Clive Cookson

Scientific diplomacy has never been more important as a way of projecting “soft power”, Britain’s Royal Society said in a thoughtful report released today.

New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy was launched at the first event of the society’s 350th anniversary year – a gathering of 100 of the world’s scientific academies at its headquarters in London.

The report, drawn up at a joint meeting with the American Association for the Advancement of Science last year, points out that scientific diplomacy has a long and successful history. Throughout the Cold War, for example, scientific organisations were an important conduit for informal discussion of nuclear and other issues between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Today science offers a particular opportunity for increasing contact with the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

It also offers a route to governance of international spaces beyond national jurisdictions – including Antarctica, the high seas, the deep sea and outer space – which cannot be managed through conventional models of diplomacy.

David Milliband, UK Foreign Secretary, endorsed the idea at today’s meeting: “The scientific world is becoming interdisciplinary,” he said. “But the biggest interdisciplinary leap we need is across the boundaries of politics and science. On resource conflicts, global inequality, nuclear security and counter terrorism, science is our ally.”

However we must bear in mind this cautionary note in the Royal Society report: “It is important that scientific and diplomatic goals remain clearly defined, to avoid the undue politicisation of science.”

Clive Cookson

The main science-related event of the past fortnight, while I’ve been on holiday, has been the “big freeze” affecting the normally temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

Some climate change sceptics have seized on this with glee, like children handed a surprise ice lolly in a heatwave.

But there is an opposite way of looking at the cold, which supports the case for global warming.

The immediate cause of the freeze is the Arctic Oscillation, a change in the atmospheric pressure distribution of the northern hemisphere between the mid-latitudes and polar regions.

When the AO is positive, the combination of high pressure in the mid-latitudes and low pressure further north blocks the outflow of extremely cold air from the arctic. A more “negative” AO allows the cold to slip further south.

Adam Scaife, seasonal forcasting chief at the UK Met Office, told the FT that this December’s oscillation over the Atlantic was the most negative for more than 100 years. Pressure was actually higher over Iceland than over the Azores – normally it is much lower.

The extremely negative AO has indeed allowed very cold air to flow down to normally temperate regions, leaving Alaska, Greenland and other areas around the Arctic Ocean up to 10degC milder than usual.

However the intensity of the cold has been moderated by man-made global warming. If an identical pressure distribution had arisen in the mid-20th century or earlier, before human activities had added so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, the current freeze would probably be a degree or so more severe.

It feels cold in northern Europe at the moment, because we have become so used to mild weather, but veterans of the 1962/63 and 1946/47 winters have seen much worse.

Clive Cookson

Thanks for reading the science blog this year. Apart from a couple of days in the office between Christmas and New Year, I’m away until January 11, so the blog should start up properly again that week.

Clive Cookson

I did my bit for biomedical research last night, spending a couple of hours as a participant in the UK Biobank project.

I was one of 400,000 middle-aged people who have undergone a long battery of mental, psychological and physical tests – and given blood, urine and saliva samples – in the cause of helping scientists to disentangle the links between genes, lifestyle, health and disease.

Biobank, with £60m funding from the UK government and Wellcome Trust, is building one of the world’s most ambitious medical/genetic databases.

Several weeks ago I was offered and accepted an appointment at 5.20pm on Saturday at Biobank’s Hounslow assessment centre (about half an hour’s drive from home). I received a well-written information leaflet, which emphasised the voluntary nature of the project and the participant’s right to withdraw at any point, followed by reminders of the appointment by post, email and text message.

So I arrived promptly for the assessment on the third floor of a modern suburban office block – a large open space with colour-coded booths round the edge.

After I’d checked in and confirmed again that I was happy to take part, the receptionist took me to a computer terminal where I completed a very detailed questionnaire about my lifestyle, from the number of pieces of dried fruit I ate per week to my consumption of various drinks, from my exercise habits to sex partners of the same and opposite gender. How long had I used a mobile phone and against which ear did I normally hold it? There was lots too about my mood, social and family contacts, and so on.

Then came computer tests of my reactions (how quickly could a press the button when two identical cards flashed on the screen?) and memory (could I remember patterns?). My hearing in each ear was probed at length, as I had to make out digits spoken at different volumes and against various background noises.

After the computer I was moved successively from one booth to another, where Biobank staff undertook various physical investigations, including size and shape, strength, bone density, lung function and eyesight. Finally after a phlebotomist had extracted seven tubes of my blood, I was sent to the gents to give a urine and a saliva sample, which I deposited in the centre’s fridge.

