Letters: The study of insects


Study of insects is vital for combating environmental threat

Sir: We wish to state our considerable disquiet at the planned reorganisation of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)-funded Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), a key organisation responsible for understanding environmental issues, including the ecology of insects (report, 10 February).

The number of CEH sites is to be reduced from nine to four, with closure of three major stations in Huntingdonshire, Dorset and Aberdeenshire, to "rationalise" the organisation. Reports indicate the savings will amount to only £2m to £3m a year, and restructuring will cost £45m. This will result in the serious loss of scientific posts (about 200) and expertise in many disciplines, including insect science.

Insects are essential to humankind because of their role as pollinators, scavengers, or predators and parasites of other invertebrates. True, some insect species are pests, but most of the near-million recorded species are either beneficial or harmless. They are huge global players in our ecologies.

The recent disclosure about the fate of CEH is surprising because it appears to be at variance with the Government's concerns about, and commitment to, environmental issues. CEH has a worldwide reputation for excellence in the biological sciences, especially ecology, and has produced some of the most innovative and important work in insect ecology and other areas of biology over the past four decades.

We strongly urge the Government to reconsider the proposed restructuring so that CEH's unique expertise and facilities are not lost in an attempt to save a relatively small amount.



ID cards impinge on essential freedoms

Sir: With ID cards now being linked to passports (Report, 13 February) the Labour government is keeping us prisoner on this island. A free society should be one where law-abiding citizens are able to move around freely, travel abroad and even leave the country and society of which they are members, if they wish to do so. This is one very noticeable difference between democracies and totalitarian states. Being unable to get the necessary documentation to leave the country, without also submitting to having an identity card, giving the Government access to more personal information, is fundamentally against this.

Tony Blair will downplay the level and type of information to stored on these cards, but this begs the question: if we have passports, why do we need ID cards? They must carry more information about us than a passport or there would be no point to them. What kind of information would the government like them to hold? Do they intend to wear us down over a period of time and hope that we will give up on the debate about civil liberties in favour of more fashionable issues which are less difficult for the government to respond to?

We should strongly resist a government that locks foreign nationals and its own citizens in prisons without trial, that lies to its citizens about the reasons for going to war and that tries to regulate our lives seemingly without end.



Sir: As an unemployed computer programmer with experience of government IT projects, I am delighted ID cards are being introduced.

Now we can look forward to another government IT farce with all the familiar features: profiteering by the private sector, inadequate and contradictory requirements, arbitrary technology choices driven by political or career motives rather than suitability to the project, late delivery at hugely inflated cost, endless post-delivery rework, complete breakdown in communication between clients and contractors, and constant in-fighting among government clients who have no idea what they want the system to do except to ensure the buck lands as far from Whitehall as possible.

This should provide a welcome boost to the industry by using huge sums of taxpayers' money to create valuable, skilled IT jobs. Probably in India, if the DfTI has any say in the matter.



Sir: It appears that, despite success in preventing several terrorist attacks post 7/7 with present security and legal arrangements in place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is intent on pursuing a costly ID card scheme without providing any of the cost-benefit analysis which should inform such a major initiative. Why not?



Religious selection is also selection

Sir: I was amused at the hypocrisy of at least two of the Kent headteachers who argued so passionately against selection at secondary entry (Letters, 10 February).

The two Tunbridge Wells heads, at least, manage denominational schools, which can hardly be described as non- selective, since a place at their schools depends on parents who have put in the requisite long years in the pews of the relevant church, and obtained references from their priest.

This application to religious worship on the part of the hopeful parents of prospective pupils means churches in our town are fuller than in most of England. No doubt the heads of faith schools can campaign vigorously against selection by ability, which is at least based on some characteristics of the child, secure in the knowledge that they will be able to go on selecting children to their hearts' content. Motes and beams come to mind.



Sir: Blame for the appalling social divisions in our education system should not be laid entirely at the door of the 11-plus. The independent sector, within which the children of the better-off secure educational advantage, makes achievement of a meritocracy impossible. It's sad that what should be a strong Labour government has sufficient will to tinker with only the state sector.



The ethics of the diamond trade

Sir: The campaign by Amnesty International and Global Witness against conflict diamonds (Report, 10 February) is to be commended.

The World Diamond Council has been working with all sectors of the diamond industry, 70 governments and the NGOs (including Amnesty International and Global Witness) in the "Kimberley Process" to end the traffic in conflict diamonds and to ensure diamonds are a force for good in Africa.

The countries, such as Sierra Leone and Angola, that have suffered so much in civil strife, desperately need their mineral resources for essential reconstruction and development. Today, 99.8 per cent of rough diamonds for the jewellery industry are from conflict-free sources, and are certified as such by the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an international agreement mandated by the UN General Assembly and endorsed by the Security Council. Diamonds are helping many stable African countries towards sustainable economic development, freeing their citizens from the cycle of poverty and dependence on aid.

