Malaria Vaccine, Net Zero & Project Hail Mary
It’s a look at the science behind the headlines! Including the latest on COVID-19; a successful vaccine for malaria; the abuses of forensic science to send down the wrong people, and is ‘net zero’ fact - or climate change fantasy? Also, talking about the new book he’s got coming out, best-selling author of 'The Martian' Andy Weir...
In this episode
00:54 - Why India's COVID outbreak is so big
Why India's COVID outbreak is so big
Ashish Jha, Brown University
We’re close to a year and a half since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, almost 150 million cases have been reported around the world, and while some countries have - for the moment - eliminated the disease, others are in the throes of their worst outbreaks yet. Why have nations like India leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire? Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, explained to Chris Smith...
Ashish - I think you set it up right, Chris - that there are some places that are doing quite well, but much of the world is really in the throes of some of the worst days of the pandemic. We are generating almost a million infections a day across the world right now. And of course, India and Brazil are really the two countries most affected, but many parts of Europe still seeing very, very high levels of infections; whereas both the UK and the United States - and a few select other countries, like Israel - have managed largely through vaccinations and public health measures to get the virus under reasonable control. So it's really quite a mixed picture, but I would say the world is still in the throes of this and nowhere near done with the pandemic.
Chris - Indeed - this was the heartrending news emerging this week from the world's second most populated country...
International help is being pledged for India as it battles a ferocious second wave of coronavirus, described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a "storm that has shaken the nation".
Chris - What's actually going on there, Ashish? Why do we think that India has become a victim not once, but twice?
Ashish - The second wave has really hit India very, very hard, and it's not done. It's probably going to get worse over the next couple of weeks before it starts getting better. There are, I think, three or four factors that have contributed to India finding itself with 350+ thousand infections per day... and by the way, surely a huge underestimate of the true number of infections. But how did we get here? We got here partly because there are new variants. The B.1.1.7 that originated in the UK is widespread in many parts of India; there is a variant in India itself, originating from India itself, that also appears to be pretty widespread. I think those variants are clearly causing a huge spike in infections. You also have a bit of seasonality, and seasonality around this virus has been very strange to wrap one's arms around, but it does appear that the virus spreads more efficiently during low humidity time periods, and many parts of India - February, March, particularly March and April - tend to be time periods where humidity levels drop, so maybe that's made transmission easier. And then the big thing in my mind - at least one of the big things - is that there was a sense in India, back in January and early February, that India had somehow beaten COVID; that it was over, the pandemic was over. And one of the things about this virus is, every time you let your guard down it punishes you. And that is what has happened in India. India more or less opened up, relaxed all public health interventions, and then saw these huge rallies, huge religious gatherings, and they have clearly fuelled a lot of the infections that are happening right now. So a variety of factors have contributed, but we are now at a point where things are really quite dire. And obviously we've seen those heartbreaking images of people dying in front of hospitals because there are no hospital beds, no sterile oxygen. I think India can turn this around, but it's going to be a difficult few weeks.
Chris - Of course the thing - and you mentioned that the scenes of people who are passing away - the thing that perhaps people haven't grasped yet is, this is the tip of the iceberg, because those people - 350,000 a day catching the infection - are going to translate into very significant numbers of people dying every day in three or four weeks' time.
Ashish - Absolutely. This has been the pattern of the pandemic: the infections precede the hospitalisations, which precede the deaths. And that will happen in India as well. Some of that lag is because usually we can get people into hospital care, and they die weeks later because we're able to prevent some of those deaths. If there's no oxygen available, those deaths are going to come faster and obviously be much more severe. So right now, officially, there are about 3000 people dying a day; unofficially, I think many of us believe that the true number may be five times that, so 10,000-15,000 deaths a day. That's going to go up quite substantially in the weeks ahead. Again, very, very hard times - arguably the biggest health crisis that India has faced in a century,
Chris - Obviously one of the mainstays of trying to stop this pandemic is the argument that prevention is better than cure. And that's where vaccines come in. And we've actually had some good news just in the last few days from Public Health England - their study shows that there is quite an impact on transmission. Here's the UK health secretary Matt Hancock speaking to the Guardian's news channel...
It not just reduces hospitalisations, but also it reduces the number of people who have COVID at all - even asymptomatically - by around two thirds.
Chris - Basically what they're saying is that they've now got good evidence that these vaccines do interrupt the chain of transmission of the infection. And that must be something that India is absolutely going to have to rely on, isn't it - getting vaccines into people quickly in order to cut down the numbers of cases?
Ashish - Yeah, absolutely. I think we've had pretty good reason to believe that these vaccines reduce transmission. But of course every vaccine is a little bit different; it's been good to see the data now coming out of the UK about the AstraZeneca vaccine, we've seen this with some of the others as well. This is one of the reasons why in the United States, for instance, infection numbers are dropping, despite the fact that public health measures are not really being taken all that seriously, and it's because we've vaccinated so many people. This is going to be crucial for India in the weeks ahead - getting large numbers of people vaccinated quickly will really make a big difference.