Participants leave with a basic one-page print-out of a few of their results. I was not surprised to find that my body-mass index was too high or my waise circumference “borderline”, though it was reassuring that my lung function was good and my bone normal.

But of course the individual’s assessment is not the point of the exercise. It is to play a tiny part in a vast research exercise that should benefit future generations.

Clive Cookson

Lord Drayson, UK science minister, has announced another step toward giving Britain its much needed national space agency.

He says the “bureaucracy busting” body will replace the existing British National Space Centre, which coordinates the activities of nine government departments and agencies but has no power of its own.

Government spending on space – around £270m a year, much less per capita than other advanced industrial nations – will not increase.

But Drayson says the unified agency will increase Britain’s clout in international negotiations. “I and my predecessors have had to negotiate with our hands tied behind our back,” he told me.

It will also support the country’s growing space and satellite industry, which contributes £6.5bn a year to the UK economy and supports 68,000 jobs

The location and name of the new agency will be decided in the new year. Candidate names include British Aeronautics and Space Agency (Basa) and Her Majesty’s Space Agency.

Another significant event for the sector is the publication today of a government-commissioned review of Britain’s future options for space exploration.

The review concludes that the best option would be for Britain to end its long refusal to engage with manned space projects. By spending just £100m a year more than it does today, the government could take part in international projects to send people back to the moon and, possibly, on to Mars.

The returns for both science and innovation would greatly outweigh the additional public expenditure, according to the review panel.

Sadly, however, Drayson says “the broader economic climate means we’re not in a position to change our current approach to investment in space exploration.” But there is hope for the future…

Clive Cookson

A mixed bag of measures for science and innovation from today’s pre-Budget report.

The chancellor introduced two initiatives to support innovation and science-based industry: a reduced rate of corporation tax for income derived from UK patents, and an extra £200m for the government’s Strategic Investment Fund.

But there is also the overhanging threat of £600m savings – in other words cuts – in higher education and science spending.

As Nick Dusic, director of the Campaign for Science & Engineering, put it: “The chancellor has sent mixed signals about the future of science and innovation in the UK. He is looking for a significant cut in investment in the nation’s research and skills base, whilst providing support for innovation that stems from it.”

On the plus side, the so-called Patent Box will introduce a 10 per cent corporation tax rate from April 2013 on UK patent income “to strengthen the incentives to invest in innovative industries”. It will apply to patents granted after the implementing legislation is passed in 2011.

The pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, which will eventually be the biggest beneficiaries of the Patent Box, welcomed the prospect.

Clive Dix, chairman of the BioIndustry Association, said: “The government has recognised that life sciences are essential to building Britain’s future, and the Patent Box shows that it is listening to the BIA and others in the UK life sciences sector.”

In the long run the Patent Box is likely become a valuable incentive for life sciences companies to locate in the UK, worth an estimated £1.3bn a year. But tax accountants point out that it will take several years for the benefits to appear, given than time-scale of pharmaceutical research and development.

”The implementation date of 2013 is unlikely to benefit companies until 2020 at the earliest,” said Andrew Packman of PwC. “We would support an earlier implementation date or the inclusion of existing patents.”

The £750m Strategic Investment Fund was set up in this year’s Budget to support advanced industrial projects. On Wednesday, Mr Darling added a further £200m to the fund – of which £150m will be devoted to low-carbon projects.

Although £600m savings are to come out of the higher education and science and research budgets, the report does not specify where any cuts will fall.

“The government cannot afford to undermine the research base if it is going to achieve its goal of a more balanced economy,” said Dusic.

Clive Cookson

Sad news in the Guardian of an impending crisis at London’s venerable Royal Institution.

Apparently the RI, which has been promoting science and carrying out research for more than 200 years at its splendid Mayfair headquarters, is gripped by internal dissent.

According to the Guardian, a review has concluded that the RI needs to save money as a result of the financial downturn – and this could force the departure of Susan Greenfield as director, unless she is willing to stay on in a reduced, possibly part-time role.

Greenfield, who is also a professor of neuropharmacology at Oxford University and a member of the House of Lords, has been a controversial figure during her 11 years as the head of the RI.

She has some powerful detractors in the world of science – and they are not all driven by sexism or jealousy, as Greenfield’s supporters sometimes imply.

Personally I admire her greatly, for the imaginative way she has overhauled the institution, raised its profile, undertaken a much-needed refurbishment and set up the extremely successfully Science Media Centre as an arm’s-length operation under the RI’s wing.

And here I must declare a (non-financial) interest, as a member of the Science Media Centre’s advisory board. But I have no inside knowledge of the RI row.

