Author Archives: ilboyd

The UK’s Latest Climate Projections

Ian L Boyd

We sometimes have a tendency toward trivialising important issues, while on the other hand it can be difficult to transmit the true gravity of some problems.

The latest Met Office analysis has shown that temperature over the most recent decade (2008-2017) has been on average 0.3 °C warmer than the 1981-2010 average and 0.8 °C warmer than the 1961-1990 average. These seem like very small amounts, because as we all know temperature can fluctuate by much larger amounts than this in just a single day. But when we hear this means nine of the ten warmest years having occurred since 2002, suddenly the gravity of this becomes a lot more real.

Temperature effects tend to be cumulative. Putting this in simple terms, it might be difficult to tell the difference in temperature between two cups of tepid water where one is only 0.8 °C warmer than the other. However, if you immersed the roots of two identical plants in these two cups, there would be a significant difference in the growth rate of the plant in the warmer water.

That’s because the rate of many chemical reactions in nature are temperature dependent – and even small temperature changes applied over a long time can make big differences.

This example rings true as we publish the UK Climate Projections 2018 (UKCP18), the most-up-to date picture of how our climate could change over the next century – and the first update in nearly ten years.

These projections suggest that if we go on much as we are now, then by 2070 warming is likely to be 0.9 °C to 5.4 °C in summer, and 0.7 °C to 4.2 °C in winter. Again, this does not seem like much but it also shows that in future winters will be wetter, summers will be drier and weather extremes will be more common and possibly more severe.

If we use the hot summer of 2018 as our benchmark, there was a <10% chance of seeing this between 1981 and 2000. The chance has already increased to 10-20%. By mid-century this could be ~50%.

It is tempting to pick the lower or higher value in the range of these estimates, depending on how one feels about climate change. My advice is not to do this. The lower and higher values in these ranges are the least likely to occur. The most likely lie somewhere in the middle.

The project which produced these projections has used the Met Office Hadley Centre supercomputer to run simulations of climate both forward and backward in time. Comparison with the historical climate, which has been measured independently, suggests how good the calculations are at tracking climate and this provides an insight in to the reliability of projections to the end of the century.

The calculations are applied to a 12 km2 grid covering the surface of the planet. This is necessary because of the connectedness of the climate across the globe; it’s impossible to accurately calculate the climate for the UK without also calculating the climate elsewhere as well.

The calculations are then repeated many times to create an ensemble of projections and this is what produces the range in expected values. The randomness in the climate means that we cannot be sure of exactly how the climate is going to evolve but we can be fairly certain that it will remain within a particular range.

Of most significance is that the backwards projections of climate are reasonably consistent with the climate as we have measured it through the past 100 years. Challenging the calculated outcome with this real measurement of climate increases confidence that the calculations are valid. It follows logically that projections into the future should also have similar levels of validity.

It is comforting, although not terribly surprising, therefore, that the calculations end up making a reasonable prediction of climate trends and the emergent message is that the climate is warming and will go on warming. The main caveat is that we have to assume that the basic processes we use in the calculations are the same in the future as they have been in the past.

There is lots of debate among climate scientists about whether the physics and chemistry are correctly represented in these calculations. For example, there is uncertainty about how to include the effects of declines on Arctic sea ice. As in many other communities of scientists, climate scientists are involved in constant debate about these details and this leads to incremental refinements in the calculations.

These debates happen at all levels and include individuals who fundamentally disagree with each other as well as institutions which carry out the calculations slightly differently from each other because their own scientists hold a different view from those in other institutions. The good thing about these debates and disagreements is that they add to the rich picture of possible futures within the projections.

I was the chairman of the Board which provided governance oversight of the project which produced the latest climate projections for the UK. This board appointed a peer review panel with a chairman – Sir Brian Hoskins – who was very challenging towards the Met Office and its methods. He, in turn, made sure his panel was composed of climate scientists who could understand the complexities of the calculations but also challenge the projections where needed. It is not in the character of these scientists to hold back if they disagree about a technical or philosophical point in the methods.

I was keen to see the Met Office having its feet held to the fire and the Peer Review Panel did this very well. This robustness of underlying process and unfettered peer criticism is another reason why I can have high confidence in the projections.