Yes, consumers should ask for assurance that their diamonds are conflict-free, and retailers be able to provide that reassurance, but the impression should not be given that conflict diamonds are everywhere.



Romantic love has been with us forever

Sir: I have to disagree with Johann Hari (Opinion, 13 February) when he claims romantic love is "a recent cultural invention". Seneca may not have believed in Eros between husband and wife but some of the great classical myths are based entirely upon that. Take Daphnis and Chloe, the quintessential Greek lovers, whose love formed the basis for a strong and happy marriage. Every Shakespeare comedy ends in a marriage based on love and, in the real world, Milton was mourning his "late espoused saint" long before Jane Austen "popularised" the idea.

There have always been those who believe in a romantic love that lasts forever, just as there have always been those who understand that marriage is as much about duty as it is love.



Sir: If Johann Hari thinks that romantic love in marriage is an invention of the 18th century, what does he make of Othello?



Reading between the lines of exams

Sir: Philip Hensher's contribution to the debate about reading in schools (Opinion, 1 February) is particularly important now because the goal-posts have moved dramatically.

There used to be a balance between wider reading and examination texts. Regrettably, English teachers have become crammers and students encounter far fewer books than they used to: half the number, one estimate shows. You can now study Emma for AS-level and again for A2. A professor from a London college told me last summer: "We stopped asking students what they had read five years ago because they hadn't read anything."

But the fault lies not in our students but with those in authority. Politicians, examination boards and teachers are colluding, by drafting and redrafting coursework, modular exams and retakes, all sorts of notes and the internet, to produce better results. In the words of a former headmaster who became disenchanted: "The Government still believes it can fatten the pig simply by weighing it constantly." This will be the real Blair legacy.



Prescribing heroin is a positive for society

Sir: The leading article (11 February) states that the prescription of heroin was outlawed by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This is not the case. Whilst the practice of heroin prescribing was severely restricted after the 1960s, there are about 50 consultants prescribing to some 500 patients across the UK.

But these figures have remained stable for many years. DrugScope would welcome the extension of this practice because research demonstrates there are positive outcomes for users and society - better health and less crime - and would support the overall NHS drive towards patient choice.



Days of wine and decadence

Sir: Were the articles in pages two and three in your edition of 11 February deliberately placed side by side to make a point? Page two was about the grim fate of ecosystems, animals and entire cultures because of global warming caused largely by emissions from transport systems, particularly aeroplanes; page three was about a billionaire who transported one £55,000 bottle of wine over the Atlantic in his private jet.

Then, further down, another snippet about Mary Antoinette's decadent high life amid the squalor of impoverished Paris.



Air of hypocrisy

Sir: Tony Blair has warned world leaders they have "less than seven years to save the planet" (Report, 8 February). By coincidence, seven years is also the target set by the Government to have new runways at Stansted and Luton. Mr Blair seems to be to the aviation industry as George Bush is to the oil industry. One wonders what agenda he may have, because he refuses every opportunity to rein in the fastest-growing source of greenhouse-gas emissions, despite his rhetoric on combating climate change.



Sick profits

Sir: You report (14 February) that smoking costs the NHS almost £2bn a year, and that Britain has the highest tobacco taxes in the EU, with £3.84 in every £4.80 pack of cigarettes going to the Treasury. These duties total £9.5bn annually. According to these calculations the Government is making £7.5bn a year on smoking - a nice profit - so it's not in their interest to deter people.



Sir: With regard to your front page of 14 February, would you care to publish the comparable statistics for alcohol consumption?



Named and shamed

Sir: After Matthew Norman's piece (10 February) about Abu Hamza, I would point out when an Arab calls himself Abu Jones, that means his first son is called Jones, and it is not an alias, nor an attempt to avoid the embarrassment of a silly name. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Authority leader was born Mahmoud Abbas, but he is now also called Abu Mazen.



Going foreign

Sir: If the law requires the England football manager's job be offered to non-British applicants (Letters, 13 February), why don't we recruit a whole team of foreign players? This may give us a better chance of the World Cup.


War is nasty

Sir: "It will take a long, long time before somebody comes [to] us with a coherent plan for dealing with human nastiness in wartime" (Letters, 14 February). Quite. Until then, shouldn't we be less eager to engage in war?



Sir: So, our servicemen may have been abusing Iraqi civilians. Not long ago, it seemed they may have been abusing one another. Is there any connection?



It's noticeable

Sir: "Europe you will pay. Your 9/11 is on it's way", was on a placard in the unruly Muslim protest. Whoever wrote it was clearly educated in a British school. If he was a foreigner, he would have been taught the difference between "its" and "it's".



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