 March 2007, to mark the publication of the fourth scientific report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
But what should be the response from governments? Important proposals recently came from Nick Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank. His report was launched here at the Royal Society. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor both attended—testimony to the UK's commitment to international leadership.
Climate change is a global threat and needs global remedies. Devising these remedies requires, according to Stern, ‘all the economics you ever learnt, and some more’. The consequences are global, irrespective of where the CO2 is emitted. Indeed, the developing world, responsible for very little of the warming, is especially vulnerable. The cost of coping with increased heat and drought, more storms, and rising sea levels would negate the benefits of foreign aid. As David Miliband said at the recent Nairobi talks, we need to ‘…up the momentum. And for that, you don't just need environment ministers—you need prime ministers, finance ministers, and foreign secretaries to put themselves behind this global drive.’
Another distinctive feature of climate change is that the worst ‘downsides’ lie decades in the future. Stern argues that equity to future generations—plus the possibility that ‘business as usual’ could itself lead to climate change so drastic that it chokes off economic growth—justifies adopting a low discount rate, and committing substantial resources to cutting greenhouse emissions now rather than later. (There are other contexts where non-commercial discount rates are applied. Indeed, in discussing nuclear waste disposal, people talk with a straight face about what might happen more than 10 000 years from now—thereby implicitly applying a zero discount rate.)
Obviously, the climate science must be refined—in particular, to narrow the uncertainties in the IPCC models. That's important because the smallish probability of some horrendous runaway causes more concern than the 50% chance of something only moderately disruptive. Improved climate models will achieve higher spatial resolution, and incorporate changes in landscape and vegetation. They'll be able to address questions like: What parts of Africa will be most affected by drought? What will be the effect on crop yields? Just how bad could flood risks become in this country? These tasks will require a new generation of supercomputers. Improvements in climate science will also require more collaborative working between the scientific disciplines. Novel techniques are also needed for gathering data: robots in the deep ocean, microsatellites, unmanned planes, sensors and monitors, and so on.
In our reaction to impending climate change, to quote Al Gore, ‘We must not leap from denial to despair. We can do something and we must’. But to replace the traditional coal, oil and gas that now supply around 80% of the world's growing energy needs is an immense challenge—scientific, technical, economic and political. Unless this is done, especially in the huge emerging economies of India and China, CO2 could reach twice the pre-industrial concentration by 2050, and three times that level later in the century.
Earlier this year, before the G8 summit in St Petersburg, the Royal Society joined with the science academies of the other G8 nations, plus those of China, India, Brazil and South Africa. The academies urged appropriate policies and economic instruments to promote energy efficiency—and to incentivize clean fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable technologies. Irrespective of climate change, these would be beneficial in enhancing energy security.
The world spends more than 2 trillion dollars per year on energy and its infrastructure. In that perspective, energy Research and Development (R&D) is still minuscule—indeed in most countries (including the UK) expenditure fell during the 1990s and is merely ramping up to its 1990 level. One welcome development, just last week, was final agreement to build the ITER fusion facility. We need, in parallel, a stronger push on a whole raft of challenging and exciting technologies that may still be far from market. For example, we should move quickly towards full-scale ‘demonstrations’ of carbon sequestration, which could be crucial for China and India.
‘Clean energy’ R&D demands the priority and urgency that the USA devoted to the Apollo programme. That initiative had a manifestly positive spin-off for American education and technology. Why shouldn't we in the UK grasp a lead in these developments? The Energy Technology Institute is an encouraging step.
This thought leads to my second theme—the prospects for UK science generally.
Maintaining our competitive edge
The Prime Minister spoke to the Royal Society on 3 November. He reiterated the Government's goal to make this country the best place to do science—a magnet for mobile talent and inward investment. We welcome this commitment. And it's appropriate here to acclaim what David Sainsbury achieved during his eight years as Science Minister. He earned respect across all parties; he was highly esteemed abroad; and he'll surely now continue, outside Government, as an effective force in strengthening science, education and innovation in the UK.
