Opinion - If you ask me

Robert Hodgson, RedR and Chris Edwards, electronics editor, offer their views on current issues.

If you ask me

Disaster relief - or mitigation?

Technology has transformed disaster relief in my lifetime. Twenty-seven years ago, Oxfam GB launched me into the middle of Africa with the memorable instruction: "We don't really know what's happening. See what you can do to help and if you can't do anything, come back!"

In northern Uganda, the nearest telephone was 160km away and letters to the UK took two weeks. I spent my time building roads for relief trucks, when I wasn't criss-crossing dusty tracks coordinating with colleagues up to 150km away.

That assignment was one of the first for RedR, an international disaster relief charity that recruits, trains and provides support to engineers and other aid workers. Established by engineers and health professionals to support humanitarian relief agencies, our vision is of a world in which sufficient competent and committed personnel are available and responding to humanitarian needs.

By 2004, all the relief agencies responding to the Indian Ocean tsunami had handheld satphones. However, the satphone is seldom necessary now. The cell-phone, often with Internet capacity, has reached almost every part of the globe. Coordination can be done via the Internet and team leaders can keep in touch from anywhere in the world.

Since 1980, engineering and technology have immeasurably enhanced our ability to operate effectively in remote circumstances. All statistics show a steady and continuing rise in the numbers and impacts of disasters worldwide, due only in part to better news gathering.

It need not be so. Wouldn't it be nice to apply our technological prowess to preventing disasters or, at least, to mitigating their effects?

Although there is still a lot to be done to increase the range and specificity of weather forecasting, many natural events can be anticipated. The difficulty is to achieve an appropriate response among populations and leaders who may not understand the warnings.

If the people of Sri Lanka had known of the approaching tsunami, their likely response would have been, "what's that?". The wave's devastating effects were soon appreciated and Kenyan beaches, at least, were empty by the time the largely dissipated tsunami reached East Africa 12 hours later.

The underlying drivers for increasing disasters are that, firstly, a lack of resources forces increasing numbers of the world's growing population to live in harm's way and, secondly, the collective contributions of industrialisation to global warming are increasing the climatic risks to those vulnerable people.

RedR's vision can be fulfilled either by increasing the supply of personnel, which we help to do now, or by reducing the demand for their services, which I suggest would be a better solution all round. However, effective disaster mitigation will require a multi-pronged approach to the technologies of forecasting, protection, communication and education. It's a much bigger challenge than the relatively simple logistics of relief but it's one to which engineering and technology need to rise - and rise quickly!

Until then, RedR and our partner organisations worldwide remain the front-line defence against disaster of the world's poor and vulnerable.

On 14 February, RedR is holding its annual fundraising campaign, Wear Red for RedR, and is encouraging the global engineering community to get involved. For details, please call +44 (0)20 7233 3116, email tom.colborne@redr.org or visit www.redr.org.uk

Robert Hodgson is a consulting civil engineer and chair of the board of trustees of RedR UK, for whom he has undertaken some 15 assignments in four continents

Synthetic biology needs rules, not bans

Alfred Vellucci, the former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is not a popular figure among molecular biologists. More than 30 years ago, he came to the conclusion that research work in his town at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had gone too far; that "those people in white coats"were on the verge of releasing some Satan Bug on society. As the mayor of the town, he was the one to stop the work on recombinant DNA that he claimed could upset the balance of life.

Vellucci did not encounter many problems in stirring up disquiet, and was helped later on by mysterious sightings of weird creatures in the forests of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Were they escapees from the labs of the local Dr Frankensteins?

In 2008, we are seeing similar arguments rise up again. This time, it is an extension to the recombinant DNA work that is at issue. Synthetic biology goes further by providing the possibility of creating entirely new genes, not just using those found in nature. But, as with more traditional recombinant DNA work, it is hard - and foolhardy - to give an absolute guarantee of safety when so much in the field has yet to be understood.

The models in use today can only go so far in predicting the usefulness of a set of genes inserted into a cell. It's hard enough with ‘known' genes, let alone those designed to produce a novel type of protein that its creators might, for example, expect to be able to crack water into molecular hydrogen and oxygen.

The irony is that the work that has triggered the disquiet has yet to go that far. The J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) has claimed it made a breakthrough in synthesising huge chains of DNA: enough to build the entire genome of a simple bacterium. Potentially, the technique will make it possible to produce an organism from scratch. In reality, the JCVI has developed the world's most expensive way to create an existing species of bacterium. The work has yet to start on producing a novel organism. Other researchers have adopted far simpler means in their experiments to tune bacteria to perform new jobs, harnessing existing and relatively cheap techniques that have appeared since the early 1970s.

The question is, does this kind of work require new legislation or guidelines? It needs a new look, certainly. However, the key will be to look in detail at the relative risks and rewards and to tune the guidelines as new evidence becomes available. Venter's approach may be safer than tinkering with wild-type bacteria. Or it may be a blind alley in both economic and scientific terms. However, a simple ‘no more synthetic biology for ten years' rule is unlikely to make sense when we have had 30 years of work with recombinant DNA.

Chris Edwards, electronics editor, E&T

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