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Thursday, 19 December 2013

Could Bristol drones help with Fukushima clean-up?

Channel 4 News tests a special drone developed by Cabot Institute scientists at the University of Bristol which could potentially help in the Fukushima clean up.

Read the full story.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Uncertainties about the effects of fracking in the UK

I'm a bit of an energy agnostic. This week I attended a talk at UWE about fracking and its impact on the environment in the hope of making a better informed decision on the controversial topic.

What is fracking?

Jenna Brown, a first year PhD student, started off with an introduction to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.

Gas molecules trapped in dense shale rocks are almost impossible to obtain by normal drilling. Fracking involves drilling vertically down and then horizontally into the rock. Fracking fluid, a mixture of water, sand and other chemicals, is injected into the rock at high pressure, expanding the tiny cracks and allowing the gas trapped within to escape and travel back up the pipe for collection.

Taken from BBC News

Natural gas is viewed as a transition energy source from dirty fossil fuels to greener renewable energies in the future. It produces almost half the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal, which could help us meet the national target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.
Image by Varodrig
Jenna explained that the government see shale gas as a way to improve our national energy security. The British Geological Survey estimates that the Bowland Shale reserve in central England holds 1329 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, although across the entire UK estimates vary wildly because they are mainly based on data from other countries. Jenna highlighted the fact that whilst this is a huge amount of fuel, much if not most of it will not be technically recoverable. Still, it could provide greater energy security in the UK, which imported one trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the first six months of this year.
Water use
Dr. Chad Staddon, associate professor of resource geographies at UWE, spoke about the possible problems that UK water security faces with fracking. As well as the potential to pollute ground water (explained here), Chad was concerned that fracking could pose a problem to UK water security but even more worried that this had not yet been assessed in detail.
Fracking requires a huge volume of water; around 4 - 20 million litres per well in the USA according to the International Energy Agency. This amounts to just 0.3% of US national water usage, however Chad highlighted two important problems with this figure. First, US shale reserves are only around 750m deep. In the UK, our reserves may reach down as far as 3km, meaning we could layer six or more horizontal fracking pipes in a single well. The increased depth and number of fracking pipes means that significantly more water may be required in UK sites.
The second issue is one of local resources. Even in relatively rainy countries there can be pockets of water scarcity, which can be intensified by local demand. Unfortunately, there is little guidance in the published scientific literature to aid the UK in avoiding over-committing our water to fracking at the cost of food production and water security. Parts of the UK, such as the south east, are already at water capacity. Adding the water demands of fracking may lead to local droughts or the costly transport of water from other parts of the country. A 2013 report for the Department of Energy and Climate Change stated that if waste water is recycled where possible, water requirements for fracking could be managed sustainably.
Air quality
Methane emissions in the USA.
Image from United States
Environmental Protection Agency
Dr. Enda Hayes, a UWE research fellow, spoke about the effect fracking could have on air quality management. He was trying to learn more about the emissions from a shale gas well, however the findings in scientific reports varied enormously because no two wells are the same. Different geographies, demands and outputs greatly affect the results, which means that it is very difficult to use US data to try and predict the effect of fracking on UK air quality. Fracking could contribute to particulates and toxic compounds in the air, as well as increased CO2 emissions and methane leaks.  
Less CO2 is produced per unit of energy when burning shale gas compared to coal and oil. However Enda spoke about recent reports stating that the net effect of shale gas on greenhouse gases is likely to be small, and could actually increase emissions if the displaced coal and other fossil fuels are used elsewhere. Another major player in climate change is methane. In the USA, 11% of methanee missions are produced from coal mining, mainly by methane leaking from the mines. Shale gas is mostly comprised of methane, which must be properly contained to prevent even greater emissions from leaks.

