Thursday, 12 February 2009

Darwin Day lecture: Sir David King

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Last night saw the British Humanist Association's annual Darwin Day lecture take place at London's Conway Hall. Entitled "Can British science rise to the challenges of the 21st century?", the lecture was given by Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government, and chaired by Richard Dawkins.

I was in Conway Hall giving out copies of New Humanist, in satisfying contrast to the moustachioed character handing out Intelligent Design DVDs in the cold outside (I took one of his DVDs on the condition that he took a copy of New Humanist away with him, which in all fairness he did).

The lecture itself was absolutely fascinating. King set about demonstrating the central role science must play in the 21st century, arguing that "while you can govern without science, you can't govern well without science". If we are to deal with the major challenges now facing humanity – climate change, health and nutrition, energy shortages, water shortages, declining biodiversity, war and terrorism, rising population – then governments, and their people, must embrace science and give scientists the resources and support to tackle these challenges head on. Because science does have the answers to a lot of these problems – scientists just need the backing from governments.

It was a lecture that both inspired and terrified me, as well as filling me with both optimism and pessimism. I have never had the case for the urgency of dealing with climate change put so clearly to me before – it's not that I haven't read the arguments, or seen them on TV, but to hear so eminent a scientist as David King spell it out in person really hit home. The task facing all governments is absolutely immense – our own government has pledged to reduce our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, but unless basically every developed country does the same, our chances of minimising the effects of climate change are negligible. And "minimising" is the key word there – King also made me realise that we're already well past the stage where we had any hope of actually stopping it. It's an enormous challenge, and unless governments can start cooperating in a way they never have before, it's hard to feel optimistic.

A section of the lecture focussed on GM crops, and this really highlighted the need for greater public understanding of science. King used the example of rice crops in Asia, which often suffer greatly from flooding (last year this was particularly devastating, resulting in soaring world rice prices and perhaps thousands of related deaths). Rice experts have actually found wild rice plants that are able to withstand several weeks of flooding, but that rice is not particularly edible. However, with genetic modification edible rice varieties could be given that characteristic to create an edible rice crop that can withstand flooding. This has been known about since the mid '90s, but it has not been done because of widespread laws against GM foods – had this flood-resistant rice crop existed, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved in the past decade or so. It's a story like this that really makes you realise the damage that can be caused by an irrational fear of science (the Daily Mail's misguided and irresponsible campaign against "Franken-foods" was mentioned during the post-lecture questions), which can only be altered by efforts to improve public understanding.

So, as you can see, I enjoyed the lecture. Congratulations to the BHA for organising such a fascinating event. They have more coming up this year as part of their 2009 Darwin celebrations – we'll keep you posted on the dates on this blog.