Many different climate calculations have now been done, but, in spite of all the debate and disagreement on details, all these calculations project warming trends in to the future. There is something important in this level of consistency across a diverse range of global scientific expertise.

This idea of consensus emerging in the context of divergent views is quite powerful. It suggests robustness to the projections of climate. Of course, it is possible that all climate scientists are cut from the same intellectual cloth and are, therefore, blind to other possibilities. But my experience of the process is that this is unlikely. Alongside these other independent assessments, UKCP18 is saying that the UK, as well as the rest of the world, is facing an increasingly difficult climate challenge. We need to adapt to this more quickly than most people realise and this also involves changing our lifestyles to use less energy and, therefore, produce much less greenhouse gas like CO2 and methane.

These projections show us a future we could face without further action, and will help businesses, industry, investors, local authorities and individuals plan for these changes and make decisions accordingly. We need to take heed, use them and adapt.

 

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Reward and recognition for quality in Science.

I was recently invited to sit on a panel at a conference about research cultures run by the Royal Society.

The debate among the panellists showed general agreement about what a good research culture involves. The word “openness” was used a lot as was “trust”.

But the discussion exposed a paradox about quality in science. Whereas competitiveness was being praised as the driver of scientific inventiveness, a consequence of this competition – gaming, domineering, mendacious and sometimes dishonest behaviours – was being rejected. These behaviours compromised the openness and trust of science.

It was good to see these issues surfacing but I observed another problem connected with the paradox. Few people at the meeting seemed to clock the absence of government scientists, which are a large section of the scientific community and which I represent. This suggested that science has a diversity problem which goes beyond BAME and gender bias. I suspect the commercial sector was equally under-represented.

Like many professions, science is full of narcissism and tribalism. It is dominated by self-defined elites and has institutions which are intentionally structured to pass this culture on down the generations. Prizes and other badges of recognition are handed out as stereotype reinforcement. The system is designed to sustain strong discrimination as a badge of quality.

Is this discrimination actually functional? To address this question perhaps we could start by agreeing what quality looks like. As the philosophical argument goes, you know quality when you see it. So who is making the judgement about quality?

The concept of “excellence” is used almost universally in science as the basis for decisions about who and what is supported. Indeed, influencing who defines the badge of excellence becomes important in science. Positioning one’s-self professionally closer to this centre of control is part of the game.

This concept of excellence is at the root of the quality definition problem. It says that only scholarship itself has self-recognition; only people who know can know, or (turning this around) those who are not classed by their peers as scholars themselves cannot recognise scholarship and are therefore ignorant about quality. It is mainly scientists of a certain type – the non-government, non-industry type – who judge the quality produced by scientists of all types.

I think many people would see this as being wrong in principle. There is a suspicion, for example, that the reward system is rigged to benefit some types of scientists as opposed to all types. For example, the current system for allocating public funding to scientific research is based mainly on a peer-based judgement of quality made by those who benefit from the funding. Arguably, if this existed in the commercial sector it would be branded as corrupt.

There are perhaps two different, but equally plausible, models for how to deliver quality in science. One of these models, which is generally the model rewarded by our current culture, involves peer-recognition of high scholarly quality and ground-breaking discovery.

The other model is much more egalitarian. There is a significant group of scientists delivering huge public good through their daily activities. They often operate in the government or public service but are rarely recognised. Others in industry do the same but are delivering public goods through the market.

These models – one involving the elitism of peer recognition and the other public service – could be seen as opposite ends of a continuum which also captures the contrasting motivation of scientists to generate mostly private as opposed to public goods. The whole spectrum is important.

However, the reward system, and the incentives for scientists, favour the elites – the competitive science entrepreneurs, or those who had a lucky break – while the rest of the talent needed to support the social benefits from science is undervalued. How could we change this?

First, we could ensure that all people, irrespective of their employment or background should have a right to apply for public money to conduct high quality research. It may come as a surprise that, no matter how brilliant your ideas might be, you would have to be a signed up member of an elite to qualify for access to those opportunities. Strong vested interests lock out others from funding and from the judgement about what constitutes quality. Even professional scientists who work for the public service are largely excluded.

Second, we need to be better at recognising and rewarding quality in science in its many forms. This will involve traditional performance metrics as well as peer recognition. But it needs to cover those who are at the start of their research careers (when most people have some of their best ideas), deliver synthesis, organise and fund research, stitch together research in to innovative solutions, or who make sure scientific knowledge is properly integrated in to the policies and actions of governments. We need a public debate about what actually constitutes quality in science.

