British advisory. John Beddington warns that increasing energy, food, and water demands are vital security issues.


U.K. Science Adviser Makes His U.S. Debut

[Editors' Note: This is an extended version of an interview that appears in the 26 September issue of Science on page 1756.]

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Last week, during his first visit to the United States as the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser, John Beddington briefly sat down with Science’s news editors to discuss topics as varied as food, fuel, and physics. Nine months into his job, Beddington has adopted a lower profile than his headline-grabbing predecessor, David King. A population biologist at Imperial College London, Beddington has specialized in applying biological and economic tools to questions of natural resource management, particularly fisheries (Science, 22 June 2007, p. 1713). He’s no stranger to politics, having advised the British government, the European Commission, and the United Nations Environment Programme and its Food and Agriculture Organization. Now Beddington must answer questions from the prime minister and cabinet, as well as coordinating the science advice in all government departments and chairing a number of committees. The transcript below, which has been edited for clarity, represents the full interview, excerpts of which appear in this week’s issue of Science.

Q: During Tony Blair’s tenure as prime minister, there were quite substantial increases in science spending. Do you think, with the economy now not looking as healthy, the years of plenty are finished?

J.B.: I’ve only just arrived in America and just discovered that the U.S. government is taking over AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world. So, it’s a difficult time at the moment, clearly. But the [U.K.] science budget projections, for the next year or so, are showing an upward trend. One cannot judge financial markets or predict them, but certainly, at least for the next year, the funds are allocated and expected. We have to expect that there will difficult times ahead for the following spending realm.

Q: Tony Blair often spoke publicly in support of science, including on topics such as stem cells; Gordon Brown has yet to be quite as vocal. Is he less of a fan of science and technology?

J.B.: I would take issue with you about that. I think that the prime minister, in lots of speeches, has indicated major commitment to science, indicated how important it is in the actual operation of the U.K. government. There are commitments to ensure that scientific advice is operating at the highest level. And so, I certainly don’t feel there’s any difference. I really wouldn’t accept the premise.

Q: In U.K. universities, there’s a decline in the popularity of some sciences, particularly chemistry and physics, at the undergraduate level. That has led to the closure of physics and chemistry departments [Science, 12 September, p. 1428]. Should the government intervene to support strategic science funding?

J.B.: It’s absolutely critical that we make certain the STEM agenda works--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] are the subjects that we desperately need students to take A levels [exams students complete in their final 2 years of secondary school that may serve as university entrance exams] in and go on to do [higher] degrees. I think there has been a downward trend [in undergraduate STEM enrollment], but I think it is starting to reverse. Some of the indications coming out from A-level students are that in mathematics and in a couple of other areas, there have been actually increases in the last couple of years.

Physics is still on a moderately downward trend, but it has flattened, if anything. Oddly enough, one of the areas where there seems to be a continuing downward trend is in computer science, which I find surprising and wonder how that can be reversed, given the importance of IT in the world that we live in.

I think one of the areas that has been very successful in reversing this [overall] downward trend has been in the Ambassador Scheme, in which we’ve got something of the order of 20,000 scientists and engineers going into schools, talking to students about their lives and the problems they’re facing. Whether that Ambassador Scheme in isolation is the one that’s actually reversed some of these trends, I don’t know. But it seems to be an excellent idea. Now our real commitment is to expand that.

Q: Do you see a continuation of the trend of closing physics and chemistry departments in British universities, something that’s really quite surprising for Americans to see?

J.B.: I don’t see any particular trend at the moment. I think there are tough times ahead, but I think the most vulnerable departments have probably gone out. Whether in fact there will be other factors is hard to judge--it’s all to do with the overall financial situation of the country and the world economy. I think those are the factors that may present problems. But certainly I don’t see anything imminent. One of the key areas is going to be the results of the Research Assessment Exercise [evaluates the quality of research in U.K. universities and colleges in the U.K.], which are obviously key to university funding. It’s operating in a different manner than the previous Research Assessment Exercise.

Q: Are the remaining physics and chemistry departments stronger now that some are closed? Is there an upside to the contraction?

J.B.: I suppose, in a sense, that there’s a limited pool of students and the upside just means that the remaining departments are getting [the closed department’s] students. Whether in fact they’re getting the better students is hard to judge. I would imagine that the student complement is rather similar year on year. But I think that the thing that is noticeable is that the fairly significant downward trend, in the number of students taking [the] physics A level, has actually flattened out considerably. In fact, this afternoon I’m going to be talking a little bit about that in my lecture.

