Sykes gives support to nuclear option

December 9, 2005

Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, leapt to the defence of nuclear power this week as academics debated whether public emotion is constraining science, writes Anna Fazackerley.

At a discussion meeting hosted by Agora, a cultural and educational debating forum for people linked to universities, Sir Richard said that the public and environmentalists needed to be realistic about the future of energy - particularly because people are not cutting back on energy use.

He said: "Isn't it a responsibility for everyone to try to recognise that if you do not have clean carbon technology, you have to use nuclear? You cannot oppose everything."

But he added that people would always be naturally resistant to areas of apparent uncertainty or risk in science. He said: "If you do not understand something, it appears dangerous; and therefore the best thing to do is to overrule it. We are not going to overcome that."

Other key figures took a stronger line, arguing that there had been a dramatic decline in public trust in scientists.

Lord Taverne, a member of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, said: "We have moved into a culture where we are pessimistic. We want a no-risk approach. Science stands for optimism and progress, but we seem determined to reject that. If we lose hope of progress, we may as well give up."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said: "There is a very powerful cultural dynamic towards undermining science."

He added: "I am deeply concerned about the fact that undergraduates at my university - and even my ten-year-old son - hate science."

But Lloyd Anderson, director of science for the British Council, argued that scientists need not be passive in the face of opposition.

He said: "It is about demonstrating there is benefit and allaying people's fears about risk."

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