Competitiveness and spin-off companies drive British science, according to Lord Sainsbury, UKs Minister for Science. Angela Ryan and Nick Papadimitriou report on a recent conference.
The environmental costs of large-scale industry are so pronounced nowadays that everyone is coming out green, including the present UK government. Scientists for Labour convened a meeting last December to outline "Green Options for Government".
Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science, was the honoured guest speaker but only about a dozen turned up for the event. He was the first to speak, and the first to leave. He iterated the governments "successes" to date: increase in government spending in science, an extra 15% in 1998 and in 2000 an additional £753 million over 3 years. In real terms, the science budget has increased by 7% annually. Most of this money has been spent on genomics and nanotechnology.
On the "knowledge transfer" front, industrial funding for higher education has risen from 10.9% to 12.3%, and is now on a par with the United States. There have been 199 spin-off companies and the number arising from university-based research has trebled. Britain is doing better than both America and Canada in terms of "spin-off per £1M R&D income".
As to green options, Lord Sainsbury said the government has prioritised green technology and sees no conflict between science and technology, industry and the environment. The Department of Trade and Industry (dti) is "raising competition without harming the environment" and has introduced "best practice initiatives" for industry. There is also "The Sustainable Technology Initiative", which has got £18M committed over the next 5 years. That is a pittance compared to genomics and nanotechnology.
Sainsbury said the government wants to make industry take on the challenges of green technology, turning "problems into opportunities". The environmental services market is worth £335 billion and is forecast to be worth £640 billion by 2010. It covers everything from wastewater to energy provision, and in Eastern Europe there are huge opportunities for British expertise, due to widespread environmental degradation, adding "all European countries will have to come up to our environmental standards". This statement is particularly ironic, as British farmland is suffering a biodiversity crisis, with steadily declining numbers of species. If there is such a huge market for green technology, why has the government invested so little in it?
The European environmental market currently stands at 4% Britain, 6% France, 8/9% Germany, and the government is very keen to work out the lions share for Britain. This suggests markets are the best way to safeguard the environment and the governments role is simply to provide sufficient investment to assure competitive spin-offs. It is clear that the governments science policy under Lord Sainsbury is dominated by market competitiveness and spin-off companies.
Finally, Lord Sainsbury said the government is moving away from Public Understanding of Science to Science in Society. (Wonder where they got that phrase from?) It wants to get dialogue going and discuss things with the public, especially risks, benefits and ethical considerations. The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission and the Human Genetics Agency "are both working in this way", he said, adding "we are in a democracy". So, why are the farmscale field trials still going ahead when there is such a lot of opposition to them from the British people? And why is health genomics forging ahead without any real public debate?
On the Europes Framework 6 funding for science research, Sainsbury said the UK played a major role. In fact Framework 6 is a corporate carve-up of public research funding, dominated by genomics and biotechnology (see "Slaving society with public subsidy", ISIS News 9/10). As Sainsbury said, "We focused on 8 key areas as we have to compete globally and this needs to make a real impact".
After Sainsbury, James Clark talked about "Green Chemistry", the ideal chemical synthesis that is simple, safe and efficient, involving one step and generating no waste. The Green Chemistry Network, to which Clark belongs, is working hard internationally to combine chemistry with environmental science.
At this point, Lord Sainsbury departed and the other speakers visibly loosened up and went on to challenge the party line.
Roland Clift from the Centre for Environmental Strategy started by saying, "Green tech is in large measure available now, so why arent we using it?" In order to tell whether a technology is green or not, it must undergo a "Life Cycle Assessment" (LCA), which puts material preparation and manufacturing processes together. When applied to "biofuels" they reveal that so-called environmentally friendly technologies are not so green after all.
Clift presented a case study he did for Nokia, on the life cycle of mobile phones. Essentially, used mobile phones generate a ton of wastes per 4 kg. This represents the "ecological rucksack" of the product. A new EU directive, known as the take back directive, stipulates that the responsibility for recycling lies with the manufacturer. There is considerable debate in Europe, he said, but he cannot get the dti interested.
By contrast, the Swedish approach of Integrated Product Policy (IPP) requires Swedish products to carry a performance label in terms of energy efficiency and the IPP white pages explicitly require formal LCAs.
The mess in waste management policy is holding up the take back directive, and LCA is not a normal part of the process yet.
When questioned as to why companies are able to by-pass such legislation by manufacturing elsewhere in the world, Clift pointed straight at the World Trade Organisation which refuses to allow environment into their policy and "is the work of the devil", in his opinion.
Dr Ian Gillespie of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) began by putting in a good word for the WTO and how the OECD is known as a rich mans club, including the worlds largest economies. He said biotechnology has been out there in the environment since the mid-80s but the assessment and efficacy of applications are few and far between.
The OECD has looked into 21 case studies of industrial biotechnology, noting "it was very difficult to get good data" and "companies were reluctant to talk to OECD about why they had adopted biotech". In other words, there is no evidence that biotechnology has contributed to sustainability.
OECD discovered that the factors affecting decision-making were based on the (unsupported) notion that biotechnology is associated with more environmentally friendly and cheaper process.
When asked about the inherent hazards of biotechnology he said "in some cases the hazards will matter and in others they wont". He actually acknowledged that the CaMV 35S promoter used in practically all GM crops, is genetically unstable and raises the spectre on risk, agreeing it should be withdrawn.
Gillispie said that Canada is the only country engaging in public debate on biotech, and that there is a need for similar ethical debate in the UK.
The conference ended with an apt quote from Gandhi "we can satisfy all the worlds needs but not its greed".
For further details, see
The Green Chemistry Network; www.chemsoc.org/networks.gcn
Centre for Environmental Strategy, University of Surrey, www.surrey.ac.uk
The Application of Biotechnology for Industrial Sustainability, www.SourceOECD.org
Article first published February 2002