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SRT Milestone

SRT Milestone

Monday January 27 2020

Lynne McNeil looks back at the 50 year history of the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRT).

The anthemic ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum topped the charts when the Church of Scotland’s Society, Religion and Technology Project was launched on May 1 1970.

The 1960s had brought an acceleration in the pace of change of innovation, coupled with the first walk in space and then the first moon landing in July 1969.

There was huge interest in science and innovation and it was at a Church of Scotland conference in 1968 that the seeds of a science and technology project were first sown. Following a deliverance from the Home Board at the 1969 General Assembly, it was agreed that a director for an innovative groundbreaking project on ‘Technology and Religion’ be sought and an advertisement appeared the following autumn in New Scientist. Dr John Francis, a nuclear physicist, was appointed as the church’s first ‘technologist’ on May 1.

Such was the magnitude of the appointment that the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) – an independent group involving senior leaders and representatives of Scotland’s economy - offered gratitude and thanks for the appointment. Expressing the gratitude of industry for the Church’s move, Dr W S Robertson said: “Since technological invention really began to get under way – and that is quite a short period of time – changes in the human situation of a fundamental kind have begun to take place. People now have a great many choices to make among things they would like. They also have to make choices of a kind they would rather do without –about wars and pollution and individual freedom in a world of growing organisation and complexity.

“A number of Christian people in industry believe that these choices should be influenced by a  Christian view of the purposes to which industrial power should be put. Because of the speed of events, they see this as a matter of urgency.”

It did not take long for the Project to make an impact within the pages of Life and Work – and the wider Church. The November 1970 issue featured a focus on the newly-appointed director by Chris Baur of The Scotsman.

The article praised the Church for the appointment but showed Dr Francis was clear that he was ‘looking for a way of stimulating theologians into taking which is already apparent in the scientific and technological sphere – with its great mass of problems – and introducing some sort of perspective capable of putting back into people’s lives a sense of purpose.’

His ultimate aim, he said was for the Church to help people find ‘an appreciation of the meaning of life’ adding: ‘It is a meaning which has changed from age to age, and has never changed faster than it is changing now in the Age of Technology.’

Reflecting on those early years, Dr Francis said: “The work took off in June 1972 when I was nominated by the World Council of Churches to attend the first UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. This was a defining moment as heads of government, diplomats and their advisors flocked to this venue to debate for the first time the recorded risks and threats to the global climate.

He added: “I look back on the SRTP with a certain sense of achievement from 1970 onwards as the work has covered a wide spectrum of themes and ideas. As a former nuclear scientist I did not ever expect to find myself in the midst of such an enterprise that has engaged and continues to explore so many fields of situation ethics as new technologies emerge and evolve.”

The commitment to the SRT Project, which was initially funded for three years, was strengthened by the Church with the passage of time as it started to tackle issues over the impact of North Sea oil discoveries, the subsequent energy debate and a move into understanding the need to consider a greener more sustainable approach to life, amid major advances in medicine and science in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nuclear power was also a hot topic of debate. The then director, Dr Colin Pritchard, a chemical engineer who succeeded Dr Francis in 1975, used nuclear energy as the focus of an article in the January 1978 issue of Life and Work and urged readers to save energy but also raised a now prophetic question about alternative energy sources.

He wrote: “There is certainly no quick solution to our energy dilemma, either by abandoning nuclear energy entirely or by devising fool-proof means to control it. But the retention of nuclear power as one component of our energy supply should in no way diminish the search for alternative, long-term safer forms of energy.”

The lifespan of the project was extended and it became a permanent part of church life, reporting through different committees and boards to the General Assembly.

To date, the work has been headed by seven people: Dr Francis (1970 – 75), Dr Pritchard (1975 – 1978), Dr Iain Macdonald, agriculturalist (1978 – 1982); Dr Howard Davis, social scientist (1982 - 1985); Dr David Pullinger, information technologist (1986  1992), Dr Donald Bruce, chemist (1992 - 2007) and Dr Murdo Macdonald, molecular biologist (2008 – present)

The importance of the project was highlighted in 1995 when a book, Technology at the Crossroads, written by Life and Work’s own Ron Ferguson celebrating the 25th anniversary, was published.

Perhaps one of its highest profile media moments came in 1997 when news broke that the world’s first cloned sheep, Dolly, had been born at the Roslin Instute, near Edinburgh. Dr Donald Bruce, the then director of the SRT Project, was one of the few people available to provide a unique blend of ethical and scientific comment to a global media, fascinated by the success and the future possibilities.

Today, the pace of change scientific innovation and change has accelerated even more quickly than in the 1960s and 1970s and the SRT Project continues to look into the future and help the church grapple with the scientific and ethical issues that lie ahead.

SRT website

A longer version of this feature appeared in January's Life and Work. Download or subscribe.