Chris - One of the interesting things about vaccines is that in some instances - you've mentioned AstraZeneca - it's been very much, "we will do this at cost, and produce enormous volumes of these vaccines, and get them to as many people as possible, because we recognise that not everyone can afford to pay extremely high prices, but also, it's not over 'til it's over everywhere." Some manufacturers, though, are charging premium prices for their vaccines. There've been calls for the patents on these vaccines to be suspended so that people can manufacture them just about anywhere, and therefore help to boost the supplies. Let's have a listen to what they're saying...
Over 100 Nobel laureates and 75 world leaders - former world leaders - have already signed a letter to the US president Joe Biden calling on him to suspend patents during the pandemic.
Chris - That was Canada's CBC news reporting. Is that the issue, though, here? Or is it actually just that we're already maxed out in terms of how fast we can make vaccines? It's not the patents that are holding things up - it's our ability to make them?
Ashish - Yeah, unfortunately I think the issue is much bigger than the patents. Because if it was simply an issue of patents, that'd be great, and I would of course support then making the patents open, because it would quickly allow us to scale up manufacturing and get the world vaccinated. There is no question in my mind that what needs to happen is we need to produce billions of doses of vaccines. We need to do it in a way that is free for people who are receiving it. I'm happy to have governments of various governments pay for it at different levels, depending on your income. And personally, I think that the rich countries can fund it for the whole world. I don't think money is the problem here. The fundamental problem is manufacturing capacity. Vaccines are very different than medicines that we usually think of. Lots of companies can make medicines; vaccines are biological agents that just are difficult to make reliably and effectively and safely. And that manufacturing capacity is not widespread. And especially when we think about the mRNA vaccines - the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine - those are particularly difficult to make. And what you need is, you need the patents to be open, or you need patent transfer - but you also need technology transfer, you actually need the know-how to be transferred. None of this is saying, "you can't do this," or, "we can't expand," but I don't want to get distracted by what feels to me like a simple solution that actually won't make a difference - which is a fight over patents. What I want to do is figure out - how do we bring on more manufacturing capacity? How do you work with governments to identify who can make these vaccines, train them up, provide the technology, and get going on vaccine production? That's going to actually require the cooperation of the pharmaceutical companies that are making them right now, because they are the ones who have the know-how, not the governments. And that's why it's got to be much more cooperative than confrontational.
09:59 - Handmade: materials and the art of crafting
Handmade: materials and the art of crafting
Joining Chris Smith for this programme: materials scientist Anna Ploszajski. She's the author of a new book called Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making...
Anna - It's really the story of how I, as a material scientist, four years ago had this crushing realisation that really, I didn't know very much about materials at all. And this was brought about by a visit to a place called the Institute of Making at UCL, where they have a materials library full of about a thousand different materials. And one day when I visited them I had this crushing realisation that actually - although I knew all the theories of materials, and the formulae behind them, and I could draw you a beautiful graph of what they looked like on paper - I had no idea what they represent in the real world, in terms of how people are able to make with them, and their historical significance, and their cultural value as well. So the book is the story of my rediscovery of this other side of materials, which is the side of craft and hand making, and really examining the value and the expertise of people with alternative expertise to myself, which are the craftspeople and the makers.
Chris - People often say though, Anna, that materials scientists have something of a communication problem, in the sense that if a material scientist is doing their job well, their work is largely invisible. Because it works, it doesn't break, it doesn't ever go wrong, it doesn't prove a problem, and so no one notices it!
Anna - That's quite a funny way to look at it. I think that's probably common for a lot of engineers, right? If they're doing their job well, then the building doesn't fall down, or the computer doesn't crash, for sure.
Chris - But take glass, for example: classic material, one of the most important materials probably we've ever made or used, and most people will see straight through it!
Anna - Absolutely. And this was one of the themes that I explored in my 'glass' chapter - the fact that glass, as a material, is so important to science. It's really the reason that we use it in the lab: it's inert, but we can see through it. And we're interested in looking past glass at what it contains, rather than actually looking at the material itself. So that was a real epiphany when I was writing the book, and having a go at glassblowing itself: experiencing this material for what it is, rather than for what it can contain and what it can do.
Chris - So you actually went around and got up close and personal with all these materials, and made stuff?
Anna - Absolutely. The book has got ten different material chapters. Each chapter, I go and meet a maker or a craftsperson, and get my hands dirty and have a go at their craft. So we've got glassblowing, stonemasonry, pottery on the potter's wheel, blacksmithing; and it was amazing, really, as someone who only understood the materials on paper, to properly get my hands on them and experience the stiffening of glass as it cools out of the flame, or quite how much force you need to actually forge a steel bar in a blacksmith's workshop.
Chris - I'm intrigued to know: how did the pot throwing go? Because the people who are really good at that make it look dead easy, but I bet it's not. Did you get the wonky pot off the back of the thing, where it just flies all over the place?
Anna - Honestly, there were so many failed attempts when I attempted pottery. I did eventually achieve what sort of resembles a mug, but it is much, much more difficult than it looks, I have to say!
