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.