But, as David Sainsbury would himself remind us, the competition is strengthening fast. The Americans view the growing economies of the Far East as a threat to their ascendancy. A committee of the American Academies, including the Chairman of Intel and many other heavyweight figures, last year published a report, Rising above the gathering storm. It recommended a programme to attract more teachers, expedited green cards for all foreigners graduating from US universities, and a new federal programme for energy research. And it has been very influential.
If the Americans are anxious about long-term competition from the rest of the world, we should be doubly so. To find an economic niche still higher up the value chain we need to aim high indeed. And for this, a prerequisite is a ‘culture’ that channels enough enterprising young people into science, and an education system that serves them well.
Research and universities
The international rankings of universities by the Times Higher and by Shanghai Tong get much attention. Cynicism is in order about their precision, and indeed about the criteria they're based on. But there's no gainsaying one gratifying feature of these league tables. We're the only country outside the USA with several universities in the ‘first division’. In the most recent table (in the Times Higher Education Supplement), the UK had 3 in the top 10, and 4 in the top 20.
Our universities are networked with the whole world's research; they train students whose diverse careers spread expertise throughout the private and public sector; innovative firms cluster around them.
The Royal Society currently supports about 600 research fellows in UK universities. To maintain their excellence, universities need to attract and nurture such people. I'm worried that academia is a less alluring career than it used to be. Some people will become researchers come what may—the nerdish element (I'm among them myself). But a world-class university can't survive just on these. It must attract its share of ambitious young people with flexible talent—the kind who are savvy about their options, and associate academia with uncertain prospects and undue financial sacrifices.
Another disincentive is the increasingly pervasive ‘audit culture’. This culture has emerged, in other professions as well as in academia, through the best of intentions—to raise standards and enhance accountability. But its actual consequences are often the reverse—to impede professional practice and reduce trust. Nobody has expressed such concerns more eloquently than Onora O'Neill. It's good that she is the new President of the British Academy, with which the Society hopes to develop more joint activities.
In the USA, even the great private universities depend on an adequate flow of government research grants. Such support is absolutely crucial for our universities—especially, incidentally, in the physical sciences, which can't draw on supplementary sources that match the Wellcome Trust, the medical charities and the pharmaceutical industry.
The benefits of research funding are hard to audit: they're diffuse, with long timelags. Indeed, Martin and Tang at the Science and Technology Policy Research Unit in Sussex identify seven channels of benefit from publicly funded research—of which direct ‘spin-off’ is just one. They argue—as many have before them—that, taking all seven together, university research offers an incontrovertible benefit to the economy and to society. But they note ‘a danger that a focus on the more easily measurable exploitation channels … may distort science policy, to the detriment of longer term benefits’. This warning is especially timely in the lead-up to the Comprehensive Spending Review; the Treasury is understandably concerned to assess whether its past investment in the research base is paying off.
But even if we have an utterly optimal system for allocating resources, opportunities will be lost unless those resources—from all sources—can compete with the USA and the Far East.
We spend 1.1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on higher education. The contrast is stark with the USA, where the corresponding figure is 2.6%. Much of the latter is private, of course. But what's not well recognized is that public funding of higher education in the USA is higher than here—1.2% of GDP, as against 0.8% here. In a speech earlier this year, Chris Patten highlighted these figures and said: ‘It's ironic that we should be condescending about US culture when that country spends twice as much on the acquisition of knowledge and its transmission to students. It would be tragic if research universities declined in the countries where they originated—at a time of unparalleled prosperity.’ To maintain a competitive edge as discoverers and innovators, the UK mustn't let its strengths erode. We can surely afford to build on them—indeed we can't afford not to. There's a special need to enhance private funding, and to smooth the transfer of people and ideas between universities, the commercial world, and the public sector. The law of increasing returns applies—success breeds success, talent clusters together.
