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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Monday
Jan 28,2013

There were a series of exchanges during Question Time in the House of Lords this afternoon on the Arctic and the implications of the melting of the ice cap.  The implications are substantial – and not just because of the impact on global sea levels.  There is the potential opening up of a new sea route: the North West Passage sought by explorers so assiduously for centuries.  There is the potentially easier access to mineral deposits and the possibility of oil drilling as the ice recedes.  The ocean (and this brings with it the rights to exploitation of natural resources) itself falls within the territorial waters of a handful of countries – principally Canada, Russia and Greenland.

So what is the strategy being followed to protect UK interests (indeed have those interests even been defined)?

Alas, the answer is not to be found in today’s Hansard:

Lord Giddens

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the 2012 Arctic Report Card of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States showing record-low sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean during the past year.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Baroness Verma):My Lords, the Government have noted the contents of the NOAA report with concern. The observed reductions of Arctic sea ice extent and thickness and the consequent regional environmental and societal impacts re-emphasise the urgent need for strong international action to tackle climate change. The UK has a leading role in the international negotiations and is working through the European Union, the G8 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to reach further global agreement to reduce emissions. Domestically, we are also taking action through the Green Deal and through the Energy Bill.

Lord Giddens:I thank the Minister for that Answer. The self-same report says, in heavy scientific jargon, that the extreme melting of the Arctic is a kick up the pants to the world. In terms of doing more to combat climate change, I take it that the Minister will agree with that assessment. Are the Government prepared to work bilaterally with the Americans on the possible implications for changing weather patterns in the north Atlantic, since such changes look quite likely? These changes will have radical implications for our own weather and are perhaps already beginning. Are the Government working, or planning to work, with the Americans on these issues?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important issue—we must be mindful of the different weather patterns that we are witnessing currently. We work through the UNFCCC process, and at the recent conference of the parties in Doha all countries restated their commitment to negotiate a global deal by 2015 on a single comprehensive and legally binding climate agreement to come into effect from 2020. The noble Lord also mentioned our relationship with the US. He is aware that the United Kingdom has bilateral relationships with many countries, particularly in the north Atlantic. Our relationship with the United States is crucial and we will be having ongoing discussions with it and with other partner countries.

Lord Trimble:My Lords, in the context of the United States, would the Minister consider that the US has greatly reduced its carbon emissions in the past year by reducing its dependence on coal plants through the development of shale gas?

Baroness Verma:Yes, my Lords; the noble Lord is right that the United States has reduced its carbon emissions and increased its production of shale gas. However, this country takes the view that we need to ensure that our energy supplies are a mix of renewables and traditional fossil-fuel based. Therefore, although we are looking at shale gas, it will be part of a mix of energy rather than our having a dependency on it.

Lord May of Oxford:My Lords, is the Minister aware that the cost of the actions that we should be energetically taking against climate change—the need for which is underlined by the faster than previously expected melting of Arctic ice—is significantly smaller than the discounted present value of the much more difficult actions that we will be faced with in future if we do not act? I declare an interest as a member of the Committee on Climate Change.

Baroness Verma:The noble Lord is of course right that we need to take action. I am pleased to say that this Government are taking action and working very hard with all partner countries to ensure that this global issue is tackled with a global response.

Viscount Hanworth:My Lords—

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally):My Lords, there is time for both sides. Perhaps we can hear first from the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth.

Viscount Hanworth:My Lords, an example of extreme folly is the manner in which we are allowing petroleum companies to pursue the exploration of oil and gas in the Arctic as the reduction of ice cover renders this more practical. Can the Minister tell us what steps, if any, the Government are taking to restrain such activities?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the fact of the matter is that we will need supplies of oil for the near future. Although we work very hard with our partner countries to ensure that everything is done in an environmentally safe way and with consideration to the environment and locations, we cannot dictate to the Arctic states or to the Arctic Council how they progress with their drilling. However, we know that they take the issue very seriously and are very environmentally effective when it comes to the security and safety of how they drill.

