Lord Rees Distinguished Lecture

5 December 2011


This report was prepared by Matthew Dunstan.

The seventh lecture in CSaP’s distinguished lecture series was given by Lord Rees of Ludlow, Master of Trinity College, Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society (2005-2010). Lord Rees’s lecture covered a diverse range of topics important for both research and policy that reflected his involvement both within the University and in other professional bodies, most notably his leadership of the Royal Society over the past 5 years.

Scientific Counsel and Implementation

Lord Rees noted that science is becoming ever more pervasive in our society, and that the interface between government and scientific advisors is very good – highlighted by the work of the Chief Scientific Advisers in most departments of Whitehall. However, this advice is sometimes not managed particularly well; there is a need for better coordination, especially in times of natural disasters or other imminent catastrophes. Sometimes the scientific facts are well known for the problem at hand, such as with the case of the implications of nuclear radiation following the Japanese tsunami earlier this year, but that knowledge is not applied effectively. Other times, such as regarding Mad Cow Disease, where the initial scientific hypothesis is incorrect only serve to underline the point that advisers must work with what they know at the time, and must remember to distinguish between areas on which they can act as advisers and those in which they are scientific lay persons.

Lord Rees observed that we are entering a time where long-term scientific issues require attention, such as those centred around new technologies like renewable energy generation, genetically modified foods and computer privacy. For policy makers, the growing international nature of these problems makes them difficult to address, and short-term political problems are often prioritised. Many of these new technologies that we have come to depend on rely on very elaborate networks, and that more thought needs to be given as to how to make these networks highly resilient. In the world of cyber security and attacks there is always the risk of “terror as well as error”.

The Power of Indirect Influence

The lecture next explored a number of issues that need to balance scientific knowledge and political considerations. Lord Rees discussed the pressures of a rapidly rising global population, and the results of a recent Royal Society report, ‘People at the Planet’, which emphasises that the carrying capacity of the world depends largely on lifestyle choices.

On the topic of climate change and energy supply, Lord Rees reflected on an increasingly muddled scientific message presented by the media. In a world where politicians are swayed more by the volume of press dedicated to an issue rather than its urgency, he considered the role that scientists and science journalists should play to maximise their influence over policy makers. The audience was also reminded to consider what might happen if the worst case scenarios with regards to climate change were true and geoengineering becomes a real option. While many at the moment are concerned mostly with technical and engineering problems associated with this approach, Lord Rees offered a different area of concern: the geopolitical ramifications if in fact geoengineering ‘quick fixes’ were cheap enough for solitary governments or corporations to implement them globally without obtaining international consensus.

Scientific Outreach and Applications

Scientific research is becoming more specialised and highly technical, and Lord Rees praised the work of science writers and journalists. Their work in enabling the public to participate meaningfully in political debates involving scientific knowledge is critical, and the fact that the public in the UK is interested in such a wide range of issues is testament to their good work. One area in which there could be improvement, however, is accurate acknowledgement of the level of professional agreement when presenting a particular opinion based on scientific evidence. The best journalists should call on networks of scientists in a variety of fields to investigate the veracity of their claims and to better scrutinise the work that is presented to the public.

“Unprecedented pressures but unprecedented prospects”

Lord Rees closed his lecture with a call for a new approach when it comes to the interface between scientific expertise and policy making. As an example of what is needed in the UK, Lord Rees looked to the US and the Jason Group. The Jason Group is an independent group of scientists, funded by various government bodies including the Departments of Defence and Energy, who advise the US government on issues of science and technology. Jason members mainly work as a group during an intense summer study over six weeks. The success of this group in developing novel, independent solutions to issues facing policymakers represents a missed opportunity for a similar programme in the UK. Lord Rees suggested that the University of Cambridge has the right concentration of world-leading researchers across the full fields of scientific, economic and social research that is could be the perfect place to trial such an idea.

In the end, Lord Rees reflected that now more than ever, scientists have a responsibility to be actively involved in giving the best scientific advice to the public and policy makers. This is required if we are to have wide-ranging and fruitful public discussions with scientific citizens about our place in an ever-changing world.

  • 5 December 2011, 5:30pm

    What challenges does the future hold for the relationship between science and policy?

    This lecture will be delivered by Lord Rees of Ludlow. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was appointed President of the Royal Society in 2005 and completed his tenure a year ago. During his time at the helm, he oversaw a number of changes at the Royal Society that saw expansion in its public engagement and its policy role.