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Science

UK experts to examine global population trends

Britain's science academy, The Royal Society, has announced it will launch a major analysis of the world's population. The study will focus on the role of population in securing sustainable development.

women and children

Population growth has reemerged as a topic of debate

Britain's science academy, the Royal Society said this week that the implications of global population growth would be the focus of its latest study.

Population plays a central role in various areas, such as food security, energy supply or water, said Sir John Sulston, who is chairing the society's working group of experts.

"We think it's important to look at population because it is in some sense the underlying variable," Sulston told Deutsche Welle. "Now is the right time to be looking at it in a deep and dispassionate way by looking at the scientific evidence behind the numbers that are increasingly bandied about in polarizing debates."

According to UN figures, the world population reached 6.5 billion in 2005 and is expected to surpass seven billion by 2012.

Population growth and the role it plays in sustainable development has been a point of debate among scientists for decades. Some experts from developing nations argue that population has been put forth to distract from the more urgent need to reduce consumption in wealthy countries. Other schools of thought view the population problem as one that will eventually regulate itself. But Sulston, who won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the human genome, stressed the impartiality of the study.

"I think what we can offer is our own particular brand of science-based evidence," he added, and noted that there would be no "taking sides."

"I don't want either passionate advocates of a particular view, nor do I want deniers who say there's no problem," he said. "I want objective, factual investigation, and that's what we're going to do."

The society said that the issue made its way back to the top of the political agenda in the run-up to the December 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Avoiding one-size-fits-all

The project's working group includes experts from the fields of economics, demography, theology and the environment. Scientists from various developed countries are involved, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as from developing nations like Brazil and China.

john sulston

Sulston won the 2002 Nobel Prize for his work on genome sequencing

Sulston said the society's experts would be looking at more than just scientific elements. Culture, gender, economics and law would also be examined.

He said the composition of the working group ensured that the findings would be "comprehensive and cross-disciplinary and bring understanding of population issues to the cutting edge." He did not, however, provide details on the methodology. The society said it would soon issue a call for evidence.

According to a society statement, the report will be aimed at national and international policymakers, donors and funders, as well as scientific bodies and non-governmental organizations.

"It will focus particularly on how scientific and technological developments might alter the rate and impact of population changes," the society said in the statement, adding that it would acknowledge regional variations in population dynamics.

A cautious welcome

Wolfgang Lutz, director of the Vienna Institute of Demography, said he welcomed any "new impetus" the Royal Society study could provide to the discussion. But he said much would depend on the study's members.

"The neo-Malthusians are strongly represented in the Royal Society and are a driving force," Lutz told Deutsche Welle.

Neo-Malthusians base their ideas on the writings of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In his well-known 1798 essay on population, the British scholar argued that increases in the number of people on the planet would eventually diminish the ability of the world to feed itself.

young afghan women working at computers

Educated women can have an enormous impact on population growth

"So they believe that every species regulates itself," said Lutz, the initiator and coordinator of the UN-affiliated Global Science Panel on Population and Environment. But Lutz said the significance of human capital, which included education, could not be excluded.

"In my opinion, the question of the rising world population is a question of education, most importantly of women," Lutz said. "Education is the key."

The Royal Society said it expects to conclude its study in early 2012. If the conclusions were "politically acceptable," Lutz said, they could find their way into future policies.

"If a new plausible aspect materializes from this study, then it can have an impact on sustainable development policies," Lutz said. "Otherwise, experience shows that it will simply fizzle out."

Authors: Sabina Casagrande/Sophie Tarr
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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