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Changing the world, one car at a time

Britain has the chance to lead the world into an energy revolution – but it can only do so with the right public policy environment.

As party members, businesses, journalists and politicians descended on Brighton for Labour party conference, and prepare to do so for the Conservative party conference in Manchester, they will likely have been breathing in air than breaches EU safety limits. It does not need to be this way.

Britain has a proud history of leading the world in new technologies, with some of the world’s brightest and best working on solutions to our air quality crisis. As a British entrepreneur in the low-carbon economy, I firmly believe that, given the right policy landscape, the UK can be a global leader in developing new technologies and products to tackle climate change and to help clean up our air.

Riversimple is pioneering the design and manufacture of lightweight, highly efficient hydrogen fuel cell cars.  I founded the company Riversimple with a simple mission: to pursue, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport. Our cars are powered by hydrogen fuel cells that only emit water. We are based 75 miles from Swansea, the birthplace of the hydrogen fuel cell, created by William Grove in 1842 and are continuing in the tradition of creative ingenuity that he exemplified.

The burning of natural gas, coal, petrol and diesel shaped the 19th and 20th centuries, powering heating, industry and transport. But as we wake up to the effect that climate change is having on our world today, there is a new impetus to change the way we power our economy. Britain has the potential to lead this change, but to do so it needs public policy to support it in the right way.

It’s not just climate change, but also the impact that pollution is having directly on our health. In February the EU gave the UK a “final warning” on air pollution, with 16 air quality zones breaching their limits. The breaches were for NO2 pollution, which has serious health risks that mostly stem from road transport. Germany, France and Italy are all in breach of their air quality limits too – with Germany the worst offender, breaching limits in 28 different air quality zones. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has taken a leading role in this fight to improve our environment by investing in new technology, through his transport strategy, environment strategy and by bringing forward the introduction of an Ultra-Low Emission Zone.

The last seven years have seen radical change in the automotive industry. From a near-standing start in 2010, by 2015 there were over 1 million electric vehicles include battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and fuel cell electric passenger light-duty vehicles on the roads globally. By 2016 this had doubled to over 2 million, with sales rising 60% in a year.

There are two kinds of fully electric vehicles, and while battery electric vehicles have stolen many of the headlines, the revolution now in progress is much bigger. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are also on the roads today – you can see them on the streets of London as bus operators use them to overcome range and charge time limitations associated with battery electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles present none of the challenges associated with battery electric alternatives - they are refilled with hydrogen at a pump in c.3 minutes and their range is very similar to everyday combustion engine cars.. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only emit water, and the lighter they are the less particles they produce from tyres and brakes, so they can contribute significantly to minimising the air pollution from road transport.

The technology we need to develop a low-carbon economy exists today; we just need to invest in it and scale it up. The Government should aim to create a level playing field between different technology solutions, and whilst battery vehicles have already received considerable subsidies and government support, the same support has so far not been granted to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, despite their advantages. 

The UK has a unique opportunity to be at the heart of the low-carbon automotive industry, with centres of hydrogen and battery expertise across the country. The UK is sending out a message that it believes in these new technologies and wants to support their growth, but in reality there is more that needs to be done. The Government has thrown its weight behind battery electric cars, and that risks holding back investment in hydrogen technology. If the UK wants to optimise its opportunity for decarbonisation, it must adopt a technology-neutral approach.

People will only buy electric cars – both hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric – if they are confident that there is adequate refuelling and charging infrastructure. Scaling the refuelling infrastructure for hydrogen cars is actually much easier and cheaper than it is to scale battery charging infrastructure – each hydrogen pump can support hundreds of vehicles whereas a charging point can only support a handful – but Investors will only build this infrastructure if they believe in the future of the technology. Both the Government and the opposition have crucial roles in building this confidence, by supporting all technologies equally in order to secure the best deal for the consumer and to provide incentives for investors.

The UK’s future trading relationships are important. Climate change is an international problem and finding the solutions to carbon emissions from transport will be an international effort. The technologies that my business is working on in Wales, indeed innovations from the whole of the UK, could be exported round the world.

In a post-Brexit world, if the UK doesn’t invest in creating new solutions for de-carbonising our transport sector then we risk falling behind other countries that are already racing ahead. I believe that the UK could therefore benefit most by encouraging the commercial success of these two complementary technologies: battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

Looking at the statistics and the determination from across political parties, civil society and business, I believe a revolution has already begun. It might force us to change our ways, but the future will not wait, and neither should we.

As the political party conferences season marches on, let’s make sure that the low carbon economy is firmly on their radars. We have an opportunity to create a world-leading green economy, and our Parliamentarians will be pivotal in making that happen. It will give us economic growth and a better world. Together it is a future we can achieve.


Founder and Chief Engineer of Riversimple, Hugo Spowers began his career designing racing cars before environmental concerns led him away from motorsport.  After a feasibility study on hydrogen vehicles during his MBA at Cranfield, he concluded that a step change in automotive technology is both essential and possible.  Riversimple have now developed their first car designed for type approval, the Rasa, and are trialling 20 vehicles in Monmouthshire in 2018.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.