Around this time every year the school yearbook is put together and someone comes knocking at my door asking for my contribution. My area is Science Education and so the that will always be the focus. When it was done I sent a copy to my daughter Pippa who looked over it and said that it was, in her view, one of the best things I had written. She told me to post it on the blog and so, after giving it a little thought, I have decided to do so. Funnily enough I wrote this in the morning and in the afternoon the news came out about Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. It seems to make it all the more pertinent. Anyway, here it is if you are interested………

“One of the things that amazes me about our species is how we can effortlessly pull off the trick of being simultaneously smart and dumb. Back in the day I remember seeing how the pre-meds at my university used to smoke like troopers. There were more smokers among them, or so it seemed to me, than the undergraduates in any other faculty, and yet these were the very people who would be best able to offer a comprehensive and detailed account of why smoking was not the smartest thing to be doing. It seems that being smart and being clever are not the same thing.

This year in the EIC we are celebrating the Year of “Our Environment”. As a theme, of course, this is particularly relevant to Science and whatever way I look at it, I find it difficult, in the context of the environment, to find very much to “celebrate”.

We are living through a wave of extinction of species that is so far above the “background” levels that it is now considered to be the sixth major extinction event known to Earth Scientists. The last of these major extinctions, at the end of the Cretaceous, was the most famous, though not the largest. It happened 65 million years ago and, famously, put an end to the 165 million year reign of the dinosaurs.

What sets the current extinction event apart is that it is our doing. Our grubby little fingerprints are all over it. This is nothing new. As a species, we have form for this. Scientists can identify a wave of mega-faunal extinction that follows the spread of modern humans from our ancestral home in Africa. It seems that wherever we go, one species after another quietly vanishes. But what is happening now is unprecedented in scale.

The ironic thing is that we know all this, and we can quantify the damage we are causing in a way we could not do before. But this is just the “smart” side of our smart-dumb dichotomy. The “dumb” part is that we are reacting too slowly. Our political leaders are scientifically naïve and are so distracted with securing their own short term political futures that we cannot trust them to take radical steps to set us on the right course. I hope things change soon because what is happening on the other side of the pond is, frankly, frightening. Nearly all references to climate change were removed from the US government website within hours of the inauguration of the current president. Scientists are being muzzled. Key research is being starved of finance. Pressure is applied to prevent kids being taught things they really need to know about. The canary in the coalmine is being silenced because the administration doesn´t like its song.

In Europe at least we seem to be taking our responsibilities more seriously. Scientific knowledge, almost by definition, is provisional in nature. We can never say we have it cracked. We are working on things, asking questions, challenging our ideas to see if they stand up to close scrutiny. The putative nature of the business is not a weakness, as is sometimes claimed, but a strength. While full details of the big picture will always necessarily elude it is wrong to suggest we lack consensus. We may argue about how to classify a newly-discovered bug but nobody is saying it is not built from atoms.

The fact is that Scientists are actively contributing to the biggest and most refined and most detailed body of knowledge in the history of the world. This is why, once crucial Science education is withheld, and when discussion is stifled, trouble is bound to follow.

Our kids need to have their eyes open in a way that people of my generation have not. The legacy of my generation is an ocean of floating plastic, a destabilizing climate and a planet increasingly stripped of diversity and colour. We have left our children a hell of a mess to clear up. Theirs will be the challenge of harvesting energy sustainably, of feeding 7 billion in a way that leaves enough space and resources for other forms of life, and of trying to find the compromises that will result in fulfilling human needs and expectations in manner which is sympathetic to long-term health of the only place in the universe that we know of, where life can flourish.

I hope we can continue to encourage our students to take an interest in Science and to see the paths it can lead us to address some of these fundamental challenges. The students at the EIC often impress us with their ability to assimilate new information, to adapt to new technologies, to communicate and to collaborate. Unlike the pre-meds they will need to be smart and clever because we are going to need people like this.”