Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Seven pillars of piffle

The Science and Technology Committee (which now must be termed the "Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee" for reasons hard to fathom) has been taking evidence on the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser from Sir David King, today. The parallel universe that he inhabits is rather an odd one.

Here are some of the royal gems:

Ignorance is best.

Sir David asserted that he was better at challenging people on subjects he was unfamiliar with, such as epidemiology, as he was "able to keep some distance from the issue".

Killing animals because the computer says so is good

When asked what the best moments had been as Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David replied that it was "demonstrating that science could offer a solution to the foot and mouth outbreak". It had showed how complex phenomena could be computer-modelled, he said. (That it showed too that a government could, with advice from a group that was neither expert nor accountable, manage to slaughter over 10 million animals and cause rural trauma the effects of which still reverberate - was not mentioned.)

Upsetting Number 10 is bad but telling people that global warming is bad is good.

Sir David said that he regretted the phrase "global warming was a bigger threat than global terrorism" because Number 10 had "made its displeasure well known". However, he added that the result of the statement was a growing "acceptance of the threat of climate change". One wonders if he had cast a glance at the article today on Sunspot activity in today's Independent. It might have made him a little less adamant about the current dogmas.

Cuts are increases.

Sir David said that the 'flooding study' had produced an increase in funding for the Environment Agency's work. No mention of the swingeing cuts to be borne by the same Agency, expected to cut £14.9m on flood defences and £9m on environmental protection. (Guardian) The poor cash-strapped Environment Agency is now seriously proposing abandoning the maintenance of established defences - which will leave farmland and isolated homes even more vulnerable to flooding in counties such as Suffolk.

Foot and Mouth policy has "science" embedded in it and is evidence-based.

When the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris asked if the Government's use of evidence had improved over recent years, Sir David said that Foot and mouth disease had been "a good example of this". Comparing the 2007 and 2001 outbreaks he said that "Science had been embedded in the thinking on high-profile, high-risk issues". No one seems to have pressed him to explain the meaning of that statement.

DEFRA's amazing progress

On the question of raising the profile of science within Government departments, Sir David said that in DEFRA, 'amazing' progress had been made. No one seems to have asked him what this meant either. He did however say that Pirbright "needed rebuilding". Was he saying this before the disastrous leak in August? (See Times)

GM modification of crops. Very, very good for us all.

Brian Iddon asked why Sir David was raising the issue of GM food again. David King said that the issue had "matured" and that there was now a better information base on the health and biodiversity issues involved. He did not elaborate. New crop technologies would be needed to feed the world's growing population, he asserted - evidently not concerned by arguments such as those by a contributor to the FAO's Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture, Professor El-Tayeb, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Industrial Biotechnology at Cairo University who says:
"..currently available (GMO's) mostly contribute negatively to poverty alleviation and food security and positively to the stock market."

Well, it will soon be goodbye from Sir David. Like the log entries of the Starship Enterprise, the legacy of his tenure will be properly chronicled one day and people will marvel. Meanwhile, where will he boldly go? He denies that he is taking up a post in the Bio-tech industry. But undoubtedly Brave New Worlds await him and we wish him God's speed on his journey away - Warp Factor 8 at the very least.

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