Letters: Science needs protection


Science needs the protection of a system of public inquiry

Sir: The Government has consistently been pressed by many learned bodies to support the science underpinning sustainable development; it is therefore, disappointing to read that the National Environment Research Council (NERC) "business" review of the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) is proposing the loss of four research stations and the likely dispersal of several hundred staff.

A number of correspondents (11, 12 and 16 January) have described the world-class reputation of the CEH, its role in making sense of the complex interactions between human activity and the environment and its record of informing government policy. What has not been opened up for debate is the extent to which the review process was sound and whether the unhappy outcome may have highlighted the need for science to have the protection of a system of public inquiry.

It is difficult to regard the NERC review process as sound because there is little evidence of a competent strategic context, at least one that would stand up to the scrutiny of an examination in public. Essentially, the review has been little more than accountancy exercise that has made few concessions to the growing demands on CEH science, not least those relating to climate change, biodiversity, sustainable development and threats to food security. Most significantly, the study was a cost-limited process that meant cuts would be inevitable, despite the clamour of wider economic imperatives.

The implications of the approach taken by the CEH business review are serious. They will legitimise ways of undermining the science infrastructure at large by way of myriad small-scale, near market "business" adjustments.

Since our economic security ultimately depends on a robust well integrated science infrastructure, and since there is not much evidence of joined-up thinking in the science "business", it is probably time to think about taking important initiatives like the CEH review out of the "boardroom" and subjecting them and their authors to the rigour of some form of public inquiry. Public inquiries may have their problems; but they have a chastening effect on development proposals, are examined by advocates in public, and perhaps more importantly, they are decided within a democratically agreed strategic framework.



Optimism over oil puts us all in peril

Sir: Your feature on 20 January ("What they don't want you to know about the coming oil crisis") suggests the very real possibility that forecasts of how long we have oil to use are grossly over-optimistic. What frightens me most is the possibility of leaving alternatives too late through relying on the optimistic forecasts.

The oil may run out before we have alternatives in place; yet we need oil-based energy to construct those very alternatives. You cannot make a tidal barrage, or manufacture photo-voltaic panels, by hand-craft. We need a crash programme now, not any time soon, to back-fit all existing buildings with insulation and energy-saving devices as well as insisting that all new buildings embody these features; to construct renewable-energy generators in the technologies that are already proven; and to reconfigure the tax system to penalise the use of non-renewable energy.

We have arrived at a global market with no hope of what would make that manageable: global government. Meanwhile states are, individually, insecure. Security of energy and of food should be the priorities of our government regardless of global-market-defined financial cost.



Sir: Twenty thousand, not 2,000 wind turbines would be needed to supply 20 per cent of our electricity requirements (letter, 18 January). That same amount of power needs to be on standby from another source to prevent our lights going out when the wind does not blow. Nuclear power stations that do not pollute the atmosphere seem appropriate.

To advocate spending more tax payers money on tidal and wave power investigations is irresponsible. Existing research reports concluded that should barrages be built on the Severn, Mersey, Morecambe Bay and Solway Firth only 12 per cent of our electricity needs might be met. The schemes were considered to be not viable due to cost, the time required to build them, and most importantly, adverse environmental effects due to water level changes.



Sir: As is often the case, and almost inevitably so in green issues, British governments of any complexion show an amazing lack of initiative. The diesel engine was originally designed to run on vegetable oils, so recycling edible oils for this purpose is an obvious route for a greener fuel policy.

In Malta, for over a year now there has been a scheme for recycling waste vegetable oil, not just from commercial users but also from households (there is a greater use of cooking oil domestically in Malta and other Mediterranean countries than in the UK), householders even being provided with containers for returning used cooking oil to local collection points, usually at garages.

The bio-diesel produced from the cooking oil is tax free. But in the UK? Well, the Government has to take its cut.



Lesson of the London whale

Sir: The "London whale" has captured the imaginations of millions of Britons over the last few days, showing just how charismatic cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are. Whilst extensive resources have been mobilised to come to the aid of this individual animal, across the world far greater resources are devoted to killing tens of thousands of cetaceans each year. For example, as well as the almost 1,500 "great" whales that Japan will kill in the name of scientific research in 2006, it is also responsible for the deaths of over 20,000 small cetaceans annually. Each one of these animals, whether in sight of Big Ben or not, deserves our concern.

The Environmental Investigation Agency was one of a number of NGOs that wrote to the Prime Minister on Friday to call for an increase in the UK's diplomatic pressure on Japan over this issue. We hope that nation's response to the "London whale" will provide the additional motivation he may need to take action.



Sir: How refreshing it is to see such an illogical spend of money as the failed rescue mission of the whale in the Thames. In a society so obsessed with the bottom line, spending £100,000 on a doomed rescue mission has revealed the hidden freedom of the human spirit. And hopefully, the whale has done more than provide us with a weekend's worth of entertainment. Perhaps some of the millions of people around the world who followed the whale's plight will consider the connection between our unsustainable lifestyles and what we risk losing.



Governments that have shot to kill

Sir: Simon Reeve claims that "Until 11 September 2001, Israel was the only democratic nation obviously using targeted killings" against terrorism ("Olympics Massacre: Munich - The real story", 22 January).