Royal Society research fellows—our future leaders in science—create new knowledge that ultimately supports improved quality of life and a strong economy. We are further supporting these exceptional individuals through new training and mentoring arrangements to help them play key roles in strengthening the UK science base. Through training in innovation and entrepreneurship, the research fellows will be better equipped to capitalize on research with the potential for commercialization. Here, as in other contexts, we can make common cause with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Science in the UK benefits from being meshed into Europe—an intellectual as well as an economic superpower. In the so-called ‘big sciences’—which require international-scale facilities—there have long been well-managed European consortia, and these have achieved global excellence. CERN in Geneva is destined to be the world's leading laboratory in particle physics for the next 15 years. The European Southern Observatory now has the world's best ground-based telescopes. Europe has never had a space programme to match NASA's, but could gain an ascendancy even in space by a focus on science, miniaturization and robotics. These capital-intensive specialisms aren't of course typical of research. But they're good precedents—they show that Europe can fully match the USA if we optimally develop a European research community.
What about European research in general? Here the trends are positive too. As a young researcher 30 years ago, I met my counterparts from mainland Europe in the USA—that's where we all went to gain postdoctoral experience. Now things are different. Young scientists are more likely to migrate within Europe. The EU fellowships and collaborative network programmes have been an effective stimulus and catalyst. The new European Research Council is committed to stringent peer review and is getting off to a positive start.
But there is still a root problem in the schools, especially in maths and the ‘core’ sciences. Too few specialist science and maths teachers are entering—and, crucially, staying in—state schools. Many young people never encounter a teacher with enthusiasm for science. Out-of-school stimuli are of course important too. Here, I think, the rising sophistication of everyday technology is actually a barrier.
Inquisitive children in the mid-twentieth century could take apart a clock, radio set, or motorbike, figure out how it worked, and even put it together again. Not so with the marvellous artefacts that pervade our lives today—mobile phones, iPods, and the rest. It's hard to take them to bits. If you do, you'll find few clues to their arcane miniaturized mechanisms. They're ‘black boxes’—pure magic to most people. Young people need ‘hands on’ reality as well as virtual reality. Dinosaurs and space travel are perennially fascinating. But we're not so good at converting these youthful enthusiasms into sustained engagement with science. The crucial age range is 14–16. Those who are turned off science at 16, and drop it, foreclose the option of some science courses at university. This seems one of several good reasons for broadening the sixth-form curriculum.
The Royal Society is doing what it can, with learned societies and other partners, to coordinate input into government decision-making on science and maths education; we welcome the improved collaboration between the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Treasury.
I'd like to advertise an ambitious study that the Society is undertaking on whether UK higher education will be fit for purpose in 2015 and beyond. The study will address the benefits that students acquire studying science: general versus specialized degrees; the impact of international movements both of students and of professional scientists; and the needs of employers and the wider economy. It's being chaired by Judith Howard, of Durham University.
The latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) figures, incidentally, show a rise in applications for university courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics—‘green shoots’, one hopes, signalling that the educational initiatives of recent years are starting to pay off.
But overall enrolments in university maths and physics courses are still too low to ensure that teachers now retiring, or changing careers, will be replaced. A downward spiral in these core subjects would bode ill for the goal of achieving a ‘high value added’ economy. Indeed we might end up importing even our teachers from India or Korea.
Science must continue to attract the talented young. Our universities must teach them well. And ‘the system’, whether it be academia, public service, or private industry, must offer challenging opportunities for scientists to fulfil their potential. The young are not immune to financial incentives—nor to the signals about society's values sent by the Himalayan salaries paid in the city—but they're idealistic too: they'll be more inclined towards science if it offers challenges that seem humanly relevant, and meet their ethical concerns. And here I am optimistic. Science offers immense and indeed noble challenges. The global need for clean energy is just one. The burgeoning technologies—Information Technology, miniaturization and biotech—are sparing of energy, and of raw materials. They boost quality of life in the developing as well as the developed world.
Our society faces ever more complex science-linked issues such as climate change, stem-cell research and nuclear power. How science is applied and prioritized shouldn't be decided by scientists alone. These choices should be made, after the widest possible discussion, but mindful of the best scientific evidence available. Scientists must explain their work—and, crucially, listen to people's hopes and concerns.