Q: One of David King’s goals when he was Science Adviser was to increase the use of science advice across all government departments. Is that job done, or have you got more departments to work on?

J.B.: First of all, I agree and have followed on from Dave’s idea is that we need to have that. I’ve done a number of things that are slightly different from Dave. The first thing that I’ve done is I’ve brought together the group of [department] chief scientific advisers so that we meet every 6 weeks now, once for dinner and once for proper meeting, and the dinners are working dinners. So, every 6 weeks all of the chief scientific advisers, of the major departments dealing with science, meet with me and with each other. We form subgroups: One of those is dealing with climate change and food security issues, and another subgroup we’re planning for the back end of the autumn is going to be dealing with infectious diseases. So, that’s a good bit of networking, which means that actually each of the chief scientific advisers meets within the group and has a chance to actually hammer out any differences or develop ideas. In addition, again this is something that I’ve started since coming on, this group of chief scientific advisers is now meeting with the chief executives of the research councils every 3 months. We’ve had one meeting, a couple of months back, and another one is planned in about a month’s time. The first meeting dealt with the issue of the main program, which involves both research council and departmental funding on living with environmental change. The meeting that we’re planning for early in November is one that’s going to deal with the issue of aging. The thing I find attractive about these meetings is that you now have a network of essentially everybody who’s funding government science meeting on at least on a 3-month interval. Clearly, there’s always going to be lots of bilateral discussions, but meeting as a group does, I think, mean that you have a chance to pass information, raise questions. A real community is now starting.

I was also going to add two points, which have to do with the penetration of chief scientific advisers into different government departments. And I think the first one is that [the] culture, media, and sport [department] have now appointed a chief scientific adviser, which was one of the departments that had not done so [under David King]. I also understand that the Foreign Office have decided that they’re going to be appointing a chief scientific adviser shortly. The process for recruitment is going to take a while, but I believe that is now established.

Q: Moving on to the style of a chief scientific adviser: David King took a very public stance and said that he would need to put his advice into the public domain. He sometimes openly disagreed with the government on certain topics. In contrast, U.S. Science Advisor John Marburger has said his job is to work behind the scenes briefing the president and other officials. Which approach do you favor?

J.B.: I don’t think you need to be one or the other. I think the key thing is that if there’s an issue, it needs to be raised. The one that I raised very early on in my tenure was the issue of food security, which I felt had been quite seriously neglected, and the sort of related issue of the biofuels agenda. In my speech, really the very first speech that I made [as chief scientific adviser], I raised these issues. Very substantial increases in food prices shortly followed, and [there was] a very quick reaction by the prime minister, who raised the issue of food security at the G8 Summit in the following summer. So, that was a relatively public input, which was then taken up by government. I think that it will depend on issues--some issues are better raised involving the media and the public at large; others are better essentially talking behind the scenes. I don’t think it’s a one size fits all, in terms of style.

Q: Just to follow up on the biofuels agenda, your concern there was the competition for arable lands and biofuels?

J.B.: When I first raised it, I think I made the point that some biofuels were actually being produced by cutting down rain forests or using permanent grassland, which actually has a negative effect on greenhouse gas emissions, so you really don’t want to be doing that. There’s more subtle issues now, which are starting to come out, and which are to do with the displacement of agricultural activity around the world.

I think that the Gallagher Report on Biofuels, that was sort of developed in cooperation with a network of chief scientific advisers who peer reviewed it, essentially indicates that there’s some need for caution on the development of biofuels within the U.K. and Europe. I think this is an open issue, and I think it’s the sort of thing that we need to make certain there’s a balanced answer. Some biofuels are quite clearly unattractive in the sense that they produce more greenhouse gas emissions than just using petroleum. Such things are manifestly not appropriate as a solution to the problem. On the other hand, others--for example, ethanol made from Brazilian sugar cane--seem to have a good green fingerprint around it. But there are other issues, for example, whether in fact the byproduct of biofuels is used to provide animal feed, which it can be. High-quality protein animal feed can be a byproduct of some of the mechanisms for generating ethanol. In that situation, you save on the production of soybean as an animal food.

