Article - Issue 6, November 2000

Ignoring long-term consequences for short-term gains will not increase public confidence in engineers and scientists

Professor John Sparkes FREng

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Dear Sir,

Articles like Sir John Browne’s (in Issue 5), which express concern about the public image of science, tend to increase, rather than reduce, the public’s worries. Why should the public believe that ‘the answers [to our problems] are to be found in science and technology’ when so many of our concerns seem to stem from scientists’ tendency to ignore long-term consequences for the sake of short-term gains. For example:

  • Browne writes, ‘improved turbine efficiency has made natural gas the logical fuel for power generation’; but what about the future? We need all the natural gas we can find for home heating, owing to its ease of distribution. Similarly, we need all the liquid fuel we can find for transport, especially for cars and aircraft. Obviously therefore, from a long-term point of view, power stations, which need large amounts of fuel in a few places, should run on solid fuel, of which we have a relatively plentiful supply. The reason for the recent ‘dash for gas’ in the electricity industry was more to do with the cheapness of gas at that time, than with turbine efficiency.

  • But Browne does not mention the inefficiency of space heating by electricity. The maximum efficiency of fuel-based power stations is only about 35%, so that about twice as much heat is thrown away as is usefully used. It is therefore a good way of consuming large amounts of BP’s fuel. By contrast, space-heating by gas-fired boilers can exceed efficiencies of 75%. Charging a premium for space heating by electricity (instead of the opposite, as at present), coupled with improvements in insulation, could achieve vast savings of fuel, and hence long-term gains.

  • Turning to other applications of science and technology, we naturally applaud the marvellous achievements of antibiotics, but at the same time we seem to ignore the consequent evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, for which there may be no antidote.

  • The remarkable increase in human longevity resulting from modern medicine and hygiene, creates problems of population explosion for which science and technology seem able to offer little help.

  • The problems of GM crops, the extensive use of herbicides, the growth of nuclear power in some countries etc., all pose long-term threats for which we may never have scientific answers.

It is not just ‘ignorance’ of science that makes people distrust it, the problem is also that scientists do not tell us the whole truth about it.

Yours faithfully

John Sparkes FREng

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