SGR's 20th anniversary - thoughts and memories

28 June 2012

Active members of SGR over the years contribute their personal thoughts and memories of the organisation to mark our 20th anniversary.
 

Philip Webber
Vanessa Spedding
Kate Macintosh William Powrie
Stuart Parkinson Charalampos Tsoumpas
Martin Cobley David Webb
Tom Kibble Gabriele Krauskopf
Keith Barnham Pauline Harrison
Jenny Nelson  

 

Dr Philip Webber, Chair (1992-2001, 2003-present)

SGR matters to me because it is a place where I know I can talk safely to other professionals who care about the impact of their work and about the fate of the Earth. It is where I can say things that I might not feel comfortable to say in many outside fora. It is a place where groups of us can develop an intelligent, rational and sane way forward based on our very different collective knowledge and experiences.

It is a place where people from a range of professional backgrounds share a common interest - in making a positive difference - rather than simply chasing money or prestige or an abstract observation of the world.

In my view at this juncture, society, humanity, the Earth, need people with expertise to challenge the decision-makers and the vested interests and to support a more open, democratic, and rational way of managing the world we share. Unless we can somehow facilitate this transition peacefully and in a managed way, humanity's future is likely to be even bloodier and more tragic for billions of people and for the beautiful ecosystems which quietly support us all.

I cannot pretend that SGR has more than a small influence upon the ways things are. But SGR has consistently spoken with conscience about things which matter deeply, and has shone a bright light into the darker recesses – such as powerful vested interests in science, weapons of mass destruction, or environmental problems. The world is inherently a beautiful place, but many of the things that happen in the world are deeply depressing to contemplate as a result of human actions to fight nature, each other and to control and seize power.

If SGR didn't exist, someone would have to create it. I think that SGR is one of a few vital beacons of sanity against over-consumption, war-mongering, irrationality and the misuse of science, technology, engineering and design. I very much think that SGR will continue to grow and, with other organisations, contribute to debates, discussions and decisions that are really important and vital for the future. SGR is in a position to be part of developing and communicating a really positive practical agenda for the future and a better way forward.

 

Kate Macintosh MBE, Chair of Architects for Peace (1981-1991), Chair of Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (1991-2005), Vice-chair of SGR (2005-2011)

In 2002, while I was Chair of Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (AESR), we had a committee meeting at the Bradford University Department of Peace Studies. Concurrently an SGR meeting was being held and our two groups came together at the close of business to discuss matters of common interest. I was very impressed by the range of issues SGR was covering and the expertise represented on its National Co-ordinating Committee. In the following years, we continued to build up our links until formally merging in 2005.

However, my first personal encounter with what was to become SGR happened back in 1983. The Royal Institute of British Architects had asked Architects for Peace (A4P, which I chaired) to co-organise a debate on nuclear shelters as part of their official programme. The motion was “This House considers the Provision of Nuclear Shelters to be a Prudent Precaution”. The motion was proposed by Richard Ormorod architect of ‘Moles Shelters’, and seconded by Eric Alley, Special Advisor to International Civil Defence Organisation. It was opposed by Professor Michael Pentz, Chair of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms who was seconded by myself. On this occasion we succeeded in convincing the audience to heavily defeat the motion.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, A4P broadened its objectives, to address issues of equity and environmental responsibility, and in 1991 we merged with Engineers for Social Responsibility to form AESR.

The bigger step was the merger with SGR, an organisation the strength and authority of which we had observed with awe and envy. Some of our engineer members held joint membership. Chris Langley spoke at our 2004 AGM to tell us about his research for the SGR report, Soldiers in the Laboratory. The production of the major reports, by Chris Langley, Stuart Parkinson and others, were and are projects I hugely admire, and this confers authority to SGR members when they respond to invitations to speak or to press enquiries.

In the UK the public debate on the major issues facing humankind has regressed since the last general election. But I take comfort from the fact that there are more hits on our excellent web site from the USA than the UK. SGR must stick in for the long haul as a voice of sanity when the establishment appears to have deliberately turned away from any rational examination of options for policy guidance.

 

Dr Stuart Parkinson, Chair (2001-03), Executive Director (2003-present)

SGR was the organisation that helped me to discover how my skills in science and engineering could be reconciled with my deep concern about ethical issues. Until then, following my skills and interests had taken me in various directions – sometimes contradictory...

A childhood interest in computers had led to my taking a bachelors’ degree in physics and electronic engineering. This led to student placements in industry, including projects with military applications. At first, this seemed exciting, but serious doubts about the ethics of arms exports and militarism in general led me to turn away from this career path.

