good science

Reading about the latest standoff between the NFU and the Soil Association, I was reminded of two kids in a playground.The NFU accused the SA of scare tactics’  while the SA gently patronised the NFU for its unhelpful attitudes in the face of looming disaster.I was at an event last week where the Soil Association, helpfully introduced as ‘GM Vandals’, were obliged to share a platform with the representatives of the Rothamsted Research Laboratories , where two-headed sheep and strawberry-flavoured cod are cooked up in test tubes, in between man-sized mugs of cocoa.

They sat there, refusing to make eye contact, and spent most of their precious time rubbishing each others’ methods and ideologies.

But of course the reality is that Godzilla is just outside the playground, and we actually need both of them, and just about everybody else, to grow enough food in a world where population is booming, the soil is more and more depleted, and there’s no more oil to fertilise it.

The Soil Association has plenty of good ideas, but so do scientists – though it doesn’t help when they start bandying about words like ‘targeted mutagenesis’ (this apparently means however that we call all stop worrying about GM, which in fashion terms appears to be totally last year)

The truth about science is that the good ones are like ants – the ants that forage on the forest floor, camouflaged by their brown coats, quietly scavenging and saving and storing and having small good ideas, while the Siberian tigers and polar bears crash around melodramatically commiting suicide. In fact, we can do without the tigers and bears a lot more easily than the ants and earwigs. So this shock column is dedicated to the people with the unglamorous good ideas that might just save us all.

Take the light bulbs for sports stadia that could save 50% of all light bulb energy (and might avert divorce from Mr Fixit, who loves F1 even more now that they race at dead of night under a billion watts of floodlighting).

Or the hairy kettle (I think, unlike the Meret Oppenheim teacup, it wears the hairs on the inside) that saves energy using tiny filaments to disperse the heat into the water. There are people making car lubricants from cow fat – non toxic, and disappears harmlessly when disposed of, unless you recycle it to fry your chips. 

There’s drywall that needs  80% less energy to produce and cuts CO2 output by 90%, a  fridge powered by the heat from a cooking fire (so when is solar powered aircon going to arrive?, and a nylon bead washing system that uses a tiny fraction of the normal amount of water and energy, and leaves clothes dryer too.

Cooking, building, washing and kettles are everywhere. Making them work better really makes a difference. But it’s not stuff you can do by launching  a website and recruiting celebrities, or even opening a boutique in Chiswick It took scientists at Leeds University thirty years to come up with that. Think of it! They started in 1979, when most of use hadn’t even got into greed and consumerism, let alone out the other side. It needs long sight, consistent backing, and protection from the idiocies of fashion and political ambition.

So I might not personally make a bee line for an online seminar on ‘Influence on Wound Dressing Design – A Developer’s Perspective’ (thanks, Dr Bill Pigg from Johnson and Johnson Wound Management) but I sure am grateful that other people did.

On the other hand, science  fertilized by massive military funding, unbridled by public scrutiny and well-aimed ridicule, can go seriously awry. What is the US Army’s response to the depletion of its fishing grounds – ie, the fact that there just don’t seem to be so many of the darned critters around as they should be? Do they lay off tuna burgers for a while and concentrate on replenishing the stocks? No, they spend millions of dollars training the few remaining fish to respond to the sound of a bell so they can be aggregated and scooped up more effectively.

There you go, Mr Obama. A useful place to start cutting the deficit, perhaps?