Chris - What was it going to be? I mean, was it a classic case of, you made a mug but actually that's not how it started out? Or did you set out to make a mug and actually succeed?
Anna - Mostly items on the potter's wheel end up as some sort of bowl or ashtray, or sometimes a plate if it all completely spins out centrifugal and you end up with something flat. So the mug was sort of the pinnacle achievement of my time on the wheel.
Chris - What did you take away from this, though? Because it's a really nice idea for a book, for someone who knows a lot about materials to then say, "well actually, let's get out of the lab, and get up close and personal with these things and really get my hands dirty." But what else did you learn from doing it?
Anna - I learnt these materials have intersected with my own life - very much so as well. So when I started writing the book, all I really wanted to write was about material science and making, but it turned out to be much more of an autobiography. Because the stories of these materials in our collective history as a society, but also at an individual level for myself, can tell us so much about ourselves. So for example, my chapter on plastics is the story of my Polish grandad George, who was born in Russia and then lived in Poland, and was a refugee during the Second World War, but ended up in the UK and started a plastics company, making objects out of plastics. And so the intersection of these different materials with my own life experiences is really the narrative driving the book forward. And my hope for the book is that people reading it will start to see how materials have intersected with their own lives as well, and tell their own stories with them.
16:23 - New malaria vaccine reaches 75% efficacy
New malaria vaccine reaches 75% efficacy
Katie Ewer, University of Oxford
Scientists from the University of Oxford have produced a new malaria vaccine that, they say, is more than 75% effective - making them the first to meet a crucial target set by the World Health Organisation. They’ve just completed their Phase II trials in West Africa, where they were able to reduce malaria infections in a group of children by three quarters. Chris Smith heard from immunologist Katie Ewer…
Katie - Yes, it's a great achievement. We've been working towards this for quite a long time now, so to finally have this result after so long and so many different vaccines that we've tested in clinical trials... it's great.
Chris - How does the vaccine work?
Katie - The vaccine primes your immune system to make antibodies against one of the main proteins on the surface of the malaria parasite, so that when you get bitten by a mosquito that's carrying malaria, those antibodies bind up those parasites and stop them from setting up an infection in your body.
Chris - People have been trying to do this for a long time though, haven't they? We've seen many, many trials of malaria vaccines - they don't seem to have been very successful. So why have you managed to triumph where they haven't?
Katie - Malaria is a really complicated infection to make a vaccine against. It has a life cycle in both the human and the mosquito host. And so depending on which part of the lifecycle you want to target, you might need a different type of immune response. So when you make a vaccine against a simple virus, you've only got seven genes to choose from; malaria has around 5000, so just deciding which part of the parasite you want to use as a target for your vaccine is a huge job. The part of the lifecycle that we target with our vaccine takes place just after you get bitten by that mosquito that's carrying the malaria parasite. And we're trying to capture that window - with an immune response - between those parasites going into your skin, and getting to your liver. And that window is only about half an hour to two hours. So it's not long for the vaccine to act to block that infection.
Chris - Ashish, from a public health point of view this must be music to your ears, because malaria is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, isn't it?
Ashish - Oh, this is extraordinary. And we're all going to hope that more data come in supporting this. Over the years, I have always said that if we got a vaccine that was 30-40% effective, we would be thrilled, it would make an enormous difference. So a potential vaccine of 75%... and most of the people who die of malaria are children, so it's particularly an awful disease. And while we've made progress globally, it still kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. So this is extraordinary. I'm trying not to get overly enthusiastic, because we want to see bigger trial data, but everything I've seen so far makes me very, very hopeful.
Chris - Taking that point forward, Katie - because so many victims are children, when is the best time to intervene? Do you intervene in pregnancy so that young newborns don't catch it? Because that's a big issue with malaria, isn't it, when you get a newborn or a young kiddie who catches it and then they don't fight it off as effectively as an adult, and they often become victims.
Katie - Yeah, that's right. And as we just heard, most children who die of malaria are under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. So the plan really, because malaria is predominantly a seasonal infection, is to give those children immunity before the start of the malaria season so they have lots of antibodies ready for when those parasites and mosquitoes start biting. So we're looking at vaccinating children in their first year of life before the malaria season starts, and then giving them booster doses every year to top up those antibody levels, before they're exposed to that during the malaria season going forward.
Chris - Is this the sort of vaccine that's pretty stable? Because obviously it's easy to make a vaccine which when you have the perfect environment, such as a laboratory, you can keep fresh; but when you take it out into the back of beyond, where there is no electricity supply, there is no fridge, it's a different story. What's the vaccine construct, as it were?
Katie - Yep, that's a really important point. And people who work on malaria vaccines know that there's no point in making a very expensive vaccine that you have to store in a freezer. It's got to be cheap, it's got to be able to survive a very rural cold chain, and we've got to be able to make hundreds of millions of doses of it. So this is a protein and adjuvant type vaccine - not new technology. It's administered in three doses, as I mentioned. So we really do think that this is feasible to deploy on the scale that's going to be required to really have an impact.