After graduation, a growing concern about environmental issues led me to embark on a PhD in climate change modelling. My science skills made me a strong candidate for such work. I also started to get involved in student campaigning on green issues. But more conflicts arose. Did my ethical concerns mean I would have trouble being a ‘disinterested scientist’? And did flying to academic conferences mean I wasn’t serious about environmental concerns?

After completing my PhD, I moved to research on policy issues related to climate change and other environmental problems. But the research centre at which I worked was a close collaborator with industry – and the pressure from large industrial partners with a keen eye on their profits came to bother me.

During this time, I discovered SGR – and its combined concern with scientific and ethical issues immediately excited me. Here was somewhere when you were actually encouraged to openly discuss those problem issues – about military projects, about pressure from industrial funders, about the role of ethical issues in guiding scientific research. And speaking publicly about broader ethical concerns – from climate change to nuclear weapons – was also considered essential. And yet, at the same time, there was still a keen respect for robust evidence.

Given my early career experiences, I began to help with SGR’s ethical careers work. Over the following years, we wrote ten publications providing useful information on environmental or peace-related careers or inspiring case studies of science and technology professionals. Later I co-ordinated project work focused on the distorting influence of powerful, narrow interests – such as the military and large corporations – on science and technology. These projects have raised considerably interest, and I’m very pleased to have been involved.

One key aspect of SGR’s work continues to be the highlighting of links between different ethical issues and pointing out common solutions. Our recent writings on arms conversion for a sustainable society do, I think, demonstrate this particularly well. There remains, unfortunately, not enough joined-up thinking on science, design and technology issues. So SGR still has much work to do!

 

Martin Cobley, Member of the National Co-ordinating Committee (2012-present)

I joined SGR because it tackles the ‘burning issues’ which affect us and our planet most - both in the short and long term. Always evaluating the evidence base and contributing a robustly argued point of view, I believe SGR is one of the most important campaigning groups around at the moment!

 

Prof Tom Kibble CBE, Chair of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (1985-1991), SGR Sponsor (1992-present)

I joined Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA, one of SGR’s antecedents) almost as soon as it was formed, primarily out of concern about the dangers of nuclear war, which often seemed an imminent threat. I was on the National Co-ordinating Committee for most of the 1980s, and Chair from 1985 to 1991. This was at the height of the Cold War, with a terrible arms race underway between the two superpowers and their allies. SANA did some really excellent work highlighting the risks of nuclear weaponry, including a study of the likely effects of a bomb on London and the idiocy of the Government’s plans for civil defence. There was a SANA presence at several of the big anti-nuclear demonstrations. We had a home-made, badly designed and awkward banner, that lived for some years in my garage, but it served its purpose. Another great success was the hosting of an international conference on 'Ways Out of the Arms Race' at Imperial College in 1988.  None of us guessed how the Cold War would actually end, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was one of the drivers of a shift in emphasis, away from the single issue of nuclear weaponry towards much wider concerns about the impact of science, a shift reflected in the transition from SANA to SGR, which I welcome. Nevertheless we must not forget that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons out there, and Britain is still wasting huge resources on upgrading ours. This is despite our commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to work towards complete disarmament, a failure that threatens to encourage further nuclear proliferation.

 

Prof Keith Barnham, Member of National Co-ordinating Committee, Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (1981-82), SGR Sponsor (2009-present)

I recall the inaugural meeting of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA) in 1981. There was an impressive attendance and a large number of working groups were set up. I was then a particle physicist at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) so I signed for the international relations working group. I was in the process of switching to solar photovoltaic research so I also signed up for the group working on links between nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

I spent a year on the SANA co-ordinating committee organising international contacts. In those days there was a divisive controversy within the fast growing western peace movement between those who wanted contacts with the official peace movements in the eastern block and those who wanted contacts with dissidents. It became clear the infighting was only helping the ‘cold warriors’ so after a frustrating year I decided not to apply for re-election.

However, my experience with the working group on weapons-power links was far more constructive. SANA provided backing for CND’s case at the inquiry into the (then) proposed Sizewell B nuclear power station. This was a rare opportunity to obtain information about the links. The CND Sizewell Working Group discovered that Sellafield was reprocessing spent fuel from military as well as civil reactors in the same line at the same time without safeguards. Data from the inquiry enabled us to calculate the plutonium produced by civil reactors. We found that more plutonium was missing than the amount the government admitted sending to the USA under defence agreements.

