Climate Change tops the poll at Royal Society meeting of the world’s science academies

14/4/2010 New Scientist Magazine issue 2756  A 2020 vision for global science. WE LIVE in a world that is more interconnected - and more vulnerable - than ever before.The fallout from the banking crisis was worldwide. Concerns about infectious diseases have risen and fallen in the public’s consciousness, and while no catastrophic pandemic has yet hit us, it is clear that preventive measures require global monitoring and cooperation. There has also been a stronger focus on crises that are less immediate but deeply disquieting: the pressures on energy and resources caused by a larger and more empowered population, and aggravated by anthropogenic climate change. This is the first century when one species, ours, risks irreversibly degrading the entire planet’s environment.

The in January gave New Scientist a unique and exclusive opportunity to canvass the opinions of scientists from both developing and developed nations on what they see as the big challenges facing their countries and the world (see “Science’s global challenge” for the results). The three-day conference, hosted by the Royal Society as part of its 350th anniversary celebrations, brought together 103 science academies from around the world - a wealth of international expertise.

Climate change topped the poll of 70 scientists from 62 academies as the issue that was of most concern on a global level; frustration at the limited progress in Copenhagen was still fresh in people’s minds. Food security, an issue that the Royal Society recently identified as particularly significant and investigated in its Reaping the Benefits report, also came high on the list. Other environmental concerns were water shortages and loss of biodiversity, both aggravated by population growth.

These were, arguably, predictable but there were surprises too. Participants from higher-income nations showed little concern about water security, despite the fact that it is regularly highlighted as a significant issue. Pandemics came surprisingly low down too, possibly because swine flu was less serious than feared. The low ranking of terrorism perhaps indicated that, in the developing world, it affects much smaller numbers of people than endemic poverty - even though the latter is far less newsworthy.

At national level, education is highlighted as one of the most significant concerns. This is true for wealthy countries and even more so among the lower-income ones. It is reassuring to see this recognition that science is a long-term investment. Science can not only help solve global problems but is also a key economic driver. Many national governments are acting on that and investing heavily in it. The UK must hope that its next government will not allow science to be left behind.

The poll also contains a warning. In the developed world, the public’s perception of science is distinctly ambivalent, despite the extent to which it is the key to our prosperity. Such public doubt should not deflect scientists from facing up to the immense global challenges highlighted in the survey. Scientific organisations must continue to present politicians and the public with a balanced assessment of the evidence in their fields - and, crucially, indicate the level of confidence in their estimates and the range of uncertainties.

We must reiterate that the needs of the world - better food supplies, clean water, adequate energy and equitable policies to preserve ecosystems and the climate - cannot be met without the application of the best available science. But first of all we must enhance our dialogue with politicians and the wider world, and ensure that we sustain the public’s trust.

Martin Rees has been president of the Royal Society since December 2005. He is also Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and a member of the House of Lords

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