This year marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Evelyn’s treatise on forestry called Sylva. It was the outcome of a committee set up by the Royal Society to respond to the Royal Navy’s timber shortage arising from the poor state of England’s forests (G. Hemery Nature 507:166-167). It encouraged landowners to plant more trees and care for their forests as an important contribution to the nation’s strategic defence. Oak was the most important tree followed by ash, elm and pine reflecting their importance in construction and everyday life. I see strong parallels in some activities that are on-going now. For instance, last week I attended the second meeting of a committee on animal and plant health sponsored by the Government Office for Science and Defra. The aim of this committee is to review the current status of our ability to respond to new threats such as bovine TB and ash die-back and to make recommendations for a more coordinated approach across government and research councils. [...]
My first external engagement last week was at a breakfast discussion organised by BP Biofuels around the issues of the economics, sustainability and utility of various kinds of biofuels, especially those based on the starch component of feed wheat (with the protein concentrate being used for animal feed). Chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby, It featured contributions from Dave Richards, Managing Director of Vivergo fuels, Jeremy Tomkinson of the National Non-foods Crop Centre, Peter Kendall – recently re-elected as President of the NFU, and Jonathon Porritt of Forum for the Future. There was much consensus that while electric vehicles may take over in time, liquid biofuels were going to be more important for a good while. (I do not understand why vehicles that use fuel cells to transform liquid fuels rather than dihydrogen to electricity are not discussed more, as these combine the high energy density of liquid fuels such as ethanol with the environmental benefits of electricity.) There was also considerable recognition that we need to be able to agree much more carefully how we assess the true sustainability of a bioprocess; indeed I see the research needs underpinning a transition to true sustainability being an important theme for BBSRC science and scientists as we move more fully to a BioEconomy. For these kinds of biofuels (but more generally), this would require good process data being made publicly available. The enormous Vivergo plant near Hull will certainly operate at considerable scale, with planned production of 420 million litres of bioethanol per year. Truly things have moved apace since the BBSRC Review on Bioenergy (PDF) that I chaired in 2006 and the UK is already well placed for making a major contribution to its sustainability in biofuels. [...]
A felicitous engagement with any number of media outlets (e.g. print, radio, TV) is an important skill to have (for scientists as well as CEOs), and – like any others – can be improved with practice. BBSRC has long run a very successful series for our funded scientists. To this end, I attended a very useful training course designed to refresh my own skills in these areas. Marshalling one’s thoughts for a lay audience, and understanding their intellectual background, is a particular driver of clarity (as I was reminded when being asked to explain the meaning of a Petabyte…).
Readers will know that I have a considerable interest in carbon sequestration (a review will shortly appear), but this has largely been confined to land-based solutions. The ocean holds some 50 times more C than does the atmosphere (see e.g. David MacKay’s book), and can of course exchange CO2 with it. To this end, I enjoyed a very useful discussion in Oxford, that drew my attention to some proposals for liming the oceans, first apparently suggested by Kheshgi and being developed elsewhere. [...]