The criticisms of these calculations at the inquiry suggested the Magnox burn-up data we had taken from an official publication was inappropriate. In a fine example of SANA/SGR networking, David Caplin introduced me to Jenny Nelson who wanted a challenging project before starting her PhD. Jenny calculated Magnox burn-up curves from first principles. Her results were consistent with the official curves. We published in the journal Nature in 1985. In 1998 the US plutonium inventory was published. The figure for the material in the exchanges agreed with ours. In 2000 the UK government published its own inventory. They admitted that 0.37 tonnes of weapons grade plutonium had come “from unidentified sites”. Our 1985 figure for weapons grade material from the civil reactors was 0.36 tonnes.  Thus, around 11% of the plutonium in UK warheads had come from civil reactors.

 

Prof Jenny Nelson, Treasurer (1992-2005), Sponsor (2011-present)

I first became involved with SGR (as Scientists Against Nuclear Arms as it was then) when I had the opportunity to work with Keith Barnham in 1985 on calculations of the amount of fissile nuclear material generated by civil UK power stations. I was a physics graduate with experience of computer programming, it was the middle of the Cold War, and I was very motivated to find a way to apply my skills to problems of relevance to society and especially in the interests of peace. I then joined SGR while a PhD student and later I spent two extended periods working as a volunteer in the SGR office (in the welcome company of SGR's long term administrator, Kate Maloney), first building a membership database and then working on a range of projects and events. I later served on the NCC as treasurer for several years.

I gained a huge amount from my involvement with SGR, from the excitement of being involved in politically sensitive investigative studies, to learning how to file annual tax returns and how to transfer data between a variety of antiquated computer systems, to meeting eminent and inspiring outspoken scientists, and most importantly how to keep driving towards goals in the face of apathy or opposition.

I was honoured when I was invited recently to become a sponsor of SGR, though I haven't quite noticed the time passing. Now as a scientist active in the development and promotion of new solar technologies I am delighted and encouraged to see that SGR's work continues with the same objectives, of harnessing the knowledge of scientists to bring about a secure, fair and peaceful future.

 

Vanessa Spedding, Member of National Co-ordinating Committee (2002-2005)

I found SGR more than a decade ago, while looking for a safe place in which to express and share concerns about aspects of science that had been troubling me; and also for ways to help work towards a useful correction to those aspects. At the time there was little opportunity even to start such conversations in my work environment.

SGR provided both haven and opportunity, on several levels. Here I found experienced scientists, who understood the depth and breadth of the issues to a degree far beyond my own understanding. It was a relief, an education and a delight to meet them. And as it happened, there was no shortage of editing work to be done at the time (I am a science writer). I was very pleased to help out with some of the ongoing campaigning and support work - especially the ethical careers publications. This was satisfying and also enlightening; the essays I edited were truly eye-opening. If it had been possible to quit my job and work full-time for SGR at that time I would have done so! As it was I joined the committee, and served from 2002-2005, since when I have remained an active member.

In my view SGR is an unusual and important organisation. It speaks truths that others either dare not speak or do not have the expertise to assert. It combines the analytical rigour for which science is respected with courage and compassion. SGR has my heartfelt congratulations for 20 years of dedication, hard work and consistently high-quality, powerful outputs. A society that puts ultimate trust in science is vulnerable to opportunist forces that abuse that trust - with grave consequences, as we see today. Recognising, naming and exposing those forces from a position of strength provides a critically important service to us all. Awareness of this is growing and my hope for SGR is that ever increasing numbers will turn to the organisation for its wisdom and foresight.

 

Prof William Powrie, Sponsor of Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (1994-2005); SGR Sponsor (2005-present)

I came to SGR through Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (AESR) when the two organisations merged some years ago. I had become involved with AESR shortly after my arrival at the University of Southampton in the mid-1990s as successor in post as Professor of Geotechnical Engineering to Roy Butterfield (who, I am pleased to say, remains active in SGR to this day). For a couple of years we ran a successful lecture series for our undergraduate students, with visiting speakers giving talks based on AESR position papers on topics such as energy, waste, transport and sustainable housing. All these were quite radical topics for engineering at the time, but have since become embedded in the curriculum and are important topics of research within the Faculty* of which I am now Dean. No-one now thinks it strange for an engineering faculty to be engaged in research and teaching that encompasses the environmental and societal benefits and impacts of technology, and cross-disciplinary work in these areas that has a focus on people is now almost the norm. Also over this time, we have seen quite a change in the aspirations of students coming to study engineering. There is a far greater understanding of the role engineers and scientists have to play in creating a better society, and the real desire to make a difference is perhaps exemplified by the Cameroon Catalyst project established by our students, to provide much needed facilities and infrastructure in the village of Bambouti, Eastern Cameroon. It is easy to think that you can't make a difference; but if enough like minded people push consistently in the same direction, the past 20 years shows that little by little, you can. I am proud to be associated with SGR, and I hope that over the next 20 years it will be as successful as the first.
*Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton
 

