Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Common Concerns in Mother England

By Ina Lowe

Population, nuclear energy and marine conservation are issues in common for Australia and the UK.

I am writing this column in England, where I am a member of the first-ever touring Australian Over-70s cricket team, and have been a little surprised to find some of the same issues on the political agenda as in Australia: population, responses to climate change and marine conservation.

It was front-page news that the UK had more than 800,000 births last year, giving a natural increase (births minus deaths) for the year of 250,000. With a net migrant intake for the year of 166,000 the UK had an overall population increase of just over 400,000, taking the total figure past 63 million.

So the UK’s rate of population increase was said to be the highest in Europe and one of the highest in the entire OECD. This was enough to cause political comment about the “un­sustainable” rate of growth, although predictably some economists were saying there would be some short-term benefits.

Australia had a similar numerical increase last year with a population about one-third that of the UK, with almost no public comment from our leaders about the unsustainable rate of growth. This year’s Federal election saw the emergence of the Stable Population Party, running Senate candidates to put the issue on the political agenda, but typically the media have been much more interested in economic trivia and the day-to-day point-scoring of Rudd versus Abbott.

There has also been a clear tension between science and politics over the question of marine protected areas. When the Australian government established a comprehensive protection scheme there were misleading claims that the changes would restrict the angler in a tinny from catching a fish for his evening meal, when most of the protected areas were hundreds of kilometres off shore. The Coalition unsuccessfully moved a disallowance motion in the Commonwealth Parliament, ostensibly to try to prevent the scheme being introduced, in practice to shore up its hold on the redneck vote.

The end result is that Australia has a scheme representing a significant fraction of the areas shown by science to be important for the recovery of marine ecosystems. By contrast, the UK Conservative government has dropped the ball.

A major consultation exercise began in 2010 between the UK’s scientists, conservationists and the fishing industry, spurred by a recognition that fish stocks were being critically depleted. “Numbers have now dwindled to a scarcity that would horrify a 19th-century fisherman”, said Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York.

The groups worked for more than 2 years to reach a consensus position, an exercise similar to that which developed the Tasmanian forest agreement. The final proposal was a network of 127 marine conservation zones, of which 59 were designated as areas at “high risk”. The proposals would have retained the rights of anglers and the public to use beaches and inshore areas, restricting the bottom-dredging trawlers that have caused most of the destruction of marine species.

To the alarm of scientists, more than 80 of whom have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister, the government announced that it will only assess 31 of the 127 proposals. The House of Commons select committee on science and technology accused the government of failing to appreciate the crisis threatening northern oceans and subjecting the fishing industry to uncertainty. In the unconsciously appropriate words of Andrew Miller, who chairs the committee: “The government is letting the project flounder”. (No, I didn’t make that up!)

There is also a brisk debate in the UK about clean energy supply to slow climate change. As in Australia, there is a concerted push to include nuclear energy in the debate (see Directions), although the impetus was noticeably slowed by the revelation that the Fukushima-Daichi reactors are leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean.

By contrast, at a conference organised by the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in Sydney at the end of July there seemed little recognition of the public reaction to that accident. Most of the invited speakers were strong supporters of nuclear power, which is now being rebadged as a low-carbon electricity supply. I warned them they need to address the real public concerns.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.