"The UK has to live by its wits"

DAVID ANTHONY KING has been chief scientific advisor to the United Kingdom government for 3 years now. Prior to this, he was head of the department of chemistry and Master of Downing College, University of Cambridge. He continues as the 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry and Fellow, Queens' College, University of Cambridge. Recipient of numerous awards, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991 and a Knight Bachelor in 2003. On a recent visit to India, he spoke to NEELAM SINGH, T V JAYAN, and SOPAN JOSHI on climate change negotiations, science and technology and genetically modified food

Published: Wednesday 31 December 2003

On climate change

What is the role of science in political negotiations on climate change?
The distinction you make between science and politics is not one I adhere to. Good political decisions are made on the basis of the best advice given to governments, on the basis of proper analysis, which has to rest on science, technology, economics and social sciences. I don't like to draw distinctions. When I give my prime minister my advice I try to take into account all factors.

What if Russia doesn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol?
I believe there is only one game in town and that is Kyoto. Therefore, it is of the greatest importance to us that Russia signs up to the agreement. Any talk at the moment of alternatives, to me, is not a good idea because it simply encourages other parties to think that there is another game in town. Actually there is only one. It's a very carefully thought-through process. It would be counterproductive for the European Union (eu), in my view, to be engaged in discussions about alternatives.

Should countries consider the protocol's entry into force without Russia?
I will give you the same political answer: we shouldn't even discuss that. At the moment the priority has to be to persuade Russia to join us.

For how long?
There has to be a limit and I would not want to discuss what the time span would be. But the importance of the original notion of a fixed percentage of countries within the developed world joining Kyoto is a good one and I don't think we should abandon it. Quite the contrary, I am now looking very hard on behalf of the British government from the eu to not only persuade Russia to come on board, but also the us.

Discussions with the US are still on?
Absolutely. There is only one game in town. In February I am going to lead a big delegation to the us to argue the case for Kyoto.

How agreeable are EU members on sharing the US $410 million it promised for developing countries at the Bonn climate change conference in 2001?
I couldn't prejudge any announcements, but I think the principle is a very good one. I think that it's incredibly important that the developing world begins to get engaged in discussions about post-2010. Technology transfer from the North to the South is absolutely key to success in that process. At the moment in India the average person is emitting one and a half tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. In my country, its nine tonnes per annum, in America it's 21 tonnes per annum. We can't possibly preach to India that you should be reducing your emissions unless we are prepared to assist them.

On science and technology

What do you think of the flight of professional jobs to India?
Everybody has to worry about the local economy. At the same time we have to take a bigger view. The British government is very keen to see capacity building between the North and South. If we want the world to be a safer place to live in, then we have to have the developing world economy growing. So, I personally welcome the process. The uk has to live by its wits. We have to accept the globalisation of the economy just as India, because there are benefits to both of us. It is an economic thing. What it means is that we have to focus on the high-tech side of our economy in order to keep us afloat. We are strong in science, engineering and technology. That is where we can compete.

If we take indicators of science and technology, the UK figures behind the G-8 average. Is it a worrying factor?
I don't know which figures are you are looking at. In terms of the citation and paper published, the uk is just below the us as of now. From the point of view of research produced per euro or per pound, we are the highest in the world. Canada and the uk share the highest position. These indicators are looking very good. If you look at how much money Britain attracts from the eu framework programmes, it is more than any other eu partner, which means that the quality of our science is very good.

I think your question is directed at the fact that our investment in research and development in industry is not high. That is something we are now trying to address. Actually, it is happening now. Look at the region of Cambridge. About 50,000 people are employed in high-tech companies that have come up there, generating a large income to the country. Those companies have not yet grown to the size of an ibm. But I would put my money on them.

What about reverse brain drain and the erosion in the quality of science education?
It is a major concern for the us not so for the uk. The number of foreign-born people employed in the us industry at the PhD level is close to 50 per cent. This indicates a massive shortfall of skilled people in science, engineering and technology. We do not have that degree of shortfall.

But is it a problem? Yes it is. If we look at registrations for degrees in science, engineering and technology, year on year they are decreasing. This is also true for all our g-7 partners. So, it is a major problem of the developed countries. I think it is the biggest problem we face today in terms of future wealth creation opportunities. Will we be able to keep the young people coming in to fuel the engine of the technological future that we have? We are focussing a lot of energy on the situation, to try and turn the problem around.

On genetically modified food

The results of trials on GM food in the UK are out. There are complaints: two of the three trial crops depend on government price support; the focus was herbicide manufacturers and not the farmer. Are government/industry an unholy alliance?
The trials that were held in the uk are the most extensive yet conducted in the world, with a focus on the effect of farming management practice -- in using gm crops compared with non- gm -- on biodiversity. For me the major result of those trials was to demonstrate how much intensive farming affects biodiversity. It's not so much the question of gm or non-gm, but more of the farmer's practice in the use of herbicides. The technology itself to me turned out to be a secondary issue. If the farmers know that by early use of herbicides, they can avoid its use later on, but also destroy much of the weed the insect population survives on, then the farmers will use it. So farm management becomes the key.

The region of the country I live in, East Anglia, you could describe as a kind of insect wasteland because the area is so intensively farmed. The major thing is intensive farming. Whether you use gm or not is very much secondary.

About industry-government, I think that we have proved through this exercise -- and the public debate -- that industry has no effect on the government's position. The government is neither pro-gm nor anti-gm.

But our reports clearly demonstrate two things. First, the Strategy Unit Report concluded that there will not be much economic advantage to farmers using gm plants in Britain because the customer doesn't want to buy gm food. Secondly, the gm Science Review is a very careful review of the science, looking at human safety in regard to the food products, at biodiversity and gene transfer. It was the science that drove those reports. Even our media, which is very sceptical, is now commenting on how unbiased our reports were.

Customers stress the precautionary principle while scientists and industry accept the principle of substantial equivalence as the baseline for safety issues. Therefore, what is the future of GM science in the UK?
First of all, there is no real conflict between the two [principles] and we have demonstrated that in our reports. In terms of human health, the food standards agency in Britain and the European legislative process has only led through those gm products that really have no significant risk to human health. That is our conclusion, based on the most careful analysis.

The British public, I believe, is hostile to gm first of all because of our [mad cow] crisis. They discovered that eating a product the government told them was perfectly safe was not safe. That was a big shock to the system and that is the basic reason for the scepticism. But the second, and more important, one is that the public is looking for advantages to themselves rather than the advantages to the producer. So, the consumers are saying "what is the advantage to me in eating this potato that is gm?" If they don't see an advantage to themselves, they don't want to eat it.

That also answers the question about the future of gm. The future, which I think is only three to five years away, is when the products are of advantage to the consumer. If the consumer finds an advantage, then you will see the scepticism go away.

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