Thursday, 9 October 2008

MARIE JAHODA LECTURE: PROFESSOR JOHN BEDDINGTON

By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

The UK government’s chef scientific advisor, Professor John Beddington was here at Sussex University last night to deliver the 12th Marie Jahoda Annual Lecture, hosted by SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research. With the theme Sustainability in a Changing World, Prof. Beddington said by the end of the lecture he would reveal the contents of the (imaginary) file he would like to present to the next US president.

With the scarcity and security of natural resources central to many of today’s global challenges, we were hoping for a fulsome exploration of sustainability in this era of rapid change from a man well-qualified to give his opinion. Prof. Beddington became Gordon Brown’s scientist on January 1 2008, but remains a Professor at Imperial College specialising in the application of biological and economic analysis to problems of Natural Resources Management.

And with global financial markets in freefall, could there ever have been a better week to illustrate the rapidly changing nature of a world rocked by shocks and stresses? However Prof. Beddington started not with economics, but birds. He used the fear of the avian influenza H5N1 virus mutating into human to human transmission as an illustration of one of the human and animal disease problems in his in-tray, along with polio, TB, AIDS, malaria, CJD, BSE, FMD, and Bluetongue.


Human and animal diseases are just a fraction of the pile of papers on his office desk. What followed was a whistle-stop tour of the most pressing global challenges facing us today, the things he has been employed to help the government understand.

The problems of sustainability facing the world are multiple, but chiefly fall into three categories, said Professor Beddington: increasing population, urbanisation and under-nourishment. The first of many graphs featuring steep red lines marching diagonally upwards across his Powerpoint slides began.

The problem of population is dealt with swiftly - increasing prosperity is the only way solution, according to Prof. Beddington, who batted away a later question about birth control saying it was a very complex and difficult area.

Urbanisation poses a second problem with the number of large cities of over 1million inhabitants set to soar, with Africa’s large cities alone set to double between now and 2030. By that time developing nations will have 80% of the world’s urban population, and conflicts, over resources such as water, will be heightened, said Prof. Beddington. People in the urban environment will out-compete those, particularly in the peri-urban areas, for resources, he added.

Next up, poverty alleviation. With 1.1bn people living on less than 50p a day and 854 million of them suffering under-nutrition and hunger you would think the outlook is bleak. But Prof. Beddington was quite upbeat because of a final World Bank figure that the number of households with incomes of more than £8,000 a year is set to soar from 352million households in 2000 to 2.1 billion by 2030. This is a fantastic thing, said Prof. Beddington, because so many more people will have increased purchasing power. Unfortunately the increase is not happening fast enough, he added.

That clean and renewable energy is needed is not in dispute. But how it is delivered is very much so, as some of those listening to Prof. Beddington’s lecture were well aware - with leading UK thinkers on the subject, including Professor Gordon McKerron and Dr Jim Watson of the Sussex Energy Group, among the audience.

Prof. Beddington made one thing clear – the Labour government’s u-turn on nuclear energy was made while his predecessor, Sir David King, was in post. Although he said there are strong arguments for the government’s investment in nuclear power, he added: “It’s not to say there are no problems with nuclear, and we’ve got to address that. It’s an interim measure.” And while he believes nuclear fusion could solve our energy needs, a solution is 30 years away.

So, we’ve got an energy demand problem, food and water demand problems and then there is the small matter of climate change. At this point Prof. Beddington apologised for the lack of cheer in this lecture. Slides quoting Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) facts and figures are familiar, but the fact that the Arctic will be ice-free in 12 years, by 2020, is always shocking no matter how many times you hear it. Graphs for predicted temperature, ocean heat, floods, coastal erosion and numbers of international migrants show more ascending red lines.

On the subject of agriculture, Prof. Beddington said crop improvement and protection measures are needed to reduce losses due to pests and diseases while better irrigation and water management must be developed. He was very keen on Brazil’s hi-tech grain production methods and unequivocal on the issue of GM: “We (the UK) are being left behind by the rest of the world on GM usage.” He said the US had been using GM for 15 years, and in the most litigious nation on Earth, there has been no litigation about the health effects of GM.

So, after running through his 'to do' list of most pressing concerns, what would Prof. Beddington put in that phantom file to the next US president? “My file to the new US president is for him to recognise that the new international challenges are all linked. We can’t ignore food, water and energy problems but we have got to treat them all in an integrated way. We can’t just see climate change on its own.”

With the constraints of both time and of being part of the political machine, Prof. Beddington delivered a broad-brush picture of scientific sustainability challenges rather than revealing his personal view or that of the government. Having joked that his son’s gift of a box set of British political satire Yes, Prime Minster had been handy in his new job, Prof. Beddington proved himself an adept politician: he was voluble on the problems by less forthcoming on his thoughts about solutions.

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