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Posted October 26th 2005
Prof Sir David King gave this interview on 22 September 2005. EFDA Newsletter would like to record their thanks to Sir David for being so generous with his time.
EFDA Newsletter (EN) During your time as Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, the issues of energy and climate change have really come to the forefront of the political agenda. What would you wish the energy scenario to be in 100 years from now? Do you believe that a sustainable future can be achieved and what are the difficulties and risks on this track?
Sir David King (DK) In many respects the energy scenario is going to be something we would hardly recognise today, because what I anticipate is that the energy industry is going to be totally transformed in a hundred years from now. I think it’s going to be essentially a fossil fuel free energy system. The technologies currently under development indicate the way forward. By then the idea of sustainably developing economies will be deeply imbedded in all societies and the notion of sustainable and renewable energy sources (and others that can be sustained for very long periods of time) is also going to be deeply imbedded in our society. The political will is already beginning to appear. The British government can take credit for that, putting it at the top of the G8 agenda.We’re seeing the media attention being given to it now and I do think this derives from the position taken by the British government. As we move forward in time it’s going to be the impact from climate change and also the impact from depleting natural resources that will bring it right forward into the political sphere. In addition if we went on burning coal until we depleted resources then we would certainly have exceeded 1000 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the whole boat will have been missed for future generations. There are risks ahead – once societies start moving on low carbon energy sources other risks remain to be tackled such as clean water supply for a world population of 9 Billion. This will be just as important as the energy provision issue.
EN After the difficulties in reaching the necessary quorum, the Kyoto Protocol has now entered into force. We know this is just a first step. What are, in your opinion, further necessary steps which could be accepted worldwide (also by the fast growing economies) to avoid a dangerous change in our climate?
DK Kyoto is a new economic process – by introducing cap and trade on carbon emissions we’re getting I think the most effective fiscal process that will drive governments and private sectors around the world into the right type of behaviour. By that I mean that by internalising the cost of CO2 production in the external cost you are driving the economies in the right direction. Carbon dioxide emissions trading was introduced in Europe at 8 Euros per tonne and is now trading between 20 and 30 Euros per tonne six months later. The market has already pushed it up to a level which is where it would already have an impact because the cost of emissions from a coal fired power station is now approximately equal to the cost of coal going in to produce that kWh of energy, so it means that other means of firing up power stations are becoming economically more viable. So I think it is a good process and once you have a good economic process in play you can always ratchet it up until you get the necessary response. I think it’s important to understand that Kyoto is a process in the first stage and it’s a matter of getting it up and running. By February next year we hope it will be running internationally and not just within the European Union, because with Russia ratifying we go on to include Russia, Canada and Japan so I think that is a critically important process. It’s worth noting that the emissions commodity trading is very brisk on the London Stock Exchange and other stock exchanges around the world are looking at moving on this.
Sir David King FRS was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government and Head of the Office of Science and Technology on 1 October 2000. Prior to this appointment, he was head of the Department of Chemistry and Master of Downing College, University of Cambridge. He continues as the 1920 Professor of Physical Chemistry and Fellow at Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, where his research is maintained. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1991, Foreign Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002 and a Knight Bachelor in 2003. Sir David has received a number of awards from all over the world. He holds Honorary Degrees from 10 British, European and South African Universities and is honorary Professor at Qingdao University, China. Sir David has given over 200 invited lectures at international conferences, symposia, workshops and summer schools on his research and he has published over 420 papers in scientific journals.
EN We can surely say that you have been a champion for fusion. You have supported this research in front of any audience. Why do you firmly believe in fusion?
DK The question could be slightly rephrased to: why am I so strongly supporting the development of the fusion power station programme? The answer is really that I am supporting a wide range of carbon-free energy source R & D projects. I believe that the market place is really going to determine the future of these energy sources – so, for example, if future fusion power stations turn out to be too expensive against other carbon free energy sources, then fusion won’t play through into the market. So in addition to the questions about the scientific viability of fusion power stations in the future there’s the question of marketability. I believe therefore that the option of fusion should be kept open for the future generations. So believing in fusion in my case is believing in it as one of the many future options we have to keep open. The more direct answer to the question is that the research on the plasma physics end of fusion power station development has been going very well at JET and at JT60 and this indicates that at least the plasma physics is sorted out. But of course there is another major issue and that is the development of materials and, as we move forward on this programme, it is critically important to see materials research is funded. For example, if we move on over the next 20 years developing plasma physics alone and then discover we simply can’t develop the materials that can sustain the process for 30 years, that would be required in building a power station, then the whole thing would have been in vain. I believe it’s critically important that we look at materials research in parallel and to me that is the biggest risk in the whole fusion project at the moment. The problem is, I don’t see the enthusiasm from the fusion community themselves to see that the materials research is conducted and I very much hope that I’m proved wrong. I want to take this opportunity to raise this issue. I’m delighted we’ve got the biggest international technology project under way, but I’m very concerned that the materials side of the project has still not been sorted out. I do believe it would be a total dereliction of the case for ITER if the materials project was not up and running in parallel.