Big questions
The panelists agreed that there is simply not enough relevant information to decide whether the benefits outweigh the negatives of fracking in the UK. There are several big questions that I think need to be answered. Just how much water would a UK shale gas well need? Do we have the technology to prevent water and air pollution? Do viable alternatives to fracking exist, and can we afford them?
Is there a perfect energy source? Should we stick to cheap-but-dirty coal or switch to inefficient bird-killing windmills? Are you more scared of nuclear meltdowns or global warming? As David Shukman concluded in his excellent BBC article, "whichever type of power you choose, it is going to make someone angry".
This blog is written by Sarah Jose, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol
You can follow Sarah on Twitter @JoseSci 
Sarah Jose

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Environmental uncertainty: A challenge to both business and vulnerable communities

In September, the IPCC published the Fifth Annual Report on the Physical Basis of Climate Change.  It devotes little attention to the human and ecological impacts of global environmental and climatic change, topics that will be addressed by working group reports released in early 2014 .  Nonetheless, the trajectory of climate and other environmental changes and their implicit impacts on society are stark. Despite numerous treaties and efforts at mitigation, concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continue to increase, and at greater rather than diminished rates. If those rates continue they will result in global warming of 3 to 5.5°C by 2100. This in turn, will result in dramatic changes to the global hydrological cycle, including both more evaporation and more rainfall.

A More Uncertain Climate
Flood by Paul Bates
The results will be a more hostile climate for many as land can become either drier or more flood-prone or both, changes exacerbated in coastal areas by sea level rise.  Freshwater supply will also be affected by the forecast changes in climate. The quantity of water flowing in glacier or snow-melt fed river basins will change, affecting around a sixth of the world’s population[i], while coastal freshwater will be contaminated with saline water[ii]. Areas of the Mediterranean[iii], Western USA[iv], Southern Africa[v] and North Western Brazil[vi] are projected to face decreased availability of freshwater.

Key to understanding who will be affected is our ability to predict changes in rainfall, seasonality, and temperature at a regional scale.  However, regional climatic predictions are the most challenging and least certain, especially with respect to the nature and amount of rainfall. For vast parts of the world, including much of South America, Africa and SE Asia, it is unclear whether climate change will bring about wetter or drier conditions. Thus, uncertainty will become the norm: uncertainty in rainfall; uncertainty in weather extremes and seasonality; and most importantly, uncertainty in water resources.

Those combined effects lead to an additional and perhaps the most profound uncertainty for the latter half of the 21st century: uncertainty in food production and access. In the absence of other factors, climate uncertainty and more common extreme events will compromise agriculture at all scales, yielding increased food prices and increased volatility in markets. 

Impacts on the Poor
Although the human impacts of climate change will be diverse, their effects will be worst for the most impoverished and, by extension, least resilient population groups.  The UN reports that climate change could “increase global malnutrition by up to 25% by 2080.”  And all of this occurs against a backdrop in which access to food is already a challenge for the poorest of the world already a challenge for the poorest of the world [p5], a situation exacerbated by the global financial crash. 

These risks to the poorest result from a lack of resources to mitigate harm, lack of power to protect resources, and the global competition for resources.

Those who lack the financial resources to migrate or build more hazard-resistant homes will suffer most from extreme events, as has been sharply illustrated by those suffering most in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.  Those who can least afford to dig deeper wells into more ancient aquifers as water resources diminish will go thirsty.  Subsistence farmers – and those dependent on them – are less resistant to climate shocks (desertification) and adverse weather events (flooding) than commercial farmers.

Land ownership for the poorest is often tenuous, and displacement from land a serious problem for many.  Previous switches to biofuels have led to land competition, resulting in both loss of land to subsistence [p6]  farmers, and diversion of commercial production leading to shortages [p7]  and increased food prices. Within communities, these effects are not evenly spread as marginalised groups, such as women, are the least likely to hold land tenure [p8] .  Similarly, there is increased competition for water [p9]  between peoples, but also between water for industry (including agriculture) and water for drinking. When water is scarce, pollution of fresh water is common, and governance is weak, the poorest are likely to lose out.