Dr Charalampos (Harry) Tsoumpas, Secretary (2008-present)

The 20th anniversary of SGR takes me back to Athina (Athens) in Greece during my middle childhood. Obviously I had no idea about SGR then, but it was then that I realised the urgent need of responsible applications of science and this was mainly due to my grandfather and Carl Sagan. Therefore, I wish to dedicate to the 20th anniversary of SGR one of my favourite inspiring quotes by Carl Sagan, speculating on Alexandria, the cosmopolitan city of science, knowledge and wisdom:

"Imagine how different our world would be if those discoveries had been explained and used for the benefit of everyone, if the humane perspective of Eratosthenes had been widely adopted and applied. But this was not to be. Alexandria was the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. People from all nations came here to live to trade to learn, on a given day these harbours were thronged with merchants and scholars and tourists, it's probably here that the word Cosmopolitan realised its true meaning of a citizen not just of a nation but of the Cosmos, to be a citizen of the Cosmos. Here were clearly the seeds of our modern world, but why didn't they take root and flourish why instead did the Western world slumber through a 1000 years of darkness until Columbus and Copernicus and their contemporaries rediscovered the work done here? I cannot give you a simple answer but I do know this: There is no record in the entire history of the library that any of the illustrious scholars and scientists who worked here ever seriously challenged a single political or economic or religious assumption of the society in which they lived. The permanence of the stars was questioned, the justice of slavery was not." (From the 13th episode of the series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage)

I joined SGR because it strives to safeguard the application of science with social justice locally in the UK, while always considering globally the entire Gaia.

 

Prof David Webb, Sponsor (2007-present)

I first came across SGR when in its previous incarnation as Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and I was really pleased that there was a group of scientists working on the issue and emphasising the human effects that just one nuclear weapon would have if dropped on a city. Here was a group of enthusiasts who loved science but also cared very much about how it might affect people and the environment. I didn’t join immediately but did some time later after experiencing an ethical dilemma concerning my career path. I am really pleased to have contributed to the much needed work by SGR on ethical careers, and I have been particularly impressed by the excellent research on the influence and impacts of military funding on universities. These issues are so important and yet almost totally ignored by the professional science and engineering institutions. SGR is a lone but important voice insisting that scientists and engineers think responsibly about what their work entails and where it might lead, ­ and yet it is these considerations that are most urgently needed. Nuclear power, GM foods, pollution, etc. continue to threaten our environment and our health, while nuclear weapons and climate change threaten our very existence. So ­ thank goodness that SGR is still providing an essential critical (and hopefully influential) analysis of these crucial issues.

 

Gabriele Krauskopf, Executive Secretary
International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES)

Scientists Against Nuclear Arms and Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility were two founding members of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES). INES came into being on November 29, 1991 in Berlin at the international congress ‘Challenges - Science and Peace in a Rapidly Changing Environment’.

From the start, SGR has been a valuable and well respected member and supporter of international INES community. We appreciate and marvel at the comprehensive expertise that SGR offers. We also value all its contributions to INES, be it as speakers in international conferences, authors of numerous articles in INES publications, as well as the constant and reliable fulfilment of their financial commitment to INES.

We are thankful for the past and very much looking forward to future cooperation and mutual support.

 

Prof Pauline Harrison CBE, SGR Sponsor (2011-present)

To be a scientist is a great privilege. Scientific advances such as the determination of the structure of DNA and the sequence of the humane genome or the first observation of the Higgs boson give scientists a huge sense of excitement – as indeed do many of the findings of their everyday research. Privilege brings with it responsibilities: to explain the science, share the excitement and discuss the implications with the public, to try to ensure that governments fund scientific research adequately and ethically and use the fruits of scientific research wisely.

To fulfil these responsibilities scientists need to work together. That is why an organisation like SGR is so important. It provides a forum for enquiry into and rational discussion of the ethical and practical applications of scientific research, topics ranging from nuclear power to genetic modification. It publicises the effects of population growth and climate change on the world’s ecosystems and tries to persuade people and governments to take appropriate action. It campaigns against the corporatisation of science.

I am happy that the SGR is both a gatherer of information and an active pressure group. I am proud to be a member and wish it every success in its next twenty years.