EN After long negotiations Cadarache has been chosen as the ITER site. What are your expectations from ITER? How should, in your opinion, Europe exploit the advantage of being the host of such a project?
DK I do believe that Europe needs to position itself to be able to gain from this innovative project, to be able to be amongst the first nations to develop fusion power stations once the results from ITER and IFMIF are delivered, and that does mean maintaining both the materials and plasma physics side in Europe in parallel to the work on ITER. We have to keep a strong programme going and we also have to engage with the business community in managing the whole programme. It’s very important we get people who understand the business of power technology to be involved from an early stage. This is the other thing that currently I see as missing. I think there should be an oversight board of the ITER/IFMIF project with experts from the private sector who understand the importance of finance and project management from the business point of view. This project is too important to be left with the scientists. While the plasma physics community has done an excellent job at JET and JT60 and designing ITER, what I don’t want to lose is the full focus of attention on the object of the exercise, which is to get to a fusion power station and I think plasma physicists might lose sight of that in the excitement of the work they will be doing.
EN The European Commission aims at doubling the budget for research starting with the forthcoming 7th Framework Programme. Given the current economic difficulties in many European countries, how confident are you that such an important step can be achieved?
DK The FP7 budget will be under discussion until there is a financial settlement – and that settlement is unlikely to be achieved during our Presidency and may not be achieved even during the Presidency that follows.We therefore must anticipate delays in the outcome of FP7. However the British Government position is quite clear – what we would like to see is a greater investment in the future of Europe which depends heavily on research and skills investment and less on subsidies such as the Common Agriculture Policy. That is really where the current discussion is being waged.
EN The number of students who choose a scientific career is decreasing each year. What are, in your opinion, the reasons for such a decision and what would you suggest in order to reverse this negative trend?
DK It is simply not correct that the number of students choosing a scientific career is decreasing. The number of students gaining degrees from our UK universities has increased over the last 10 years by more than 20% and at the same time the number of students studying science has actually increased. Between 1997 and 2004 the number of people studying science on degree courses rose by 34%. So the question is not “are science subjects less popular as a university course” but why is it commonly said in the media that they are. The largest increases are in the biological sciences, the numbers growing in the same period from 66,000 to 111,000, and in computer sciences from 48,000 to 85,000. We’ve seen an increase in degree courses in mathematics as well. In some areas of science there have been stable numbers – engineering and physical sciences. This isn’t to say that we can be complacent at all. I’m really concerned to see physical sciences and engineering increase. As we move forward in time there is no doubt in my mind that these are the skills we will be relying on more and more heavily. The problem is that there have been a number of high profile closures of science departments in our universities and it has been concluded by the media that this indicates that the number of students studying science must be dropping. Some of these closures have been very unfortunate, but largely what is happening is a rationalization, where in general universities are closing down smaller departments where research rating has fallen in favour of the larger research departments where the rating is high. The number of places for those students hasn’t actually diminished the larger departments are growing at the expense of the departments being closed down.
EN Science topics from European laboratories hardly get into the media. News from US laboratories, instead, find easily their way also into European newspapers. Why, in your opinion, European press doesn’t “trust” European science?
DK I think this relates to the media admiration for what is done in America. Very often we will have TV presentations on science in America where we know the expertise lies here in the UK and yet they go to experts in the US. It’s exactly the same with newspaper articles. I think there’s a kind of underrating of the strength of European science. I published an article in Nature in the summer of 2004 comparing the strength of scientific nations in the world today and in terms of citations the UK is second to the USA, but if you put all the European nations together then we are approximately equal to the United States. Now that is not reflected in the way the media treat our science. I think there is a general belief in the media that current breakthroughs are all happening over there in the States, but the Americans themselves have considerable respect for European science.
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