Chris - Next step will presumably be a much bigger trial to then prove it works, it's safe, and really, how effective it can be?
Katie - Exactly. So the data so far is from a phase II trial which was in 450 children in West Africa. We now have approval to start a phase III trial, and that will be in four countries in both East and West Africa, so different levels of malaria transmission intensity; and that will be in 4,800 children. So a much bigger sample size to really, really check for safety and protection in different communities and different populations.
Chris - And of course, one of the most successful - Anna - interventions against malaria hitherto has been the bed net. And that wouldn't exist without a materials scientist!
Anna - Yeah, absolutely. And in the 20th century, it was really a triumph of material science that we were able to mimic the natural plastics that we had - which was things like natural rubber - to make very cheap, easy to produce plastic textiles. And these have then obviously gone on to form our clothes, and all sorts of different textiles in our homes, but also to make nets that will protect against diseases like this.
22:03 - Andy Weir's new book 'Project Hail Mary'
Andy Weir's new book 'Project Hail Mary'
The 2015 film The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, was a box office sensation. It was also a hit, in particular, with scientists - who particularly appreciated the attention to scientific detail that made the story plausible and realistic. Andy Weir wrote that story, and now he’s got a new book coming out called Project Hail Mary. He told Chris Smith all about it...
Andy - It's just another one of my hard science sci fi books. The main character wakes up with complete amnesia aboard a spaceship with no idea why he's there or what he's supposed to be doing. As his memories come back to him, he realises he's on a last ditch mission to save humanity from an extinction level event. So, you know, no pressure.
Chris - The one thing that struck me - there is a very high level of science in this. I was very impressed by the way in which your character managed to work out that he was on a spaceship. The guy works out what g, gravity, he's experiencing, by dropping weights and timing it, and therefore works out he's in space. I was quite impressed with that.
Andy - Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I feel insecure here - I'm among people who are actually doing useful things for society, and I wrote a book! My book does have microbes that are indirectly deadly to humanity, and my book also has some cool materials science in it... so I guess I feel good being here. Side note, Anna, if I can call you that, I've always thought that material science is the primary limiter on the space industry. If you materials science folks could just hurry up and make a strong, solid material that can handle much higher temperatures without melting or softening, then we could take the full advantage of the hydrogen-oxygen combustion to make a rocketry. As it is, the only reason we can't do that is because the engines would melt.
Chris - Anna, it's all your fault.
Anna - Just leave it with me!
Andy - Get on it! Quit messing around with like, glass and concrete and stuff and hurry up.
Chris - But Andy, if I may, are you actually a scientist or come from a scientific background? Why did you decide to write not one... you know, this is another book which is infused with quite high level science, which has won plaudits from scientists who said it wasn't just rubbishing science and making science look daft, it was actually including some decent science and it's plausible.
Andy - My profession before I became a writer was a software engineer. I was a computer programmer for 25 years. So if you call that a science, sure, but it's not a physical science. I wasn't any sort of a material scientist or anything lofty like that. The main thing though is - I'm just really interested in science. All this stuff has always fascinated me. You write what you're interested in as a writer, and for me, space, space technology, science in general has always been very fascinating to me. So that's my hobby, that's my area of nerdy obsession.
Chris - To give a summary to the book - the situation in which it's set is that there is some entity, some kind of microorganism, which is in some way devouring our star, the Sun, and it's going to compromise life on Earth. Now that's very similar to the situation in which we find ourselves right now, isn't it? Where we've got a threat which is compromising Earth and our existence on it, and we are being forced to all work together - as we've been hearing this so far from Ashish - to get together and work to solve the problem. And that's what happens in your book. Now did you write the book before the pandemic came along, or did the pandemic make you go, "my goodness, here's an idea for something off the planet that is similar"?
Andy - I completed the entire book before the pandemic started. So any correlations seen there are purely coincidence. The reason that it took so much time to get from me finishing the book to it being on shelves, is because of the pandemic. It shut off the print production pipelines and everything like that. Also - it's a little bit of a misnomer to say that the book has a microbe that's eating the Sun. It's more like an algae bloom on the Sun, but the microbe has bred so much out of control on the surface of the Sun that it's actually absorbing a non-trivial percentage of the total solar output.
Chris - But you did call the entity an astrophage, which means 'sun eater'?
Andy - Yes, that's true. You've got me there!
Chris - Just to prove I did actually read the book! The one thing that strikes me - it is also infused with a healthy helping of humour. I mean, it's funny too. When your lead character - and I don't think we're giving too much away - meets up with an alien, it's pretty phenomenal, the humour in the way they learn to talk to each other. It was laugh out loud funny, which is not what you normally get from a scifi book of this sort of gravity, if you'll excuse the pun.
Andy - Well, thank you. I'm glad you like it. Humour is my style of writing. All my books have a lot of humour in them. One thing I've found - which is the tippy-top secret that only me and a million other authors know - is that exposition is normally boring. That's where you have to inform the reader about some stuff, some backstory stuff that's not directly related to the plot unfolding. If your exposition is funny, if it makes them laugh, they'll forgive you any amount of exposition and enjoy reading it. That's the big trick.
