Letters: Science funding

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Threat to ecology shows ludicrous state of science funding

Sir: Congratulations on your report "Driven to extinction" (8 January). This clearly demonstrates the ludicrous state we have reached in the funding of British science.

As a past director of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (now renamed the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology ), I would like to comment on the underlying problems causing the latest proposal to close three more research stations, thus further limiting our ability to undertake essential ecological research. This proposal is the latest stage of a long period of financial starvation that the institute has faced, which is little short of lunacy, when one considers the huge environmental problems facing the world today.

These difficulties in funding stem from the decision in 1974 to take these research stations out of the then Nature Conservancy and to put them into the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). This coincided with the implementation of the "Rothschild principle of funding", in which 40 per cent of our funds had to be earned under contracts with other environmental agencies. It immediately became obvious that the institute was not competitive in its costs, due largely to the huge overheads required to support NERC headquarters. During subsequent years and several reorganisations, we had to sack many valuable members of staff and close several stations, as funds became shorter. This was at a time of growing concern over environmental issues, and so at no time could anyone doubt the political relevance of the work that we were doing.

As financial pressures grew, it became increasingly difficult to find customers for the long-term research which was so obviously required, and which had been the basis for the high reputation of the institute. Such work demands guaranteed funds over long periods of time, if we were to identify and explain the changes occurring in the natural environment, but such commitment of money was rarely obtainable.

In my opinion, the closure of the Monkswood, Winfrith, and Banchory stations cannot be allowed, if our government's stated commitment to defending our natural environment is to be taken seriously. If these cuts go ahead, we must surely ask whether NERC is the right agency to have responsibility for such essential long-term research. There is much to be learnt from this sad tale.



Lib Dems argue over the fall of Kennedy

Sir: As a Liberal and Liberal Democrat member for the past 44 years and having given more of my spare time and cash to the party than could reasonably be expected, I found Nick Clegg's article "We need a leader with experience not youth" hard to stomach (10 January).

I thought we had a leader with experience, and if it was time for a change it was for the members, not 25 nameless MPs, to decide. Charles acted entirely correctly; he stood down and called a leadership election. The 25 plotters decided that he should not be a candidate and blackmailed him into withdrawing his nomination.

These 25 MPs have by their actions made it clear that they will dictate who will become leader by withholding support from any of their number they do not approve of, rendering a meaningful ballot pointless. Mr Clegg should not peddle the idea that those of us with principles merely harbour "absurd and silly notions".



Sir: To counter the tide of support for Charles Kennedy from Liberal Democrat members, I know that there are many Lib Dem supporters who are heaving a huge sigh of relief that his torpid tenure has at last ended. Kennedy was not a leader, he was a man slumbering in possession, squandering the greatest opportunity the Lib Dems had ever had.

During his leadership the Tories were unelectable and in utter disarrray as they went through Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard. The chance to supplant them as the second-largest party was an open goal. But Kennedy failed to take the kind of opportunity that may never come again.

Given the unpopularity of Blair, the Iraq war and Michael Howard, that Mr Kennedy edged the LibDems up to a record 62 MPs in the 2005 election was not a cause for celebration, but one for lamentation; the Lib Dems should have had nearer 100 MPs.

A leader worth his salt would certainly not have allowed it to be known that he had been asked to "raise his game"; his tolerating this was the last straw for me. His failures as a leader may have been exacerbated by the alcohol, but his failure remains a leadership failure. Whoever takes over from him will rue that Kennedy's hanging on so long has given the Tories a chance to regroup under David Cameron.



Nothing weird about organic farming

Sir: Johann Hari is right; you can't call yourself an environmentalist if, like David Cameron, you're in favour of "a concerted programme of road building" (Opinion, 5 January). By the same token, Hari's championship of intensive, chemical-laden agriculture renders his own green credentials pretty worthless.

Hari paints organic farming as some anti-scientific, mystical sect which was "created in the 1920s by Rudolph Steiner". Wrong. That was "biodynamic farming", whose methods (yes, phases of the moon, homoepathic soil treatments and other weirdness) are alien to most organic farmers.

Prior to the introduction of chemical fertilisers in the 20th century, all farming was "organic", though that doesn't mean all agriculture and animal husbandry adhered to best practices.

The organic movement in Britain owes little to Steiner and much to such down-to-earth figures as the Victorian horticulturist Henry Doubleday and the Edwardian botanist and livestock expert Sir Albert Howard, both of whom were (bend the knee, Johann) "scientists".

Sustainable agriculture, with its emphasis on soil micro- organisms, composting, crop rotation and avoidance of poisons, is just as "scientific" as intensive farming. Since it encourages biodiversity, doesn't dump tons of phosphates into rivers and seas, delivers food untainted by pesticide residues and growth promoters, it's better science. It doesn't require farmers rely on the multinationals that manufacture phosphates and genetically modified seeds. I suggest Johann Hari lays off the Soil Association and gets stuck into Monsanto.



Sir: Johann Hari describes me as a "fierce opponent of wind power". I have never once expressed opposition to wind power. On the contrary I am a supporter of a number of wind-farm organisations and firmly believe that Britain's future energy portfolio will include both on- and off-shore wind. What's important is that wind farms are constructed in appropriate environments and with the involvement of local communities. That has not always been the case.