Image by Mammal Research Unit
University of Bristol
Food competition will most likely be exacerbated by other factors: rising demand from a rapidly expanding population and a growing demand for meat from a global ‘middle class’; the increased economic divide between post-industrial and developing nations; the ongoing depletion of soil nutrients and associated impacts on the nutritional value of our food.  The combination of these factors will result in profound impacts on food security. Who decides what gets grown? Who can afford it in the context of global markets and the loss of agricultural land? The poorest members of even the wealthiest societies are the most vulnerable to dramatic and unpredictable changes in food costs[p10] .

‘Wicked Problems’
These issues yield a profoundly challenging ethical issue: the wealthy who are most responsible for anthropogenic climate change, via the greatest material consumption and energy demand, have the greatest resilience to food market fluctuations and the greatest means for avoiding their most deleterious impacts.  Therefore, these issues challenge all governments to dramatically and swiftly act to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the associated climate change. 

Unfortunately, many proposed mitigation strategies could also have negative consequences for food prices and availability. Increasing energy prices, such as those brought about by a carbon tax, will be passed onto food prices.  Genetically modified foods could be essential to feeding a growing population, and we would urge that future efforts expand to incorporate a greater degree of climate resilience in crops; however, the patents on those crops can make them financially inaccessible to the poorest nations or build critical dependencies. 

Although sustainable agriculture and crops might reduce the impact of climate change and uncertainty in some countries, these solutions can be deleterious for the poorest.  They are more likely to live in regions and areas most negatively affected by climate change, most likely to be relying on subsistence/small scale agriculture and least likely to have access to the global market as consumers.  In other words, a stable global market will be of little direct benefit to them; in fact, most of these populations are likely to face competition for land/water use from globalised markets (for biofuels or commercial farming).  In short, what builds food resilience in one nation might be exposing the most economically vulnerable in another.

In fact, when properly mobilised for the benefit of the community, access to new energy sources – even if in the form of fossil fuels – can be transformative and facilitate the economic growth needed to access increasingly globalised food markets [p12].    Domestic access to gas reduces the need to collect wood for fires, reducing deforestation, improving air quality, and freeing up time for communities to address other development needs.

This is not an argument against mitigation of climate change, but it does need to be balanced against human development needs; and this represents one of the world’s most profound challenges. In some circles, we consider this a ‘wicked’ problem: a problem that has multiple causes, probably in interaction, and where information is incomplete, such that proposed solutions might be incomplete, contradictory, complex and work across multiple causes in complex systems.

Challenges and Opportunities
Biofuel by La Jolla
Wicked problems are not intractable, however, and previous studies of land use for biofuels provide clues as to how a complex solution could be more sustainable for all; well planned switches to biofuels which consider local custom in land tenure can provide more land for agriculture, and reduce deforestation pressure.

In such situations, we argue, solutions which focus on halting or slowing climate change alone, and then coping with the business and development problems that they might create answer the wrong question.  Our challenge to the business (and academic) community, then, is to engage with some wicked questions:

  • What are the business opportunities in improving the social and physical environment?
  • Can the global agricultural system be a single resilient network, rather than a competition?
  • What technology or innovation is needed to support a resilient food network?
  • How can innovative solutions to these challenges generate local income, allowing reinvestment in education and development?

These are difficult questions but they also represent opportunities for development and growth in poor communities.  A world with increasing environmental uncertainty is a challenge for both businesses and vulnerable communities.  But it could also be a shared opportunity for growth and development: to innovate and identify new solutions, to co-invest in local resilience and risk reduction, and to share the growth that arises from more stable communities. 

[i] Z Kundzewicz, L Mata, N Arnell, P Doll, P Kabat, K Jimenez, K Miller, T Oki, Z Sen & I Shiklomanov, Freshwater Resources and their Manegemtn. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press2007
[ii] R Buddemeier, S Smith, S Swaaney & C Crossland, The Role of the Coastal Ocean in the Disturbed and Undisturbed Nutrient and Carbon Cycles,  LOICZ Reports and Studies Series2002, 84
[iii] P Etchevers, C Golaz, F Habets & J Noilhan, Impact of a Climate Change on the Rhone River Catchment Hydrology,Journal of Geophysical Research2002, 4293
[iv] J Kim, T Kim, R Arritt & N Miller, Impacts of Increased CO2 on the Hydroclimate of the Western United States, Journal of Climate2002, 1926
[v] M Hulme, R Doherty & T Ngara, African Climate Change, Climate Research2001, 145
[vi] J Christensen, B Hewitson, A Busuioc, A Chen, X Gao, I Held, R Jones, R Kolli, W Kwon, R Laprise, V Magana Rueda, L Mearns, C Menendez, J Raisanen, A Rinke, A Sarr & P Whetton, Regional Climate Change, The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,2007, 847

