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Oh oh, my ears are alight

Political speeches are like pop songs. So why didn't Mr Blair's lyric include a line about nuclear waste repositories when he spoke about science and society to the Royal? More comment from Geoscientist magazine's August Media Monitor column

With George Michael shooting the dog on the airwaves (picture), and Mr Blair speaking about science to the Royal Society, now may be the moment to examine the common ground between politics and pop music. Because speeches and pop song lyrics have – in MM’s experience - at least at least two things in common.

First, both are usually witless concatenations of unrelated and frequently contradictory platitudes and truisms (MM invites you to compare Whitney Houston’s The greatest love of all with any speech about science by a politician). Second, for some reason what you think you hear is often not what was actually being said/sung. In 1991 the artist known as Seal brought out a song entitled "Killer", featuring the prominent line "Solitary sister". Unfortunately, MM (who was buying a bathroom at the time) understood it differently and has been hearing "sanitary fixtures" ever since.

I mention this because in May, Mr Tony Blair made a speech on science to the Royal Society. Mr Blair pledged his support for science, and all she stands for. His speech made all the usual points. Healthy science base means healthy industry, means jobs and opportunity. Science is good for medicine, which is good for health. So science makes us healthy, wealthy and – if not wise, then at least knowledgeable. The wisdom to use science well, also figured large.

Many political commentators had already pronounced on the speech some days before the Royal Society actually heard it. And tending to hear the lyric they wanted (or expected), they suggested that President Blair was going to urge us to put our absolute faith in technocrats because they (like he, one presumes) know what they are doing and shouldn’t be criticised.

None of which was actually true, compelling the PM to counter these assertions in the text he actually delivered. While "science does not replace moral judgement" he said, neither should our fear of consequences "stop science trying to tell us the facts". Science challenges our moral judgement, but we must rise to it, not shrink behind some timorous and slavish adherence to the letter of the precautionary principle.

The wonks of Science Policy liked it because it pushed all the buttons. It denied the existence of the Two Cultures, equated Darwin and Newton with Shakespeare, and spoke of building trust through dialogue with the public. Moreover, the speech made this latter suggestion in terms that showed that the PM knew what dialogue should mean (i.e. not a monologue by scientists).

Even the provisional wing of the science media was broadly supportive. True, Bill Durodié (New College, Oxford) writing on the web site Spiked Online, cried for the moon by complaining that the media failed to put this speech on their front pages. But he too felt the speech had "much to commend it" (before wondering how many "top priorities" any government can reasonably have, and hence how much action might ensue).

The first Prime Ministerial speech on science for a decade (as it was billed) was actually largely written by David King, the Chief Scientific Adviser, naturally. It was filled with shiny examples of cutting edge stuff - from nanoscience to stem cell research. One looked in vain for anything remotely geological, but - ever conscious of the need to be realistic and avoid special pleading - we should be careful to ask - are we not also crying for the moon? Or are we entitled to moan just a little about this omission?

It was a fact completely missed by any media monitored here that a mere 20 days earlier, on May 3, the same journalists were listening to the Royal Society itself, and giving considerable coverage to that body’s much anticipated report on the UK’s handling of radioactive waste. Now here is a scientific subject that would benefit greatly from the PM’s newly found resolve to be courageous about the precautionary principle. Yet for some reason he failed to mention it.

The RS report (and Lord Oxburgh’s Presidential Address, also delivered on the evening of May 2) made clear how urgent is the need to get to grips with this issue. According to reports, we store 10,000 tonnes of waste above ground. It’s going to get 50 times bigger in the next few decades, as the early power stations are decommissioned. Finding a way of storing this material safely, the Royal Society said, was "serious and urgent".

The report's author – Prof. Geoffrey Boulton FRS FGS of Edinburgh University, Chair of the RS committee on radwaste – also made clear how unimpressed he was with the Department to whom his report was addressed, the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA, he told reporters at a press conference, needed a much more radical approach than the one it had long been following. He also made clear that the Royal Society shared the (widely held) belief that the current institutions charged with radioactive waste matters "do not command the public confidence that is required" because they are thought to be "over-secretive, overconfident about making claims about benefit, cost and safety". Prof. Boulton also told the Radio 4 Today programme that "one of the most difficult problems is the failure to recognise the need for public consent on policies related to toxic waste".

The RS report recommended that a new independent radioactive waste management commission be set up to foster public consultation and debate, and that both the Radiactive Waste Management Committee (RWMAC), which advises the Government, and Nirex, the Radioactive waste management agency, should be wound up. This is a big and persuasive agenda – and, MM tends to feel, a wonderful case in point for Mr Blair/Prof. King’s speech. How odd, then, that between them they could find no room for it.

The RS report makes no public relations suggestions as to how the UK might begin to persuade its people that a geological solution, coupled with waste encapsulation, provides the best practicable option. However, they did mention September 11, and the clear danger which surface storage poses. Now - the nuclear industry has an understandable interest in keeping people calm about the fact that the UK stores this waste above ground. However, it will, at some stage, become necessary to start telling people just how unsustainable and potentially dangerous this practice is. Only when the present system is exposed, and the public becomes properly and legitimately frightened by it, will it accept the need to decide in favour of something else. This will not prove easy.

The voices that shout most loudly against geological repositories are those whose ultimate aim is not to achieve a sustainable solution, but to keep the issue alive long enough to stop nuclear power altogether.

Mr Blair may not have mentioned radwaste once, but both he and the Royal Society mentioned DEFRA. He mentioned that that Department, so criticised for its timidity by the Royal, had just appointed Professor Howard Dalton FRS as chief adviser to the Secretary of State. This, said Mr Blair, was an example of improving the way governments use science in this country.

Professor Dalton is a microbiologist. MM once interviewed him for The Independent. He is a reasonable man. Maybe his ears are the ones we should be setting alight?

Editor's note

*"Oh, Oh, my ears are alight": Apologies to Desmond Dekker and the Aces, and their song (Poor me) Israelites.

Further Reading

Independent 18.01.81, p15 The secrets of the bug in the Bath water; Independent 03.05.02, p2; Financial Times 03.05.02, p4; BBC Online 03.05.02, "UK ‘neglects’ nuclear waste, 30.05.02Speaking of Science". Royal Society Policy Document 12/02 April 2002 ISBN 0 85403 577X, "Developing a UK policy for the management of radioactive waste. See For Blair’s Speech "Science Matters", go to