There is no doubt, however, that Greenfield at her best is an inspiring, articulate voice for science. We need more colourful figures like her, and I wish Susan – and the Royal Institution – well.

Clive Cookson

While the worlds of science and the environment concentrate on Copenhagen, it is good to see that the climate change negotiations are not the only focus of attention.

I receive an angry press release from Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, entitled “Salter Takes Aim at the Beaver”.

Salter, Labour’s Parliamentary Angling spokesman, is furious with Natural England about the public conservation body’s “ludicrous” plans to re-introduce the European beaver, once a common animal in the British countryside but driven to extinction about 400 years ago.

On reading Natural England’s press release cited by Salter, I find that he has misrepresented its position. It is not actually planning to release the rodents but has sensibly carried out a feasibility study, in conjunction with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, to prepare for the growing likelihood that someone will apply soon for a licence to reintroduce beavers. A limited release programme is already under way in Scotland.

The MP fulminates against Natural England’s statements that beavers can contribute positively to river and wetland management, including floodplain restoration.

“These must be two of the most absurd statements uttered by a publicly funded body in recent years,” he says. “Quite clearly Natural England envisages an army of highly literate beavers in council uniforms carefully consulting maps of flood risk sites before deciding which trees to chop down and where to build their dams ! In reality, these are four stone giant rodents with a genetic programme set to cause deforestation and flooding”

Salter also claims that beaver dams will prevent migratory fish running the rivers. So how does he think the fish managed to reach their spawning grounds in pre-industrial England before beavers were wiped out? A beaver dam is not a serious obstacle to a determined salmon or sea trout.

“If we really have to introduce endangered species, why do we not take the DNA of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the wolf and bring them back to Britain?” asks Salter ironically. Well, in fact there are plans to re-introduce wolves to the Scottish Highlands.

Wild boar have already re-introduced themselves in several parts of rural England – probably irrevocably. And personally I’d welcome back beavers, bears, wolves and lynx.

But I realise that in some quarters that view is as unwelcome as a climate sceptic at a Greenpeace meeting.

Clive Cookson

The University of East Anglia has found an appropriate chairman for the independent review into leaked emails from its Climatic Research Unit, which sceptics say show unacceptable manipulation and suppression of data that do not support the cause of manmade global warming.

Sir Muir Russell has a distinguished background as a Scottish civil servant, including acting as the first Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive following devolution in 1999. He retired this year as principal and vice-chancellor of Glasgow University.

Russell (left) has no known links with climate change research and should be acceptable to both sides of the increasingly polarised debate over global warming.

The terms of reference for the inquiry seem to cover the main allegations of misconduct made by sceptics, including data manipulation/suppression and failure to comply with Freedom of Information requests. Russell will be free to amend the university’s terms of reference and devise his own working methods to investigate fully any alleged misconduct by CRU academics.

UEA wants Russell to complete his work by the spring. That will leave several months in which sceptics will be able to make hay with the allegations.

We had an example today when Saudi Arabia’s chief climate negotiator, Mohammad Al-Sabban told BBC News that the CRU email issue would have a “huge impact” on next week’s UN climate summit.

“It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change,” said Al-Sabban – who obviously has a vested interest in arguing that the vast volumes of oil pumped from beneath the Saudi sands are not contributing to global warming.

Meanwhile the CRU keeps the flag flying on an emergency website that promises: “Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.” Its home page defiantly displays a graph of global temperatures over the past 150 years, which climate scientists believe shows the impact of manmade warming.

Clive Cookson

Today the Royal Society – Britain’s national academy of sciences – kicks off a year of celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of its foundation by King Charles II in 1660.

The first event is the launch of an interactive look back at key scientific moments in its history, in the form of an interactive timeline called Trailblazing.

The 60 scientific papers, chosen from the Society’s Philosophical Transactions (said to be the world’s oldest continuously published scientific journal), include a gruesome account of an early blood transfusion in 1666, Isaac Newton’s landmark paper on light and colour, Watson and Crick’s description of the evidence for the structure of DNA, and Stephen Hawking’s early writing on black holes in space.

An anniversary celebration of such historical riches is a double-edged sword for an academy that is sometimes seen from the outside as the conservative bastion of the scientific establishment.

However Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, is determined to show that, despite traditions such as black-tie summer soirees in its splendid premises on Carlton House Terrace, it is a progressive body looking to the future more than the past.

During 2010 there will be a series of forward looking events for professionals and the public, including a nine-day science festival on London’s Southbank.

At the same time it will be completing and opening the Kavli Royal Society International Centre for the Advancement of Science at Chicheley Hall near Newport Pagnell (left), and building up its successful new Science Policy Centre.

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.