So, it’s complicated, and the information that is available to make a comprehensive assessment of the implications of biofuels is quite inadequate. I think that that’s the point that was made in the Gallagher Report, with which I concur. We need a lot more study and a lot more information.

Q.: You also said that the world needs to double food production, using less water than is used today. Do you think the world will need to embrace GM [genetic modification] technology more to achieve this goal?

J.B.: Okay, just a minor correction, really. Population growth and increase in wealth actually implies something like a 50% increase in food demand by 2030. At the same time, you’re getting a number of trends to do with urbanization, in which between now and 2030 the proportion of the population living in an urban environment goes up from about 47% currently to 60%--and that’s the world as a whole. In some countries it’s dramatically increased, Africa particularly.

Now, what that means is that there’s going to be some real problems for agriculture. For example, essentially about 70% available fresh water is used by agriculture, primarily artisanal agriculture. There’s going to be competition [for water] between urban communities and periurban agriculture and agriculture relatively close to urban communities, which is going to present real problems. I’m worried about that. It means there’s less land. Similarly, the issue of food security is intimately linked with that of climate change. First of all, it’s not a particularly sensible idea to solve the food security problem by cutting down rain forests or permanent grassland, which actually produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, as a solution to getting more arable land. At the same time, if you ignore climate change, the changes in pattern in rainfall and the changes in pattern of temperature are likely to mean that there’s a significant problem for agricultural production. All in all, these things are intimately mixed.

GM is not going to be the only answer. I would say is that the knowledge of the plant genome is going to be absolutely critical to improving agricultural production. GM is only one of the sort [of] techniques that can be used. But marker-assisted breeding and other aspects could be used equally well. The Royal Society are just embarking on a study to look at the techniques that could be used to address the food-security problem, and that’s due in the summer of 2009. That is looking at all possible technologies which we can employ to deal with the food-security problem.

But because of the pressure on agricultural land, from a whole series of drivers, you have a problem, and I characterize it as: You need to grow more crops, whether it is for food or for energy on less land and almost certainly with less water. Given the climate-change models that are operating and the urbanization trends, there will be a higher demand for water. So you need something like a new and somewhat greener revolution. The previous green revolution involved significant inputs of fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation--those are not going to be the solutions in the future. Technologies can deliver drought-resistant crops; saline-resistant crops are attractive.

Q: Moving on to European Union fishery policy, do you think that’s based on sound science, and if not, how big a problem is Europe facing in the future?

J.B.: I think world fishery issues are really quite problematic. If you go back to an article I wrote in Science last year [Science, 22 June 2007, p. 1713], with Colin Clark and David Agnew, you’d get a fairly clear view of what my view about fishery policy is. The answer is, it is difficult. Fishery managers do understand what’s needed, but a lot of the problems are social and economic rather than mainstream science. You really need to make certain that the level of investment in the fishing industry is compatible with the level of production in the fish stocks that they’re actually harvesting. You’ve got a big historical problem of overinvestment. In terms of the details of the current fishery policy, I’m afraid I haven’t really been working too much on fishery since I started as Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

Q: Is there reason to be optimistic that we’re going to do something about the collapse of fisheries?

J.B.: Fisheries are really quite interesting. They’re much more important than, being quite frank, I ever realized when I was working in the field myself. To give you an idea, give or take, there’s about 100 million tons of fisheries produced, whether by agriculture or capture fisheries, in both fresh water and marine. Compare that with agricultural production, if you’re talking about cereals and so on, it’s tiny. But, if you compare it with livestock production, it’s actually quite significant. There’s only about 250 million tons of livestock produced worldwide in agriculture. So, fisheries are around about a third of the total production of the high-quality protein, if you will. So they are much more important than I think many people have realized. These statistics are published fairly regularly by FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. Now, quite a lot of fisheries now come out of agriculture, but there’s still 60 [million] or 70 million tons coming from mainstream capture fisheries. You’ve got to get it right; we can’t afford not to have it right.

Q: On greenhouse gas emissions, the U.K. government is falling behind its own targets for reducing emissions. How should it catch up?

J.B.: There’s some interesting work that’s being done by the new Climate Change Committee, which is reporting in December, that is going to be answering those questions very specifically. I think the sort of things that we need to be addressing are, obviously, a saving on emissions, but also investment in the sort of technologies that have a chance, in the medium term. So, for example, the Energy Technology Institute, funded jointly by industry and by the U.K. government, is looking at operational-scale inputs in a whole series of essentially green engineering technologies to address these problems.