Baroness Parminter:What global greenhouse-gas emissions stabilisation levels do the Government believe will be necessary to protect Arctic summer sea ice for the remainder of this century? In asking this question I also congratulate the Government on the launch today of the Green Deal, which will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from British homes.

Baroness Verma:My Lords, I thank my noble friend for mentioning the Green Deal, which will of course help very much in how we respond individually to a very serious issue. Greenhouse gases are the key cause of climate warming. We have invested heavily in research to ensure that, working with Defra, we have many ways of responding to the climate change which is happening around us and to ensure that other countries are working with us in that response.

Lord Harris of Haringey:In the past 60 years more than half of the ice in the Arctic has disappeared. That opens up the prospect of the north-west passage—which we all remember from our history books in childhood—becoming a reality. This has enormous strategic implications not only in the movement of goods but in extra exploration for both oil and other minerals. How do the Government see the United Kingdom’s strategic interests, and are they pursuing those through their associate membership of the Arctic Council?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise that issue. Although we are not a member of the Arctic Council or an Arctic state, we have been invited in as observers and we are able to have a very constructive dialogue with those Arctic states and with other observer states as well.

Baroness Worthington:My Lords, the Arctic is experiencing rapid change due to the impact of man-made global warming. In recognition of the unique and fragile nature of this region, Greenpeace is calling for the establishment of a global Arctic sanctuary. The Environmental Audit Committee also recommended that a sanctuary be established in its report, Protecting the Arctic. Can the Minister please inform the House what actions the Government are taking to secure a marine protected area in the Arctic and what assessment they have made of the risks, both economic and environmental, of allowing oil extraction in the area?

Baroness Verma:My Lords, as I think I have said in answer to a number of the questions put to me today, we have to work very closely with the Arctic states and the Arctic Council. However, I recognise the noble Baroness’s point about the depletion of marine life. If she will allow me, I will make sure that she receives a much fuller answer, given that this is quite a serious issue that needs to be tackled.”

Friday
Jan 11,2013

Yesterday afternoon I initiated a short debate in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on the biological threats facing the United Kingdom, specifically I was asking “Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to protect the residents of the United Kingdom against biological threats; and what measures they are taking to promote the international regulation of biological weapons and to ensure that security standards are sufficient in laboratories engaged in biological research around the world.”

The National Risk Register has in its top tier of risks facing the UK major natural hazards, such as a flu pandemic, but also includes as a serious threat in that top tier of risks a biological attack by terrorists.

As Lord Tony Giddens pointed out later in the debate:

“There are three sets of factors which make biological threats far more menacing than they were for previous generations. The first of these … is work in scientific laboratories that is designed to unpack the basic building blocks of nature but which can have spin-offs of a dangerous kind. … Secondly, there is the disruption to or destruction of the world’s ecosystems, releasing pathogens from their normal hosts. The process is normally known as zoonosis and it is one that is fraught with implications for human beings. Thirdly, … we have globalisation which can transmit pathogens almost immediately from one side of the world to the other.”

But the other big change that I had highlighted was the speed of technological advance that has taken place in the last ten or fifteen years in respect of genetic manipulation and as I explained:

“viruses are very simple. They are simply a capsule, often with perhaps 10 or 12 genes within them. The changing of just one gene within a virus can have a very profound effect on what that virus does: how easily it is transmitted, the extent to which it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being or between humans, and the consequences for the organism that is infected.

In fact, in 2001 the Journal of Virology published a research paper that demonstrated a whole number of ways of modifying the mousepox virus. This new virus was so effective that it overwhelmed the immune system of the test mice, causing massive liver failure and eventually killing the subjects. That reaction occurred even if the mice had been vaccinated against the mousepox virus. That was a legitimate scientific experiment—an effort to control the mouse population in Australia—but it demonstrated that a quite small change in a single gene with comparatively simple techniques could have major consequences.