Mr Hari's assertion that my only answer to climate change involves saving energy is similarly false. It is true that energy conservation would lead to massive energy savings. If every light bulb in the UK was energy efficient, we'd save the power equivalent of a nuclear-power plant. Indeed, it has been calculated by the Rocky Mountain Institute that a pound spent on energy efficiency buys seven times more "solution" than a pound invested in nuclear power. Energy conservation is key, but it's clearly not enough. We are going to have to encourage the adoption of a wide range of renewable energy technologies. And we need to find ways of minimising our use of oil, not least by shortening the distance between consumers and producers of food.



A faith that is no enemy to reason

Sir: I hesitate to engage in argument with a polemicist as brilliant as Professor Richard Dawkins (6 January). However, his understanding of religion is one that I do not recognise in 78 years of living as a Catholic. The evils he attributes to religion are, indeed, sad manipulations of religion. It would equally distort science to condemn it because it is used to create weapons of death and destruction, or because some of its applications are destroying the planet on which we live.

I taught in a Catholic school for many years, whose motto was In Omnibus Caritas ("In all things, love") and endeavoured to communicate values such as thoughtfulness, mutual respect, reconciliation, supporting each other and all those other attractive virtues personified in Jesus and described so colourfully in the Gospel. It is quite foreign to the spirit of the Gospel to berate those of other religious affiliations or none.

I have no problem with the notion of a world evolving from simple matter, which I believe was created. Nor do I have a problem with "following reason wherever it leads". The truth is sacred, whatever its implications. I know I am not exceptional, indeed rather the norm among Catholics in expressing these ideas.



Sir: Children ask all kinds of questions about who we are, how things were created and why, but I have yet to hear my five-year-old son ask me about the equity of wealth distribution or if the expansion of government spending will cause a rise in inflation. For Professor Dawkins to argue that we should not teach children about religion on the basis that we do not teach them about politics and economics is nonsense. I do not advocate ramming religion down my son's throat but I certainly try to answer his questions.



Blair grapples with hooligan culture

Sir: Respect is rooted in the home. Children who are not brought up within a stable, loving family are more or less disadvantaged - at whatever "level" in society. If we believe we can radically correct early deprivation by teenage coercion we are deceiving ourselves ("PM sets out 'respect' approach to tackle hooliganism", 10 January).

We can only seek, by universal example, to inculcate true values from the earliest possible age. Legislation may keep our heads above water: it can never bring us ashore.



Sir: There has been a conspicuous neglect by Tony Blair's government to set and encourage a positive standard of social behaviour. Instead, the Government has sat back and allowed a rampant influx into British society of anti-social messages.

These are contained in violent video games, rampant porn, monetary greed, binge-drinking, greed-driven footballer lifestyles and overt sexualism of pop music and television programmes. The anti-social behaviour we witness across Britain today is induced by the examples set by these images, coupled with "poor parenting".

Why are British youngsters not being given positive examples of social respect, social responsibility and social caring and sharing by pop stars, the media, footballers and film stars? The Government has failed to take any demonstrable steps to put a positive stress on social citizenship.

British society has been left exposed to anti-social messages and images. These have inevitably become the staple diet of the current generation of British children and teenagers.



Muslims should join in Holocaust day

Sir: Holocaust Memorial Day will take place in March. Last year's event saw a boycott by the Muslim Council of Britain for reasons that were linked to the military clampdowns in the West Bank and Gaza; the MCB suggested that the event should have been named Genocide Day, to take into account the genocides in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda.

I hope that this year the MCB does attend the Holocaust Memorial Day. I hope that its representatives are there in the front row and that never again does a boycott take place in the name of any leading faith-based organisation.

In a world that seems to be becoming more divided, we should never allow the politics of division to become our discourse within the United Kingdom. And we must look at how we can build bridges in this coming year.



Unborn women

Sir: I wonder what is going through the minds of advocates of abortion, following the news (9 January) that some 10 million Indian baby girls never saw the light of day just because they happened to be the "wrong" sex. How do they square that with their "women's right to choose"?



Male stereotypes

Sir: Perhaps Jackie Bartram (letter, 9 January) should consider how men feel when we are portrayed in television soap operas as controlling, wife-beating, selfish, lying, sexual predators without any saving graces. Also consider that we are charged higher car insurance premiums due to pure chance of birth. Is this brand of stereotyping acceptable?



Compassion for all

Sir: Ellie Levenson laments in her article (9 January ) that people seem to prefer giving to animal charities than to those involved in tackling "human" dilemmas such as child poverty. I regularly donate to several charities dealing with animal cruelty and welfare, and took the decision years ago to become a vegan. Together with my husband, I also sponsor a child in India, and support charities such as Crisis (helping homeless people). Many of us "dog people" don't feel it to be a case of helping an animal instead of a human being.



Bedside drama

Sir: News of the Pope and George Best's every last gurgle was relayed to us from media camper vans and now it is Ariel Sharon's turn. Despite the Sunday voices of impatient correspondents, the main casualty is dignity. The level of gruesome detail given by medical teams about their patient's condition makes us feel we are on the ward round, qualified to be there from years of watching hospital dramas. There is an element of thrill. The hospital authorities should resist pressure from news editors and tell us only whether their patient is alive or dead.



Perils of wine

Sir: Why does the press always feature a picture of someone drinking beer to illustrate a horror story about alcohol (report, 7 January)? And why does wine always get a good press when the increase in alcohol consumption is due to wine, while beer consumption is falling?