Chris - Did you watch The Martian, Ashish and Anna?
Anna - I have to say, I have not seen that movie, unfortunately.
Ashish - I did, and I loved it.
Andy - Ashish, I like him now. Anna, you're dead to me!
Anna - I've got some homework to do!
Chris - Anna has some homework watching to do. That's not going to be too difficult though. You can jump on the TV after this.
Andy - Or you can read the book, that's acceptable!
Chris - Or read the book. Yeah.
Anna - Excellent.
Chris - What did you make of it then, Ashish?
Ashish - It was extraordinarily entertaining. The science in it... I'm going to have to tell you, part of watching a movie is not worrying excessively about whether the science in it is all right or not, because that's a test that most movies fail so quickly that the suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. But it was entertaining. And now of course, as Andy was speaking, I was starting to replay parts of it in my mind and thinking about the science parts of it. And it really is quite good. But most importantly, it's just a fun, interesting movie to watch. Anna, you should watch it.
Chris - Andy, is Project Hail Mary, the new book - is that slated to turn into a film at some point too?
Andy - Yeah, so far so good on that. MGM bought the film rights. We have Ryan Gosling slated to play the lead, he's attached to play the lead, which is awesome because the main character is named Ryland Grace, so they have the same initials - he can bring his own cuff links to the set or whatever. We have Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the directing duo, who've done a bunch of really cool things - they're set to direct. And Drew Goddard is working on the screenplay, and Drew Goddard wrote the adaptation of The Martian, so that was really successful. So we'd like to repeat that level of success if possible.
30:43 - The problem with forensics
The problem with forensics
Brandon Garrett, Duke University
If you’re a fan who’s been watching the new season of TV show ‘Line of Duty’ - or perhaps you’re just familiar with crime dramas and courtroom thrillers - you’ll know they make a big deal out of forensics. Fingerprints and blood spatters tend to catch the killer. But is real life forensic science as ironclad as it seems on screen? Duke University’s Brandon Garrett says an emphatic 'no'. His new book Autopsy of a Crime Lab is designed to expose the many ways in which forensic evidence is - in his words - “dangerously imperfect”. Chris Smith asked him what he means...
Brandon - I certainly thought that forensics was a triumph of modern technology, and certainly preferable to alternative types of evidence. In my early work I represented people who had been exonerated by DNA testing, and modern forensics corrected terrible miscarriages of justice in their cases. Over time, as I studied their cases, I realised, “well, wait a minute - a lot of these people had been convicted in the first place based on traditional forensics.” And moreover, it's not just the egregious mistakes in arson cases, or egregiously unreliable forensics like bite-mark evidence, or sort of junk science techniques; but a lot of the bread and butter of what crime labs mostly do these days still involves a lot of subjective judgment, and no statistics, no research behind these techniques, and poor quality control at the crime scene. We invest much more care and science into a strep test or a COVID test than we do in a test that could put someone in jail for the remaining days of their life.
Chris - Someone once said to me - not a criminal, I might add, a scientist who wasn't a criminal - that perhaps the best thing to do would actually be to go and find the nearest vacuum cleaner and empty the vacuum cleaner bag all over the environment, thus contaminating it with enormous amounts of DNA from all the people who've ever walked through the environment the vacuum cleaner has been used on. And in this way, you would make the life of the laboratory technician who tried to analyse that so impossible that you'd never be caught.
Brandon - And that's a reason why DNA testing just can't be used in most criminal cases. Contamination is a real problem. You don't need the dusty vacuum cleaner - just breathing on the crime scene is enough to contaminate, if you're not wearing a mask. But unfortunately most of what labs do is not DNA testing. And there are very different types of contamination: just poorly dusting and lifting the print; not knowing where to look; contamination through information, telling the fingerprint examiner, “by the way, this guy confessed, he has a record as long as my arm.” That kind of cognitive contamination we see all over the place.
Chris - Tell us about the fingerprints question then, because obviously that's one of the oldest forms of forensics. What's wrong with fingerprints then?
Brandon - There's a lot of detailed information in fingerprints. We all know it from looking at our prints. Although there's a reason why the makers of smartphones stopped using fingerprints to open phones: you put your finger on it five times, and it sometimes wouldn't open. And one reason why was that the fingerprint reader was partial. It doesn't read your entire fingerprint. Those phones have a little small surface, maybe like one fifteenth or one twentieth. But that's the problem in criminal cases - you don't have a perfect pristine fingerprint, with lots of information, you'll have a smudged partial. And so you're trying to compare something with really good information - a print from a suspect - to something at the crime scene. And how you connect those two pieces of evidence involves a lot of judgment. But no statistics! We have no idea how common it is for people to share small parts of their print. We have no idea how common it is for someone to leave a smudged print that in part looks a lot like someone else's. And so fingerprint examiners for years said their work was perfect, there was a zero error rate, because fingerprints are unique. They never addressed this question of this highly imperfect, subjective comparison process. And they never provide statistics. They said, “this print came from that person, it's a match, it's an identification.” And in the absence of any statistics, they actually did not know how rare or common it was to see some level of similarity.
