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Royal astro-boffin to MPs: Stop thinking about headlines

'Nuclear biz is screwed, chill out about carcinogens'

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"In politics the urgent seems to trump the important," venerable astro-boffin Lord Martin Rees told a committee of MPs yesterday, saying that it there needed to be "bipartisan consensus on long-term issues" such as energy and the environment if Britain is to haul its sorry ass into the next century.

Giving evidence to The Public Administration Committee, Rees reprised some of the points he made in his 2010 BBC Reith lecture series, where he discussed how "celebrities and newspaper people" had too much sway over how the public perceived scientific issues.

The committee was tasked with investigating strategic thinking in government – and how to make MPs do it.

Energy came up as biggest area of scientists' anxiety. Both Rees and his fellow speaker, David King of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, said the failure of Britain's nuclear energy plans were a big concern. Rees said that at current rates, Britain wasn't even training enough people to maintain the safety arrangements on current nuclear facilities, never mind making strides in research and development.

"I'm not sure we can underestimate the long-term problem in nuclear power," he said. "When the current generation retire, we will run out of nuclear safety experts".

And then, lamented the boffin, the public tend to worry about the wrong things. The public had "a disproportionate sense of risk" he said:

"We fret too much about carcinogens in food, but don't worry enough about bio-error, bio-terror, cyber crime and things which are far more serious: these low-probability, very high consequence events."

Ignorance prevented people participating in important debates, he added.

Still the Astronomer Royal wasn't advocating some boffin-o-crat science state: "It's not just scientists who should decide these issues," he said, "they should decide it after wide democratic discussion. But for those discussions to get beyond tabloid slogans we need to get wider knowledge of these issues beyond the tabloid slogans." ®

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