Lord Rees

Lord Rees of the Royal Society: interview

To mark the Royal Society's 350th anniversary, its outgoing President, astrophysicist Lord Rees, discusses with E&T whether engineering is too low-profile.

'Health and Safety wouldn't allow that now,' smiles Lord Rees. In 1667, founder-members performed a blood infusion with sheep's blood at one of their meetings. The patient was an inebriated student - he probably needed to be. He survived the experience a guinea richer. On a separate occasion, a dolphin was dissected at a demo. This was partly to attract audiences, and partly because back in the 17th century members didn't have their own laboratories, Lord Rees explains.

It all started with a meeting in November 1660 between 12 natural philosophers and a lecture from one Christopher Wren. They decided to found a 'Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning', known as the invisible college. Rees explains the title: 'a group of people who communicated formally, but not within any formal structure.' The Royal Society didn't acquire its name and royal approval until two years later, however. Early members were professional practitioners (doctors, astronomers) and 'gentlemen amateurs', explains Rees. It wasn't until 1847 that members were elected upon scientific merit alone, and not patronage. And so the Society became our equivalent to an Academy of Sciences.

A full 350 years later, the Royal Society is nestled off Pall Mall, having moved premises five times as its library, repository and membership have all expanded. It boasts no live experiments, but many medals, prizes, prize lectures, workshops and talks - on topics from plasticity of the brain to plastic electronics.

Whilst there is still some debate as to whether the Royal Society is the oldest scientific academy in the world, says Rees, it can boast the 'longest continual run of a journal,' since the 1660s. The Royal Society also has 'the best archive anywhere of science in the 17th century,' including records of all meetings from the 1660s onwards, as well as of Captain Cook's voyages and Lewis and Clark's explorations of the North American continent. In the Society's commemorative anniversary tome, 'Seeing Further: The Story of the Royal Society: 350 Years of the Royal Society and Scientific Endeavour', its editor Bill Bryson described visiting the Royal Society's repository, which dates back to 1661, where things like Newton's death mask and his own hand-made telescope are still stored. Newton's maths would have been good enough to fly rockets into space.

Fine fellows

Royal Society fellows, as Rees says, have included all the great names in British science. From Newton and Wren to Faraday, Brunel and Hawking. Founder-member Wren may be best known for redesigning St Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire, but he also worked in astronomy optics, cosmology, mechanics, microscopy, medicine and meteorology. The Society's first president, Sir Robert Moray, went on to become Lord of the Exchequer, although died a pauper.

Collectively, fellows' discoveries include champagne (the discovery of double fermentation), the Linnaean System of organism categorisation, gravity, evolution, the electron, the double helix and the Internet - what Rees has described as 'a large part of the modern world', though he doesn't assume that the Royal Society can take credit for this. Royal Society fellows still work under the motto Nullius in verba ('On nobody's word'). As Rees explains, 'accepting nothing on authority...was of course a new thing in the 17th century, whereas it's practised universally in science now.'

The Royal Society currently has 1,450 fellows worldwide. However, the first women members weren't admitted until 1945 and today only 10 per cent are women. Lord Rees's disarming smile shows he is used to answering this question: 'Of course, it's too low, but that represents the proportion of women in senior positions - university professors and the equivalent.' Things may change, he says, when the younger generation steps up the ladder. Of the 350 young-scientist university research fellows that the Royal Society supports - 30 per cent are female, he says. He also points out that it can be science-subject-dependent. So, while 50 per cent of medics are female (and this is predicted to rise), the proportion of women in engineering is very low, which is a cause for concern, he says. According to Paul Jackson, chief executive of Engineering UK, the ratio is the lowest in Europe - just 9 per cent.