These techniques are becoming more straightforward and all sorts of legitimate research is taking place in these areas around the world. Some of this could have the consequence of rendering a vaccine ineffective; some of it could confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics and antiviral agents in pathogenic organisms; it could increase the virulence of a pathogen, or make it easier for that pathogen to be transmitted; or it could perhaps alter the range of hosts for that pathogen. A whole number of things are now technically possible that were not easily doable 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Entirely legitimate research on genetic manipulation and modification is of course going on all over the world for entirely benign purposes.

The question that I want to pose is: how well regulated around the world is that research? How confident can we be that other countries are applying the sorts of restrictions that we would wish to see? Some pharmaceutical companies may have an interest in carrying out experiments and developing their techniques in countries where the regulatory regime is far less intense than it might be in our own country.”

Biological weapons are outlawed under the Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by virtually every country in the world.  However, as I pointed out:

“although countries have said that they accept that they should not be developing biological weapons, the world has not set up what we might consider to be any effective system for monitoring compliance or verification. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries—the United States of America, for one—are extremely dubious about setting up any external system to monitor their own compliance and do not necessarily see the need for a supervisory body.

The US, for example, clearly has no official bioweapons capability but has constructed a huge research base, in many different centres around the United States, under the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures programme. That is undertaking, no doubt quite properly, genetic research, development and testing. However, if the United States says, “We are not happy with our compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention ever being tested by anybody else”, it is very difficult to see how that could be enforced on other countries.

Scepticism also persists about whether Russia’s offensive bioweapons capabilities have been completely dismantled. There are, I think, five Russian military bioweapons facilities which remain closed to outside inspection. Many of the officials linked to their current defensive programme are the same officials that developed Soviet offensive capabilities during the Cold War. There is a question again about how secure those facilities are, particularly as we know that regimes change and that certain parts of the world become less stable as things move forward.”

I also warned that:

“There is clearly a risk that stocks of materials developed for one purpose could be misused or fall into the hands of terrorist groups or, potentially, rogue regimes.”

And concluded as follows:

“In responding, can the Minister first say what is being done to improve supervision of these matters? Secondly, what is being done to regulate the security of scientific establishments, including those that hold stocks of pathogens? It all ends with a fundamental question. We are at risk, as a nation, from a pandemic of whatever sort and from whatever origin, whether naturally or unnaturally occurring. Are we really satisfied that our emergency and health services are able to withstand that?”

The Minister who responded was Lord Wallace of Saltaire who acknowledged that:

“This is an important subject, and both a domestic and international one. We are concerned with the potential of a terrorist attack and the very distant potential of a global state attack. … We are also concerned with the possibility of accidental release from badly secured laboratories.”

Being a LibDem Minister he could not avoid taking the opportunity to snipe at his Conservative Coalition colleagues, saying:

“This is an area of domestic and international overlap. I would not discourage noble Lords from pointing out, as we deal with the intensely emotional issue of the defence of British sovereignty from European and other interference, that this is one of many areas where you cannot have entirely different British and foreign issues. We have to have international co-operation and, as far we can, regulation.”

He did confirm that:

“The Government are deeply committed to protecting the United Kingdom from biological threats. That requires us to have strong measures at home and co-operation abroad.”

but warned that:

“There is resistance to a strong international compliance programme … it is not simply from the United States, let alone from the American pharmaceutical industry, but from a range of other countries that I will not go through. For many of them it is a question of sovereignty and, for one or two south Asian countries, of suspicion of the West. There are limits to what we can achieve and we have to work as far as we can through education, co-operation and providing assistance. I also note that we are working with our partners inside the European Union through the establishment of centres of excellence with regional centres around the world to build this level of co-operation.”

His basic message was:

“There are some real problems here … this is a very complex area.”

And he concluded  - rather strangely for a Government Minister – with:

“I shall finish by saying that we need to keep on challenging our Government and even more so other governments.”

We?!

So I suppose those of us who took part in the debate were being told: keep on nagging us and maybe we (the Government) will finally take this as seriously as it deserves.

If you want to read the full debate it is here.