This blog is written by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute and Dr Patricia Lucas, School for Policy Studies, both at University of Bristol.
Dr Patricia Lucas
Prof Rich Pancost

This blog has kindly been reproduced from the Business Fights Poverty blog.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Nine lessons and carols in communicating climate uncertainty

About a month ago I was invited to represent the Cabot Institute at the All Parliamentary Party Climate Change Group (APPCCG) meeting on “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty around Climate Change”. All Party Groups are groups of MPs and Lords with a common interest they wish to discuss, who meet regularly but fairly informally. Here are the APPCCG registerblogTwitter and list of events.

The speakers were James Painter (University of Oxford), Chris Rapley (UCL) and Fiona Harvey (The Guardian), and the chair was (Lord) Julian Hunt (UCL). Rather than write up my meeting notes, I’ll focus on the key points.

[Disclaimer: All quotes and attributions are based on my recollections and note-taking, and may not be exact.]

1. People have a finite pool of worry

I'll start with this useful phrase, mentioned (I think by Chris) in the discussion. Elke Weber describes this:

"As worry increases about one type of risk, concern about other risks has been shown to go down, as if people had only so much capacity for worry or a finite pool of worry. Increased concern about global warming may result in decreased concern about other risks...the recent financial crisis reduced concern about climate change and environmental degradation." -- “What shapes perceptions of climate change?”; pdf currently here)

Lessons: We cannot expect or ask people to worry about everything: concern about other issues can reduce concern about climate change, while evoking strong emotions about climate change can reduce concern about other issues. So Chris encouraged talking about opportunities, rather than threats, wherever possible.

2. People interpret uncertainty as ignorance

People often interpret the word "uncertainty" as complete ignorance, rather than, for example, partial ignorance(..!) or a well-defined range of possible outcomes. This may be due to language: "I'm not certain" is close to "I don't know".

Just as important is exposure to research science. Science is often presented as a book of facts, when in fact it is a messy process of reducing our uncertainty about the world. At a school this year the head teacher told us about an Ofsted inspection during which they had a fantastic science workshop, where groups of students solved challenging problems using real data. At the end of the day, the inspector said: "Fine, but wouldn't it have been quicker to have told them the answer first?"

Lessons: Revolutionise the education system.

3. People are uncomfortable with uncertainty

Even when people do understand uncertainty, it can become a convenient rug under which to brush difficult decisions. Chris said that over-emphasising uncertainty leads to decision-making paralysis. When a decision invokes fear or anxiety (or, I would add, political disagreement), uncertainty can be used to dismiss the decision entirely.

"The Higgs boson", Chris said, "was not a ball bearing found down the back of sofa, but a statistical result". It was just possible it hadn't been discovered. But it wasn't reported this way. The Higgs, of course, does not invoke fear, anxiety or political disagreement (though please leave comments below if you disagree).

Lessons: Decision paralysis might be reduced by talking in terms of confidence rather than uncertainty. But perhaps more importantly...

4. People do accept the existence of risk

Finite worry and the problems of talking about uncertainty need not mean deadlock, James and Chris argued, because people do understand the concept of risk.  They accept there are irreducible uncertainties when making decisions. Businesses are particularly familiar with risk, of course. James mentioned that Harvard Business School is actively viewing climate change in this way:

"It's striking that anyone frames this question in terms of 'belief,' saying things like, 'I don't believe in climate change,'… I think it's better seen as a classic managerial question about decision-making under uncertainty." -- Forest L. Reinhardt, Business and Environment Institute faculty co-chair, HBS

