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The Royal Society, a font of information

by Redazione FGB [1], 26 January 2011

Last year the Royal Society [2] celebrated its 350th anniversary, a festival in which the Bassetti Foundation participated in the form of Cristina Grasseni's visit to London and involvement in the Harvard University Science and Democracy Network [3] international meeting, part of the celebrations.

In the run up to this celebration the Royal Society established its Science Policy Centre [4]'in order to strengthen the independent voice of science in UK, European and international policy'. The centre organizes its work under 4 themes: sustainability, diplomacy, innovation and governance, all themes that I feel may be of interest to Bassetti Foundation website readers.

Since its inception the policy centre has published a series of reports both in hardback form and also through its website, several of which address problems that we have touched upon on the foundation website and contain contributions from several of our acquaintances and friends.

One of the most recent reports published in September 2010 is entitled 'Climate Change: a summary of the science' [5], and it makes for interesting reading. The report opens with an introduction to the problem followed by a series of statements about the current scientific understanding of climate change. The argument is grouped into 3 broad categories; aspects of climate change upon which there is wide agreement, aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion and aspects that are not well understood.

The report is easy to read and written in lay terminology. As we would imagine it paints a detailed picture of the current state of scientific understanding and agreement regarding the broad issue of climate change. The penultimate section entitled Developments in Climate Science outlines many of the technical problems affecting a debate of this type and also points out errors made in the past and their causes. The conclusion addresses the problem of consensus both in theoretical modeling and in formulating a plan of action, and argues that given the degree of uncertainty involved in predicting future changes that 'policy changes have to be made in the absence of perfect knowledge'.

An earlier and related report published in September 2009 is entitled 'Geoengineering the climate, Science, governance and uncertainty [6]' and it also makes for a very interesting read. The report addresses both the technical and the ethical issues involved in searching for, experimenting and implementing engineered solutions to global warming.

Possible approaches are grouped into 2 basic classes, carbon dioxide removal techniques and solar radiation management techniques. The first involves the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through means such as ocean fertilization, changes in land use, afforestation, bio energy, enhanced weathering and direct mechanical air capture techniques. The second involves surface albedo, cloud enhancement, stratospheric aerosol and space based methods. The first addresses the perceived cause of the problem, while the second attempts to alleviate the problem by reflecting some of the heat from the sun back into space.

Once the technicalities have been explained the report goes on to discuss governance problems of the implementation of these techniques, addressing risk, uncertainty, ethics and public and civil society engagement and involvement in the decision making process. The governance of research is also addressed and in the final chapter a series of recommendations regarding these issues are laid out.

The society has also announced this year that it will undertake a major new initiative to ensure strict governance of any plans for solar radiation management geoengineering [7] and will publish its recommendations in the spring of 2011.

A third major document addresses another topic that I have broached in the past on this website. Entitled 'Symposium on Opportunities and Challenges in the Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology' [8], this synthesis report details the findings of an international symposium entitled "Opportunities and Challenges in the Emerging Field of Synthetic Biology" held in Washington DC in July 2009 under the auspices of the OECD, the US National Academies of Science and the Royal Society.

This is a hefty document that opens by offering the reader an overview of both the scope and the language used in synthetic biology taken from a session moderated by long time friend of the foundation Sheila Jasanoff, before describing current international public policy and various aspects involved in promoting the field of research.

As in the reports described above the final sections are dedicated to governance and public engagement and participation, and raise interesting questions including the problem of the rapid change in the context that scientists find themselves working in and the open debate on the purpose and efficiency of regulatory practices.

The Society is also developing a series of reports under the umbrella title 'Brain Waves, Neuroscience, Society and Policy' [9] and the first to be published last week contains an essay from another friend of the Bassetti Foundation Professor Andy Stirling entitled 'Governance of Neuroscience: challenges and responses'.

Amongst many other issues in this piece Stirling talks about responsibility within neuroscience research. He mentions research and practice reversibility in neuroscience, a problem that is also addressed in the report about geoengineering described above. In the case of deciding whether to proceed along a certain pathway, the degree of reversibility of the process in act must be seen as a positive factor. Technical reversibility is however only part of the story as commercial factors are also involved. Heavy investment leads to pressure to continue a project in order to not lose money and momentum. Large interests also constitute a problem. As in the above cases he also closes his argument with a discussion of engagement and public participation in the research process.

The fourth report in the series is to be entitled 'Neuroscience, Responsibility and the law' and judging from the published abstract and list of working group members it will be worth reading once published.

The Royal society website contains reports dating back to the 1980's and the above selection is merely a fraction of those published by the policy centre in the last 18 months, and this wealth of scientific information leads to an argument that has recently touched upon at the foundation, namely public access to unbiased science reporting.

On this site last year I posted an article about Ben Goldacre's book entitled 'Bad Science' [10]that also contained criticism of science reporting in the press and links to groups interested in this argument [11]. This problem has also been referred to in several other pieces by various other foundation contributors and the need for impartial reporting is a constant issue in the need to create a more science literate society, leading to greater participation in the decision making process and a heightened awareness of the idea of innovation in responsibility.

The Royal Society conduct high quality science projects conducted by world renowned academics and all the reports are free to download in PDF. They are not impossibly technical, maintain a critical stance towards scientific research and consistently address the problems of public participation, responsibility, risk assessment and governance. All of the requisites for a balanced scientific education.

A mine of free and well informed information for anyone that wants it.

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://royalsociety.org/
  3. 3] http://www.hks.harvard.edu/sts/about/sdn.html
  4. 4] http://royalsociety.org/policy/
  5. 5] http://royalsociety.org/climate-change-summary-of-science/
  6. 6] http://royalsociety.org/Geoengineering-the-climate/
  7. 7] http://royalsociety.org/SRM-governance-initiative/
  8. 8] http://royalsociety.org/Synthetic-Biology-report/
  9. 9] http://royalsociety.org/policy/reports/brainwaves1/
  10. 10] /it/rassegna/2010/09/bad_science_and_ben_goldacre.html
  11. 11] http://sciencebrainwaves.com/blogs/brainwaves/?tag=/Science-reporting
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