February 20, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich

Basic science and climate politics: A flashback to 1989

We were trying to empty a room for refurbishment. So we rummaged through some old papers which included amongst many others: Karl Popper’s last paper entitled “Towards an evolutionary theory of knowledge” (with the enigmatic scribble: ‘Popper’s last paper is better than ‘Krapps last tape’), and a typescript from 1989 of a speech by Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, which was distributed before delivery and entitled: ‘Text of a 50th Anniversary Lecture Given By The Prime Minister The Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher FRS MP To The Parliamentary And Scientific Committee At The Royal Gallery House Of Lords On Wednesday 6 December 1989”.

This lecture is really interesting in the context of some topics I have discussed on this blog, such as the importance of basic science and the science and politics of climate change. A month before the lecture that I am going to summarise in this post, Thatcher gave a much better known speech on climate change to the United Nations which contributed to putting climate change on the political map. By contrast, the lecture seems to have only attracted little attention. The Guardian and The Independent published brief articles on the climate change part of the speech on 7 December and 10 days later New Scientist focused a bit more on the part that dealt with basic science.

In the following I’ll reproduce first some extracts of what Thatcher said about basic science, then of what she said about climate change. A couple of years ago Alice Bell wrote an insightful article on Thatcher and climate change which is worth quoting: “Margaret Thatcher is often celebrated for her leadership on the issue of climate change. Read, if you haven’t already, her 1989 speech to the UN for example. Or the 1988 one to the Royal Society. Or to the 2nd World Climate Conference in 1990. You might be surprised. […] Looking back at the 1989 speech in 2005, George Monbiot wrote that it’s striking how well informed she was in those late 80s speeches, and we probably have her adviser Sir Crispin Tickell to credit for this.” Alice warns us however of the dangers of greenwashing Thatcher’s legacy. And of course we should not whitewash her university policies either, as she introduced the Research Assessment Exercise in 1986. In fact, I experienced my first RAE in 1989, when it was called ‘research selectivity exercise’ – and I have had to live with subsequent incarnations ever since….With this in mind, here we go.

Basic Science

Thatcher begins by pointing out that: “The truth is that the greatest economic benefits of scientific research have always resulted from advances in fundamental knowledge rather than the search for specific applications:

  • Transistors were not discovered by the entertainments industry seeking new ways of marketing pop music but by people working on wave mechanics and solid-state physics.
  • The binary logic circuits of computers were not found by accountants seeking to store and rapidly process information but by physicists in the 1930s wishing to count elementary particles.”

She goes on to talk about nuclear energy, induction coils for cars, “electric-magnetic” waves for televisions, DNA, Stephen Hawking, CERN… and says “if the Higgs Boson appears, we will have uncovered the nature of mass itself”. She certainly knew her bosons from her bosuns.

Thatcher concludes this part of the lecture by saying: “It is mainly by unlocking nature’s most basic secrets, whether it be about the structure of matter or about the nature of life itself, that we have been able to build the modern world.”

Funding basic science

But how should such basic research be funded? In her view “the majority, but not all of basic research, is rightly funded through the public purse by way of universities and scientific institutes. But an increase in the science budget of 25 per cent since 1979 does not absolve us of the duty of making sure all that money is used to best advantage. There are difficult choices to be made, so let me make just three points. First, the economic rewards of basic science are quite unpredictable and therefore there is no point in dwelling on them in deciding which projects to fund. Second, what projects or teams should we support and how to identify them? Politicians can’t decide. I have some sympathy with the view that we need to provide more funds to those young propel whose creative flair can bring new inspiration. But they are not easy to identify. […] the theory behind allocating the money is easy. The practice is much more difficult. And I for one am concerned that our procedures are still too bureaucratic. The money should go to research in the field, not to top-heavy administration.” (Italics added)

As Michael Kenward pointed out in his article for New Scientist: “This emphasis on basic research contrasts with the government’s policy of a few years ago when universities were urged to conduct research that might deliver short-term benefits.” How times have changed! I wonder what she would have said about the impact agenda!

Climate science and climate politics

After briefly pointing out some ethical questions provoked by advances in biology, Thatcher comes to ‘the environment’ in the final part of her lecture. She points out that “[a]dvances in science and engineering have created societies heavily dependent on fossil fuels for transport and power. […] So carbon which was fixed as coal, oil and gas over millions of years is being released back into the atmosphere over a matter of decades. We are changing our planet’s environment in new and dangerous ways. We all speak glibly of ‘sustainable development’. It is a comforting expression. But as of today it is still a statement of hope rather than a reality.” This is still true today, a quarter of a century later.

After talking about over-fishing and the thinning of sea ice, she says: “It [sea ice] reflects most of the solar radiation falling on it, helping to cool the earth’s surface. If this area were reduced, the warming of the earth would be accelerated due to the extra absorption of radiation by the oceans.”

Now it gets interesting – she even quotes my favourite philosopher: “Even if we cannot yet fully assess the risks I have some sympathy with the view that we should take some precautionary measures. Immanuel Kant said that it is often necessary to make a decision on the basis of knowledge sufficient for action but insufficient to satisfy the intellect. Let us therefore do what makes sense in any event, such as conserving tropical forests and improving energy efficiency. In parallel we must intensify our scientific efforts to model and predict climate change. […] as well as getting the science right we must also get the economics right. That means putting a proper value on the global environment. […] the action we take must harness the market and therefore run with the grain of human nature. […] Although we can set an example in what we do we cannot go it alone. […] the risk of global climate change affects us all. Effective action therefore needs to be taken at the international level. We have proposed a global convention – a sort of good conduct guide on the environment for all the world’s nations on problems like the greenhouse effect. Before we can translate this into practical policy and precise targets there is a lot of scientific work to be done, and as a matter of urgency. Like the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve anything which is given free is rarely valued. This is especially true of the global environment which mankind has used as a dustbin for decades.”

I leave it to you readers to draw your own conclusions from this!

Image: Margaret Thatcher visiting Salford




Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsPoliticsScienceScience and Governmentscience and politics