Sunday
Nov 4,2012

Over the last few years, I have repeatedly expressed concern about the potential importance of the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could disable or destroy electronic installations.  Such a pulse could come from an errant solar flare or other extreme space weather or it could be produced by a nuclear warhead exploded in the upper atmosphere.  Both could have devastating impacts on ground-based electronic equipment and on electric power grids.

Now comes news of a weapon that could be carried in a cruise missile that can be programmed to disable the electronic systems in individual buildings.  Apparently, the U.S. Air Force and its contractor Boeing, along with Raytheon, have created the High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, which was just tested over a Utah desert.

The cruise missile, which was launched from a U.S. bomber, was pre-programmed to fly over a target and shoot a burst of high power microwaves at a two-story building. It knocked out rows of personal computers and electrical systems which were shown in a video taken of the test.

Following the first target, the cruise missile then was guided to six other targets, resulting in knocking out all electronics.

Even if this was a US initiative, it sounds as though more effort needs to go into protecting UK infrastructure and critical systems against such attacks – which is more or less what I was saying about three and a half years ago.

Monday
Jun 11,2012

Michael Gove is to announce a new primary school curriculum.

Apparently, this will involve five-year-olds being required to learn poetry by heart and recite it aloud.  According to the Telegraph:

“Education Secretary Michael Gove will promise a new focus on the traditional virtues of spelling and grammar when he sets out his plans for the teaching of English in primary schools later this week.

At the same time, Mr Gove will put forward proposals to make learning a foreign language compulsory for pupils from the age of seven.

Under his plans, primary schools could offer lessons in Mandarin, Latin and Greek as well as French, German and Spanish from September 2014.

The Education Secretary is said to be determined to make the teaching of English at primary school ”far more rigorous” than it is at present.  …

It will also emphasise the importance of grammar in mastering the language, setting out exactly what children should be expected to be taught in each year of their primary schooling as well as lists of words they should be able to spell.”

Whilst I am not convinced about the value of reciting poetry, nor about learning Latin and (ancient) Greek, I do think that there is much to be said for instilling the basics of language in all primary age children.

There will also be a commitment to making sure pupils have some basic skills in maths and science:

“Pupils will be expected to memorise their tables up to 12 times 12 by age nine, and be able to multiply and divide fractions by the end of primary school under a major shake-up of the national curriculum.

Using decimals and basic arithmetic are also set to be a main focus of maths lessons in the future, a move which ministers said will help to raise standards in England’s schools.

In science, primary school children will be taught about key concepts such as static electricity, the solar system and how to name and classify objects in biology.”

That too is welcome.  But does it go far enough?

Earlier this year, John Naughton argued in the Guardian that:

“Starting in primary school, children from all backgrounds and every part of the UK should have the opportunity to: learn some of the key ideas of computer science; understand computational thinking; learn to program; and have the opportunity to progress to the next level of excellence in these activities.  …

We need to face up to a painful fact. It is that almost everything we have done over the last two decades in the area of ICT education in British schools has been misguided and largely futile. Instead of educating children about the most revolutionary technology of their young lifetimes, we have focused on training them to use obsolescent software products”

There are developments like Raspberry Pi that are intended to provide a cheap and accessible platform for young children to learn simple programming.
The hope is that Gove will recognise that revitalising the primary school curriculum is about equipping today’s under-11s not with the skills their grandparents and great-grandparents may have learned, but the skills that they will need to grow up in the 2020s and 2030s.  And that those skills can be the basis for the UK’s future economic growth.
Poetry has its place, but programming is the future.
Sunday
Mar 18,2012

Nearly three years I posted about the threat of an electro-magnetic pulse that could permanently disable the electricity grid and most electrical systems.  I followed this up with some parliamentary questions and a further post this time last year that concluded:

“So the good news (heavy irony) is that the Government may have got round to working out what “the reasonable worst case scenario” might be.”

At the risk of coming over all I-told-you-so-ish, we now learn in today’s Observer that:

“Explosions on the sun that blast solar winds towards the Earth have been identified for the first time as one of the biggest threats to the UK’s ability to carry on normal daily life, according to a new official government register of major risks to the country.

