BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for April 2010

Let's talk about science

Susan Watts | 15:25 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010

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Science has yet to become the election issue it should, according to the chief executive of one of the UK's leading academies of science.

On Thursday morning, Dr Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), said science has to be on the agenda because of its importance to the economy and the future well-being of the country:

"It is all about, ultimately, the practical things that affect us individually - being in employment, knowing the lights won't go out in 2013, and being confident there will be better cures for age-related diseases, as we seek a better quality of life."

It so happened that I bumped into Richard this lunchtime, as he made his way back to the home of the RSC on Piccadilly.

He had just been interviewed for the BBC's News Channel about the huge oil slick that is threatening environmentally-sensitive areas along the southern coast of the United States.

How to deal with this is proving a dilemma. Is it better to burn the oil, or use chemical dispersants? What's the balance between the potential environmental damage caused by those chemicals and that caused by just leaving the oil alone? How do you plug a hole in a pipe that's hundreds of metres under water? What will be the effect on the wetlands of Louisiana?

And that is just today's example of how our world increasingly demands that politicians, and all of us, make decisions based on an attempt to understand the science behind them.

A good first step is to have enough knowledge to be able to find the right expert, and to ask the right questions. Think about pandemic flu, climate change and volcanic ash - and there are plenty more examples.

Yet the government has already said that it wants cuts of £600m from the higher education and science and research budgets.

Scientists are nervous about what the future holds, and there has been relative silence about this during the campaign.

The RSC is trying to help. On Thursday night it is hosting a debate in Loughborough, a marginal constituency where science and education are on people's minds.

Dr Pike is worried by the closure of drug maker AstraZeneca's research and development unit at the Charnwood site in the city, with the loss of up to 1,200 jobs.

He says the move raises serious questions about political commitment to science and research here in the UK, especially as Loughborough University is the major employer in the constituency:

"Innovation depends on how our world-class research community is able to engage with the wider industrial and business sectors, to develop globally competitive products and services.

"We face a reduction in this community, the prospect of a brain-drain of our best academics to the United States and China - who are increasing their budgets - while at the same time secondary education is not providing the scientific knowledge and skills that employers need.

"We need to address all this in a transparent way, and know how politicians will respond."

Of course AstraZeneca may just be making a sound business decision, but you see what Dr Pike is getting at.

We did get a taster of how politicians feel about these issues at a national debate on science and the general election - the only such debate to take place within the House of Commons itself - back in early March.

I know about that one because I happened to be in the chair for what proved a lively two-hour discussion between the science spokesmen of the three main parties.

When I met Dr Pike today, I was on my way back from a chat about new ways to think about climate policy - post election.

The pace of change in the world around us is rapid, as is the pace of change in politics.

One thing that is certain is that just at the time when science should help to inform that changing world, the next UK parliament will include alarmingly few MPs with scientific training or experience, as the old hands leave.

And with this comes the risk that science may slip even lower down the political agenda.

Haemophiliac wins compensation legal challenge

Susan Watts | 18:19 UK time, Friday, 16 April 2010

An award-winning composer who contracted HIV and Hepatitis C through NHS treatment with contaminated blood products today won his legal challenge over compensation payments.

Haemophiliac Andrew March, 36, had sought a judicial review quashing the Health Secretary's May 2009 decision not to implement fully the recommendations of the Archer Report on supplies which were not adequately cleansed before use.

Read how I've covered Mr March and other haemophiliacs' cases here.

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