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17 May 1999

Don’t knock the boffins

Progress is not a myth: science and technology really are transforming our lives for the better. All

By David Sainsbury

Science and technology have transformed our lives for the better over the past 150 years. And there is every possibility, given the correct regulatory framework, that they will do the same over the next 150. The growth of scientific knowledge has allowed us to control some of the risks of life and eliminate some of its worst evils. As a result of vaccinations and penicillin we have been able to reduce the threat of infectious diseases. Pasteurisation and sterilisation have helped us to combat food- and water-borne disease.

The result has been an incredible increase in the quality and length of our lives over the past 50 years. If we take the world as a whole, life expectancy at birth rose from 46.4 years in 1950-55 to 64.4 years in 1990-95. And, equally significant, the gap in life expectancy between the more developed regions and the less developed ones fell from 26 years in 1950-55 to 12 years in 1990-95.

When people today view scenes of famine and disease in developing countries they are rightly shocked; but such scenes would have been commonplace in pre-industrial Britain. The reason why they no longer exist is due in large measure to the application of advances in science. As the historian J H Plumb once commented: “No one in his sense would choose to have been born in a previous age unless he could be certain that he would have been born into a prosperous family, that he would have enjoyed extremely good health, and that he would have accepted stoically the death of the majority of his children.”

The benefits of science have been huge: we should not deny them to future generations. At present, one of the gravest problems we face is environmental degradation. The rush towards industrialisation has led to an unthinking approach to our natural resources. But unless we are prepared to go back to a pre-industrial world we will not be able to protect the environment, in the way that we all want to see, without the use of science. To take one simple example. It was the work of three chemists, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina in the USA and Paul Crutzen in Germany, that first showed that CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigerators and aerosols, for example) can cause the breakdown of ozone when they disperse in the stratosphere. Then in the 1980s, Joe Farman at the British Antarctic Survey first produced unequivocal proof that the stratospheric ozone is depleted over Antarctica. Farman’s observation, together with the known chemical mechanism, were crucial pieces of evidence that led in 1987 to the signing of the Montreal Protocol on phasing out CFCs. The replacement of CFCs has also relied on science to produce alternative methods of refrigeration.

Advances in science enable us accurately to detect changes in the environment, diagnose why change is taking place, to suggest solutions and define the boundaries of uncertainty in our understanding of the environment. Biotechnology has allowed us to clean up effluent, reduce the levels of pollutants in rivers and make engine oils re-usable. Naturally occurring oil- digesting microbes helped in the clean-up following the spillage of crude and fuel oils from the tanker Sea Empress on to the Welsh coast in 1996. The development of renewable energy sources will depend on developments in science and engineering. Similarly, technological development will enable us to use energy more efficiently and provide cleaner emissions.

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In health care, transport, media and food, scientific progress is improving the quality of our lives. But we must never be arrogant about the advance of science: terrible tragedies such as Thalidomide and weapons of mass destruction have to be set against progress. We must ensure that we have effective systems of regulation in place so that the safety, ethical and environmental issues which arise are considered in a transparent and independent way. Openness across government departments in explaining the interpretations of scientific advice, is absolutely essential.

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We must not think that we can, at the beginning of any period of scientific discovery, estimate what the benefits and disadvantages of any technology will be. History is full of examples of scientists and non-scientists alike failing to understand the impact of new technologies. In 1865 the Boston Post opined: “Well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit a voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value.”

I am not arguing for the mindless pursuit of economic and scientific change; I am arguing against a mindless opposition to it. Our lives in the coming century will be changed enormously by the scientific revolutions taking place in IT, biology and new materials. A properly regulated scientific framework must ensure that these developments are harnessed for our collective good. We cannot turn away from progress, but we can encourage it and allow other countries to enjoy its advantages.

Lord Sainsbury is the minister for science and space