Viewed in this way, the problem is not whether to make a decision based on uncertain or incomplete information, which is nearly always the case in other spheres (Chris: “Why should climate change be a special case required to have absolute certainty?”). The problem is whether the decision made is to bet against mainstream climate science:

"It seems clear that no one can know exactly what's going to happen--the climate is a hugely complex system, and there's a lot going on"....[The vast majority of the world's scientists] may be wrong. But it seems to me foolish to bet that they are certainly wrong." -- Rebecca Henderson, Business and Environment Institute faculty co-chair, HBS

Chris pointed out that the Technical Summary of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment of climate science uses the word "uncertainty" a thousand times and the word “risk” not at all, so it is not surprising the media focus on uncertainty. And how well humans understand risk is a matter worthy of much discussion. But as James writes:

“There is... a growing body of literature suggesting that risk language may be a good, or at least a less bad, way of communicating climate change to the general public”. -- "Climate Change in the Media: Reporting Risk and Uncertainty", (Executive Summary, page viii)

Lessons: Where possible, talk in terms of risk not uncertainty; see for example the IPCC report on extreme weather and, naturally, our book Risk and Uncertainty Assessment for Natural Hazards.

5. Scientists have little training

Most of us are not well trained - perhaps hardly at all - in science communication. But we must consider how the way we present numbers affects their interpretation. In 2007, the IPCC said the likelihood that most of global warming since the mid-20th century was caused by greenhouse gas emissions was assessed to be greater than 90%. This year they made a similar statement but the likelihood was 95% or greater. Chris said that if a journalist asked, "What does it mean to increase from 90% confident to 95% confident?", a scientist could make this clearer with "[We think] the chance climate change is natural is now half as likely as before."

He also pointed out that we don't have training in how to deal with the "street fight" of the climate debate. In my experience, this is one of the two main reasons why most of my colleagues do not do public engagement (the other being time commitment).

Lessons: For communicating uncertainty and risk, I recommend For dealing with the street fight, my advice is first to start with a lot of listening, not talking, to get a feel for the landscape. And to talk to climate scientists already engaging on how to avoid and deal with conflict (if, indeed, they are avoiding or dealing with conflict...).

6. Journalists have little (statistical) training

The IPCC assessment reports use a "language" of uncertainty, where phrases such as "extremely likely" are given a specific meaning (in this case, 95% or greater likelihood). But James said that only 15% of media articles about this year's report explained the meaning of this uncertainty language.

And in the discussion someone quoted a journalist as saying "The IPCC report says it has 95% confidence – what do the other 5% of the scientists think?" In other words, confusing the idea of a consensus and a confidence interval. There was a laugh at this in the room. But I think this is easily done by people who do not spend all day thinking about statistics. That would be: the majority of the human race.

Lessons: Er, many journalists could benefit from more statistical training. Here is what that might look like.

7. "Newspaper editors are extremely shallow, generally"

Fiona, her tongue only slightly in cheek, gave us this memorably-made and disappointing (if predictable) point.

Just because something is important it doesn't mean it will get into a news outlet. An editor might go to a cocktail party, talk to their glamorous celebrity friends, hear some current opinion, and then the next day their paper says...

In other words, the social diary - including meetings with high profile climate sceptics - can have a substantial influence on the viewpoint taken. (Of course, she noted, the editor of The Guardian is a profound man, not influenced by such superficiality). To counter this we would need to go to influential people and whisper in their ears too. We would need to launch a prawn cocktail offensive - or more appropriately, as one wit suggested, a goats cheese offensive. You heard it here first. And last.

Lessons: Go to more cocktail parties hosted by influential people.

8. There are many types of climate sceptic

There was generally support of scepticism by the speakers. Chris said it was perfectly valid for the public to ask scientists "Can we see your working?"; in other words, to ask for more details, code and data. All the speakers said they don't use the word "denier".

James said we should not generalise, and described four types of sceptic: trend, attribution, impacts, and policy. A trend sceptic would not be convinced there is global warming; an attribution sceptic about how much is man-made; an impacts sceptic might say we don't know enough about when and how severe the impacts will be; and a policy sceptic would take issue with how to tackle the problem. (Personally, I believe there are as many types of sceptic as there are sceptics, but that would be a longer list to write down). Fiona pointed out that one person can be all these types of sceptic, moving from one argument to another as a discussion progresses. Some thought this would be incoherent (i.e. kettle logic, contradictory arguments) but others thought it could be coherent to be sceptical for more than one of those reasons.

Lessons: Treat each sceptic as an individual (flower); don't assume they are one type of sceptic when they may be another, or more than one.

9. Trust is important 

What determines people's views on climate change? As James pointed out, there is evidence that what drives opinions is not science, or even the media (they determine only the topics of discussion), but political, cultural and social values. Fiona had said earlier in the meeting, "Climate change is more politicised than ever before in my lifetime: it is becoming a matter of right or left. This is very, very scary. If you allow this, you lose any hope of doing anything sensible about it."

All this is true. But I'll end with a slightly more optimistic quote, which I think was from Chris: "The sea change in the battle with tobacco companies was when the message got across that the adverts were not trustworthy." I quote this not because I believe it is the same as the climate debate, and not because sceptics are untrustworthy (though some may be), but because I (some might say, choose to) interpret it to mean that trust is important. When people trust the messenger, the message is more likely believed.

Lessons: Other things are important, but sometimes communication is a matter of trust. I emphasise this point because it's what I already believe; others may disagree (politely, please...).


I would have liked to add more references supporting the points made by the speakers, but ran out of time. Some are in James' book mentioned above. Do please add them in the comments if you have them.

The title of this blogpost came from realising I had nine points to make and thinking of this set of shows curated by Robin Ince celebrating science, skepticism, and rationalism. If you're in the UK this December, do go.

This blog is written by Dr Tamsin Edwards, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol and also features on her PLOS blog All Models Are Wrong.
Follow Tamsin on Twitter @flimsin
Tamsin Edwards

My week in Westminster: Part 2

Wednesday 4 December 2013
Alan Pitt
After two days of being in the ‘classroom’ learning about science in Parliament and Government it was time to go and shadow my civil servant, Alan Pitt, the Secretary to the Council for Science and Technology (S&T) who advise the Prime Minister directly on science related issues.  Alan is based in the Government Office for Science (Go-Science), which is located in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills! My morning began by visiting Portcullis House to hear the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, be quizzed by the House of Commons S&T Select Committee, which consists of cross-party MPs. Their job is to scrutinise Government on S&T to ensure the policy making process is robust.  Mark Walport, gave an overview of his vision for Science in the UK which included infrastructure in terms of energy and climate, qualitative and quantitative scientific evidence used in Government and a prominent leadership role for science.  This session was followed by an inquiry on Horizon Scanning including what this entails and how it operates!

Sir Mark Walport
Next stop was BIS where I was introduced to various members of Go-Science who explained their roles as civil servants including defence and resilience, coordinating all the different scientific committees, groups etc.  I learnt about the complexity of science organisation in the civil service.  For example, every department bar one has a Chief Scientific Advisor and a team beneath them. They report to Ministers who report to the Prime Minister.

Alan was particularly busy organising the CST quarterly meeting to be held at the Royal Society! Mid-afternoon I went with him over to the Royal Society building to help set up for the evening meeting and dinner.  The CST consists of members appointed by the Prime Minister who have extremely impressive credentials.  Chaired by the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, other members include Vice Chancellors, the President of the Royal Society, and prominent scientists in business.

After a busy but thoroughly enjoyable day it was time to go and see a show in the West-End!

Thursday 5 December 2013
On my final day of shadowing I was lucky enough to be able to sit on the CST meeting and hear what they get to discuss and consequently some of the content that goes into a letter directly written for the Prime Minister! It was a fascinating if little surreal experience!  I finished my time in London by having a tour of the Royal Society with the opportunity to see the original scribblings of Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke.

The Royal Society Pairing scheme has been an action-packed and fun experience and a real eye-opener to how science is used in Parliament and Government.  Everything is far more scrutinised then I ever envisaged and I hope that the scheme will help to enhance this process by building relationships between the policy makers and the scientists.