Initial work was on wind, subsequent work on marine, and they’re currently planning, I believe, work on transport. All of these initiatives are necessary, but obviously the big one out there, which everybody needs to be addressing, is CCS [carbon capture and storage]. That really needs very serious investment because [its] problems are not just with the actual technology but also with the underlying infrastructure. So, it’s difficult, and we need to address it.

Q: What about the issue of the new build on nuclear power?

J.B: I think it’s one of the solutions. It’s a possible solution, and one that we need to be looking at. It needs to be done with proper safeguards. But in terms of nuclear power, it is safe and clean, and a new build seems to be necessary, and government is committed to look at a new licensing round. Industry has got to decide for itself how it invests and makes it work. Clearly, part of the problem is to make certain that any waste issues are addressed properly and are funded properly. But, it’s one of the solutions.

Q: A recent study by British scientists suggests that sending people into space will be essential to properly explore the solar system. Should the U.K. be supporting human space flight?

J.B.: I haven’t really thought about that.

Q: Looking across the Atlantic, to where you are now, would you say the Bush Administration has been bad for science?

J.B.: I wouldn’t really wish to comment on that.

Q: If you could put one urgent file in the new U.S. president’s in-tray, what would it be?

J.B: The message I would probably want to give, both to the new president and others, is the intimate connection between the issues of climate change, food security, energy security, and water security. These are intimately related. These issues need mixed approaches; they need a mix of both science and engineering. I think those things are tremendously important because they are going to come quite quickly. The sort of demand increases that are to be expected from urbanization, movement out of poverty, and population growth are quite dramatic, on a time scale of only a couple of decades, and they need to be addressed now. Climate change clearly needs to be addressed now, but I think it’s the intimate relationship between these different factors that’s the most important, as I see it, at present.

Q: Back to basics about your role in the British government for an American audience, who do you report to, and how do you pick the issues that you’re working on? Are a lot of them given to you by the prime minister and cabinet, or are there issues that bubble up from the civil service?

J.B: The reporting line formally is to the prime minister [PM] and cabinet, and then from a day-to-day basis, to the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell. In terms of issues, they come up in a whole variety of ways. For example, I might choose to highlight, as I did, the issue of food security and biofuels, which I did early on in my tenure--that was generated by me, as it were, but similarly, other issues can be generated, both from other departments and also from the PM’s office itself. So it’s a mixture. I’m 9 months in the job, so it’s hard to come up with some generalities, but in principle I’m expected to be able to give advice on pretty much any of these issues. And the way I have to do that is to use this network of chief scientific advisers, organizations like the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering. There are issues, which are posed by the Royal Society, are posed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, that we need to take forward. On a day-to-day basis, there seems to be more than enough to do.

Q.: What do you spend your time on mostly? What issues are at the top of this political agenda that you have?

J.B.: I think the ones I covered. One of the areas, which I haven’t covered, is the issue of infectious diseases, and the potential problems of pandemic influenza. That’s clearly a very major issue that needs to be looked at, and I’ve spent time on that as well.

Q.: How much is your office involved in budgetary matters, both the overall budget and the way it’s divided between various research councils and higher education?

J.B.: The budget is essentially determined by, in the spending realm, the government. But the Department for Innovation, University, and Skills has a director general assigned to the research councils. The new appointment is Professor Adrian Smith. They’re the ones—the councils and Adrian--that are the people who actually deal with the detailed allocation of budgets. Essentially the idea is that, through the network of chief scientific advisers and my own office, we would be making representations to the treasurer and others to say, "Look, we really believe that this is a particular priority, and so on." But I should say that I’ve not been involved in that yet; the last spending realm was when David King was in the position. So, my detailed experience of it is zero, at the moment.

Q: Are there areas, in particular, that you feel need to be increased? If you look at what’s happened here, biomedical research has increased while the rest of the research budget has been pretty static. Now, the balance is shifting back to trying to hold biomedical research to smaller increases than most of the community wants, while increasing the physical sciences. Do you find is there a similar imbalance in the U.K., are there areas that you’re particularly concerned about?

J.B.: I think that’s a large debate within the community at the moment, which hasn’t been resolved. I would probably prefer not to give my views, at present.