Not all scientists will be suited to being the public face of science—we do, after all, want scientists to be first and foremost excellent researchers. But more can and should step up to take on this role, particularly those involved in areas of high public interest, or controversial research. We should ensure that there is a supportive infrastructure to support and reward this type of activity. It would surely be good if individual scientists—with views spanning the entire political and philosophical spectrum—became more engaged with the media and political forums. They'd bring different viewpoints to bear, but would raise debate above the level of tabloid slogans.
According to a 2005 Mori poll 69% of respondents said they trusted scientists to ‘provide accurate information about scientific facts’. Scientists must earn and sustain the trust that the public has in them. As scientific developments become ever more pervasive, there is still greater need for scientists to engage in debate about the implications of their work. We should not hype science and technology: we must tread the line between science and science fiction carefully. Public support—both ethically and on prudential grounds—is crucial to the success of any innovation. That's the motive for our Science and Society programme—generously funded by Ralph Kohn over the past five years.
Quite apart from its impact on our world, science is intrinsic to our culture—indeed it's the nearest the world has to a universal culture. I would derive less satisfaction from my research if I couldn't share its insights—and indeed the mystery as well—with a wide public. You're intellectually impoverished if you think the world began 6000 years ago, and can't wonder at the chain of emergent complexity leading, from a still-mysterious beginning, to atoms, stars, planets, biospheres, and human brains able to ponder their origins.
Scientific misperceptions are a cultural deprivation when they pertain to Darwinism or cosmology. But they are still more serious when they affect attitudes to practical issues of health or the environment. When science is slanted or distorted for seemingly commercial reasons, scientists should surely speak out.
The Royal Society's motto is ‘Nullius in verba’: open, unprejudiced, uninhibited enquiry—unstifled debate. But controversy need not signify evenly balanced arguments. Confrontations make such lively broadcasts that maverick views are more likely to get exaggerated attention than to be ignored. Most of us enjoy seeing ‘establishment’ views routed. But such cases are rarer than the public is led to think.
When researchers present new work in journal papers or conference talks, wider communication is generally an afterthought. But press conferences or media releases can colour public reactions, especially if there are implications for people's health or way of life. It is important to convey the impact fairly—neither hyping it nor exaggerating potential dangers. Recent episodes, like the discrediting of high-profile papers on cloning, are bringing all research under more critical scrutiny. The Society's recent report, from a group chaired by Patrick Bateson, suggested a helpful ‘checklist’ for scientists whose work may stimulate immediate public interest.
Most important, perhaps, is conveying a realistic assessment of risk. We fret about statistically tiny risks—carcinogens in food, train crashes, and so forth. However, we are in denial about some that are far more serious. I've already alluded to climate change. But there are other, more immediate, global risks—new infectious diseases, for instance—that are so grave that even a small probability is worth guarding against. The Society, along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, has recently voiced concerns about the UK's preparedness for a flu pandemic. And there will be other issues that merit equal public concern.
Our interconnected world is increasingly vulnerable to the unintended downsides, or wilful misuse, of ever more empowering technologies.
The society's international activities
The Society's Foreign Secretary, Julia Higgins, completes her five-year stint today. Exemplifying Nick Stern's concern about equity between generations, Julia leaves the Royal Society, and indeed our entire scientific community, better networked and more influential than it was five years ago. Under her leadership, the Society has funded more than 3300 international collaborations, and has engaged worldwide with academies, governments and the UN on issues of science and science policy. She has, beyond her specific portfolio, contributed hugely to other aspects of our work—especially to education, and the cause of women in science. And she's done all this while holding a senior post at Imperial College, chairing the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and much else. I don't know how she manages it, but we're deeply grateful to her. And we welcome Lorna Cassleton as her successor: Lorna has already been working hard for the Society, especially on human rights issues.
UK science is strengthened by interaction with the best scientists and engineers worldwide; to facilitate this we are expanding our range of grant schemes that cater for incoming and outgoing fellowships and visits, joint projects and conference attendance. We hope soon, with Government support, to supplement our existing exchanges with a new international fellowship scheme modelled along the lines of the Humboldt scheme in Germany.