This blog has been written by Dr Emma J Stone, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.
Emma is visiting civil servant Alan Pitt, secretary to the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, at the House of Commons for a ‘Week in Westminster’ commencing Monday 2 December as part of a unique pairing scheme run by the Royal Society.  Read more.

Dr Emma J Stone

Thursday, 5 December 2013

My week in Westminster - Part 1

Palace of Westminster
Monday 2 December 2013
36 scientists were up bright and early in London for a tour around the Palace of Westminster as part of the Royal Society science and parliament pairing scheme.  We got to visit both Chambers as well as learning about the history of the UK parliament and the interactions between the Monarch, House of Lords and House of Commons. Did you know that to reserve a seat in the House of Commons the MP has to personally place a hand-written green card in a slot above their seat?!

After coffee and biscuits in Portcullis House we were introduced to the scheme and heard from previous participants about their experiences and the forging of relationships between scientists and MPs/civil servants. Discussion ensued about the the lack of scientists in Parliament (apparently not as bas as we thought!), as well as the intricacies of the House of Lords such as there being no cap currently on the number of peers invited to join!

An hour later having been filled up on what was a very nice lunch we learnt about the different scientific committees in Parliament (note not Government, these are very separate things!) including being introduced to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology by the Director Dr Chris Tyler,  The House of Lords Science and Technology committee by Lord Robert Winston, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (Victoria Charlton), Parliamentary & Scientific Committee by Professor Alan Malcom, and the House of Commons Library.  I never knew there were so many committees but they are integral to the policy making process by scrutinising parliament and using evidenced based research as much as possible - something we scientists are very keen on!

Tuesday 3 December 2013
So the week continues in Westminster today with our location for talks being in Westminster Hall.  After passing through security we settled in for a day of talks concerned with science and Government.  The day began with an informative presentation by Jill Rutter (from the Institute of Government) on science at Whitehall. The largest proportion of permanent secretaries in charge of departments come from Economics backgrounds (26%) with only 11% from maths and far few from science effectively reflecting a 'Science Free Zone'.  She offered insights such as the fact scientists need to explain scientific evidence but understand that it is politicians who make the decisions and therefore need to be clear about the role.

David Mackay
Following Jill we had an entertaining talk by David McKay, the Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department for Environment and Climate Change who succinctly outlined the various conflicts that can exist between objectives of the Department e.g. an increase in renewable energy is is needed but this could conflict with the need to maintain energy security.  He was also keen to provide us with back of the envelope calculations to make us think about the problems policy makers can face: e.g an average road of cars fuelled by biofuel would require an  ~8km verge on which to grow this source of energy! (making assumptions about speed, engine efficiency etc).

We finished a packed morning with a talk by Oliver Grant from the Horizon Scanning Centre who examine longer-term strategy beyond the length of fixed term Parliaments and how policy might adapt/change.

The afternoon began with Chris Fleming from the Government Office of Science providing the top ten tips for academics which included building relationships with policy makers in Government, try to keep in mind the differences between lobbying and giving advice and hold realistic expectations!

This was followed by an interactive session on Science supporting UK Emergency Response (SAGE) and its interaction with COBR.  We formed several small groups and were asked to imagine that we were giving advice as members of SAGE to COBR on two scenarios involving sub-zero temperatures and snow in the UK and the escape of a Flu virus from Myanmar!

The afternoon was finished by a talk from Alexandra Saxon at the RCUK which resulted in a very heated debate about funding science and impact, and a proposal by Dr Natalia Lawrence on producing a UK Evidence Information Service (effectively a database of science specialist who could be called on to give evidence).

After so many interesting talks we were already for a well-deserved drink at Walkers of Whitehall!

Tomorrow the shadowing begins!

This blog has been written by Dr Emma J Stone, Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.
Emma is visiting civil servant Alan Pitt, secretary to the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, at the House of Commons for a ‘Week in Westminster’ commencing Monday 2 December as part of a unique pairing scheme run by the Royal Society.  Read more.