Issues facing Britain

In science education, there is also room for improvement. 'Only a very small proportion of teachers in primary schools have any kind of scientific qualification,' says Rees - for every three primary schools there is one teacher with a scientific degree or equivalent. 'Most primary schools don't contain a single teacher who's really qualified to answer difficult questions.' This is important, because 'teachers should be able to respond to the inherent enthusiasm of young children for science - whether dinosaurs or tadpoles', says Rees, as by secondary school they are 'all too often turned off it'.

All citizens should 'have some feel for science,' advocates Rees, 'there are so many issues confronting us: health, energy, the environment, which have a scientific dimension and people can't participate [in the debate] if they don't know the difference between a proton and protein.'

Lack of scientific knowledge continues to be a disadvantage at university level. 'My concern as a professor at Cambridge is that many young people are disadvantaged through not having specialised teaching at 'A' Level... they come disproportionately from a number of schools."

'Everyone should have the opportunity to do three [science] subjects, otherwise they'll be handicapped at university entrance. It's important to have some elements of the science curriculum which are appropriate to future citizens, whether you're going to do any more science or not.'

The message to the government is to keep funding science and attracting students into the discipline. But isn't funding for science dropping here, in relation to the rest of the world? 'There are concerns generally, the issue is to ensure that we stay competitive. By almost all measures, we are second to the US in terms of qualitative impact.

'The strength of the UK's universities is an asset, which will be crucial to the recovery.'

Our final century?

The title of one of Lord Rees's books, 'Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century?', could be deemed somewhat alarmist. Newton used to say that the world wouldn't end before 2060, mainly to stop people predicting that the world would end.

'It is most unlikely that we are going to wipe ourselves out,' replies Lord Rees. 'I am saying it's the first century when human beings are collectively having a potentially serious effect on the global environment. I don't think that's alarmist, I think it would be ignorant to disagree with that. Just look at the figures.'

Rees agrees that climate change is man-made. He cites CO2 concentration measurements, 'we've more than doubled the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere for a start - that's another controversial statement,' he adds in his soft-spoken way. Earlier he had also said that 'CO2 is at a higher level than it's been for the last half-million years at least. Simple physics asserts that that's an extra greenhouse contribution that's going to produce a warming... ' He adds that 40 per cent of the world's biomass has been used up by humans, mentioning the Keeling Curve, a graph which measures CO2.

Rees has talked about threats of bio-terror and bio-error to the human race. Are we going to be decimated by viruses? Virus terrorism is one threat, he replies, but, again, he doesn't think the human race will be wiped out. However, there is a risk of setback 'as bad as nuclear war', due to 'unintended consequences' and 'technologies as yet unenvisaged'.

The next 100 years depend on us, he has said - but who, exactly? 'The population is rising... each person is making more impact on the environment... technology is empowering individuals, which creates extra problems for governance.' These two things, he says, 'pressure on resources', and the 'greater empowerment of individuals' is going to make it difficult for government. 'We will need to ensure the benefits of globalisation help the developing world... that we respond properly to the likely growing dominance of Asia... and that we get the right balance between security and freedom.'

Talking of unintended consequences and technologies as-yet-unenvisaged, is access to our genetic codes desirable? Should we know what the future holds for us? 'This,' he says, 'is an advance which poses a new set of regulations and ethical challenges...'

Rees has in the past espoused the greatness of Sir Joseph Rotblat, who believed that scientists should have strong ethical codes. Rotblat worked on the first atomic bombs, but latterly he researched nuclear fall-out and radiation for treatment purposes, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear disarmament work. Rees feels that the ethical conundrums already posed by stem-cell research and cloning have been handled better in this country than in some others. He mentions the 'need to engage with parliamentarians and the wider public' on such hot topics. 'Upstream engagement' is the jargon,' he says. Meaning? 'Informing the public before the issues become commercially sensitive. It's what didn't happen with GM crops.'

Finally, does he believe life is out there - on unexplored planets perhaps? 'I have no idea because we don't even know how life began on the Earth.'

It leads one to wonder whether the answer will be presented between these four walls, during the tenure of some future president.

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