Science needs to be a truly diverse profession providing equality of opportunity for everybody and this is very far from being the case at present. People should be judged on the quality of their ideas irrespective of who they are.

Reform needs to start with our institutions. A significant corrective intervention is needed to re-orientate these institutions toward supporting scientists of all types. This should include the learned societies but it needs to also involve government funding bodies and universities.

This isn’t about lowering standards. It is about broadening the church of science; it is about recognising that “excellence” reflects a lot of different qualities and is not purely self-defined by an elite. Society should be the judge of who is good and worthy of recognition in science, not just scientists themselves.

Can government scientists speak freely?

This is a speech delivered on 31st October 2018 to the Science Media Centre at the Wellcome Collection, London.

I want to start by stating categorically that if anybody thinks I am here to defend the suppression of free speech by anybody, including government scientists, then they would be dead wrong.

I stand here as somebody who works for government and who is unencumbered by any such constraint. What I am saying here has not been through any government filter.

But I want to provide a reasoned argument as to why government scientists need to be careful about what they say in public and why, in general, they are careful.

Government employs scientists to help it understand how to develop better policies and to help those policies function well. Some scientists perform particular operational tasks, such as carrying out fish stock assessments, whereas others have a broader, more advisory role.

A few are synthesisers, networkers and organisers who draw on the knowledge in the scientific literature and the skills in the wider scientific community. Many do research, because this is important as a way of sustaining skills and continuously improving the knowledge base upon which policies sit. Some even sit at the very top of the Civil Service.

Like any employer government expects its scientists to abide by certain rules of behaviour. As in any work environment scientists have both a contractual obligation to their employer, and a social obligation to those with whom they work. They need to balance the need for candour internally with candour externally to the work environment. Scientists need to know how to build trust on both sides of this divide.

These are also moral judgements based on the balance between duty towards one’s institution, and one’s colleagues, and duty towards informing the wider public about one’s work. This duty is balanced differently among industry, academia and government, depending on whether scientists are generating public or private goods.

In all cases it comes down to an individual morally-based judgement about whether it is right to speak openly about one’s work.

This type of balancing of commitments is part of our social contract, as John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have explained it. Like all citizens, scientists accept obligations which restrict individual freedoms so that they can work for the good of civil society. Where scientists are prevented, against their better judgement, from speaking then the social contract has been broken. But it can be equally broken if they divulge information which leads to bad outcomes, even if they were unintentional.

The UK places no constraints on government scientists speaking about their work other than for those who hold security clearances or during pre-election periods. Scientists are only expected to abide by the Civil Service Code defined by integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.

Like it or not, government scientists are linked to a political process which is strongly scrutinised. In this environment, some issues can be magnified or twisted. How should scientists view the risks of this happening and how should they then mitigate those risks?

My own view, based on experience, is that one needs to be very cautious indeed. For scientists in government there is a very high risk that what they say will be used to manufacture a case against current government policy. This most likely politicises government scientists and potentially sets them against their own employer.

If government scientists could be sure that their views would be reported as straight, unabridged pieces then I am sure many more would step forward to talk openly. But the probability of this happening is quite small.

As a general rule, practicing scientists need to stay out of politics. This applies as much to government as non-government scientists. Scientists occupy a special position as the custodians and communicators of knowledge. If that knowledge is interpreted as advocacy for one view or another then the messages from science will not be heard by those who would benefit most from listening.

Being listened to, and believed, especially behind closed doors in government requires trust that the harsh messages sometimes being delivered will not reach the public domain.

Government employs communication professionals to advise about the interaction between government issues and the public. My advice to any scientist is to listen to them because they know a lot more about this than we do.

I can see why this dynamic could be portrayed as “gagging scientists”, but those who say this are unable to put themselves in the position of the government scientist, or are actively trying to dredge for dirt, or have little concern for the wider perturbations which could materialise (including misrepresentations of the true message), or they care little about the human cost involved. For most people there is nothing worse than being at the centre of a political storm and I would not wish that on any fellow scientist.

I have a duty of care towards those who work for, and with, me and that duty means I have to be very cautious in my advice about how fellow scientists should engage with the press. I don’t think this is “gagging”; it is just good sense.

