Fun and philosophy at the BA talkfest

Next week sees the start of one of the year's most important meetings for scientists. Martin Rees is looking forward to it

Next week, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA) starts its annual meeting. The event, to be held this year at the University of Newcastle, offers a week-long festival of science. Some of the best scientists and presenters of popular science in Britain today will discuss and demonstrate just about everything, from "weighing" elusive sub-nuclear particles called neutrinos through the environmental causes of cancer to "The lost rocks of northern England". There will also be plenty of opportunities for hands-on exploration of basic scientific concepts and ideas.

As this year's president of the BA, I expect to find it fun (as I am sure all the participants will) and exhausting, too. Amid the festivities, I hope there will also be time for reflection about the place of science in Britain today.

One key might lie in an older nickname for the meeting than "festival". It has also been called the Parliament of Science. And there is the issue: in this most scientific and technological of times, what role and influence do Britain's scientists have among civil servants, politicians, policy- makers and opinion formers in wider society?

In the immediate post-war years, after the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists played a prominent role on the national and international stage. The priority was to alert the world to the dangers of the nuclear arms race, and the urgency of arms control. These issues may now have slipped down the agenda - the world is on a less short nuclear fuse than before. But a daunting range of new threats demands a similar commitment from the present scientific community.

Even in the worst phases of the Cold War, scientists maintained a substantial East-West dialogue. Regular discussion on security issues took place, for instance, at the Pugwash conferences, which were especially influential in the Sixties.

Other informal channels opened up later. One of the most effective has been between the US National Academy of Sciences and its Russian counterpart - expert groups from these bodies have met regularly since the Seventies, reporting back informally to their governments. Many of the participants - those who were involved in the SDI or "Star Wars" debate - now hold official posts in the US or Russia.

In the US, the Los Alamos generation of physicists (those who actually built the bomb) is being replaced by an equally impressive cohort of younger scientists, people who've done a spell in government, or in high-tech industry, and who serve regularly as consultants to the Defense Department or on advisory committees.

The US system offers academic scientists other routes to intensive involvement in public policy. Several US universities run part-time programmes on international security, aimed primarily at scientists. There is also the Jason group - physicists of the highest academic repute who meet regularly for several weeks per year, bringing fresh minds to bear on issues relevant to the Defense Department.

The younger Americans with this expertise, my own post-war generation, have no real counterparts here. We depend precariously on distinguished figures from the war generation, including Professor Joseph Rotblat (a founder, and now president, of the Pugwash Movement who will give a public lecture at the British Association next week).

The reasons for this transatlantic asymmetry aren't hard to find. In the US, senior staff can shuttle between government jobs and universities (or organisations such as the Brookings Institute), whenever the administration changes. Over here, on the other hand, government service is generally a lifetime career, and the more pervasive secrecy inhibits contact and discussion. On a personal level, my academic research has brought contact with many scientists from Los Alamos and Livermore (who attend academic conferences, and contribute to the open literature), but with none of their UK counterparts.

The meagre input of scientists into our political process is often bemoaned. It precludes a broad and well-informed debate on technical issues where well-thought-out new ideas are needed - energy, environment, and transport policy, as well as defence. The Government could follow the American example, and set up "Jason-style" groups - leading scientists from academe or industry who would not merely sit on advisory committees of the great and the good, but would commit themselves to carry out serious cross-disciplinary studies. This is, perhaps, an innovation the Government's new chief scientific adviser might consider. Another unmet need is a forum or institution that could fulfil, in the scientific and technical arena, a role similar to (for instance) that of Chatham House in foreign policy.

In so far as their expertise offers them special insight, scientists have an obligation to warn and influence government and the public generally. In the Cold War era, many of the "atomic scientists" conspicuously fulfilled this obligation. Current concerns are much more diverse, and should draw in many more people. Defence issues still rank high, but now there are other global concerns - threats without enemies. These are the interlinked issues of environment, resources, and biodiversity, and how these can be safeguarded without jeopardising the developmental aspirations of the poorer nations.

The UK has impressive credentials and a high international profile in the broad range of expertise that these global problems entail - problems that should loom as large in the political perspective as did the East- West political divide in the Cold War era.

Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, is this year's president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The BA's annual meeting is at Newcastle University, 9 to 15 September. Information: 0171-973 3500.

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn