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Scottish Parliament Speech: Science and the Parliament (November 2007)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I am grateful to Des McNulty for slating the subject for debate. A year ago, the First Minister ended his campaign launch with a quotation from Hugh MacDiarmid: "The present's theirs, but a' the past an future's oors."

Scotland has a stunning scientific past and, potentially, an amazing future, although that was not helped by the recent dish-towel saga - in The Scotsman, I think - which in a search for present-day achievements could come up with only Dolly the sheep and Michelle Mone's Ultimo bra. To be savaged by a dead sheep and supported by Scotland's other silicone glen - that is Labour's problem.


Let us think instead of the Clerk Maxwells and the Edisons: the former make the philosophical and theoretical breakthroughs and the latter transform those breakthroughs into saleable businesses, profits and a social dividend. The looming climate crisis has the world in a tight place and we have just a chance of getting humanity out of it - which will be the greatest service that we can do.

"We must make a plan", as John Buchan's old Boer guerrilla, Peter Pienaar, might say. Let us consider the plan that we must make. The Government initiative on renewables through the prizes that the budget offers must be used to facilitate the second stage of adaptivity - what my Swabian friends would call tuefteln: playing around with an innovation until it becomes marketable.

We ought to name the main prize not after Clerk Maxwell, but after Lord Kelvin. The latter may not have been as brilliant as Maxwell, but he was a theoretician and adaptor - more of an Edison type. Kelvin's work on the principles of water condensation captured for the Clyde in the 1850s the market for high-pressure marine engines that required clean water. His work made the river the world's prime ship-building centre, which is a title that it held until very recently.

In 1988, I remember seeing the Ocean Alliance being built at Port Glasgow. In place of the Scott Lithgow yard, we now have four call centres, which - we are told - act as an introduction to the knowledge economy. At Clydebank, we have seen the demolition of the John Brown yard, which latterly made rigs, but which is now to be the site of yet another Tesco or luxury shopping development.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

We have an ever-bigger challenge in terms of renewables, particularly in harnessing what, in Arthur Hugh Clough's marvellous words, is "the might of the mighty Atlantic".

We are a little later on in that development than Des McNulty's comparison with North Sea oil might lead us to think. My belief is that we are at the 1968 stage: I should know - I wrote the book. Various wave-generation prototypes are now proven and must be put into action. We now have to concentrate on transmission and storage of the power, in addition to burying the results of earlier carbon activity. The equivalent of about 250 billion tonnes of oil and gas has been lifted out of the North Sea, which means that about 250 billion tonnes of space is now available into which carbon dioxide can be reverse pumped.

The creation of a new technology network needs social back-up and public investment that concentrates on innovation, training and adaptation, but not on people working along the lines of the "same procedure as before". Only we can do the networks.

In terms of renewables, we must first tap into the technical expertise of Europe - particularly, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Secondly, we need to know where to get the semi-finished equipment built. Thanks to our banking connections, it is likely that that will be done in China. We also have the Open University, which has the skills to disseminate education and training. However, we must have a plan. People in other countries that border the Atlantic - I am thinking of the Irish and Spanish - have good entrepreneurial techniques and training. If we do not move, they will take the initiative.

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