I am not denying that sometimes in government a line is crossed between supporting scientists to make their own judgements and forcing them to keep quiet because it is not in the interest of government to hear them speaking. I am also not denying that some other countries have systems of control which I would not agree with and which I would refuse to work within, but that is not the case in the UK.

Of course, there is a danger that systematic risk-aversion can become oppressive, pervasive and rooted in institutionalised cultures. Some of this does exist but I think its effect depends hugely on the quality and confidence of the leadership of those institutions.

Overall, government institutions find a good balance between supporting scientists’ freedom to speak, if they want to, and holding them to account if they break the rules of integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. I am impressed by the way in which government scientists in the UK listen to advice, intelligently assess the risks and the moral arguments and come to their own decisions about how to behave.

 

 

Peering in to the Arctic from a Defra Perspective

 

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A photo of me in Ny Ålesund.

 

I spent a few days last month in Svalbard, bringing back memories of past Arctic experience doing research in Iceland and Alaska. Svalbard had been a place where many of my colleagues had worked. The outpost of Ny Ålesund, where I was headed, lies at nearly 80oN, tucked in to a fjord on the north-western coast of the archipelago. It is the most northerly permanently inhabited settlement in the world and was the starting point for many early 20th Century expeditions to reach the North Pole.

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An aerial photo of Ny Ålesund.

 

 

 

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Many of the buildings in Ny Ålesund are of historical importance.

 

 

Ny Ålesund isn’t somewhere just anybody can stay. The settlement is an international research station built within an early 20th Century coal mining settlement. Although cruise ships visit and disembark passengers for an hour or two, it takes an invitation from one of the 11 countries which have a presence at Ny Ålesund if you want to stay there. Surrounded by mountains, glaciers and the Arctic Ocean, Ny Ålesund is a microcosm of both the Arctic environment and Arctic politics.

Norway has sovereignty over the islands but, through the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 other countries, including the UK, have a right of access. The strategic importance of the Arctic is such that lots of countries want to have a foothold there even if they have no land or coastline which impinges on the Arctic itself. 

The politics of the Arctic stand out as one of the major drivers for the Ny Ålesund community but the scientific research being done there is at least as important and it is a common objective which brings together all the national interests. The natural gregariousness and openness of scientists makes for a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.

Being close to the North Pole, Ny Ålesund acts as a location used to download information from the polar orbiting satellites monitoring the Earth’s surface. These tell us about atmospheric pollution, forest cover, ocean currents and much more. On a mountain above the station is a building perched precariously on a sharp ridge which can only be reached by a small cable car. This is used to sample truly clean air – one of very few places on Earth where this is possible. And further around the bay is a couple of radio dishes pointing to the heavens to measure the regular beat of pulsars in the distant universe. These act like beacons which are reference points used to measure the drift of the continents to an accuracy of millimetres.

Then there are the glaciers nearby which are retreating fast under both the influence of climate change and also because the glaciers in Svalbard go through regular multi-decadal cycles of surge and retreat. But their walls of blue ice are a dominant presence at Ny Ålesund – as are icebergs calving off them which then float past down the fjord past the settlement.

The fjord, which once froze over most winters, is now influenced by warm water from the Atlantic pushing its way north in to the Arctic so it rarely freezes over these days. Harbour, bearded and ringed seals, and beluga whales, eat the polar cod which enter the fjord to feed on the rich food sources resulting from the effects of fertilization of the ocean by glacial dust. These are all subjects of study to unravel how the Arctic is changing as the climate gets warmer.

On-shore, the permafrost, which stretches to depths of many tens of metres is also warming and showing signs of melting. As the soils are churned by freeze-thaw for the first time in millions of years they release more greenhouse gasses thus exacerbating the process of global warming. The immediate practical consequence at Ny Ålesund is that the foundations of buildings are beginning to move. It is perhaps ironic that the reason which first brought people to this remote spot – coal mining – are also the reason they keep coming back in the present day – to observe the effects of burning these fossil fuels on the planet.

