Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


A few illustrations of fairly recent failures in policy caused by lack of overall strategy and fragmentation —with particular reference to Climate change and energy security.

Whilst the new Department for Energy and Climate Change will bring together much of the climate change responsibilities previously with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) it is likely that there will still be policy and implementation responsibilities within these and a range of other Departments including the Treasury, CLG, Department for Transport, DIUS, Department for Children, School and Families as well as Local Authorities and a range of other bodies including the Carbon Trust, EST and OFGEM.

There are lots of examples of how this fragmentation leads to poor value for money for tax payers but in the context of this inquiry I have identified a few recent examples for illustrative purposes only.

A1.  Facts or adjectives

"A huge amount" of money is being spent on renewable energy! The problem is that renewable energy is usually mentioned in terms of adjectives rather than hard facts and numbers—for example "huge wind capacity", or "huge tidal energy". There is a distinct lack of hard facts and figures. David MacKay[35] is trying to rectify this. He examines our total energy usage in the UK and then tries to provide a similar amount of energy without using any oil or gas (which we would probably have to do to meet our 80% CO2 reduction commitment). Amongst his conclusions are that even if we covered the windiest 10% of the country with wind turbines, we might be able to generate half of the energy used by driving a car 50km each day. He notes that Britain's onshore wind energy resource may be "huge", but not as "huge" as our huge consumption. And to put these numbers of wind turbines into perspective, they would represent fifty times the entire wind hardware of Denmark or double the entire existing capacity of the whole world. And yet again, government departments are encouraging them without much thought to the figures mentioned in David MacKay's book.

MacKay also mentions biofuels. If you set aside land for biofuel it cannot be used for agriculture—one of the reasons behind 2008's large rises in the price of food. He points out that once upon a time the human race generated nearly all its energy from biomass fuel, but that only worked with a middle-ages living standard and population. If all British land currently devoted to agriculture was used to grow biofuel, that would still only equate to about 36 kWh/day per person. (Current UK consumption is about 125 kWh/day per person.)

A.2.  Clean development mechanism

  Whilst the underlying intention and philosophy of the clean development mechanism is good, failure to recognise and understand the complexities of the science and economics in the context of the global systems has led to unintended but largely predictable consequences. Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner[36] describe some of these, citing for example a probable increase in HCFC production in developing countries to take advantage of the CDM credit payments. Again we understand that attempts are being made to address this.

A.3.  Hospital closures

Hospitals as places of healing should ideally be designed, built and managed on scientific principles across almost the entire range of disciplines. From how they are kept clean to prevent spread of infection through to selection and operation of the requisite range of diagnostic and treatment equipment. From ensuring that they are robust against some form of disaster through to providing comfort cost effectively.

Closing down small local hospitals and concentrating resources in large purpose built out of town ones was as I understand it designed to improve quality and speed of treatment although based on the experience in Hemel Hempstead the public view it as badly conceived cost saving. Inevitably this policy makes life more difficult for those who have to get there, as well as having implications for climate change associated with driving and public transport (and numerous other technical and social issues). This may well be the right thing, but as far as I can see there has been little real clarity in what Government wants to achieve, little learning from the mistakes of history and little cross disciplinary and cross departmental science to research and identify options to achieve the policy and assess which of these options give best value.

A.4.  Micro-renewables

  Until research carried out for the BRE Trust[37] showed that micro-wind turbines might accelerate climate change (in addition to the initial embodied carbon and efficiency of the turbine, the payback period is highly sensitive to local wind conditions, transport costs, maintenance requirements and the life of the turbine) Government departments and some local authorities were widely encouraging their use. Government should check its facts and not rely on false claims and wishful thinking.

A.5.  Infrastructure

Almost all of our nation's economic activities require buildings and other infrastructure. Construction contributes some 10% to GDP and buildings some 45% of carbon emissions. But unique amongst all major world Governments the UK does not even have a Minister for Construction let alone a department with a research budget. Given the importance of our infrastructure (including homes, other buildings, railways, road travel, air travel, sea travel, gas, electricity and water supply, sewage disposal, waste disposal and electronic infrastructure like telephones and Internet) to climate change and energy security as well as our well-being and competitiveness, we need this brought together coherently. All of these need science and engineering input to work correctly and safely.

A minor but related issue—the Government has its own OGC to lead on the Government estate but its recommendations are often ignored.

A.6.  Life cycle environmental impacts

  As an example, DEFRA are working on the life cycle environmental analysis of plasterboard (amongst other things). But this work has already been completed to a large extent—and not just for plasterboard, but for a whole range of construction products. The Green Guide to Specification[38] provides guidance on the relative environmental impacts of over 250 elemental specifications for roofs, walls and floors etc. The methodology was developed by the BRE Trust Group with partial funding from the then DETR and support from a wide range of construction manufacturing trade associations co-ordinated by the Construction Products Association.

January 2009

35   "Sustainable Energy- without the hot air"-Professor David MacKay-Professor of Natural Philosophy, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge-2008. Back

36   "The Wrong Trousers-radically rethinking climate policy"-Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner-a joint discussion paper of the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation, University of Oxford, and the MacKinder Centre for the Study of
Long-Wave Events, London School of Economics-2007. 

37   "Micro-wind turbines in urban environments-an assessment"-R Phillips, P Blackmore, J Anderson, M Clift,
A Aguilo-Rullan and S Pester-2007. 

38   "Green Guide to Specification", 4th Edition-Jane Anderson, David Shiers-2009. Back

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