The UK repeatedly appeared to shoot-to-kill IRA terrorists in the 1980s. The Gal, who assassinated many ETA members in the 1980s, included many mercenaries, and are hard to account for except as proxies for the Spanish government. In 1985, French agents bombed anti-nuclear activists in New Zealand, killing a photographer.

Simon Reeve further claims that 9/11 might not have occurred if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been resolved after Munich. One problem was that Yasser Arafat was continuously agitating for the eventual destruction of Israel throughout his 40-odd years of PLO chairmanship.



Picasso's vision of the Crucifixion

Sir: In your report on Gilbert and George's controversial new exhibition ("Was Jesus heterosexual?" , 20January), George, the one with the glasses, claims that Picasso "never painted a crucifixion" alas, G&G's art history has let them down.

Picasso painted a famous crucifixion which hangs in the Picasso Museum in Paris. Like many artists, Picasso was keen to compare himself to Jesus, with whose suffering he identified. In Picasso's case it wasn't the Romans or the Jews who were after him but a gang of ferocious female lovers who take the place of the traditional Marys at the base of the crucifixion. Was Picasso's Jesus hetrosexual? You bet.



Labelled for having a learning disability

Sir: Although I know him to be a stout defender of people with a learning disability, I was rather surprised to see that your new columnist, Dominic Lawson, chose to describe them as "mentally handicapped" (17 and 20 January).

He must know that most people with a learning disability loathe labels, anyway, and now look on the term "mentally handicapped" with horror and disdain. Even the largest and most influential charity, Mencap, has bowed to the inevitable and dropped the offending words from its title. Six years ago, we became the Royal Mencap Society and the acronym, Mencap, is now derived from the title of the Mental Capacity Act which assumes that all people have capacity unless proved otherwise.

The arguments surrounding labels continue. There is a strong body of opinion which favours "intellectual disability", thus describing the condition more accurately and it is in fairly common use internationally. However, I do not believe people with a learning disability have ever been consulted about this in any depth and perhaps one or two of them might care to join in this correspondence, giving their considered opinion. But I must warn them that, as with a tanker at sea, it takes an awfully long time for the world at large to alter course.



Muslim memorial to the Holocaust

Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown casually misrepresents the position of the Muslim Council of Britain, accusing us of declining to "mourn victims of one of the deadliest mass exterminations in human history" ( 23 January).

The MCB fully accepts and recognises the monstrous horror and cruelty that underpinned the Nazi holocaust. The reason the MCB has called for a more inclusive "Genocide Memorial Day" is because across the globe - not just among Muslims - there is a widespread view that we in the west practise double standards and devalue the lives of non-westerners.

In the MCB's view, the subtext of the Holocaust Memorial Day would thus be better served and help make the cry "Never Again" real for all people who suffer, even now.

In the last decade we have seen genocide take place in both Rwanda (one million killed in 1994 in the space of a few weeks) and Chechnya (10 per cent of its population has been killed since the Russians launched their invasion of the tiny republic.)

We need to do more than just reflect on the past. We must be able to recognise when similar abuses occur in our own time.



Cheese and wine tasting

Sir: Cahal Milmo seems to confuse two different statements about wine and cheese ("How cheese makes finest wines taste like cheap plonk", 19 January). Just because wine enhances the flavour of cheese it does not mean cheese enhances the flavour of wine.



Lib Dem latest

Sir: I'd always wondered what the purpose of the Liberal Democrats was, but now at last I know. Those of us who would never dream of watching the likes of Celebrity Big Brother can now get the same voyeuristic thrill simply by keeping up with the latest developments in the Lib Dems. And what's more, it's guilt free as we can pretend that all we're doing is taking an interest in current affairs (perhaps on reflection not the best choice of phrase). So, thanks guys. Keep it up, I can't wait for the next instalment!



Bank holiday break

Sir: What a lot of piffle has been written about Mr Brown's proposal for a bank holiday to celebrate our nationhood (Letters, 23 January), linked to some notable person or happening in our history. People don't want a day off to wag flags and watch processions; what they really would welcome is a break, to do as they wish, between August and Christmas. So let's push August Bank Holiday back to its original position at the beginning of the month and institute Autumn Bank Holiday on the first Monday in October. Simple.



Hackney and Haggerston

Sir: Terry Kirby's sense of direction ("Hipper than Hoxton: why Haggerston is the place to be", 22 January) is skewed. Bistrotheque and Cambridge Heath Road are not in Haggerston; they are in Bethnal Green. Bethnal Green is in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets; Haggerston in the London Borough of Hackney. Here in Tower Hamlets we are very touchy about being mistaken for residents of Hackney. Hackney is the most corrupt borough in Britain; Tower Hamlets the second most corrupt borough in Britain.



Costly clip

Sir: Your article "The ten best things to buy this week" (23 January) refers to a £55 paper clip as "witty". That's not just witty, that's downright facetious!



Fourth republic

Sir: Three British republics (Letters, 23 January)? Who is being left out - the English, Welsh, Scots or Cornish?



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