‘A Question of Intent’ – New piece in Nature Climate Change

I’ve published a Commentary piece in Nature Climate Change, drawing on experience of the SPICE geoengineering project, which has been in the news recently. I can’t paste the whole thing here for copyright reasons, but what I can do, following Andrew Maynard’s excellent example, is give you an early version. This first draft was substantially edited and trimmed. This first draft was a bit floppier, and less well-explained, but I think it contained some important points that fell victim to the blue pencil. The title was softened from ‘Governing Intent’ to the less provocative ‘A Question of Intent’.

UPDATE – Jesse Reynolds, who has written this fascinating paper, has a lovely analogy that underlines the importance of governing intent sensibly. He mentions how whaling has continued under the guise of scientific research, despite an international moratorium. If geoengineering research is allowed while deployment is prevented, there is a danger of a similar grey area. An open discussion of intent is desperately needed.

Governing intent [first draft]

This coming Autumn, Matthew Watson, a volcanologist from the University of Bristol, will release a tethered balloon attached to a kilometre-long hose that will spray out a fine mist of water. To the untrained eye, the SPICE project (stratospheric particle injection for climate engineering) seems uncontroversial. It is designed to test the feasibility of a larger, higher balloon that would dispense aerosols into the stratosphere. But Watson’s work will be the first outdoor UK experiment in the controversial area of solar geoengineering. It is a step towards finding out how stratospheric particles can be used for ‘solar radiation management’ (SRM).

The Royal Society describes geoengineering as ‘deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system in order to moderate global warming’. We are still some way from that end, but scientists’ first steps on this road are already raising some enormous questions. Geoengineering is an emerging technology and, like any emerging technology, we do not know what the eventual applications and implications of geoengineering research will look like.

Suggested approaches range from the mundane (painting the roofs of buildings white) to the bizarre (mirrors in space). Concerns range from the unpredictable effects on local weather patterns to possibility that politicians will see geoengineering as a ‘get out of jail free’ card, allowing them to sidestep emissions reductions. Some people, scientists and non-scientists included, regard geoengineering research as a slippery slope. The danger is that geoengineering develops its own momentum and we realise the problems too late. We face what David Collingridge called the ‘control dilemma’ – the greatest opportunity for control of a technology is in its infancy, when we know least about its implications. By the time a technology’s impacts have become clear, it is too late to extricate ourselves.[1]

Other emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology that have attracted similar hopes and fears are defined by how they are able to do things. They are platform technologies on which expectations and possibilities are built. Geoengineering is defined by the why. It gathers a host of research areas and engineering techniques around a shared statement of intent – deliberately changing the Earth’s climate. It is this intent that scares people. Some more radical NGOs have begun campaigns to keep scientists’ ‘Hands Off Mother Earth’.[2] And last year they attempted through the Convention of Biological Diversity to propose a moratorium on geoengineering research.

Scientists have argued that an ill-defined geoengineering moratorium would also impede a huge range of conventional climate science. This is because early-stage geoengineering research and environmental science may at this early stage be impossible to tell apart. Researchers argue that the world has been accidentally geoengineered through centuries of neglect – carbon dioxide levels have shot up, pollution has dimmed sunlight and nutrients have poured into the oceans in the form of sewage and fertiliser. Studying these processes requires tools such as computer modelling and aerosol injection that have recently been adopted by geoengineering enthusiasts. The only difference may be the question of intent – is the aim to find out about an environment or is it to test ways to intervene in the environment?

The products, processes and purposes of science

As scientific innovation has become increasingly powerful, scientists and society have grown used to the idea that research should be governed to maximise benefits and minimise risks. The assumption in the past has been that the legitimate public interest lies in the products of innovation – the positive and negative impacts of technologies.  We also now appreciate that, when we can’t predict or account for these impacts in advance, it is also sometimes right for society to take an interest in the processes of science. The reach of innovators will always exceed the grasp of regulators, so we expect oversight of on-going research in clinical trials, genetic modification, nanotechnology and other areas with clear social and ethical dimensions. The products of geoengineering are unknown, so groups have already discussing how processes of research should be governed.[3] The question is whether society also has a legitimate interest in scientists’ purposes. If scientific research is a journey into the unknown, then the direction of travel should be considered as important as the mode of transport.

Through activities such as the Royal Society’s Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative, scientists have come to appreciate that the purposes of geoengineering are problematic and therefore open to debate. Governing the purposes of science, however, raises the spectre of the Thought Police. There are already well-established ways of considering intent in governance. We regard murder as different from manslaughter even though the end result is identical. And of companies are regulated to prevent conflicts of interest that might arise from the urge to make profits. But scientists, like other groups, would like to be judged more by their actions than their intentions.

Scientists’ concerns about the governance of intent will perhaps be allayed with the recognition that governance is not the same thing as regulation. There is a powerful myth of scientific autonomy and unfettered research, but even the most esoteric scientists are governed by norms, cultures and the expectations of their funders, their institutions and colleagues. These need to be opened up to wider discussion. Geoengineering’s bold statement of intent invites new responsibilities. As well as helping open up the processes of science, scientists should also welcome an open discussion of their motivations.

Experiments so far suggest that this process of opening up can be hugely rewarding. As well as trialling a new technology, Watson’s SPICE project is also a testbed for the idea of ‘responsible innovation’.[4] As the project progresses from idea towards fully-functioning sky hose, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, who fund it, has constructed a ‘stage gate’, during which the team are asked to reflect not just on whether the project is safe and ethical, but also how it fits into a wider vision of the future. Watson has described on his blog (thereluctantgeoengineer.blogspot.com) how, through this process, he has come to understand the jigsaw of which his research project is a piece. By being encouraged to think about his motivations, he has become aware of the dangers of technology becoming irreversible and the possibility of alternative directions for research.

The motivations behind research should be fertile ground for a constructive conversation between scientists and the public. Evidence from past public dialogue exercises suggests that members of the public are particularly interested in scientists’ motivations.[5] Non-scientists cannot be expected to understand everything that is going on within science so, in order to place their trust in the experts, they need to have some understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. For scientists in universities who see their work being increasingly judged according to its economic impact, there is a need to remind policymakers and the public of the myriad other reasons why science matters.


[1] Collinridge D, The Social Control of Technology, Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1980

[3] See, for example, Rayner, S., C. Redgwell, J. Savulescu, N. Pidgeon and T. Kruger, 2009: Memorandum on draft principles for the conduct of geoengineering research, (the ‘Oxford Principles’) reproduced in House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, The Regulation of Geoengineering, Fifth Report of the Session 2009-10, Report together with formal minutes, oral and written evidence, HC 221, 18 March 2010 [www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/221/221.pdf]

[4] Owen, R. and Goldberg, N., Responsible Innovation: A Pilot Study with the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Risk Analysis, 30: 1699–1707. (2010) doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01517.x

[5] See, for example, the report of the recent Synthetic Biology dialogue, http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/web/FILES/Reviews/1006-synthetic-biology-dialogue.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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2 Responses to ‘A Question of Intent’ – New piece in Nature Climate Change

  1. Pingback: ‘How’ technologies and ‘Why’ technologies | Responsible Innovation

  2. Marsha says:

    I am interested in this topic… (I am not a scientist) I just want to say that I think trying to remake the climate is very risky and dangerous…let the scientists and governments leave it alone.

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