By the time I visited towards the end of August, the bright summer flowers of the tundra had largely passed over and had been cropped flat by the unusual, short-legged, variety of wild reindeer which inhabit Svalbard (see photo). The many waterbirds – geese, ducks and waders like purple sandpipers – which breed in these parts had largely departed for their wintering grounds, many around Britain, and were a reminder of the close connection which exists between this cold, treeless landscape and the biodiversity of Britain. The barnacle geese which breed on the offshore islands in the fjord are the very same ones as we value so much at the Carlaverock nature reserve on the Solway Firth.

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One of the wild reindeer in Svalbard looking very healthy at the end of the Arctic summer. Svalbard reindeer are very much smaller in stature than those elsewhere.

 

The strength of the links between Svalbard and Britain go even deeper. How we respond to the challenge of climate change is going to depend on what happens here in the Arctic. British scientists are investigating the effects of warming on this delicate ecosystem. This includes experiments to understand how the tundra will change as the Artic warms up, potentially releasing more greenhouse gas in to the atmosphere. The west coast of Svalbard is especially good as a sentinel because it is warming unusually rapidly. This is because warm Atlantic water coming through the Iceland-Faroes Channel far to the south is making its way further north and starting to bathe the west coasts of Svalbard around Ny Ålesund.  When the manager of the UK’s research station first started coming to Ny Ålesund rain was unknown – all precipitation fell as snow. Nowadays rain is common.

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The UK’s Arctic Research Station in Ny Ålesund.

 

 

 

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The UK’s Arctic Research Station is operated by the Natural Envrionment Research Council.

 

 

 

There could be nowhere better to understand how climate change will change the Arctic. Sediment and ice cores taken locally place the current climate trends in the long-term historical context and show how unusual they are.

All this is affecting the economy of the Artic as well. A tourist industry is beginning to turn Longyearbyen, the frontier town which is the capital of Svalbard, in to a thriving centre for tourism. Only a few weeks before I visited a Danish shipping company announced that it would be testing the idea of sending cargo vessels through the north-east passage, something which can only happen because of the retreat of the fields of Arctic sea ice. 

The icon of the Arctic, the polar bear, is also likely to be affected and this is something people really care about. At Ny Ålesund, polar bears are respected if not feared. I had the mixed fortune to run in to a mother and cub (see photo). This is the ultimate predator. It is truly at the top of the Arctic food chain where humans are relegated to second place – which is a powerful message me as a representative of a species so dominant elsewhere.

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Polar bears in Ny Ålesund.

 

By now, I hope it should be clear why Svalbard is important to Defra. The credibility of the UK as a leader in tackling climate change needs to be underpinned both by research examining its effects and presence of the UK in the international fora where decisions are made. Moreover, important components of the biodiversity of Svalbard are shared with the UK. And I have yet to meet anybody in the UK who does not care about the fate of polar bears. At present, they seem to be doing well in Svalbard partly because of reduced hunting but they are being confined to land more than in the past which means they hunt birds and their eggs. This will probably eventually affect those populations.

This is why we should care about Svalbard and the Arctic and why the UK needs to remain interested in its future. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Natural Environment Research Council, maintain the UK’s research station at Ny Ålesund but I think Defra should also be fully engaged too as it develops a more expansive leadership role in international environmental stewardship in future.

 

Seeking Hi-Brazil

In some senses we all seek a promised land, like the medieval fable of Hi-Brazil, a phantom paradise island. For some, this might look something like “Love Island”, a fly-on-the wall reality show currently screening on UK television (I’m pleased to confess I’ve never watched it). For others, like me, it represents something a little grittier.

In my view the operation of government, in terms of how it comes up with ideas about how to fix problems, experiments with solutions, evaluates the outcome and then modifies the solution based on experience, is much the same as the scientific process. Building the scientific process in to government and making it the backbone of how government functions is my Hi-Brazil.

Like all promised lands it will be fictional and like the medieval mariners who hunted for Hi-Brazil, CSAs like me also hunt, mostly in vain, for their nirvana. But even CSAs can sometimes spy a distant land through a thick fog and can start to believe that it might actually exist. What does this land look like? On this land, there is a completely harmonious, seamless relationship between academia and government.

By way of confirmation of the sighting of this land, The Institute for Government (IFG), with part sponsorship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, recently published a report called “How government can work with academia”. It looked at how government can improve the way it uses academic evidence and expertise in informing policy.