A significant event on the sun could leave large swaths of the country without electricity, lead to the immediate grounding of planes, disable communications and even destroy household appliances.

The danger has been prioritised in the Cabinet Office’s National Risk of Civil Emergencies as the sun enters the most active point in its 10-year cycle – its solar max – raising the chances of a damaging burst of radiation, plasma or energetic particles (such as neutrons).

More significantly, the UK is regarded as particularly vulnerable because scientific advances have made the country more dependent on technology than ever before. Ministers have been advised by scientists that the most advanced technology is also the most delicate and that “high levels of energetic particles produced in the atmosphere by solar radiation storms can greatly enhance error rates in ground digital components found in all modern technology”.

The newly published risk register lists severe space weather alongside terrorist attacks, coastal flooding and pandemic influenza as likely sources of “serious damage to human welfare”.

It says: “Severe space weather can cause disruption to a range of technologies and infrastructure, including communications systems, electronic circuits and power grids.”

The register adds: “While storm impacts in the early- to mid-20th century appear relatively benign, dependency on technology vulnerable to space weather has pervaded most aspects of modern life, and therefore the disruptive consequences of a severe solar storm could be significant.”

The threat was placed on the register after a panel of experts, including two scientists from the Meteorological Office, produced a “reasonable worst case scenario” for ministers.”

 Only took a year, so lucky that last week’s solar flare passed off without problems.

 

Thursday
Oct 13,2011

Earlier today I chaired a fascinating seminar for patient groups and professional organisations which discussed healthcare acquired infections (HCAIs) and, in particular, what needs to be done to better prevent such infections in community (rather than hospital) settings.

As the meeting continued, I was struck by the surprising number of parallels that exist between what needs to be done to cut the risk of such infections and what needs to be done to improve information security.

For example, there were those a few years ago who thought the situation with HCAIs in hospital was so bad that nothing effective could be done.  They have been proved wrong by the success of the initiatives taken over the last five or six years to reduce dramatically the incidence of MRSA and C Difficile in hospitals (80% and 60% reductions respectively). Likewise there are those who throw up their hands in horror about the current tide of cyber security problems and seem to believe that our systems will always be irredeemably compromised.  Hopefully, they will also be proved wrong in a few years time.

The response to HCAIs was in the past seen as better and stronger technical solutions (i.e. ever more powerful antibiotics) and, whilst such solutions remain necessary for those who are infected, the sharp reductions have been achieved by other means – largely through achieving major changes in behaviour amongst staff and patients (i.e. better and more effective hand-washing, greater emphasis on cleanliness etc).  This is mirrored by the increasing recognition that social engineering and behavioural change is an enormously important component of better cyber security and information assurance.

Similarly, without being too Cameron-esque about it, we all have to be in this together. Everyone has to play their part.  Thus, patients and their visitors need to understand the importance of washing their hands with alcohol gel and remembering to do it.  In the same way, individual computer users need to adopt precautions to prevent their systems being compromised.  At the same time, product manufacturers must play their part in making their products less vulnerable to infection (e.g. catheter or commode design can be used to make HCAIs less likely, just as computer software and hardware can have security built in).

Likewise, you cannot help but notice that meetings, whether about HCAIs or addressing cyber security, always conclude that more public education is needed and that the message needs to start at primary school ….

Well, I thought they were interesting parallels ….

Monday
Aug 8,2011

I gather that the Total Politics Blog Awards are now in progress.  I want to make it quite clear that I will not be in the least bit affronted should you chose to vote for this blog by clicking here.

Friday
Jul 1,2011

One of the most enjoyable things that I do in Parliament is to chair the judges for the annual  information technology competition for primary schools, Make IT Happy, organised by PITCOM (the Parliament IT Committee).  Earlier this week around 120 children – the regional winners – came to Parliament with their teachers to receive their awards and to hear which schools had been judged the national winners.

