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Sir Paul Nurse on Covid-19, cost of net-zero and more: best of the week’s news

Image credit: University of Oxford

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘We were bound to have pandemics’: Sir Paul Nurse, director, Francis Crick Institute

'Man of science cites facts and evidence-based truth to counter ill-informed bluster and misinformation of certain politicians' has become something of a trope for these times. The highest seats of government in many countries are occupied by self-serving fools, who carelessly disregard and even denigrate the knowledge of people much better qualified to comment and advise on a global pandemic that has already killed nearly one million people and will almost certainly kill many more.

Scientists are probably well-used by now to being sidelined and ignored by the more spectacularly stupid of our politicians, which is a sad state of affairs and one that seems like a decidedly retrograde step for humankind. All of which makes this interview with Sir Paul Nurse - geneticist, director of the Francis Crick Institute, Nobel laureate and plain-speaking, straight-talking, no-nonsense man of science - all the more timely and compelling a read. Perhaps some of our so-called leaders could take five minutes out of their busy Twitter schedules to also read the article and heed the advice. That might do us all some good.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Net-zero carbon goal by 2050 could cost up to $2tr per year

$33tr investor fund pressures EU to increase climate change targets

I’ve picked on these two stories, which ran on consecutive days this week, as they’re both relevant to work we’re doing for our next issue of E&T with its core theme of climate change. In fact, before mankind was hit by the Covid-19 sucker punch, the climate was the issue of the year – of the decade. The COP26 conference scheduled for Glasgow at the end of this year, now postponed of course, would have been a focal point when we hoped the targets of the Paris Agreement five years ago would be transferred into transparent, prescriptive steps for humanity to take in order to save itself. So the theory goes anyway.

Just because we’ve been jolted off the tracks in an entirely unexpected way doesn’t mean global warming has cooled as an issue, and I think we can expect (or at least hope) a lot of people will have much to say and do on the subject as we settle down into the new normal. Dealing with climate change is a huge and multifaceted issue of course and we’ll take a look at this in more detail in our November issue. I feel the time is for everyone to take some degree of responsibility, rather than just talking about the issue and saying ’something must be done’.

I think costing out the necessary energy transition (the first article above), coming from the point of view of an organisation that appreciates it has to be done, is a worthwhile contribution. Being somewhat cynical perhaps, I wonder if the second one is more about investors wanting to make sure they have secured investments, rather than making a useful contribution. Do they, for example, only invest in companies with a squeaky clean environmental policy? If they do, then I apologise for my cynicism.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Device fitted to car wheel collects harmful tyre dust

We’re all aware of the pollution that comes out of vehicle exhaust pipes, but we generally don’t think about how tyre wear contributes to dirty air - though it makes sense that all that rubber has to end up somewhere. All credit, then, to the Tyre Collective - a group of London students who have demonstrated a prototype device to capture the airborne particles as they are released. They have even proposed some practical uses for the dust that’s collected. For their efforts they have been declared UK national winners of the James Dyson Award and now go forward to the international stages of the competition. Well done to them.

Hitachi scraps plans for North Wales nuclear plant

I’m not one of those people who thinks nuclear energy is uniquely bad, but there’s no doubt that it’s really expensive and relying on the commercial sector to pay for new plants in the hope of long-term returns is turning out to be a problem - but then so is relying on foreign governments, as the states we’re friendly with at any given time can so easily become those we’re wary of ten years later. There’s also the minor matter of how to deal with nuclear waste. On the other hand, we’re supposed to be moving away from fossil fuels and we’re a long way from being able to rely totally on renewables for all our electricity needs, all the time. I’ve heard it said that energy policy doesn’t win elections, but when the lights go out the government of the day will get the blame. In my opinion, the UK urgently needs a coherent long-term energy policy that has the support of all the main political parties, so it doesn’t get reversed every time there’s a change of government. Will it happen? I’m not holding my breath.

Rebecca Northfield, commissioning editor

Data-driven Disney monitors your every move

You see the giant Disney characters walking around the amusement park? They don’t blink. Always watching. Jokes.

Anyway, at the Magic Kingdom, they say using data enhances the customer experience. Creeps. As James O’ Malley says, is it an invasion of privacy? Darn tootin’ it is! In my opinion, anyway.

Apparently, when you visit one of Disney’s theme parks in Orlando, Florida, you’re offered the chance to buy a ‘Magic Band’, an RFID bracelet that will let you pass through ticket barriers, skip queues for rides and buy merch in the shops. There’s also a transmitter inside that enables the band to be continuously tracked from anything up to 12 metres away. In Disneyland, the company is closely monitoring your every move.

According to an ‘imagineer’ who is basically paid to be all-things-positive for the company, this is all down to trying to personalise “what is pretty much a very mass experience and make sure that people feel welcome.” Yeah, sure thing. This imagineer likens the tracking to the experience of a good butler, who will anticipate a person’s need and provide it at just the right moment. Whatever, matey.

Surveillance isn’t new for Disney. After the original Disneyland opened in California in the 1950s, Walt Disney himself would conduct research. And we all know what a good judge of character the main man himself was, don’t we?

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Hackers target schools and universities as the academic year begins

An actual spike in cyber attacks targeting the UK education sector at the same time as predictions of a probable spike in coronavirus cases is the last thing schools and universities need right now. With resources stretched thin already, it’s likely to be a case of deciding whether to prioritise measures that protect students’ physical wellbeing or the security of the IT systems on which they depend.

The particular problem right now is an increase in ransomware attacks over the summer that saw establishments of all types threatened by hackers who attempted to encrypt their data, then demand a cash payoff to release it again. The UK National Cyber Security Centre has warned institutions that might be targets to ramp up their defences or risk significant disruption - recovering from a successful attack can take weeks or even months that no school or college can afford at the moment.

The suggestion that security needs boosting does assume that it’s something a lot of people in education aren’t taking seriously enough already. Understandable when they’ve been preoccupied with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic for several months; now young people are back at their desks, attention needs to switch for a while at least to the security of the systems that underpin so much of modern-day school life.

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