Sustainable science : A guest post from Bernie Hobbs

The following is a guest post from 1MW ambassador, Bernie Hobbs for science week.

Sustainability is simple – it’s doing things the way nature does them. We can call it biomimicry. We can call it smart design. Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 1.32.41 PMBut basically it means not using more of something than can be replaced by whatever system it came from. And wasting nothing. In science lingo, it should be called the law of conservation of stuff.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s far from easy to get it right. Nature has had a few billion years of evolution to iron out the kinks, and there’s been the odd mass extinction along the way so it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. But aspirational is the way the best science and innovation happens.

For me, the exciting things that are happening in science around sustainability are as diverse as 3D printing and DNA analysis of bug soup. Both of these things have wowed me this week (it’s Science Week, so I’m allowed a little nerd off moment!).

3D printing lets you take a bunch of metal or silicone or plastic dust and a software program and print anything from a Stradivarius to an artificial hip. The idea is amazing, and being able to make something from scratch, layer by layer, has got massive sustainability appeal as well. If you’re building something out of dust, you’re starting with a low energy resource and only ‘improving it’ by adding as much energy as you need to. It’s not sexy, but building things this way, instead of highly refining a heap of raw material and then shipping it somewhere to be cut up and processed is saving a Screen Shot 2013-08-16 at 1.07.09 PMheap of energy and material, and it’s way closer to what nature is onto with that whole reproduction and growth caper.

At the other end of the technology spectrum is getting a bunch of bugs and giving them the blender treatment. It’s not pretty, but it’s going to let scientists monitor biodiversity hotspots in a much more efficient way. Instead of needing thousands of biologist hours to identify the different species found in an area, and then repeating the laborious process in a year, you can bundle the insects into a bowl, squeeze and then sequence all the different variations of a particular stretch of DNA. It’s a process called DNA metabarcoding, and while it doesn’t give you all the detail that the traditional year long classification study does, it gives you the number of different species. And it’s done in days. So you can repeat it easily and cheaply and monitor hotspots more regularly – without good information on species we’ll never know how many we’re saving. Or losing.

Like so much of sustainability, it’s about efficiency. Or like we used to say in the 80s, working smarter.

It’s not rocket science, but rockets aren’t going to get us out of our fossil fuelled situation!

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