Science, design and technology: pursuing an ethical agenda

SGR/AESR Conference and AGMs 2005

Friends Meeting House, London; 22 October 2005

Main presentations:
'From Space Weapons to Basic Human Needs – Technology and the Security Agenda' by Prof David Webb, Leeds Metropolitan University
'Nuclear Power – They Can’t Be Serious!' by Prof Mark Whitby, Whitbybird Ltd
'The Role of Solar Electricity in Sustainable Building' by Prof Keith Barnham, Imperial College, London

Summary by Patrick Nicholson


This report summarises the conference and the historic decision made at the AGMs to merge Architects and Engineers for Social Responsibility (AESR) with SGR.


With around 80 attendees, this was the best attended annual conference for over 10 years. The turnout, along with the important merger votes in the morning and a strong and diverse afternoon programme of speakers, made for a genuinely lively and stimulating day.

SGR and AESR merge

The morning session was taken up with the AESR and SGR AGMs. Separate merger proposals at the two AGMs received unanimous and enthusiastic support. With a post-merger membership totalling approximately 850, SGR is now in a stronger position than ever to speak out persuasively for an ethical approach to science, design and technology issues.

The merged organisation retains the name Scientists for Global Responsibility, but the broader membership is reflected in a number of constitutional changes agreed at the AGMs, and in modifications to the list of constituent professions in SGR logo.

The AGMs also voted in a new National Co-ordinating Committee comprising Phil Webber (Chair) Kate Macintosh (Vice Chair), Tim Foxon (Secretary), Patrick Nicholson (Treasurer), Alasdair Beal, Roy Butterfield, Alan Cottey, George Finch, Patricia Hughes, and Martin Quick.

There was a discussion of SGR’s ongoing and future work, including updates on the Military Influence project and the ethical careers work. It was also noted that SGR has been awarded 3 years’ funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Phil Webber, Kate Macintosh, Stuart Parkinson, Martin Quick and Kate Maloney were thanked for their tremendous work in relation to the merger. In addition the contributions of all the outgoing committee members were gratefully acknowledged, with special thanks extended to the outgoing Treasurers, Jill Jones (AESR) and Jenny Nelson (SGR), and outgoing AESR Secretary Tony White.

The lunch break gave everyone a chance to socialise, browse several tables of literature and sample a great buffet lunch.

Space Weapons and Human Needs

The first of the afternoon’s presentations was given by Professor David Webb of Leeds Metropolitan University, and Associate Director of the Praxis Centre. The talk was entitled “From Space Weapons to Basic Human Needs – Technology and the Security Agenda”.

Professor Webb described basic human needs and gave examples illustrating how human and environmental priorities have been sidelined by narrow military and economic concerns. Where social and environmental priorities do surface, we are often presented with “technical fixes” which fail to get to the root of the problem. Weapons technology is often presented as the only means of achieving security.

Professor Webb discussed the growing importance of space in modern warfare, describing how wars can now be fought from desks in Washington using unmanned aerial vehicles co-ordinated through space systems. The US Air Force is openly developing space strategies aiming for “full spectrum dominance”. Separating civil and military interests in space is becoming increasingly difficult.

Drawing these strands together, Professor Webb concluded that whilst huge amounts are spent on technologies of control relatively little is spent addressing real human needs. Comments from the floor included the need to balance criticism with acknowledgement of what has been achieved in terms of positive change. Other questions dealt with China’s space programme, the implications of space debris, and possible SGR collaboration with the Union of Concerned Scientists on missile defence issues.

Download full presentation [Shockwave file, 1.4MB]

Nuclear Power – They Can’t Be Serious!

Professor Mark Whitby, founder of engineering consulting firm Whitbybird Ltd, and a past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, began by considering when to stop investing in increasingly marginal improvements in energy efficiency in a building and spend the money on, for example, a wind farm. What, he asked, is the “interest rate” on energy, in situations when we “borrow” energy with an expectation of saving energy later?

Professor Whitby extended these ideas to develop a novel perspective on nuclear power based on the concept of borrowing and investing energy rather than money. This analysis dramatically demonstrated the superiority of wind over nuclear in terms of energy return over a 10 year period, when the energy produced by wind is reinvested in more turbines. He also touched on another issue, namely limited high quality uranium ore reserves, estimated to be enough to last only 50 years.

Other points emerged during comments from the floor. Support for nuclear power amongst civil engineers reflects strong lobbying by the nuclear industry and the fact that nuclear power is “manna from heaven” with its long, lucrative, Government-funded projects. Union support for nuclear jobs is another factor. SGR should work to redress the imbalance in the public debate.

Download full presentation

Solar Electricity in Building

Keith Barnham, Professor of Physics at Imperial College London, gave the final talk of the day on the subject of “The Role of Solar Electricity in Sustainable Building”. Professor Barnham’s interest in photovoltaics (PVs) dates back to his work on nuclear proliferation for Scientists Against Nuclear Arms back in the 1980s.

The world’s photovoltaic (PV) capacity is growing steadily, but the UK has the second lowest PV capacity in Europe. If UK capacity was increased by 40% each year, we could be producing 23% of all our electricity from PV by 2023, enough to completely replace the nuclear contribution. This may seem unrealistic, but last year world PV capacity increased by 57%!

Professor Barnham described his work on third generation PVs which offer energy costs below $1/Watt peak (Wp), compared to first and second generation PVs which come in at 1 -3$/Wp. His third generation approach uses 400x – 1000x solar concentrators coupled to small high efficiency PV cells with an efficiency of around 30%, and produce hot water as well as electricity. Professor Barnham is eager to talk with interested architects and civil engineers about the potential of these new developments.

Download full presentation [Powerpoint, 2.5MB]


Bringing the day to a close, Phil Webber remarked that the conference already demonstrated the benefits of scientists, architects and engineers working more closely together. The extensive contacts developed by AESR with the professional societies should prove beneficial to the dissemination programme for SGR’s ethical careers publications. It also appeared that there was a substantial interest in developing SGR's thinking about nuclear power versus renewables.

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