Tag Archives: industry

Information, advertising and the fracking debate

frack off

For a while this autumn, one of the first things I’d see from my train as it approached London was a giant advertising billboard celebrating British reliance on Norwegian gas, perhaps placed for commuters en route to Westminister via Victoria. This was balanced by a rather less slick “Frack Off” banner which greeted us on arrival home in Brighton. I was often struck by the differences in style of presentation, and the very different approach to energy policy.

Though both posters have now gone, I remembered them today while reading a report from risk consultancy on the global anti-fracking protests. My personal view on fracking – or rather “unconventional gas” – is that we probably need to try to keep fossil fuels in the ground and there is a worrying about of hype around shale gas because, at least, we should have a debate about such policies, but maybe I’m wrong. The report makes their view reasonably clear:

Unconventional natural gas is often described as game-changing and transformative, a revolution heralding a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy for a resource-constrained world. But only if it makes it out of the ground. [...] As unconventional gas development spreads worldwide, and becomes more central to government energy policy and corporate investment strategy, a better understanding of the anti-fracking movement – its goals, structure, methods and trajectory – is essential for companies, policymakers and other observers of the emergent energy boom.

It’s a fascinating read, for many reasons. It argues the movement has worked largely through the mobalisation of grass-roots activism (p 6-7), facilitated by the inter-connectedness allowed by social media. They note the involvement of large NGOs (notably Friends of the Earth in Australia) and suggest this has pulled it towards an climate change agenda (p9) but that the rhetoric of grassroots activism lends the movement “legitimacy, credibility and authenticity” especially with policymakers and the media.

The report also credits the film Gasland with a lot of influence. One might laugh at their idea of a film-fulled grass-roots movement as a bit contradictory, but it’s worth thinking about the way Gasland was made and distributed (as well as the style of storytelling); it’s not like saying some Hollywood movie caused alarmism. This report may not be very reflexive about the politics of a call for shale gas, but they aren’t patronising the activists who oppose it. They go on: “the industry has underestimated the sophistication, reach and influence of the anti-fracking movement. It is not simply ‘NIMBy-ism’ masquerading as environmentalism, but a diverse coalition of ideological and vested interests unlikely to be swayed by industry-funded studies or glossy public relations campaigns” (p.2). I’d agree with that.

I think my favourite bit is when they note how good the anti-fracking websites are at monitoring the the unconventional gas industry and publicising industry information (p8). I got the report via the Frack Off twitter account, appropriately enough.

“Do your pupils have an energy gap?”

The Big Bang Fair, a big science and engineering event for schoolkids was held in Birmingham last month. Led by Engineering UK and supported by various government departments, charities, learned societies and businesses, it’s an annual event that’s been going for a while. They seem to have taken down the list of 2012 sponsors, but you can see a list of the 2011 ones in this leaflet (pdf), which included BAE Systems, Shell, EDF Energy and Sellafield Ltd.

Seeing as some of these firms are perhaps only too expert in making extremely big bangs, it’s upset a few people. Check out the BAE wikipedia entry, ‘products’ subheading if you don’t get why.

Anne Schulthess from CND happened to be at another education show in Birmingham that week and spotting the Big Bang, dropped in. She shared some photos, noting “basically it’s the arms fair for children. With a bit of environmental destruction thrown in for good measure”. Back in 2009, Scientists for Global Responsibility and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade condemned BAE’s role in the event (SGR/CAAT press release, reproduced on my old blog). I’d be tempted to suggest one of these groups try to set up a stall at the fair next year but even if Engineering UK let them, the £20,000 to £100,000 pricetag might well be out of the budget of a small NGO.

Industrial involvement in science education is nothing new. Take, for example, these adverts I found in some old copies of the National Association for Environmental Education’s magazine (c. 1978):

The Science Museum have a fair bit of history here: from the BNFL sponsored atomic gallery in the 1980s to Shell sponsorship of their climate gallery in 2010 (see also this 2008 freedom of information request on Shell and BP funding). I used to work on their Energy gallery, and it’d be depressing to watch visitors clock the BP logo, laugh and walk away.

I worry when I see reports that the Smithsonian were so pleased to have secured a sponsor that was ok with the idea of evolution that they let a bit of not very scientific attitude to climate change in (e.g. see ThinkProgress, 2010). I also worry when I hear about teaching resources designed to stress the uncertainty of climate change (e.g. see Guardian, 2012). I can see why groups like Liberate Tate focus on the corporate sponsorship of art and Greenpeace scale the National Gallery, but I worry slightly more about the involvement of the oil industry in exhibitions where their work is an actual topic in the content.

We should be careful of simply assuming corporate sponsorship means they have influence on content. Science Museum staff claim editorial independence from any of their sponsors. Just as, I noticed, the Guardian stresses Greenpeace had no say over editorial content of John Vidal’s report on industrial fishing in West Africa, even though the NGO paid his travel costs to Senegal. We should also recognise that there is a lot of scientific expertise in industry, just as Greenpeace give Vidal access to places he wouldn’t otherwise see. Science isn’t just a matter of what goes on in ivory towers, so perhaps it’s only right that such groups involved. Plus, seeing as people don’t seem to want to pay fees or taxes for publicly funded science communication, maybe it’s only sensible the Science Museum et al ask groups who’ve made a lot of money out of science and technology give something back. We can’t just rely on moneybags of the Wellcome Trust (which has its own complex economic history anyway).