Dr Emma J Stone

Do we care too much about nature?

Over 80% of British adults believe that the natural environment should be protected at all costs. Yet, a recent report suggests that “government progress on commitments to the natural environment has been largely static” (1). Indeed, the budget for DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been slashed by 10% (£37m) and a reduction in green levies is likely as the government attempts to reduce domestic energy bills.
Has the government lost interest in the environment? Or do we care too much about nature?
John Burton and Hannah Stoddart
To discuss this further, the Cabot Institute hosted a public recording of BBC Radio 4′s Shared Planeta show which explores the complex relationship between the human populations and wildlife. John Burton, CEO of the World Land Trust (WLT), was the first panellist and is a well known journalist and conservationist who has raised £19m for nature conservation in Africa, Asia and Central and Southern America. He believes that we should think about policy on “the life scale of an oak tree” and that further measures are required to protect the environment, both at home and abroad. The second panellist, Hannah Stoddart, is the head of the economic justice policy team at Oxfam GB and believes that fairer redistribution of wealth is more important than wildlife conservation.
How the UK could look if we reintroduced
missing megafauna to the landscape.
Do we care about nature?
A new report, by the Environmental Funders Network, suggests that one in ten UK adults are now a member or supporter of Britain’s environmental and conservation groups (2). This equates to nearly 4.5 million people, with 81 organisations protecting species and 78 working on climate change. Although 44% of funding is allocated to biodiversity and nature protection, only 7.3% of total funds have been allocated to the climate and the atmosphere. This suggests we are more interested in ‘traditional’ environmental issues than climate change. A recent research project by the RSPB indicates that four out of five UK children are no longer connected with nature (3). Dr Mike Clarke, the chief executive of the RSPB, explains that “…nature is in trouble, and children’s connection to nature is closely linked to this”. At a time where UK species are in decline, are we doing enough to engage young people in the natural world?
An alternative to conservation
Both John Burton and Hannah Stoddart agree that nature is important and that conservation can help protect endangered landscapes. However, many conservation sites are maintained in ”favourable condition”. In other words, they are kept in the condition they were found when designated as conversation sites. A alternative concept, known as rewilding, attempts to reverse the destruction of nature by standing back and allowing nature to control its own destiny.
Currently, farmers have to prevent the development of foreign or exotic vegetation on their land. This results in the development of bare land, lacking in biodiversity. Removal of the ‘agricultural condition’ rule and the introduction of rewilding may allow this land to flourish once again. George Monbiot, author of Feral, is particularly interested in the reintroduction of megafauna, large animals that existed at the end of the last glacial period (>11ka) (4). It seems hard to believe, but over ten thousand years ago, elephants, rhinoceri and camels roamed Europe while other animals, such as bison, wolves and wildcats, were particularly widespread throughout the UK.
Indeed, the re-introduction of missing species can have a profound effect on wildlife. In 1995, grey wolves were reintroducedto Yellowstone National Park for the first time in 50 years (5). The elk population, who were now at risk of predation by wolves, began to redistribute. This allowed willow and aspen trees to flourish and increased the habitat for certain bird species, small mammals, beavers, and moose. This effect, known as a trophic cascade, suggests that careful reintroduction of megafauna into the wild can allow ecosystems to flourish. However, rewilding can backfire. In 2008, endangered Mallorcan toads were reintroduced into the natural population but were infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a well-known fungus that can threaten amphibians (6). As a result, the Mallorcan toads are now in danger of being wiped out once again. Despite this, I believe that rewilding in the UK is feasible and could allow the public, especially children, to reconnect with nature in new and exciting ways.
  1. Nature Check 2013.
  2. Passionate Collaboraton.
  3. RSPB Connecting with Nature.
  4. Monbiot, G. Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. Allen Lane.
  5. Ripple et al,. 2001. Trophic cascades among wolves, elk and aspen on Yellowstone National Parks’s northern range.Biological Conservation102. 227-234
  6. Walker et al, 2008. Invasive pathogens threaten species recovery programs. Current Biology18. R853-R854