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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 March 2006, 17:53 GMT
UK science cannot get complacent
By Rebecca Morelle
BBC News science reporter

Professor Rees (Royal Society)
Professor Rees became president of the Royal Society in late 2005
Professor Martin Rees - Astronomer Royal, Cambridge cosmologist concerned with the beginnings of the Universe, peer and author of a book postulating the apocalyptic collapse of human civilisation - can now add the job of president of the Royal Society as the latest string to his bow. As he starts his stint in what has been called "the top job in science", he talks to the BBC News website about the future of science in the UK.

How would you describe the current state of science in the UK?

I think our standing is very high - we have traditionally been very strong in research and we still punch above our weight. But I think we have to realise that this status will be in jeopardy if we don't ensure that science is well supported and a sufficient fraction of our young people chose to study science and are well educated in science.

Are you worried about the fall in numbers of students taking up some areas of science, such as maths and the physical sciences?

One of the main concerns I have is that a lot of very bright people are turned off science at the age of 16, perhaps because they haven't been inspiringly taught in the subject. And under our present system, if they drop science at 16 that forecloses the option of studying it at university level. However, I think one shouldn't be too despairing: overall this government has done a number of things to raise the profile of the teaching profession and raise its status.

Your predecessor Lord May really took up to gauntlet of climate change. Will you keep up the momentum with this?

It is undoubtedly a very important issue, and it is an issue where the science is crucial. We need to continue research to firm up the science and reduce the uncertainty in all the estimates, but I certainly believe we should maintain this very high on our agenda as an academy.

At the moment, climate change seems to be entwined with nuclear energy - where do you stand on this?

I think the Royal Society would collectively make the point that it's difficult to see how we could meet our targets beyond Kyoto in the UK without nuclear power. I think that's a statement that is pretty uncontroversial. My personal view is that we should replace the existing nuclear power stations in the UK with a new generation of nuclear power. I believe that because of the importance of promoting the Kyoto targets, but also for reasons of diversity of energy security and supplies.

When controversial issues like these emerge, what would you say is the public-facing role of the Royal Society?

I think that when there are issues that are primarily of a scientific kind we should make our views very clear, very promptly, and there are a number of topics where we perhaps ought to try to lead public and political opinion. There is more a feeling that it is a responsibility of scientists to engage with the public, and we regard this as part of our role.

The new funding programme, Framework 7, will be introduced into Europe later this year. Can you see how the UK can play a bigger role within Europe?

I think we should do all we can to extend our role in Europe and promote European science. When I was a post-doc in the late 1960s, I met my contemporaries from Germany, Italy and France, because we all went out to the US. What happens now is that students getting a PhD in this country will go to Europe to do their post-docs and vice versa, so there is far more interchange within Europe and far more collaboration among European scientists.

Outside of Europe, global science is changing rapidly, and countries like India and China are forming a very strong science base - how can the UK compete?

What I see as crucially important is that we build on existing strengths in science and technology, both pure and applied, and ensure that we continue to produce a new generation of outstanding scientists, not just in universities, but in industry, to raise economic standards and the quality of life and also to make the UK a magnet for mobile international talent. I also think we should welcome the tremendous scientific developments in India and in China and collaborate with them at all levels.

In your book, Our Final Century?, you say that there is a 50% chance of a severe setback to human civilisation occurring in the 21st Century. Do you feel any more optimistic?

I still think this is a realistic assessment. The concerns are the downsides of the tremendous opportunities of science, and what we have to do is ensure that we channel scientific applications in directions that benefit us and benefit the developing world, and avoid all these downsides. And I think that's the kind of challenge we are all going to have to face, and scientists can play a role in ensuring those parliamentarians and the public make choices wisely.




SEE ALSO:
Sir Martin Rees: Prophet of doom?
25 Apr 03 |  Newsmakers


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