Chris - So how many people then, based on what you're finding, are potentially getting the wrong result because of the use and abuse of forensics?
Brandon - From what little we know, from some of the few studies that have been conducted - under enormous pressure from the scientific community in recent years - there are really high error rates for some of these disciplines. And not error rates of one in millions, but error rates like one in dozens or one in hundreds. And given the number of cases in which there are forensics done every year, it could be enormous numbers. One of the many audits and scandals going on in the US right now is in Massachusetts, where they're reopening 70,000 cases involving drug analyses. We're about to see what will happen in Washington DC, where their firearms unit is under scrutiny and the lab has had its accreditation pulled. We have no idea how many people may have been convicted based on the work of that firearms unit. So whenever we pull threads at errors, we find thousands and thousands of cases that are tainted. We have no idea how many people's lives may have been upended by erroneous forensics.
Chris - Do you know what, I'm really quite shocked and alarmed by what you're saying, because I probably was among the group of people who would assume that when we introduce evidence to the courtroom, and tests, we would apply the same rigor to it that we would, for instance, in the hospital, with the diagnostic test. We introduce the test only when we understand exactly in the hospital, how well it performs, what it's likely to miss, what it's likely to pick up, and therefore how likely we are to be right. So why is a different criteria set applied to forensics then?
Brandon - Scientific laboratories are regulated! They'll give them blind tests, and if they don't correctly diagnose strep throat, or COVID, there may be an investigation or they'll check the equipment, they'll check whether the clinicians are well-trained, or doing their jobs correctly. There are a whole host of regulations, certainly in the United States, that regulate any clinical laboratory. And that just isn't true for crime labs. They've been sort of let go: “oh, that's policing, that's practical, applied stuff. We don't have to have quality control.”
Chris - Can a lawyer not challenge this then Brandon? Can you not then, you're in court and someone comes up with all this evidence, and someone like you would stand up and say, well, read Brandon Garrett's book. It shows that this is flawed and unreliable. So this evidence should be discounted.
Brandon - There may be no lawyer waving my book around in court, because they get their certificate saying, “oh, the fingerprint, it's an identification.” They get no documentation surrounding how the work was done. In some disciplines, like in firearms, there is no documentation. There's no way for the lawyer to know how accurate the work was - they can't even know what the examiner did. So they get the certificate, and certainly in the US most cases are plea bargained; they won't have access to their own expert to look at the evidence, there's no second opinion. And so their client pleads guilty. The client may say, “look, I'm innocent. I don't understand. The fingerprint, the firearms - that wasn't me! And the lawyer says, “well, come on, look at what the lab said. And they're offering you three years - take it.” And so they take it. And so it's rare for this stuff to be challenged in court. And then when it is, judges have sort of had a roll over and play dead approach to forensic science.
Chris - I really sincerely hope that they do read your book, Brandon. And that has seriously dented my trust. Brandon Garrett, and his book Autopsy of a Crime Lab is out now. Anna, did you look at any, from a materials point of view, issues related to forensics in your book? Because you must've left a few fingerprints on a few pots that you tried to make!
Anna - Yeah, definitely. So my book actually stemmed from a podcast of the same name, Handmade, where I've interviewed over 70 different craftspeople and makers. Some of them made it into the book, but one that I interviewed recently is a jeweller turned forensic scientist called Maria MacLennan, based up in Scotland. And her work is all about looking at jewellery taken from crime scenes, and trying to find identifying factors in those pieces. So it could be, the type of silver that was used is particularly prevalent in certain areas; or it could be the cultural value, where that jewellry came from; maybe a silversmith left their particular mark on a piece, which can be traced then back. So her work is really about looking at jewellery, seeing what it could say about a person in terms of perhaps a victim of a crime, and using material science and forensic techniques to be able to provide evidence to the police.
39:28 - Net zero: a dangerous delay tactic?
Net zero: a dangerous delay tactic?
James Dyke, University of Exeter; Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University
It's been an eventful couple of weeks on the global climate stage. Summits, targets, pledges, decarbonisation plans... all with an eye on the dates by which different countries have agreed to reach net zero emissions. But some scientists have been calling 'net zero' a dangerous trap - a delay tactic that allows politicians to keep avoiding the radical changes they might need to make. So is there solid science behind net zero, or more hot air? Chris Smith brought together two climate experts to find out...
Chris - It's fantastic to be able to welcome to the programme environmental scientist Kimberly Nicholas from Lund University - hello!
Kimberly - Hi, nice to be with you.
Chris - Also with us is global systems expert James Dyke, he's from the University of Exeter. What's a global systems expert, James?
James - It's a bit of earth system science, it's a bit of sustainability science... it's a weird blend of natural sciences and social sciences, really.
Chris - Well here in the UK we have just heard about a new - and it's actually legally binding - promise. This is a clip that was on Sky News...
The UK government has announced what it's calling a 'world-leading target' to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 from 1990 levels.
