Azara Blog: Charles Kennel gives C.P. Snow lecture at Christ's

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Date published: 2007/01/24

Charles Kennel, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, gave the annual C.P. Snow lecture at Christ's College in Cambridge this afternoon, on "Global Earth Sciences and Sustainability".

C.P. Snow is mainly known for his "two cultures" thesis (first promulgated in 1959), namely that there was allegedly a growing and worrying gulf between science and the humanities. Well, as Snow (a second-rate scientist and a second-rate novelist) saw it, humanities people were usually pig-ignorant of basic science, and seemed to think this was ok, whereas any scientist who didn't profess a great interest in (say) Shakespeare was allegedly uncultured. In those days the humanities had great influence. But in more recent years the sciences have become ascendant over the humanities, mainly because you can make money in the sciences.

Since it was the C.P. Snow lecture, Kennel felt obliged to mention the two cultures, and to claim his lecture was somehow about that. But it was really about another gulf, namely between science and technology on the one hand, and public policy, in particular with regard to the environment, on the other.

Kennel is an earth scientist by trade, and the interesting thing was that he already saw over twenty years ago that geophysics (i.e. rocks, volcanos, etc.) was not so much the future as geobiology (i.e. the environment). With that shift he has managed to oversee a large increase in research and data collection. He showed a slide with the dozen or more satellites now circling the earth collecting data. (He claimed that one of the satellites was sending back a terabyte of data per day.) And there are now also thousands (and growing) sensors floating in the oceans collecting data. They have so much data that now they have a Global Earth Observing System of Systems, i.e. an attempt to make all that data accessible. (You have to figure that most data in the world goes completely unanalysed. And making it difficult to get hold of is just one step in that direction.)

The point of his lecture was that this science was all very well, but how could you influence public policy. And specifically, what role should universities play. He seemed to think that universities would be somehow held to account if they didn't play a more active role in relevant environmental research, with expertise that is missing both from government agencies and NGOs. Well, it's hard to see what that really means in practise. If the research councils prioritise certain research then universities will obviously go down that route. Otherwise not. But any political interference in research is almost bound to just lead to money being wasted.

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