Science and the bigger picture

June 16, 1995

Tom Wakeford has written a book about making science more relevant to the environment. Ayala Ochert met him.

After spending a year on the Nasa planetary biology internship, Tom Wakeford is still firmly committed to bringing science down to earth. The 24-year-old has just launched his first book, Science for the Earth: can science make the world a better place? with contributions from theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, cell biologist and global ecologist Lynn Margulis, and specialist in international environmental issues Crispin Tickell. He writes: "To help end the misunderstandings between scientists and the rest of society, scientists need to shed their exclusive image."

The book argues that science can only be "for the Earth" if it is radically restructured, that it should become more goal-directed. Wakeford is critical of the traditional view, held by many scientists, that pure science is superior to applied science: "There isn't a shred of evidence that pure science is the best way to go. I personally think that it is much more likely that if funding goes into goal-directed research, then the pure-research questions will get answered."

He also thinks that if science is really to be "for the Earth" it must come from scientists who have a broader grasp of environmental problems than at present. "Scientists have such a narrow breadth of experience," he says. "For example, those scientists who developed the catalytic converter failed to take into account that 80 per cent of car journeys are less than ten minutes, and it takes ten minutes for a catalytic converter to get going".

Now in the second year of a PhD in microbial ecology, Wakeford started his "campaign" in 1992, while an undergraduate at Cambridge University. He had the idea of holding a forum to discuss the issue of Science for the Earth. "I put an ad in the student newspaper, not expecting much response, but six or seven people turned up and we organised this event. The atmosphere of the day was amazing, it was like 1968. The room was crammed full of people, about 200 of them, even though it was a Friday morning." Most of the speakers at that first event have contributed to the book. The forum is now annual and attracts top speakers.

"From the start we were getting people to question the very social basis of science," says Wakeford. "For example, we should be asking who is paying those scientists who say that global warming isn't happening."

As an undergraduate, Wakeford felt that he and his fellow students were not getting the "bigger picture" of science, from their lecturers: "They thought that the march of truth would solve everything. They were just not giving students the inspiration they were after. There was a high drop-out rate among those students who wanted to think more broadly; they moved across into other subjects. You had a choice: leave or stay and get brainwashed".

The forum was an opportunity for science undergraduates to be more questioning. Shortly afterwards he met Martin Walters, a book editor, and together they sold their idea to a publisher of science textbooks: "We thought that it could fill a niche in the market of books for sixth-formers and undergraduates. There are very few books concerned with green issues as well as the social interaction angle."

Profits from the book will go to Scientists for Global Responsibility (formerly Scientists Against Nuclear Arms), with whom they worked in organising the forum. Members of SGR are scientists with ethical and environmental concerns about the uses to which science is put, some of whom believe that scientists should take more responsibility for their research. They disagree with scientists who say that they are just concerned with the "science", and that any future applications of it are someone else's responsibility.

One SGR member says: "I did research into dumping nuclear waste at sea, and the attitude was one of, 'What's the cheapest way?'" The organisation claims that 80 per cent of physics graduates go into the defence industry. It advises students on alternative careers.

The book has several contributions from human-rights activists. "All too often human rights are trampled on in the name of rationality," says Wakeford. He worries particularly about recommendations that scientists make about tackling the problems of climate change, which he says are not unadulterated science but are bound up with economic agendas. Such scientists, he says, are only too happy to receive funding for their research, and so do not question their involvement. "Climate modelling has reached a Star Wars scale; there are so many scientists involved. The funding is dangled in front of them."

These scientists are allied to the policy that quotas for carbon dioxide emissions should be based on gross domestic product, he says. He claims that this outlook carries the implied calculation that a life in a developing country is worth ten times less than one in a developed country. "These recommendations, because they are associated with scientists, are considered to be the rational way of avoiding global climate change."

The book has sold out of its first print run. It has been particularly popular in the United States. "I suppose the aim of the book or 'campaign' would be for one-fifth of any science degree to be about where science fits into society," says Wakeford.

Science for the Earth: can science make the world a better place? by Tom Wakeford and Martin Walters is published by John Wiley and Sons. Price Pounds 6.99 (pbk) and Pounds 19.95 (hbk).

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