This year the entries were of a particularly high standard and all the regional winners had done extremely well, but especial congratulations went to the national winners:

1st Prize – Wales – St. Julian’s Primary School

2nd Prize – London – Northwood Primary School

3rd Prize – South East – Milbourne Lodge School

Top prize-winners were St Julian’s Primary School in Newport where the children had come up with the idea of making short “how to” videos, addressing common IT problems.

Each video was made by pupils, explaining and demonstrating the techniques needed. They posted the videos on their school website, and then worked to publicise them to a variety of groups in need of IT help.

Among those that benefited locally were an old people’s home, Glyn Anwen, and other schools in the area. St Julians also used the videos to cement their links with a partner school in Rwanda, which had recently received laptops from a charity.

The videos are well worth a look ….

Read More http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/06/30/city-school-wins-5-000-uk-prize-for-making-people-happy-with-it-91466-28965644/#ixzz1QmYfk8ci

Thursday
Jun 30,2011

The BBC is reporting that:

“Both reactors at the Torness nuclear power station have been shut down after huge numbers of jellyfish were found in the sea water entering the plant.”

The report continues:

“It is not known why there are so many jellyfish in the area.

Water temperatures along the east coast of Scotland have been relatively normal, but it is thought higher than average temperatures elsewhere in the North Sea may be a factor.

Operations at nuclear power plants in Japan have been disrupted by large numbers of jellyfish in recent years.”

I am sure many people will be disturbed by the idea of plagues of jellyfish around our shores, but when they start clogging up the inflow of cooling water into nuclear power stations it is time to get worried.

Climate change is real.  It is happening and some of its effects are not what you might expect.

Monday
Jun 13,2011

It is estimated that in twenty-five years time two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas of significant water stress and shortage.  This will be one of the factors – along with climate change, rising sea level and the loss of arable land – that will drive major population migration and feed into global insecurity.

A year ago there were reports that East African nations were struggling to contain an escalating crisis over control of the waters of the river Nile.  According to the Guardian:

“The nine countries through which the world’s longest river flows have long been at loggerheads over access to the vital waters, which the British colonial powers effectively handed wholesale to Egypt in a 1929 agreement.

Egypt has always insisted on jealously guarding its historic rights to the 55.5bn cubic metres of water that it takes from the river each year and has vetoed neighbouring countries’ rights to build dams or irrigation projects upstream which might affect the river’s flow.”

Now, India has been accused of “water terrorism” against Pakistan:

“India is rapidly moving towards its target of making Pakistan totally barren by building dams on three major rivers including Chenab, Jhelum and Indus flowing into Pakistan from the Indian side of the border. These dams are being built in blatant violation of international laws and Indus Water Treaty singed between the two countries to ensure equitable distribution of water resources. Pakistan has, long been challenging these moves of the Indian authorities and the issue had been referred to international arbitration on various occasions. Both Islamabad and New Delhi have held several rounds of talks to resolve the matter but no tangible results could be achieved. Realising the nefarious designs of the Indian leadership, political parties in Pakistan term New Delhi actions as ‘water terrorism’. Recent talks on Baglihar Dam between the two sides remained unfruitful and Pakistan is understood to have decided to seek international arbitration once again to secure its share of the water.
Yesterday, a report published in all national newspapers has raised alarm bell when an Indian engineer, Jee Parbharkar, speaking at a seminar organised by The Federation of Association of South and Central Asian Countries (FIESCA) in Nepal, said if all on-going dam projects on rivers originating from Kashmir were completed in time, India would be in a position to stop water flow to Pakistan completely by 2020. He further claimed that by 2020, India would be producing such a quantity of hydel power that it would be able to export it to neighbouring countries including Pakistan. Pakistani delegate to the seminar, Sultan Mahmood said that India has already started producing electricity from four big and 16 small dams while the work on third dam is in full swing near Kargal Valley. In this dam, 45 per cent of Indus water would be diverted to its reservoir through a tunnel.
Such a situation is not acceptable under any circumstances and it is about time that our leadership takes the matter seriously and move all international forums available to raise this sensitive issue. Indifference of concerned authorities had already damaged Pakistan’s cause and if nothing is done fast, Pakistan soon would be a barren state.”