24 September 2006

A right royal megaphone

Whoever, or whatever, The Scientific Alliance might be, you have to agree with its statement that this has been "an extraordinary week for the UK scientific establishment". That's how they kick off their latest newsletter, which, because it does not seem to be on the alliance's own web site, we read thanks to the Cambridge Network.

The alliance was moved to make this comment by the recent attempts by the Royal Society to bully Exxon, the world's most hated oil company, into pulling the plug on any funding it hands out to climate dissidents, folks who don't buy the party line on climate change.

According to a report in The Guardian, Bob Ward of the RS sent a letter to Exxon, or its UK arm Esso UK, complaining about the company's support for these crackpots, as some might dub them.

The first complaint in the alliance's newsletter is that "putting [the letter] into the public domain in this way is unprofessional and, at the very least, discourteous to Exxon, who seem to have been in discussion with the Royal Society in good faith". The alliance seems to have jumped to the conclusion that it was the RS that did the leaking. All that the newspaper report says is a copy "has been obtained by the Guardian".

The alliance is upset partly because The Guardian fingered it as one of the climate deniers. We'll leave it to others to fight about climate change. More interesting is the propensity of the Royal Society to issue statement left right and centre. In this case, they have latched on to an important issue, but sometimes they seem to utter forth for the sake of it.

This is a far cry from the old days, back in the 1970s, when I asked one President of the Royal Society (PRS) why they didn't come out and say things in public, he answered along the lines that they preferred to work through the corridors of power. As a noble lord himself, the PRS was probably talking about Westminster and the House of Parliament.

That attitude is long dead, fortunately, but has the RS gone too far? It seems to put out policy statements on a weekly basis. It churns them out on nuclear waste, evolution, and education. The RS even let the world know its views on "the UK Marine Bill consultation".

Then there are all those press releases and statements from the current PRS. At last count there were nearly 80 press releases this year. To single out one at random, do I really care what the Royal Society has to say about fishing quotas?

I guess they expect us to care because they are, after all, the country's brightest scientists. Then again, too many of the really bright scientists I meet may be experts in their subjects, but when it comes to the real world, it might as well be another planet.

I'm sure that all of these statements are world shattering, but you do get the impression that the RS feels that it needs to justify the existence of its policy machine. Doubtless they realise that media enthusiasm for these statements is a diminishing resource. Science writers have only so many pages for these Very Important Pronouncements. How long will if be before the "not them again" response kicks in?

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