Category Archives: policy

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.

Oh, Canada. Oh, Rio.

Rio 1992, by Alice Bell aged 11. No idea why I still have this, somehow got filed with my swimming certificates.

I have a post on Comment is Free arguing this week’s protests by scientists in Canada are not just a local issue, but of global concern. Modern science is a global enterprise: people from all over the world have studied at the Experimental Lakes Area (currently threatened with closure). It’s also a global concern because the biggest tensions seem to surround environmental issues with global impact: the Experimental Lakes Area is where where the first evidence for acid rain came from. Plus, there are multinational industries and NGOs involved, and that’s without delving into any intersections with defence policy (cough, polar hawk purchases, cough). We can’t pretend Canadian science is simply a Canadian matter any more than we can divorce the natural world from political decisions.

I also wanted to stress a need for democratic engagement. These protestors held banners proclaiming “No science, no truth, no evidence, no democracy”. They did so partly because they worry corporate interests are clouding public debate, especially around energy policy (see, for example, Robin McKie on this back in February) and want to offer science as a way out of corrupted discourse. Still, it’s important scientists bring the public with them when they make proclamations like this; share their ideas and show how the public value science. Otherwise they’re just demanding people listen to them, and I’m not sure how democratic that is.

Thinking about that question of democracy made me reflect back on the Rio +20 summit last month. Reading the various requiems for these talks, the key message seems to be that our leaders have failed us but there is hope in public activism. Mary Robinson has some strong words on the topic. Even the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need look beyond governments. Part of me is really inspired by statements like that. Part of me’s still cynical.

I dug out Naomi Oreskes’ LA Times oped from January, where she argues the need for leadership on climate issues. I didn’t like it when I first read it. She seemed to give in to a top down approach to science in society which just doesn’t sit well with me. Re-reading it now I want to shout “ha, well look at your leaders now, ner-ner-ner-ner”. But I take her point sharing esoteric expertise isn’t that simple. It’s also hard (impossible?) to do public engagement at the scale of global population.

John Vidal cites the emergence of “eye catching bottom up initiatives” as some reasons to be cheerful after Rio+20. I’m really not sure his examples are the best ones. I think they are projects that were launched at Rio, not ones that emerged. They look like rather downstream invitations to passive engagement within a pre-set frame, more about enumerating the actors of PR than diffusing political power. I felt echos of Steve Yearley’s argument (e.g. 2008) that the green movement enjoys the rhetoric of mass participation but only on their own terms. Maybe that’s ok, they are campaigns after all, but lets not kid ourselves into imaging we’ve found a new type of politics. Yet.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being grumpy.

Science and growth

Last week I co-organised a debate on science and growth, one of a regular* “Science Question Time” seminars.

The idea that science might equal growth is something which has dominated UK science policy discourse for several years (e.g. David Willetts’ first speech as Science Minister). But can the government pick winners, and how can we ensure public coffers benefit from such public investment? Perhaps we need to think in different terms entirely – should we be looking to technology for sustainability, rather than growth? Is an unrelenting focus on growth a bit irresponsible? (see, for example, the Royal Society’s recent People and the Planet report).

We brought together a panel consisting of Penny Attridge (SPARK Ventures), Rebekah Higgitt** (National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory), Mariana Mazzucato*** (SPRU, University of Sussex) and James Meadway (new economics foundation), chaired by Jack Stilgoe (University of Exeter) and involving a diverse audience largely drawn from science, policy and journalism for what turned out to be an exciting and lively debate.

Yes, exiting and lively, about innovation policy, really and truly, I promise. It was even funny at times. You can listen to a podcast of the event for yourself:

 

 

* The last event was in March, on nuclear policy. You can also listen to a podcast of this event. That was played over 120,000 times, so it must be good (nothing to do with it having been Boing-ed, not at all…).

** Becky’s written up her notes for the evening with some good links on her blog.

*** Professor Mazzucato’s contribution was dominated by questions of rebalancing the economy (and what we might mean by this) with a particular focus on the capturing of structures and rewards of innovative labour by the financial sector. You can read her report on this for the Policy Network, published yesterday (see also her piece for the Guardian).

Opening up science funding

Keep Science Public – from Science is Vital Rally, Autumn 2010

Adam Smith (no, not that one, or that one, or that one, the science writer one) has a new series of posts for the Guardian on science policy starting today. His first post raises several questions, including who should set the goals for science? Scientists themselves? Or politicians? How might the public be involved in this?

I think we should open up these sorts of questions more to the public. There’s a long history of science communication in the UK, but we tend to focus on the stuff science tells us about the world, not the politics of science itself. Popularisation of scientific ideas is all well and good – sometimes important, sometimes fun, sometimes both – I’m glad we do it. But I want more public debate about the politics and structures of science too. I’d like to live in a society where we have more public debate about the science we could have, not just the science we’ve been given.