It is always helpful to have an external view such as that given by IFG on how the policy-science interface is working. Those looking in from the outside are often well placed to offer the challenge to government. The report was based on interviews in 10 government departments and it shed light on what works, what doesn’t work and it makes a series of recommendations. Overall, Defra fairs very well from the report and is seen as an exemplar in a number of areas including: its use of structured and responsive expert networks and committees, its systems for managing university relationships, and its approach to bringing in secondments to deliver valuable work (incl. evidence statements) including ensuring they develop insights into policy.

This is all very encouraging and is a tribute to the hard work and a gradually shifting sense of shared responsibility between the people who work in Defra – including those from my office and other scientists, analysts, social scientists and economists who are working in the same teams as policy professionals. This embedded model, which places specialists at the heart of policy-making and empowers them to have an equal share of the responsibility for policy development and delivery, is beginning to shine through in terms of better relationships with academia.

It takes years, perhaps decades, to turn around the massive ship of government, by changing cultures and ensuring that diversity of expertise is valued and built in to decision making. This shift isn’t the same in all parts of government but I think it’s particularly strong in Defra.
For example, Defra’s engagement with the new organisation responsible for overseeing the health of research in Britain, UK Research and Innovation, together with its component Research Councils, has influenced the way scientists are thinking about how they might address questions which are both scientifically interesting but which also address the issues vital to making better policy. Individuals from Defra, who have a strong sense of what great science looks like, participate in Research Council programme expert/advisory groups, knowledge exchange network events and other fora. They also work closely with senior researchers to shape their own ideas and those of the research community.

Gone are the days (I hope) when Defra’s representatives came to these discussions with an agenda. Those sitting on the policy-academia interface now include both academics and the embedded specialists who work in Defra. They are exploring cognitively complex issues which eventually leads to co-design of research and policy; one alongside the other rather than one subservient to the other. We have moved in this direction recently on pollinators, valuing natural assets and there will be more on this in landscape decisions and air quality in the near future.

This is all about having interactive, engaging and influential conversations. The short-term rewards for academics can be pathways to impact which they can exploit within the Research Excellence Framework, but the end point is much more significant. This involves better outcomes supported by a very influential set of thinkers and networkers who feel that they are part of delivering those outcomes. The outcomes are valued.

I still come across some crusty academics who see their role as a battle to keep government in check and policy specialists who just see academics as mendacious meddlers. But they are fewer and further between now and getting rarer all the time. While there is still much to do to make government think and function much more like a scientific process, I see the IFG report as a partial endorsement of progress. My Hi-Brazil is still partially in the fog but not as much as in the past.

Synthesis is the next evolution of the scientific method

This week has seen the publication in Nature https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05414-4  of Four Principles for Synthesizing Evidence – what I see as a key perspective piece.  I and a number of others want to put evidence synthesis centre stage in science alongside the key primary research breakthroughs which push the boundaries of our understanding.

I recently read the book “Theory and Reality” by Peter Godfrey-Smith about the philosophy of science and how it changed through the 20th Century. One of the most powerful conclusions from this exploration is just how much our view of reality is moulded by the methods we use to investigate and understand the world around us. This has shifted us in small steps from uncomfortable fundamentalist positions which questioned the nature of reality itself to much more pragmatic views of the world.

Although the former fundamentalist positions still have not gone away, science has progressively developed increasingly convincing methods for describing what is real. Part of this involves the recognition of science as a creative and social process. We still reward individual scientists for their ‘discoveries’ with prizes but in reality progress in science is a mighty aggregation of the efforts of large numbers of people. I believe that some the most significant progress in science in the early parts of the 21st Century come not from individual breakthrough publications but come instead from the synthesis of evidence across many different lines of enquiry.

The advent of online publication and the presence of powerful web-based portals like the Web of Science and search engines are not only the result of this aggregated process of advancing science, but are also the things that will enable more knowledge to be aggregated in future. This is a form of systemic evolution which, if carried out well, could push the benefits of science in society to much greater heights.

The reward structure for scientists is also recognised by philosophers of science as an important component driving this machine for invention and innovation. The scientific establishment has been slow to reward scientists for looking across their disciplines and coming up with new ideas or insights about the world based on gluing together information already in the public domain. Individual scientists are like component manufacturers who have been told to make pieces of a structure without anybody being tasked with joining all of the pieces together.