Chris - James, have you actually had a look at these proposals? What do you think of them?
James - I have had a look - it's promising. So what the UK government has done, it's sort of finally listened to the Committee on Climate Change. So the Committee on Climate Change was an organisation created by the Climate Change Act in a previous government, which was created in order to advise and also monitor the performance of the UK government on its climate change policies. So it doesn't have any ability to tell the government what to do, but the government is kind of obliged to listen to what the Committee on Climate Change says.
Chris - It says it's enshrined in law, so what does that mean if we miss the target? Do we take ourselves to court, slap on wrist? I mean, what happens? None of the politicians who are enshrining this in law will be in jobs by the time that these dates come to pass.
James - It's a very strange situation. Basically the secretary of state has a legal obligation to implement the legislation required for the requisite de-carbonisation. But also the secretary of state has a legal obligation to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas from the UK's oil and gas fields in the North Sea. So to what extent that "legally binding" really matters, I don't know. I mean, all these policies and announcements need to be considered in the light of the Paris Agreement. And ultimately the Paris Agreement is not legally binding. It's not as if there's going to be a world government or world arbitration which is going to go through each country's climate performance, and basically tell them off, or issue fines, or some kind of punitive measures. So when we say, or when the UK government says, it's going to be enshrined in law, that's really a kind of a statement of intent. Now I would say at this point that if you look at what the UK government is proposing, it's doing some very eyebrow-raising things. For example, the almost complete de-carbonisation of the energy sector by around 2035. Well, let's see how they're going to do that. And when you look into the details, already you can see what looks to be a potentially large deployment of carbon capture storage for the existing gas-fired power stations. That's how they're going to do it in order to be able to sort of offset the legacy infrastructure. Because remember many of these gas-fired plants are not very old- they represent millions, tens of millions, of pounds of capital investment. And the economic argument has always been... I mean, one of the arguments around the delay narrative around climate change is that we've got trillions of dollars of assets in fossil fuel, we can't just be expected to turn it all off and replace it. So, yes, it's welcome. It's still not enough, sorry. If you were to look at some of the work from Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Center, Kevin has been a long standing critic of even the Committee on Climate Change. Because if you look at the Paris Agreement obligations for the United Kingdom, then we're still not doing enough.
Chris - Arguably, Anna, one of the big things that materials scientists can do for us is to come up with materials that will actually enable us to produce things that are longer lived, to have a smaller carbon footprint, engines will run hotter so they burn less fuel. I mean, those are a couple of simple explanations, but surely material scientists must be thinking about this green argument very, very hard?
Anna - Yeah, absolutely. It's one of the hottest topics in material science at the moment and we're throwing all that we've got at loads of different technologies, from more efficient solar panels to lighter aircraft, as you say, hotter burning engines, all of it is going to play a part. And material scientists will definitely be pulling their own weight as well.
Chris - I suppose LEDs would be right up there, wouldn't they, in terms of what has translated in very recent times into a very big reduction in carbon footprint? Because something extraordinary like 20% of the electricity we use is just going on lighting up buildings, and as a result of that, given how inefficient your average light bulb was before we substituted LED technology, that's an immediate, massive saving.
Anna - Definitely, yeah. Increasing the energy efficiency of our gadgets is certainly something that we as consumers can really see as a positive step forward. My understanding is that one of the biggest impacts can actually be made, rather than in consumer goods, is in industrial processes. And there are steps being taken now, for example, in steel manufacturing to move from sort of fossil fuel fuels to things like hydrogen, which is a much more environmentally friendly fuel. So even in industry, which is a really big emitter of lots of different greenhouse gases, we're trying to use material science to make a big impact.
Chris - Kim, is industry to blame or is it the population to blame? Is it both? Where does most of the carbon footprint of humanity come from?
Kimberly - Well, about three quarters comes from burning fossil fuels - three quarters of the climate warming - and the remaining quarter comes from our use of land and agriculture, especially industrial animal agriculture. So those are the two big systems - the energy and the food system - that we need to transform to stabilise the climate, and also biodiversity, while ensuring a good life for everybody on earth.
Chris - Where would it be the best place to start then? Where's the easiest quick win?
Kimberly - Ha! Let's stop talking about easy, quick wins, because they don't really exist in the climate problem. They ran out about 30 years ago when we had many more attractive options on the table. When we put away that mindset and think about, "who am I and what can I do," then it's a very different answer if you are the CEO of Exxon or if you are a citizen and a parent and someone who is part of a community. But everybody does have a role to play. And I focus a lot on the role of individuals, especially in high income and high emitting countries. And that's who I wrote my new book for, which is really about what can we, as citizens, as consumers, as part of communities, do in our daily lives - both in our own lifestyles and as part of political and economic systems. Because we have much more power than we realise.
Chris - But James, you've recently written this piece for the Conversation where you said this net zero argument is a bit of a fallacy - in fact, it's a dangerous fallacy. Why did you say that?
