I am very grateful indeed to the Science Museum for this special opportunity to visit and open the new Atmosphere Gallery which, if I may say so, is a very timely addition to this remarkable place of learning, which I remember coming to as a child – a long time ago! It is a very great pleasure for me to be here because, along with the many other museums in this part of London, this institution was established out of the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was created by my great-great-great-Grandfather – ably supported, I might add, by my great-great-great-Grandmother!
I have long admired Prince Albert. He was very much ahead of his time and saw the value in creating institutions that could educate people by entertaining and inspiring them on a grand scale. And your new gallery certainly lives up to that ideal.
Alas, however, as you know only too well, climate science has taken a battering of late. It is why I specifically paid a visit to the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia earlier this year. It is home to the Climatic Research Unit and I have been its Patron for nearly twenty years. I wanted to discuss with them the appalling treatment they had endured during the so-called “Climategate” row because, as they reminded me, the University of East Anglia is not a campaigning NGO, nor an industry lobby group. It is an academic institution working to understand precisely and dispassionately what is happening to our world; to separate the facts from the fiction and build the sum of human knowledge on the one issue that could very well balloon into the cause of our downfall.
On my visit, I was given a briefing on the latest hard facts of science and it is all thoroughly depressing. We now have a pretty clear picture of what is happening as a result of human activity and that allows us to build reliable models that chart the risks we take with our children and grand children's future if we carry on with business as usual. Emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to rise – they are doing so now – and so we all must decide what we do about it. And that leads me to the point I would just like to make this morning.
Science, as you know far better than I, derives ultimately from the Greek word for “knowledge.” It is no more, nor less, than that. The challenge for society is what we choose to do with that knowledge.
Perhaps the best way I could explain what I mean is by concentrating on one subject very much connected to the issue of Climate Change - the process of producing our food.
Over the past fifty years, many farmers around the world have been encouraged to adopt industrialized techniques that rely almost completely upon the use of artificial inputs – chemical fertilizers, pesticides, growth promoters, prophylactic use of antibiotics and so on and so forth. This is the result of the honest work done by many excellent scientists and, yes, it has improved yields and produced more food. Many believe that continuing on this path is the only way to provide enough food, especially if the global population will soon reach nine billion. But we cannot ignore the many negative effects that this approach is now having. You only have to consider the massive loss of biodiversity to see what I mean, or the huge and unsustainable dependence upon fossil fuels, or the alarming quantities of water it all demands.
Some scientists have suggested that we could actually feed the world’s burgeoning population if we concentrate on the health of the soil, rather than techniques for growing things faster and continuously. They are demonstrating that a sustainable approach to agriculture, free from Man-made inputs, is possible, if we apply our scientific thinking the right way. I am thinking particularly of the recent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, chaired by DEFRA’s Chief Scientist, Bob Watson. And here I just want to emphasize that, when, for instance, I try to advocate a more sustainable form of agriculture, I do so not from a position of complete ignorance, but from a view informed by extensive science which, to my mind, vindicates the wisdom of age-old, traditional techniques - those that concentrate on what the soil needs to make the land productive in the long term. So, far from being “anti-science”, I am very much “pro” the application of learning that enables us to balance productivity against the need for Nature’s systems to remain healthy in the long term. The great irony, of course, of all this anti-science stuff is that here I am endlessly supporting the science of climate change, when it is being vigorously and ruthlessly opposed by all those whom you would have thought were vigorously “pro-science” in every shape and form!
It is, of course, the policy-makers who decide the course the world takes. They steer issues like development, agricultural subsidy and market reform, but only a mature and well-educated society can direct those policy-makers to take the right decisions. And that depends upon two critical factors that should surely concern all of us here.
The first is that the public needs to understand science much better than they do. This was brought into sharp focus for me earlier this Summer when I read a survey which showed that nearly 60 per cent of the population no longer trusts scientists to tell the truth about controversial scientific and technological issues because, and I quote, “scientists depend more and more on money from industry”. If this is so, then the scientific community has a big problem that could block important progress on something as crucial as climate change.
This is a matter that concerns me greatly. It is why my Teaching Institute has just completed a second, big residential course for science teachers in secondary schools. Not only did it strive to reinvigorate them with a love of their actual subject, it also brought them up to speed on just some of the latest developments in science. This is really important, it seems to me as it would appear that all too often science teachers, through no fault of their own, are not as up to date as they could be on what is happening in science. Let me give you one apparently small example that came to light towards the end of the course – the number of science teachers who still teach children to write up their experiments in the “passive” voice rather than the “active” voice. As you no doubt known far better than I, the passive voice went out decades ago among the PHD community at the cutting edge of scientific research, but the vast majority of teachers still teach it, simply because that is how they were taught.
Little things like that can actually make a colossal difference when you are trying to inspire children to engage with science and learn through their own experience of what they have done.
So much for the education of the public; the second crucial ingredient is for everyone involved in science to understand their responsibilities. It is not enough for scientists to say that all they do is the science and it is for others to apply it. Scientists, like everyone else, must ensure they understand the social, moral and economic implications of their work. Only then will they be sensitive to the way a short-term goal can all too easily obscure a long-term impact, especially if there is pressure to exploit their discoveries commercially.
It is only by developing a far greater understanding of this process of relationship that, we will be able to strike a better balance between scientific knowledge and the impact we have when we apply that knowledge to the world around us. And, in turn, that could lead to a greater trust between science and society at large. Your new gallery reflects the fact that you understand this brilliantly, and I congratulate everyone involved in its development.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here because I wish to defend science. But this support for science must not blind us to the need for informed debate. Science can explain, it can offer signposts, but it cannot make decisions. That is a job for society. Albert Einstein is supposed to have had a sign above his desk that read: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” I do hope he did because, for me, that says it all.