Indeed, synthesis has been frowned on as secondary or derived information. Synthesis has been disparaged by being confused with ‘reviewing’ or the restatement of old ideas in a new context. We need to transition from talking about scientific review to talking much more clearly about the prospective and inventive process of scientific synthesis. It has been devalued within the reward structure but its potential is vast. In the article in Nature, we want to purge the old idea that merging and analysing the outcome from multiple strands of scientific output somehow lacks importance, and we want to put synthesis in its rightful place as an exciting, intellectually challenging, high-status and respected activity that provides a global public good.

The article has been built on workshops led by the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences. It recognises that synthesis in science is as valid a pursuit of original knowledge and ideas as any other. The complexity of scientific information these days is such that it takes special skills and procedures to pull out the essential, reliable knowledge from the midst of a huge mass of disparate information. Evaluating the quality of the underlying evidence base and building up new and otherwise unseen pictures of the world are just two of the reasons why scientific synthesis is especially important for areas like policy-making.

The article defines the characteristics of good evidence synthesis to inform policy: it needs to be inclusive, rigorous, transparent and accessible. It also recognises that synthesis can take many different forms and the utility of these forms depends of the audience. Synthesis to support the progress of science itself might be very different from synthesis to support a decision being made by regulators, for example, about whether a particular drug is effective and safe, or by governments about whether a new policy is likely to be effective. Despite this range, the principles should apply to synthesis for all policy purposes and timescales.

We recognise that producing syntheses can be a substantial task, often involving multiple collaborators working together over months or even years. However within the policy environment, sometimes those who need synthesis can require this information in periods of days and perhaps even hours or minutes when involved in fast-moving emergencies. Evidence synthesis for policy represents everything from flying by the seat of the pants when one is being driven by events out of one’s control through to measured and deeply intellectualised representations of the current state of knowledge. The processes involved in manufacturing the syntheses in each case need to be tailored to the circumstances – but they all have the same key features. In essence, they make sense of the vast amount of published data and information and turn it into accessible, usable, knowledge. This can change our view of the world around us in ways which were not predicted and we emerge feeling better off, more educated.

In Defra, we have been grappling with the idea of synthesis for some time. I have wanted all our main policy areas to be informed by “evidence statements”. These are short, authoritative, readable syntheses of the scientific knowledge – including its strengths and weaknesses – in a particular field. For example, we produced one recently on the effects of air quality on semi-natural terrestrial ecosystems. After a lot of careful consideration, we are starting to build what I hope will be a large portfolio of evidence statements produced by applying the principles described in our article. If implemented across the whole of Defra this would amount to a potentially very large number and, perhaps eventually, we will reach a point where we can produce syntheses of the syntheses.

At present, these mini syntheses are scaled so that they can be produced by a PhD student on secondment to Defra for a period of three months. Not only does this time-limit instil discipline in terms of scope but it also means we are exposing our researchers of the future to very practical experience at the coal face where science meets policy. These individuals also walk away with a very tangible output to their names (hence they receive credit which is so important in the social process of science).

Making the scientific effort of the past count more in the present and future has to be a good thing. The art of scientific synthesis will, I predict, be a recognised and increasingly valued part of the scientific effort in future.

 

Kicking the Photon Along the Road

We eat the energy which comes from photons, which are the elementary particles making up light. This happens because photons of light with sufficient energy knock electrons into a higher energy state within the green plant pigment known as chlorophyll. These are then used as the energy needed to manufacture complex molecules like starch, proteins and fats. This is an old story but it has a new and exciting twist.

In my job I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the challenges connected with how to build a sustainable future. Most of the time the solutions which many well-meaning people bring to my door just don’t add up or they are insufficiently ambitious. More often than not they create a new way of doing things which just moves the problem of a sustainable future elsewhere. They are not solutions. They kick the can along the road.

The challenges we have will not be solved by doing a little here and a bit more there. Tinkering with our current systems of old production won’t be enough.

For example, one of the biggest challenges we face is how to change the energy balance of agriculture. Currently, we expend about 10 calories of fossil fuel to generate one calorie of food. This is unsustainable not just in a small way but to quite an alarming extent. If we are to tackle this problem farming will need to be completely re-imagined within the next 30 years or so.