James - The net zero policies that were being implemented, or are being promised, are dangerous. And they're dangerous for two reasons. The first one is that they sort of license a 'burn now, pay later' approach, in which they allow industries to decarbonise slower with the idea that we'll be able to take the carbon out of the atmosphere. And the second reason they're dangerous is that if they actually do work, or if you try to deploy some of these carbon dioxide removal technologies at scale, then that could have potentially devastating impacts on biodiversity. For many years, the primary approach for carbon dioxide removal was something called BECCS - Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or sequenced saturation. And the idea here is that rather than burn coal in power stations, we would burn trees, and then we would capture the carbon dioxide that comes out of the chimney. That carbon dioxide will be compressed and then piped to an underground geological reservoir, perhaps a depleted oil and gas field. And because the trees, as they grow, they suck down carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere, that is a process which would allow you to generate electricity at the same time as actually reducing the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. So for a number of years, about five years, BECCS approaches became completely embedded into the kind of decarbonisation scenarios that all the major governments were looking at. And it's only been relatively recently that, as you've looked at the impacts of BECCS in terms of land use - we could be looking at something like twice the land surface area of India - the impacts on food security, on water security, the displacement of indigenous peoples, that you do realise it would be a complete disaster. So what net zero policies are allowing us to do is to essentially kick the can further down the road - and continue to license politicians, giving them a way out of making what are going to be necessarily really difficult decisions. As Kimberly said, all the low hanging fruit is gone. We've delayed so long that it's only going to be difficult and quite radical solutions, radical change to society, that's going to get us out of this hole.
Chris - Why do you think there is this inertia though? Because when you look at what's been achieved in a relatively short space of time, if you had told someone that - say - a third of the energy being consumed in a country like the UK is currently coming from renewable sources, if you told someone that about 10 years ago, they would have said, "that's not achievable". But we're doing it, and it's going to become even greater. It is achievable, this, isn't it - so why is there still inertia?
James - I mean, the UK is held up as the leading country in terms of action on the climate. And we need to remember the UK has got a particular history. It used to burn a lot of coal, and through the 1980s and 1990s had the dash for gas - so that switching from coal fired to gas fired energy generation is an important reason why the country managed to decarbonise so quickly. Then you've got also the the hollowing out of its industrial base. We don't really make many things in the United Kingdom. Many of those things are made in China or India, which we import. But in terms of the delay... we are trying to change the metabolism of our civilisation that's been powering it for 300 years. And we are trying to do that in about three decades. All the power that we see - and that's power literally generated in terms of electricity, but also the political power, the wealth, the influence that has been built up over these centuries - has to somehow be radically changed. So it's no surprise that there has been such delay, because what we're seeking to do, at the end of the day, is take power and influence away from some of the most powerful and influential organisations. And they're not going to suddenly wake up in the morning and go, "you know what, you're right? So perhaps I would see the current policy announcements, these net zero policy announcements, as being the kind of latest manifestation of delay. Previously it was, "there isn't such a thing as climate change." "Well, it is, but we're not responsible." "Well, we're responsible, but it's not going to be dangerous." "Well we can't decarbonise quickly."
Chris - Kim, do you go along with that? Because to my mind, the problem we face is that the political cycle in many countries is four, five years. Politicians want to get reelected. Therefore they will do what will get them re-elected, and things that fall outside the scope of an immediate parliament become someone else's problem. And it's that near term thinking that is the problem we have with long-term issues like this.
Kimberly - Definitely politics are a very large part of the problem. We have the technology today to decarbonise about 75% of emissions. That was work by Steve Davis in Science a couple of years ago. And since we know we need to cut about half of emissions by 2030, we have more than enough to do for the next decade while researchers close some of the last mile problems. So we are not waiting on science and technology to save us, but politics has been far too slow. We know that global policies to date over the last several decades have only avoided about one year's worth of emissions. So the policies we have are... I cannot overstate how drastically insufficient they are. And at the moment we're headed for something like three degrees of global warming. That is a really terrifying prospect to me. So we definitely need more ambitious climate policies and climate action. And we know that actually climate action is politically popular. It's widely supported. Ot has large majorities, especially clean energy, is extremely politically popular. It's helpful that it also creates jobs, which is very important. We also know that politicians don't hear very much from their constituents about how important climate policy is to them. At the same time, we have organised very well-funded industry groups; for example, the fossil fuel lobby and other fossil based industries, have historically spent about 10 times more money lobbying in the US than, for example, renewable energies. So there's a tremendously unequal playing field that is serving to lock in the current system.
Chris - Is not part of the issue, though, that,if I were a politician and I wanted to make my country look fantastic from a climate point of view and a carbon emissions point of view, I could just basically outsource anything that was bad as a net emitter to another country, and then my figures would look fantastic?
Kimberly - That is a problem, but I think that problem sometimes gets overstated. The majority of emissions - if you look at territorial emissions, which is what countries are responsible for under the Paris agreement - it's emissions that arise within a country's own borders. Those are for all countries the majority of their emissions, something like 80% in Sweden, for example. So yes, we do import some of our emissions from countries that are doing more heavy production nowadays, but we also have a lot of responsibility and opportunity to quickly decarbonise ourselves.