Exchanges and mobility should involve a two-way flow. It is gratifying for India and China that more of their expatriate scientists are returning home. However, the brain drain is an acute problem in Africa. We are committed to the role of science and technology in international development. Concentrating initially on sub-Saharan Africa, and building on the successful projects we have supported over many years in South Africa, we are initiating new programmes to improve links between the scientific communities of the developed and developing world. In October this year, the Society hosted presidents of science academies from all over Africa for a wide-ranging week-long programme. Africa needs support in its efforts to develop secondary and higher education, and to retain a skilled professional workforce. On such issues, two of our distinguished Fellows, David King and Gordon Conway, have been influential voices within government.
The society and its staff
My first year as President has been a steep and enlightening learning experience. I'm personally grateful for the support of Julia Higgins and the other officers: Martin Taylor and David Read, the Physical and Biological Secretaries; and David Wallace, the Treasurer. Apart from their specific remit, they represent the Society in many forums, and form a harmonious sounding board for policy.
The Society has a committed and expert staff: those engaged in policy, communications, publications, grants, libraries, and international relations; and those who've run Carlton House Terrace smoothly during an unusually busy year. We're specially fortunate in the professionalism of Stephen Cox and Ian Cooper. If you are ever involved in delicate negotiations (as the Society frequently is), they are the kind of people you want on your side of the table.
Among those who've moved on during the year, I'd like to pay special tribute to Bob Ward, whose energy and astuteness in handling the press served the Society well.
And among new arrivals I'd specially mention two. Michael Reiss fills a new post as Director of Education. His appointment signals our increasing involvement in education policy and research. The Royal Society recently brought together the key players in the science education communities in the SCORE partnership, which aims to achieve the same for science as was done for mathematics over the last four years through the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME). We want a stronger research strand in science and maths education—but in close contact with education policy and teacher practice.
Another key new staff member is Michael Murphy, the Development Director. Michael arrived just in time to help us achieve an unexpected success—acquisition of the long-lost Hooke folio. When this opportunity came to light, the gratifyingly prompt response to our appeal highlighted the broad interest in the Society's history, and our unique archive. The purchase itself was a real cliff-hanger: the auction had already started before the deal was agreed. Throughout this episode, Lisa Jardine's enthusiastic advocacy was crucial: we're grateful for her scholarly commitment to the Hooke papers, and for all she will be doing to render our heritage more accessible.
Michael Murphy's prime role is to oversee a fundraising campaign linked to our 350th anniversary. This campaign will focus on four themes. Each will require philanthropic support to become a reality. They are to: Invest in future scientific leaders and innovation; Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice; Invigorate science and maths education in the UK; and Inspire an interest in scientific discovery.
The campaign will support high-impact projects over the coming five years and build endowments to guarantee our strength and independence. The Society's forceful presence on the national and international stage is more important today than at any time in its history, and I hope that by 2010 the campaign will have raised £100 million and we'll be even better placed to fulfil our aims.
We've got some astronauts here today, so I conclude with a cosmic vignette. We're all familiar with pictures of the Earth seen from space—its fragile biosphere contrasting with the sterile moonscape where the astronauts left their footprints. Suppose some aliens had been watching our planet for its entire history, what would they have seen? Over nearly all that immense time, 4.5 billion years, Earth's appearance altered very gradually: continents drifted, species evolved and became extinct, ice cover waxed and waned. But in just a tiny sliver of the Earth's history the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose.
But then there were other changes, even more abrupt. Within fifty years—little more than one hundredth of a millionth of the Earth's age—the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves. And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles lifted from the planet's surface and escaped the biosphere completely, going into orbit or to other planets.
If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could confidently predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when the Sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spike less than halfway through the Earth's life—occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed?
If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next hundred years? Will a final spasm be followed by silence? Will self-sustaining habitats be established elsewhere? Or will the planet stabilize?
The answer depends on us. Even in a cosmic or geological time-perspective, there's something unique about our century: for the first time in its history, our entire planet's fate depends on human actions and human choices.
Earth's optimum stewardship, via science-led innovation, and a proper sharing of the benefits of science between all nations, are goals to inspire the young. I can't think of anything that could do more to attract the brightest and best of them into science than a strongly proclaimed national commitment to take a lead in meeting these challenges.
- © 2007 The Royal Society