Such a huge challenge calls for us to take this back to its basics. How can we transfer photons of light from the sun into edible energy at maximum efficiency? This is a really interesting scientific and engineering question but it is also important and answering it might just be the saviour of humanity.

Until a few days ago I thought that “vertical farming” which was the answer which some people had brought to my door as a solution was just another of those ideas designed to kick the can along the road. This was because, after doing some research, I had concluded that it would always be more efficient to use a photon coming directly from the sun to energize electrons in chlorophyll than to use a photon generated by a light powered by electricity. The loss of efficiency involved in generating the electricity, transmitting it to the point of use and then translating the power of electrons into photons would always make this a pretty unattractive option for future food production. But I’m beginning to think I might be wrong.

“Vertical Farming” is the idea that we can grow plants within enclosed spaces, often including high-rise warehouses, using artificial light instead of the sun. Is it really the future way that our fruit and veg will be produced? I think it could be and here is why.

On a recent visit to a pilot vertical farming unit run by a company called Intelligent Growing Solutions housed at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee I saw what can be achieved by an innovative, never say die, approach. They have worked through the problem of how to translate a photon into edible food. Using the best expertise, much of it in Scottish Universities, they have solved probably the biggest problem in vertical farming. This is concerned with how to improve the efficiency of the Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) used to generate the photons of light from electricity.

They have re-imagined the problem and on the back of their key innovation they are systematically re-engineering the processes of plant production. This draws on the world’s leading technologies in robotics, storage and transport solutions, and plant biology. By intelligently integrating these growing systems with grid electrical generation, including placing them in the right places like in the centre of cities, they can reduce their power costs to a fraction of normal prices. By containing the farms inside buildings they can optimise the atmosphere for plant growth by enhancing CO2 levels and ensuring it is always at the best temperature. Sealed containment eliminates disease (hence no need for pesticides!) and sensors inspect the plants to detect stress so that they can adjust the growing conditions to be just right for the plants. Nitrate and phosphate fertilizers are provided in exactly the quantities need by the plants and there is no waste and, therefore, no environmental impact.  Robots will busily move pollen around to fertilise plants like beans or soft fruits.

All this will happen in stacked plant trays each of which is tended carefully, and untiringly, by robots around the clock. The plants will grow perhaps at least twice as fast as they do in the field. There is no need for heavy machinery to plough, sow and harvest. Where once many human hands were needed none are now needed. Where once the plants had to put up with all that the weather and climate would throw at them now they are to be cosseted and their every need catered for. Where once the produce was packed into trucks to be carted around Europe it can be produced next to the point of sale. Where once vast tracts of land were needed, the land footprint is very small. Where once only a single crop was possible each year on that vast area of land now perhaps four or five crops of equivalent size will be produced on the much smaller area. Where once we were oxidising valued soils such as the fenland peatlands of East Anglia to produce vegetables (and a lot of CO2 to boot) these can be returned to the function of storing carbon and hosting wildlife. Where once we produced a lot of food which was wasted we can almost completely eliminate this waste.

All this is made possible by one, quite simple, but very clever innovation with how a 3-phase electrical supply can be adapted to feed power to LEDs. This innovation alone is very likely to pop up in other places too. For example, it could completely revolutionise how electricity is routed around factories and even our homes. There is something quite poetic about a bunch of people who are brought together by an entrepreneur with an imaginative idea about farming which could turn out to change all our lives in positive and unimagined ways. This is how innovation works and it’s quite magical.

This doesn’t seem to me to be like kicking the can along the road. But one thing worries me. This is happening now in Scotland, driven mainly by the brilliant minds of people mostly in Scottish universities and institutions, as well as a Scottish entrepreneur. However, will Scotland be the country to scale this up and make it real? Will Scotland be the place that the world turns to as the great innovator in vertical farming, like Finland has been for mobile phone technology? This will only happen if the major capital investments needed to turn this into an industrial reality are made in Scotland. Otherwise perhaps we’ve just kicked the photon along the road, but at least we’ll have the great satisfaction of knowing we’ve just done something really great towards saving the planet.

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Ian Boyd (second from right) pictured inside the newly commissioned vertical farming facility at the James Hutton Institute with (left to right) Douglas Elder (Project Manager at Intelligent Growth Solutions), Colin Campbell (CEO, James Hutton Institute) and Henry Aykroyd, founder and director of Intelligent Growth Solutions.