Obviously we don’t know what science we’ll have until we try some. The public can’t just present science with a shopping list “vaccine for cancer, anti-baldness pill, spray on cleverness and ever-lasting pollution free fuel, thanks”. Setting the goals of science isn’t about controlling what scientists find, only what they choose to look at and how. This happens already, so I think it should, as much as possible, happen in the open with the public involved. We can’t say what science should find, but we can discuss what challenges science might try to address, what questions it might ask and what we might do with the multiple choices which new technologies provide us (for more on the last of these, see this old post on the history of fridges). You can’t have a referendum on whether the Earth is Flat, but we can have a discussion about whether checking the Earth is flat or not is something we want to be doing.

I suggested more public engagement with science funding at Lord Taverne’s Sense About Science lecture last week (audio). Taverne had joked that the public trust scientists as long as their not funded by industry or the government, and I suggested that maybe then, we needed more public engagment with science funding. Taverne’s response wasn’t especially satisfactory – I wondered if he’d heard me properly – as he seemed to say we might have to give up on public funding of science entirely and rely on the Wellcome Trust. I find that quite depressing. I’m not sure I’m ready to give up of the public funding of science yet, and I stand by the idea that we could try to involve the public in this process (indeed, never know, the latter might help us support the former).

Science policy is very dry. It’s full of a lot of dull discussion about the geekier everyday ends of science and an awful lot of bureaucracy. If I was feeling cynical, I might argue that it suits a fair few policy makers and scientists to keep this debate so dry as a way to keep public scrutiny out. That might be unfair. Still, science funding could actually be one of the most exciting areas of science storytelling, if we let it. A few people have started looking into public engagement projects (The IFR at Norwich, Cobi Smith in Canberra) and research councils increasingly include a range of ‘lay’ members of peer review panels. As I’ve argued before, in terms of upstream science journalism, I think it’d make good stories for science media too.

I’ve always thought that CP Snow line about scientists having the future in their bones was a tad overblown, but there is a truth in there somewhere, and it’s an exciting truth I’d like to share with more people. Deciding our future, as best as we can, shouldn’t be left to the privileged few.

Identifying arguments in climate science

George Bush used to say, in his generous way, that the science [of climate change] is uncertain. But it’s an almost content free statement because science is about uncertainty.

Lord Oxburgh FRS, Imperial College, 30th January 2012.

That quote comes from a debate on climate science in the mass media we held at Imperial last week, part of the pilot science in context course I’m working on. You can find a podcast of the debate at the college media site.

Oxburgh chaired the event, with a panel comprising of Louise Gray (Environment Correspondent, Telegraph), James Randerson (Environment and Science News Editor, Guardian), James Painter (Reuters Institute, University of Oxford) and Joe Smith (Open University), along with questions from our undergraduates.

A couple of students and tutors later told me they felt the panelists were too similar, that there wasn’t enough ‘debate’ and they’d have liked to see a climate sceptic. I take that point, but also disagree with it. There was, if you listen carefully, a fair bit of diversity within the discussion. It wasn’t one side vs. the other, and just because the panellists tended to be polite and smile and nod at each other didn’t mean they were all coming from the same position.

It’s worth reflecting on how we identify a ‘debate’ here. Debates do not always have to be a battle of two opposing views. Personally, I’d say that’s often the least productive sort of debate you can have. They can also just be a group of people playing with a particular issue; a matter of chatting to gradually identify problems and reflect on possible answers. Indeed, this question of how we structure and spot the debate within climate science was a key topic of this particular event, as it was in our previous class, with Brian Hoskins.

James Painter started things off by stressing there are many types of uncertainty involved in the public discussion of climate change, including many types of scepticism: ‘there are many ways you can question and be uncertain about climate science’. Drawing on his Poles Apart report, he suggested four types: people who are sceptical that global warming is happening, those who a sceptical that it is due to human action, those who are sceptical about aspects of climate change’s impact and people who are sceptical about specific policies.

James Randerson followed with a different track, noting the stretch of the issue with reference to an extraordinary letter to the Guardian from the medical community, calling for more transparently on climate lobbyists. Louise Gray offered another topical case study: the diversity of coverage of a recent UK government report on the impacts of climate change to the UK: the Guardian focused on the burden to poor where as the Telegraph noted possible opportunities for the tourist industry (you can google for yourself to see what the Mail said). As Gray argued, newspapers will have different frames for how they read climate news based on the editors’ ideas of their customers, a point underlined by Joe Smith later when he stressed the way we all bring our own cultural ‘baggage’ to climate change debates, and plugging Mike Hulme’s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change

For his presentation, Joe Smith argued that in many ways climate science makes for a rubbish story in the mass media. There is simply too much of a consensus: too many of the experts agree, what really is there to report? He said he used to think the consensus on climate change was a good thing, but it does make it unreportably dull, which is why the contrarian views get pulled in, to liven it up. There isn’t enough of an edge, maybe we need more of an edge? Gray echoed this in discussion, saying we should pay attention to more of the ‘dodgy things’ going on around climate change - subsidies, inefficiencies of NGOs – that the real stories are less about sceptic vs non-sceptic and more about who is doing the right thing, how and when. Randerson and Oxburgh seemed slightly more cautious of Smith’s call for more arguments, laughing ‘careful what you wish for’ and noting the ways a stronger sense of disagreement plays in the US and Australia. I wonder if that misses Smith and Gray’s point though, which to me was more of a call to open up the political edginess of climate change policy. It was about the disagreements at the end of Painter’s typology of sceptics: debate over what to do about climate change, not whether it is happening or why.

