Interview with Lord Rees

Lord Rees and Claire Nicholson

  On the 10th of March YSJ Editorial Team Leader, Claire Nicholson, interviewed current Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees. Martin Rees is not only a Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge but also a member of the House of Lords. He is also a former President of the Royal Society.

Martin told YSJ that being President of the Royal Society was an incredibly demanding job, requiring him to talk to a wide variety of people, including scientists in many different fields, multiple government departments and contacts at the international counterparts of the Royal Society. Part of the Royal Society’s role is to advise the government on issues involving science, sometimes giving immediate, urgent information, but at other times carrying out longer term studies on topics such as human population, geoengineering and health issues such as influenza. On the topic of the relationship between politics and science, Martin pointed out that politicians care more about the short term and local matters, whereas science often has to deal with plans that span decades and work on a national scale. He suggested that politics should perhaps be “less parochial in space and less constricted in time”.
Another question posed to Martin was why we should continue to study subjects such as astronomy when there are so many pressing concerns, such as food shortages and climate change, here on Earth. He acknowledged that, although using science to solve the problems that the human race faces is essential, understanding our place in the universe is part of being human, and studying astronomy and astrophysics is one way to do this. For example, due to the knowledge gained by astrophysicists, we can now trace the atoms we’re made of back to stars, to understand how we came into being. Lord Rees also believes the discovery that everything is made of atoms is the greatest scientific breakthrough of all time, as it has enabled us to do “proper chemistry”, which is the most basic part of modern science and technology.
Martin is also the chair of the Longitude Prize committee, which is offering a £10 million prize
to anyone who can solve the problem of antibiotic resistance. When asked about this topic, he said that new antibiotics must be developed if they are to continue helping people. However, there is a significant obstacle to overcome: companies are generally unwilling to develop new drugs without financial incentives. It is more lucrative to make drugs for people with lifelong illnesses, since they have no choice but to continue buying them, whereas drugs that will be used over a shorter period of time, such as antibiotics, will not make as much money.

In addition to creating new antibiotics, existing ones also need to be used a great deal less and no longer used at all on animals. Martin pointed out that “all science empowers human beings, and this can be used for good or for ill”, citing biotechnology as a developing field that could potentially help many people, but will also face ethical issues in the future.
The importance of science education was emphasised throughout the interview. Martin stated that “everyone in society should know about science because decisions on how science is used should always be made, not just by the scientists, but by everyone else”. He advised that teachers should recognise that they are not only teaching future scientists, but citizens who require a basic level of scientific knowledge to participate in society. Many children lose interest in science once they get to secondary school, so in order to stop this happening he suggested that children’s natural curiosity needs to be built upon more in school.
Martin believes that it is incredibly important for scientists to be able to communicate their research to the wider public; they should be able to writeand speak, and present and argue their case well. He said that this happens more now than when he was young, partly because email has become so widely used. In terms of advice for future science communicators, Martin said that is essential to know your own area of science well, but it is also important to have broad interests. You should also practise as much as possible by giving talks and getting involved however you can. His final piece of advice to any young person considering a career in science was this: “go into a subject where new things are happening – then you are not at a handicap compared to the old guys, because it’s new to everyone”.
Our thanks to Lord Rees for spending time with Young Scientists Journal.

Longitude Prize

In 1714, £20,000 was offered by the British government to anyone who could find longitude to within half a degree. 300 years later, in 2014, a new Longitude Prize, chosen by scientists and the public was launched. This is £10m to create/find a diagnostic test to detect bacterial infections, in order to prevent the overuse of antibiotics.