NERC’s great “de” risking strategy

Every time I walk past these posters outside BIS a bit of me dies.

On Sunday afternoon someone forwarded me a story from the Guardian saying top UK environmental scientists were being told to use their skills to help “de-risk” oil firms drilling in polar regions. I was a bit shocked. And sceptical. Reading a bit further, the drilling thing is a bit of a jump, but there is still a fair bit to be concerned about.

It’s the final bullet point in point 19, page four of this document (pdf) though it’s worth reading in the section (or whole document) in full, as well as extra reporting from the Guardian’s Terry Macalister, especially the claim that Duncan Wingham, (NERC’s chief executive) feels under pressure to ensure they’re providing value to the UK economy.

I was fuming, and had a bit of a rant on Comment Is Free. To summarise my three main objections: 1) They hope to “de” risk? Oh, please. 2) Stop with the creeping privatization already. 3) The spirit of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty is kinda lovely. We should extend, not erode, it.

The defensive claim that NERC scientists are pressured to demonstrate value for the UK economy especially irked me. It’s just plain unimaginative. There are a variety of ways science might support the economy, it does not necessarily mean supporting the oil industry. Moreover, there are a variety ways to show value, not just to the economy. Academics often complain about “the impact agenda” (there was the mock funeral for British science thing, and then the arts and humanities and the big society fuss), but working to ensure your research has impact is a lot more than listening to what the more powerful industries want of you. Or at least it should be. The idea that “demonstrating impact” is simply a matter of crawling up to oil, arms and car manufactures might be a myth some people would like propagate, but it doesn’t have to be the case (this is the official line, if you’re interested).

As I’ve argued before, I worry we’re sleepwalking into a position where more and more of the innovation process is captured by rather narrow interests of a few powerful industries. I wish academics would reach out to the public more, I suspect they’d find a more diverse set of ideas about their work.

Honestly, I think this story is a case of a single badly written document. But it’s worrying such naivety exists and people at NERC feel this way. As a friend wrote on Facebook: “No wonder our politicians don’t try to interfere with the research councils, they’re perfectly capable of interfering with themselves” (though I do wonder a bit about the pressure they are under here, I would like to know more).

 

Clarification: there’s a line in the first paragraph of that CiF post that’s incorrect. I say the document in question is NERC’s submission to a recent government consultation on merging research centres, when it’s their own consultation It was a last minute edit from something that was more accurate but confusing if you didn’t know the context. I should have replaced it with something better though, for which I apologise.

7 thoughts on “NERC’s great “de” risking strategy

  1. Alasdair Taylor (@AWTaylor83)

    There are reasons why academics have to court big industry. Most academic research is by nature small scale due to lack of material and financial resources and the only organisations able to exploit it are large companies. University’s create and work extensively with SMEs as well, but even these partnerships cannot always bring technologies to the masses. Currently, its only the big players that can put a drug through clinical trials, scale up a process or mass produce and install a new product. Most successful SMEs will, if successful, end up selling their technologies or be bought up by someone larger.

    You say in a previous post that “Science and technology has the capacity to do amazing things. Not just make lots of money, but to spot and solve problems, to help feed us, keep us warm, watered, sheltered, healthy and safe.” But in our current economic and political system, who is going to exploit a technology to achieve these goals if it doesn’t go through industry or business? Academics are appointed as experts in their discipline, they are inventors but not necessarily innovators so at some point they will need to “hand over” their idea to someone else to bring to fruition.

    Its easy to create throwaway lines like “science [should be] by the people for the people”, and if you can define the people as a singular entity, then great! However, we know its much more of a morass of conflicting opinions, pressure groups and interests. Furthermore, flawed as big industry is, we can’t deny the manifold benefits that “the people” (at least in the Developed World) have received from it over the past 100 years.

    As for NERC’s plan to “derisk” oil exploration in the Antarctic, I am in agreement with you here. Its just further evidence that the UK’s energy policy is as muddled as ever with a government that’d rather continue throwing money after old technologies than invest in new.

    Reply
    1. alice Post author

      I’m not against industry, simply against it being captured by those bits of industry which are especially good at lobbying.

      And please, I’m not defining the people as a single entity or at least I mean it as a group which contains a “morass” of opinions, hence why I say scientists would find diversity there.

      I also think you’re being complacent to say “in our current economic and political system” – why can’t scientists be arguing their case for a change in such a system, rather than supporting it? Divert money spent on Trident, for example (or if you like nuclear bombs, something else, tax dodgers…).

      Reply
      1. Alasdair Taylor (@AWTaylor83)

        I am in total agreement with your last comment and I don’t mean to sound complacent about it at all! A small shift of budget from something like military spending or bank bailouts or the collecting of unpaid corporation tax would make a massive difference to science R&D. I don’t think its fair to say scientists aren’t beginning to argue this point- didn’t Brian Cox say something like the amount spent on the bailouts is equal to the total amount of money spent on science since Jesus? Again, a throwaway line but still… An example- RCUK investment into solar photovoltaics is about £5m for the next few years. It’d hardly break the bank to double or triple this, which would make a huge difference into how capable the UK is at becoming a leader in this field. Its probably loose change from what Starbucks owe anyway.

        Scientists will find diversity in the people, as they do in industry too, but mechanisms have to be in place to stop the public voice being hijacked by the lobbyists or pressure groups, nimbyists etc. And scientists would need help in sifting through the “morass”…

        Reply
        1. alice Post author

          Yeah, but you aren’t the first to think that. The UK is a world leader in policies of public engagement, which are several decades in the making.

          Reply
          1. David Colquhoun

            I know what the official line on “impact” is, though it’s been hard to keep up with the changes made as the RCs come to realise that the previous definition was daft. In fact it’s now defined so loosely as to be pretty meaningless (but you are still required to write some sort of nonsense about it).

            The fact of the matter is that impact of most basic research often can’t be measured until many decades after it was done. By the time it’s really known the researcher may well be dead. Yet the research councils still want us to write about it before the research has even been started -before the outcome of the work is known. One does wonder about the intellect of people who ask you to do that.

            Reply
  2. Alasdair Taylor (@AWTaylor83)

    No, I’m sure I’m not. I’ll admit I’m new to the whole STS and sci policy areas, so am trying my best to play catch up. Why do I care? Well, I went into science to invent and research solutions to the problems we face but I’ve found that invention is often the easy part. Its turning that invention into something tangible that’s the challenging, but perhaps more rewarding, part. There can be a lot of barriers in the way and, as you say, we need to engage better with policy makers and the public to develop a better approach to science going forward.

    Reply
  3. David Colquhoun

    I know what the official line on “impact” is, though it’s been hard to keep up with the changes made as the RCs come to realise that the previous definition was daft. In fact it’s now defined so loosely as to be pretty meaningless (but you are still required to write some sort of nonsense about it).

    The fact of the matter is that impact of most basic research often can’t be measured until many decades after it was done. By the time it’s really known the researcher may well be dead. Yet the research councils still want us to write about it before the research has even been started -before the outcome of the work is known. One does wonder about the intellect of people who ask you to do that.

    Reply

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