As I’ve argued before, if businesses are going to have involvement in science education, I want to see what they think, warts and all. If groups like the Science Museum really have editorial control, they should take industrial sponsorship only if the company involved will also (a) give them their expertise, and (b) be happy for said expertise to be put under some scrutiny. Rather than retreat behind claims to scientific objectivity, science communication should wear it’s political fights on its sleeve, show science’s various institutional connections for what they really are. These sorts of debates are part of science in society and should be offered up and opened up for broader public discussion, appreciation and scrutiny.

I’ve worked with a load of instituions in science communication, from Girl Guiding UK to the Royal Society, with a fair bit of industrial sponsorship thrown in at times too. This included stints at CND, Mind and the Science Museum while I was still in my teens. For that reason, I don’t think we should be scared about opening up debate on the politics of science at educational events aimed at schoolkids like the Big Bang Fair. I coped with these issues and think others can too. We should show them BAE, but make sure they get a group like SGR along to help offer other sides too. We should trust young people more when it comes to the messiness of science in society.

UK science blogger interview: Daniel MacArthur

After completing his PhD in 2008 in Australia, Daniel moved to the UK to take up a position at the Sanger Institute, the largest genomics research institute in the country. His day job revolves around the analysis of DNA sequence data from projects like the 1000 Genomes Project, and figuring out ways of using these torrents of data to help inform studies of human disease. His blog Genetic Future focuses on the personal genomics industry: companies offering to sell you information about your own genome, for purposes ranging from learning about your ancestors to predicting your risk of serious diseases.

First question: Do you have a specific audience (or set of audiences) in mind when you blog?

This is something that has really evolved over time as I started to get to know my readers. Initially I had a very vague idea of potential readers – basically anyone interested in genetics, I suppose – but I found it very hard to write about the things I was interested in without implicitly requiring some kind of background knowledge from the reader. I also started to accumulate a great group of regular commenters with expertise in the field, a combination of self-educated genetic hobbyists and people with more formal training, and that’s the level that I ended up pitching most of my posts.

I’m never sure if I’ve found the right balance, but it’s certainly made it easier for me to write about the scientific and commercial aspects of genomics to not have to build in a huge amount of introductory material for every post.

Is there anything about your composition style, or choice of subject matter which you feel has changed over time? (as you have got to know your readers, or for other reasons).

Yes, absolutely. When I started the blog I initially focused on genetics more broadly, with an emphasis on the scientific issues. As time has gone on I’ve focused more and more on the commercial side of things, spending a lot of time discussing companies involved in direct-to-consumer genetic testing and DNA sequencing. To some extent this shift has been reader-driven, but mostly it’s just a reflection of how my own interests have changed over the last couple of years.

Changing track a bit. You’ve written about some of the difficulties of scientists (live) blogging conferences. Do you feel there is a role for blogging in opening up business as well as science? Equally, do you feel especially constrained ever as a science blogger who focuses on commercial issues?

There’s definitely a role for scientifically-literate bloggers in opening up the commercial world to public scrutiny. One scathing post from a blogger laying out the deficiencies of a company’s genetic test can end up dominating Google search hits for that company’s name, which then means potential consumers doing even the most superficial web research before buying can quickly get access to informed criticism. That’s incredibly important in a field as complex as genetic testing, where most consumers aren’t really in a position to make a fully informed decision – having independent, expert reviews out there on the internet can make it a lot easier for people to make the right choice.

That said, with power comes consequences. It’s easy to forget that what you say as a blogger can have a major impact on the companies you write about: one bad review of a new sequencing technology could sometimes be enough to dissuade a key investor from buying in, for example. When that sort of money is at stake the consequences of mis-reporting are pretty serious, so I’m now always quite careful to make sure what I say about a company is carefully-phrased and well-justified. I don’t always get that right when I’m writing in a hurry or if I’m particularly outraged by a dodgy product, but I try.

Can you imagine more corporate-based science blogging, in similar ways science charities like Cancer Research UK or the Wellcome Trust blog? (esp. the former, as their news blog works to act against google results of “bad” health news messages they would like to combat?)

There are already some quality corporate science blogs out there – a particularly good example in my field is The Spittoon, run by direct-to-consumer genetic testing company 23andMe. However, it’s hard for corporate blogs to stay on-message without either being boring or looking like PR shills for their company. I’d definitely like to see more companies out there blogging, but if they do so they’re going to have to learn to give their bloggers a reasonably long leash and be prepared to deal openly with controversy in the comments section. It’s tough to get the balance right, but companies that do it well can get a lot of respect (and business) as a result; unfortunately, companies that get it wrong (as Pepsico did this week) can find themselves in a world of pain!

Finally, can you tell us your favourite blog? (it doesn’t have to be a science blog)

I’m a nerd, so all of my favourite blogs are science blogs! It’s very tough to pick a single winner, so I’ll name three instead: for general science I’d have to say Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science, for my field of research I think John Hawks’ excellent palaeoanthropology blog, and for personal genomics I have only good things to say about the Genomics Law Report.

This is one of a series of four interviews with UK-based science bloggers. You can find links to all the interviews (and more) here.