talk to Royal Society, Edinburgh, 09 November 2004
My business is words, so I want to start - and end - my short contribution to this evening's discussion by talking about words. Some of you may know this passage from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible:
"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Now indulge me while I read what could be a modern-day translation of that:
"Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."
Although that parody was penned by the great English writer, George Orwell, nearly 60 years ago, it could have been written yesterday. Politicians, civil servants, managers, academics and scientists write like that every day, as if they are trying to hide all vestige of meaning under an avalanche of long words and contorted sub-clauses. And that's a problem, because it means that people aren't going to understand what they are saying, and in the age of mass media, they will fail to get their message across.
Another way of translating the sentiment from Ecclesiastes - "time and chance happeneth to them all" - is to put it in the kind of crude language that most people would understand - "shit happens". It is the essential truth of this observation - that things go wrong, that we all make mistakes - that underlies the first point I want to make to you.
Mistakes in major scientific enterprises can be unforgiving. Thousands of people died when methyl isocyanate leaked from a factory in Bhopal, India, in December 1984. People died because someone misread the control panel at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine in April 1986. People are still dying because no-one in authority realised that BSE, mad cow disease, would spread to humans. And many people will die from the increase in storms, floods and droughts due to the climate chaos caused by pollution.
The fact that such terrible mistakes can be made, with such tragic consequences, should give us all pause for thought. Every time we embark on some grand new whizz-bang science - be it nuclear power, GM, nanotechnology, or whatever - we would be wise to proceed with caution. We should be acutely conscious of all that can go wrong, and assume that sooner or later it will go wrong. That poison gas will escape, that reaction will run away, that genetically engineered virus will mutate and cross species.
That does not mean, of course, that we do nothing. On the contrary we need all the creative energy and ingenuity of scientists to work out how to advance by doing things that don't endanger human health or the environment. The trouble is that at the moment too much effort goes in the wrong direction.
We wasted billions of pounds in trying to get the nuclear fast breeder reactor to work, and now all we have in return is a dirty radioactive mess at Dounreay in Caithness which will take at least a generation to clean up and cost us another £2.7 billion. The original idea came from 'atoms for peace' scientists who who were trying to make something good out of the horror of the atomic bomb.
But the inescapable fact that so much nuclear technology can be used to make both bombs and electricity is still at the root of some of the biggest problems the world now faces. Britain and the US invaded Iraq partly because they mistakenly believed that Saddam Hussein was trying to use civil technology to make nuclear bombs.
Europe and the US are now putting pressure on Iran to abandon uranium enrichment technology similar to that used at Capenhurst near Chester to make fuel for British nuclear reactors. And North Korea has become an international pariah for threatening to do what the US, Russia, Britain, France and China have already done - to make nuclear bombs from the plutonium produced in reactors.
Britain's hot-headed love affair with nuclear fission has brought us to the morally and logically indefensible position of pleading with other countries to do as we say, not as we do. Now I do not know whether the pursuit of GM technology, or nanotechnology or any other major new technology will lead us into similar problems or not - but I worry.
As far as I can see, far from being a precise science, genetic engineering is more like blasting DNA with a blunderbuss and hoping that the outcome is roughly what you expect. That's why random bits of genetic material get left lying around, some of which might one day give us a nasty surprise. And I don't know about you, but while tiny nano-probes might have some beneficial uses, the idea that they could pierce your clothes and skin is not a source of enormous comfort to me.
Part of the problem is who is developing new technologies, and for what purpose. The forlorn attempt to introduce GM oil seed rape into Scotland seemed to be almost entirely to suit the multinational that made it rather than the farmers who might use it. The ploy was classic - sell them a herbicide, and then sell them a crop that was engineered to be resistant to it, a commercial double hit that any company would be proud of.
Monsanto was interested in a gene that became famously known as the terminator. It was designed to make GM plants produce sterile seeds so that farmers could no longer save seed to plant from one season to the next. This was designed to protect the company's intellectual property, but it also of course meant that farmers would be forced to buy fresh seed every season. The terminator, in other words, would help company profits, but screw poor farmers the world over.
I don't think that all new technologies are bad - far from it. Laptops, iPods and the internet have revolutionised the way I work and play, and I love them. X-rays have undoubtedly saved lives, and fibre optic surgery is a big advance on hacksaws. Modern wind turbines in the right places can look beautiful. I don't want to stop progress, I just want it to be a little cleverer.
But I do have concerns about some of the technologies that those with ulterior motives try and foist upon us. And so do most people, which is why the technologies get demonised in the mass media. Nuclear power becomes a series of radiation scares, GM becomes frankenfoods and nanotechnology becomes "grey goo". The temptation for scientists involved in these fields is to shoot the messenger, and ignore the message. This is a mistake.
To end, as I promised, I want to go back to words. The question we face is 'Should scientists tamper with nature?". Thinking about this yesterday, I did what any journalist would do. I looked up 'tamper' in my Chambers dictionary.
To tamper is defined as "to interfere unwarrantably or damagingly, to meddle...to have secret or corrupt dealings." Is anyone really in favour of that? Scientists should investigate, use and work with nature, even adapt it to suit human purposes and to solve human problems. But should they tamper with it? Surely the answer to that question has to be no.