River Wissey Lovell Fuller

The Village Soapbox

October 2007

Ron looks at several issues which affect us all with his usual clinical analysis


What ever became of the basic principle of democracy? You know, 'government of the people, for the people, by the people'. We have governments which, as a rule, were not voted for by about 60% of the electorate. The appointment of a Prime Minister is a matter in which the people have no say. Once appointed the Prime Minister assumes almost dictatorial powers and, in the past, Prime Ministers have taken the nation to war purely on their say so without reference to parliament or people. Before his election victory in 1997 Tony Blair promised an electoral reform commission, but, once in power, he quietly let the matter drop.

Governments pay little heed to the will of the people. If the government had acted according to the clear wishes of the people they would never have gone to war with Iraq, they would have put much tighter restrictions on immigration years ago and they would have acted to counter the greed of those working in the city. I am sure it would not take long to think of many other examples where our governments have acted against the clear will of the people. Currently the manifesto promise of a referendum on a new European constitution is being side stepped by calling it a treaty and denying the people a referendum on the issue. The reason that they are denying a referendum is, of course, because they know they would lose. They may think that they know best, that may be true, but that does not give them the right to deny the people their right to influence the decisions. Acting according to the will of the people may not always be deemed by those in power to be in the best interest of the nation but it is the fundamental basis of democracy. Past decisions by government have not always proven to be in our best interest and there is no evidence to suggest that democratic decisions based on the will of the majority would be any worse.

Science and Engineering

It was good to see that Biology, Physics and Chemistry remained among the more popular subjects again this year in the GCSEs. The Science Double Award also was a popular choice with a small increase over last year. These subjects also produced a high proportion of A*s than in most other subjects. Unfortunately this interest at GCSE is not carried forward into A-level. The numbers studying physics at A level have declined by 57% in the last twenty years and chemistry has fallen by 28%. I am not sure why this should be. I think that there may have been some significant dumbing down of science at GCSE in order to make the subjects easier and more appealing, this may have led to a situation where the jump to A-level is more daunting. Surprisingly, in this day and age, the number taking ICT was not particularly high and was down on last year.

Just 12% of graduates leave university with a science or engineering degree. Recently the CBI called for urgent action to save science education at the higher level, they suggested a bursary for science and engineering undergraduates, a suggestion that has been made before and one which I supported at the time when I was more intimately involved. Without doubt we are producing too many graduates who have followed courses of study that have limited vocational application. Of course one might argue 'education for education sake' but some of these courses could even be challenged over their educational content. We have also seen a rise in the number of split courses e.g. 'maths and politics' producing graduates who are neither fish nor fowl. This might be acceptable if they are prepared for further study but they are not in a good position to do that either.

Science and engineering courses offer an interesting, intellectually demanding, even exciting challenge with excellent vocational opportunities for men and women. In this country the term 'engineering' continues to conjure up images of oily rags in the minds of many but it has very little to do with that. Despite the power of modern computers, an engineer needs a thorough background in mathematics. He also needs an understanding of the physics of Newtonian dynamics, electricity, light, sound and thermodynamics. He has to learn of the properties of materials down to a molecular level and how to use his creative talents.

Professional engineers are the people that design and build everything from aircraft and aero engines, space ships and satellites, cars and trucks (and the robots that build them), locomotives, televisions and radar stations, to nuclear power stations, dams and bridges. In fact, practically all the wealth of the developed nations and everything that makes modern living as comfortable as it is has been created by engineers exploiting the discoveries of scientists. Practically all the tasks undertaken by professional engineers are equally suitable for men and women.

It is true, of course, currently that rewards are higher in the higher echelons of the financial services sector but that may not always be so. Even here there are opportunities for science and engineering graduates. It is surprising that relatively few young people are attracted to study in these disciplines. In view of their importance to the future well being of our nation I agree wholeheartedly with the CBI that there is a need for financial incentives for students to choose relevant courses. It is unlikely that it will happen, however, because of all the howls of protest that will emanate from the established academics in other fields.

Climate Change (The hysteria goes on)

Despite a somewhat drier August it was the wettest English Summer on record and, once again, some elements of the media are taking this as further proof of global warming. What rubbish! The provisional figure for the summer rainfall in England is 324.4mm, beating the previous record by just 16mm. But that record was set in 1956, furthermore rainfall in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was well below past records. Rainfall across the UK as a whole was less than we had in 1912. In fact reliable records of rainfall go back to 1766 and the UK rainfall this summer was only the eighth highest since that time.

There has been a selective presentation of the weather news by some with concentration on the English summer to give a false impression of the global implications. A point that received less attention than the rainfall was the fact that this was the coldest summer in East Anglia for some years.

The best report that I read was that of a Dr Betts, a computer modeller in the Exeter Met. office, who discovered that in an atmosphere richer in CO2 plants open their stomata (the pores through which they absorb CO2) to a lesser extent. This, he said, results in the plants losing less water by evaporation and hence they need to take up less water (Do plants exude water/water vapour through the same pores as they breathe in CO2?). Writing in Nature he claimed that this was a major factor influencing ground saturation with a consequent major influence on flooding in wet weather. Yeah right. An earlier report claimed that plants grew larger and therefore absorbed more water in an atmosphere containing more CO2.

Another amusing report was one by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation that claimed that gases produced by animal livestock produced a greater global warming effect than the whole of the transport sector. Now some activists in the US have turned their attention away from the 4x4 gas guzzlers and are blaming meat eaters for global warming.

At the end of the day it is people and their lifestyles that are responsible for the production of many greenhouse gases. Putting more effort into limiting population growth would be a major contribution to saving the planet for future generations.

Ron Watts

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