Alec Broers: Ignore science at your peril

Technology cannot stop natural disasters, but it can mitigate their impact
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The Independent Online

But it is when we look on the global scale that we really start to appreciate the desperate need for engineering, science and technology to be embedded within political decision-making systems. The failure to do so is a perilous mistake, measured in terms of lives lost.

Long before the Asian tsunami struck, the science community predicted the particular region of Indonesia to be hit by the next big earthquake; and the engineering and technology community had developed early warning systems costing only $30m (£17.22m). But no government in the region heeded the warnings and no early warning systems were in place. According to Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, 100,000 victims of the tsunami might still be alive today if the advance warnings had been heeded. We ignore technology at our peril.

Today's technology community is a triumph of international collaboration where engineers and scientists combine to develop solutions to our biggest problems. Of course, technology cannot stop natural disasters but it can mitigate their impact. We are able to identify the birds affected by avian flu. We can chart their migration patterns around the world. We have the means to pursue vaccines. And we have the communication channels to keep people informed.

Extolling the virtues of technology is not to pretend technology is perfect in every regard. Far from it. The profligate and unsustainable use of technology in energy and transport has contributed to climate change. But that does not mean technology has failed us. We must never lose sight of the fact that technology itself will deliver the solutions to the very problems it can create. If we do, technology will remain sidelined and undervalued, and this major social failure will progressively disadvantage us all.

Governments are not alone in ignoring the views of their scientific community; the public too has its doubts. In my view, part of the reason for this lack of confidence must be down to our own failure to engage them in a meaningful way about their concerns. Trust is a two-way street. Instead of claiming that everything would be rosy in the scientific garden "if only they - the public - understood", we, in the science community, must work hard to explore concerns, discover fears and delve deep into the depths of public perceptions. If only we understood!

We are getting there. There is a growing realisation that effective public engagement is of far greater value than banging the "public understanding" drum. Last year, for example, the Royal Academy of Engineering, in partnership with the Royal Society, produced a major report on nanotechnology. We looked at the environmental, health and safety, ethical and social implications. We worked with representatives of all the key stakeholders and disciplines, people who approached the topic from a variety of angles. And I believe the product of our work was significantly enhanced as a result of this broad, inclusive approach.

There are still doubters, of course, and sadly their cause is helped whenever they come across opinions presented as fact. All of us - engineers, scientists, politicians and, yes, even journalists - must guard against this debilitating practice. In time, effective public engagement should help deliver improved trust as well as better policy, which - in turn - might make it more difficult for scientists' warnings to be ignored.

I knew 'Triumph of Technology' was a provocative title for my 2005 BBC Reith Lectures and I anticipated that some would think I was speaking as a blind advocate for technology. But my concern was - is - that, as a nation, we don't embrace technology as we should, nor give it its proper profile.

My vision is of a society embracing technology as a weapon of both progress and of defence. Since the beginning of civilisation, we have relied on it and enjoyed its benefits - and most new technologies have had hugely beneficial effects for most people.

But now, in an age when the death toll from natural disasters is increasing year on year, with more people living in danger zones, it is ever more urgent that we rely on science and technology to warn us of the dangers to come and provide the solutions we need.

Yes, let us turn to creative engineers and life-enabling technologies in the wake of natural disasters - as we will in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Pakistan. But we surely owe it to the tens of thousands who have lost their lives this year to use them more and to deploy their skills earlier.

Lord Broers is President of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Chairman of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. His BBC Reith Lectures 2005 are published this week by Cambridge University Press