Sidelined by events?

2001 was the year of the human genome, stem cells and carnage in the USA and Britain delivered by self-justifying fanatics and the agricultural wing of government respectively.  It ends with serious inroads into basic freedoms of expression and privacy in the wake of violence.  Both 11th September and the British foot and mouth epidemic feature prominently in the authoritative end-year reviews by both Science (v. 294, p. 2446-2447) and Nature (v.  414, p. 836-841).  It is hardly surprising that Earth science, bar comments on climate change, has no entry to rank with downturns in science budgets, development of neural circuitry, high-temperature superconductivity, bio-molecular chips, the unending hunt for the neutrino, adventures with the Large Hadron Collider and the farce of NASA’s Space Station .  Nonetheless, our progress has been marked by the sublime and the ridiculous, to a satisfying degree, as 2001 Earth Pages has tried to summarise.  No doubt its limitations have meant that some major advances have been missed, for which I apologise.  I leave it to readers to judge from the archive what were the highlights of the year.

In Britain, the last month has been one for either celebration or sober reflection by university academics, on announcement of the results of the latest round of the Research Assessment Exercise by HEFCE.  Science in general seems to have done rather too well over the last 5 years, for there is insufficient cash in the pot to suitably reward those departments whose rating has risen (Watson, A.  2001.  Universities raise their game, but the money doesn’t flow.  Science, v. 294, p. 2448-2449).  The £1.3 billion kitty to boost research infrastructure falls about £150 million short of the improved departments’ supposed expectations.  The board of HECFE is to tinker with the goalposts to eke out the dosh.  No doubt the well-endowed will benefit even further, the middle rankers getting less than their improvement ought to warrant, and then there are the also-rans.  In Earth sciences a financial squeeze ought not to have such an inequitable outcome as in more lab-dependent disciplines, but the whole exercise seems destined to result in marginalization of research topics into a dwindling bunch regarded as world-ranking.  That would be a recipe for a cut in diversity, that does not match the increasing need for breadth in getting to grips with processes in and history of the Earth System.

Returning, finally, to the events that have gripped the world for the last quarter of 2001, the central theme of most commentary is that the world changed on 11th September.  I do not believe that it did.  For two thirds of the world’s population it is “business as usual” – an ever widening gap between hope for the future and expectation of any relief from poverty, disease and the fear of falling victim to natural and anthropogenic calamities that scientific advance might bring.  Despicable as the perpetrators and those who motivated their actions were, the attacks on the USA arose from the growing powerlessness of hundreds of millions of dispossessed people to secure their livelihoods and lives.  Global communications ensure that they are confronted daily by what they lack set against what is possible, leading to a deep sense of unfairness and perpetual victimhood   Scientists, whose work is enmeshed with emergence of the possible, should dwell on how they might help close that growing human fault line, rather than raging at or cringing before the monstrosity that they have helped to nurture.  Assisting the dispossessed to secure safe, dependable water supplies, to improve their agricultural yields, to rid themselves of endemic disease, to gain access to cheap energy and transportation, and above all to acquire knowledge and the ability to solve their own problems is not a problem of cosmological or genomic proportions.  It is a simple, human duty.


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