A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Oh! How we love scientists and value science in the UK.....

There is an excellent, if anecdotal, Editorial in The Daily Telegraph today on the plight of science, and scientists, in the UK: 'Sir Harry and America' (The Daily Telegraph, August 23):
"Sometimes, a single episode serves to tell a deeper story. Amid all the arguments about university funding, consider the case of Sir Harry Kroto. Sir Harry is one of Britain's foremost scientists, a Nobel prizewinner and former President of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, which he constantly strives to bring to new audiences. Yet, despite many contented years at Sussex University, Sir Harry is leaving to take up a post in the United States. The immediate cause of his departure is his age: once he reaches 65, he will have to retire as an active member of staff. Florida State University, being American, is not restricted by such pettifogging bureaucracy. More to the point, it has more money, and can offer Sir Harry the kind of logistical support that an academic of his distinction merits. Indeed, the surprising thing is that Sir Harry should have remained attached to his campus for so long. Every year, hundreds of younger researchers make the same journey, attracted by salaries and conditions which no British institution can offer....."(read on)

Even more concerning is the following observation:
"While there has been a huge expansion in the number of undergraduates in Britain, the 'harder' subjects - and chemistry is perhaps the hardest of the lot - have seen little benefit. Vice-chancellors, sensitive to what students want, have rushed to offer courses in media studies and social science, to the detriment of the more traditional departments. This is an ineluctable consequence of the way in which student finance works in the UK."

Sir Harry has been a wonderful catalyst for chemistry. I have seen him electrify an audience with his enthusiasm and love for his subject. Our loss is undoubtedly America's gain. But it is more generally symptomatic. The state of science in the schools and universities of the UK is becoming serious.

And, the UK has always treated its leading scientists pretty badly. The most extraordinary example of this was, until recently (thank goodness!), the appalling state of Charles Darwin's home, Down House, at Downe in Kent, just 16 miles south of London. While the Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter heritage industries flourished, the Charles Darwin House and Museum was left to rot in obscurity. I once had the embarrassing task of taking an American scientist to see the home of this most-renowned of world scientists. She was jaw-droppingly appalled. And she was right. It was a national disgrace.

Luckily, today, things are somewhat improved under the management of English Heritage, and I can now recommend a visit to Down House if you are ever in the UK. Here is the official web site and a first class (of course!) American web site: Down House.

But Sir Harry? Florida will just adore their new hurricane.

Philip, off to The Great Wen to witter to the world.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Scots beat English in careful science reporting.....

A sound piece of reporting from Scotland on Sunday (the Sunday issue of The Scotsman): 'We could face flooding of our own making' (Scotland on Sunday, August 22):

"Mounds of mud are still slowly being shifted in Boscastle as the recovery of the flood-hit Cornish village slowly continues. The torrential river that tore out trees and pushed cars like playthings through the village last Monday has now receded, but the long process of repairing the damage, expected to cost millions of pounds, has just begun.

Initial estimates found three homes and shops were destroyed, eight remained in a 'very dangerous state' and 50 vehicles had been written off. The cost to the village in the long term, heavily dependant on tourists, has not been calculated.

Amateur video, later screened worldwide, caught the drama as the torrent of water came after two rivers burst their banks when 75mm, the average August rainfall, fell in just two hours. More than 150 people were airlifted to safety from stranded cars, rooftops and trees where they had climbed to escape the flood.

But experts point out that such events, though extraordinary, are not 'freaks'. In the wider perspective, such events occur over a regular period.

Dr Keith Weston, senior lecturer in Atmospheric and Environmental Science at the University of Edinburgh and vice president of the Royal Meteorological Society, said: 'It is certainly unusual but not a freak as such. If you go back over 10 years there will be occasions where there has been equally unusual weather. We have had floods before in different areas - it just requires some combination of events in one particular area.'

Floods on such a dramatic scale have always been part of nature. The Boscastle floods came 52 years to the day after the 1952 flood at Lynmouth in Devon, where 34 people were killed. Landslides had dammed tributary streams on Exmoor and unleashed a 12-foot wall of water when the blockages were washed away.....'(read on)

It is interesting that, in my experience, from 'global warming' to GM, The Scotsman has consistently presented a more thoughtful level of science reporting than that exhibited by most London-based newspapers. Perhaps, thank goodness, it is less under the influence of Islingtonian metropolitan muppet chic! Well done The Scotsman, whatever the reason.

Philip, sadly far too early for a strong peaty, seaweedy, single malt. Coffee must suffice.....

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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