For me, this was summed up in a comment from Gray near the end of the evening: ‘there’s a lot of heat and fire around a few sceptical people, but maybe that is the wrong focus’.

Maybe you disagree though.

In praise of POST

If you are even the slightest bit interested in science and technology policy, you really should know about the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (or POST as it’s more commonly known).

POST is the UK Parliament’s in-house office for analysis of science policy issues. Obviously it could do a lot more than it does and there are oodles of problems with it, yadda, yadda, yadda, but it’s Friday and I think they’re worthy of a little celebration.

About 20-30 times a year they publish briefing notes on specific issues. These vary, but can be brilliantly clear introductions to the often highly complex, multi-disciplinary and uncertain issues of science and technology policy. They’ve just published their 400th POSTnote, on climate variability and weather. These are often produced by young scientists on a placement and according to the POST twitter account, this one was produced with the assistance of Matt Ashfold, a NERC funded PhD student from Cambridge.

The whole archive of POSTnotes is worth a look though. A great resource and, for science policy geeks, a great way to loose a few hours on a cold afternoon.

For fracks sake

“Who even invented that word fracking anyway? I bet it was an environmentalist.”

Anthony Giddens, 17th January 2012

Anthony Giddens doesn’t seem to like the word fracking. At a debate on shale gas at the Policy Network earlier this week he wrapped his mouth around it as if the very sound produced a bad smell right there under his nose. It sounds ever so slightly like a rude word you see (I know. Naughty) which leads to punning headlines which sensationalises debate.

I disagree with this as necessarily a problem though. In fact, I’m all for punning headlines when it comes to very esoteric debates like shale gas. Yeah, you could see it as a distraction from real* issues. Or you could see it as an invitation. This thing that sometimes gets called “sensationalism” is not necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial issue for me was that Giddens expressed this distaste for the word fracking while sitting in a small, not especially full room in the centre of Westminster; a small room in the shadow of Big Ben, above an ecclesiastical outfitters and nestled behind one of the UK’s most exclusive private schools. There were at least two members of the House of Lords there. Possibly more (I’m not very good at peer-spotting). There were certainly a lot of suits. Apparently it was an open event, although an academic from the LSE also told me it was invite only and although it may not have been intensionally closed, it did feel a tad elitist. I felt scared emailing to ask if I could go, and slightly out of place when I arrived. And I work for two of top universities in the country. I even used to work in those offices, above J Whipple and Sons ecclesiastical outfitters, back when it was rented by NESTA. I should feel reasonably at home there.

I should make it clear that I don’t want energy policy dictated by punning headline. I do want people who make the decisions on these issues to take the time to be expert, probably for them to understand it better than I do and talk about things I don’t have time to learn how to understand. I like that people sit in small rooms in Westminster being a bit geeky. But I do not want them to be disdainful of popular debate while they do so. In fact, I’d want them to spend time thinking about how to open the debate up as much as possible. Punning headlines being part of that.

Let’s take, for example the Fracking Song which includes this little beauty of a lyric: “What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on, I think we need some facts to come to light…” (complete a slight emphasis on facts to assonate with frack). The song accompanies a short animated video which is offered as an introduction to the issue, something it’s makers describe as an “explainer”. They stress that an explainer is not meant to take the place of the detailed investigation, it’s just a starting point. It’s a lovely bit of video; really makes you feel like you understand an issue and are able and want to know more. It is also, I should underline still a framing of the issue, a starting point from a particular position. For all that the word explainer may sound comfortingly straightforward, logical and educational, it is still a version of the more complex events going on. It is still a take on the topic, a story, form of spin even. That lovely feeling where you think you understand an issue is produced because it’s such a great piece of rhetoric. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s rhetoric. Lots of things are rhetoric. Including all the debate from Giddens et al I heard on shale gas (not fracking) at the Policy Network. One person’s “sensationalism” is another’s “hit the nail on the head”.

So, let’s talk about fracking. And if Giddens thinks this is the wrong way into a debate about shale gas he should join in and help enrich public debate, not turn his nose up at it.

* Whatever the “real” issues are. Personally, I think the focus of these issues is up for debate, which is part of the point. Incidentally, I don’t think it was an environmental campaigner who coined the term fracking, it’s been an industrial process for several decades. But even if it was I’m not entirely sure what the problem is.

EDITED TO ADD: years ago, when I was an undergrad studying science in the mass media I wrote an essay on the politics of sensationalism and remember reading this paper (paywall, sorry). Not sure I agreed with it then, or now, but people reading this might find it interesting.