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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The World Guardian 2114 Headline 2

Second in an occasional series of Headlines from The World Guardian newspaper in 2114. News read by our children's children about a world created by us.

Humerous photo thanks to

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The World Guardian 2114 Headline 1

First in an occasional series of Headlines from The World Guardian newspaper in 2114. News read by our children's children about a world created by us.

"First Antarctic Grand Prix to be held after Bernie Ecclestone leaves suspended animation to draw up contracts"
Antarctic now almost free of ice and snow - F1 cars still burning fossil fuels.

Public Engagement in the Shale Gas Debate - A note to the Prime Minister

More than 60% of British land might be subject to shale gas licensing according to today's Guardian.

Hence, there is a sizeable population of the UK who would and should be concerned about the implications that shale gas exploitation may have for them.

The main issues are all concerned with the environment and its protection, either for its own sake or for our own sake. They can be categorised as:
  • Global (i.e., the effect of burning fossil fuels on the climate).
  • Regional (e.g., earth tremors).
  • Local (e.g., noise, transport inconvenience, water pollution, water availability, air pollution, social unrest, cost of housing).

There would also be benefits from shale gas at all of these levels, but often the debate centres around the threats rather than the benefits, which is only natural because most people prefer a ‘precautionary principle’ approach to assessing unfamiliar opportunities.

Unfortunately, sources of information are limited in availability, relevance, quality and trustworthiness. This results in opinions being formed on hearsay and based on anecdote, followed by a polarisation of views and the almost immediate inability of people with different views to debate the merits of shale gas properly.

For example, almost all of the ‘solid facts’ that are offered to me about the water pollution caused in the USA by shale gas exploitation on investigation turn out either not to be true or to be irrelevant to Europe. The much vaunted flaming water in the film Gas-Land turned out to be gas that existed in the aquifer long before shale fracking was ever carried out in the USA, and what was worse, its makers knew that when they mispresented it as being caused by fracking. How are we, therefore, to judge these disparate and sometimes contradictory pieces of information? One standard answer is to ask an expert – but which one?

Among the experts; the industry, environmental campaigners, politicians, lobbying groups such as Greenpeace, journalists and even scientists, all have their own agenda. They are driven by different desires and have their own natural biases. But what if you are not in any of these groups? What if you are a ‘normal’ person who just wants sufficient reliable evidence to make up your mind? How can you do that? You can pick an expert, but then you know what they are going to say before they tell you. One is forced into an unbalanced position without wanting to.

There are several blogs including this one and Frack-land that seek to provide balanced comment supported by scientific evidence, but frankly it is not enough. We desperately need information.
  • It is clear that we cannot know whether there is sufficient economically feasible gas under the UK until we drill and frack many more wells than we have (at least 10 and probably 20).
  • It is clear that we cannot know what the environmental risks are associated with drilling and fracking those wells until a comprehensive study is carried out on the first 10 to 20 wells in the UK.
In my view we should not freeze in the on-coming head-lights of shale gas. We should not dash for that gas either. We should walk into the gradual development of shale gas carefully, making high quality, relevant and useful measurements as we go, and making all results public.

In the UK (and elsewhere in Europe) we need:
  • Reliable, relevant scientific data on all aspects of shale gas and coal bed methane (CBM) production.
  • An independent body of sensible people to oversee shale gas development as well as to commission and analyse such studies.
  • A database of all the scientific data, analysis and reports that is fully accessible to the general public (which is something that I have already asked the Prime Minister to provide).

Friday, 6 December 2013

Should the fledgling UK shale gas industry get tax breaks?

Hefty tax breaks for the UK's fledgling shale gas industry have come under immediate fire from various quarters according to The Independent. Are they justified?

Shale Gas
The UKs future energy mix needs to be sufficient, reliable, secure and affordable. It is certain that it will be a mix. Currently we are operating on the edge of sufficiency and reliability while the energy is not affordable for many (

Many of our power stations are over 30 years old ( and relatively inefficient. The government has recently acted, but new nuclear at Hinkley Point, Wylfa and Sizewell will not come on-stream for 10 years or more and may, even then, be uneconomical compared to gas, which would have to increase its price by more than 130% if it were not to be a better deal ( Let us bear in mind that the Hinkley Point budget is £16bn for two reactors at a build cost of £5m per MW. Currently the price of wind generation is about £1.3m-2.2m per MW and falling rapidly (

Recent gas-fired power stations, although faster to build, must compete in a pricey global gas market where gas imports cannot be guaranteed. Local gas would be a God-send, and although the BGS has provided us with an approximation of the potential resource at our disposal ( we do not know:
  • Whether gas can be produced from these shales economically, 
  • Whether the gas can be produced in a safe and secure fashion that causes little environmental damage, and
  • Whether gas can be produced in a manner that is acceptable to the local population.

In this situation the UK desperately needs to drill and frack at least 10 wells in order to ascertain whether our shale gas resources can be produced economically.
  • If not, then we will have to do our best with the current expensive insecure mix that relies on imports and uses more nuclear power in the mix.
  • If so, speedily built gas-fired power stations may mean some of the nuclear is not needed, it may mean that the toxic killing machines ( and are coal-fired power stations can be phased out, it will lead to tax revenues and economic growth and jobs (, it may mean that extra subsidies can be given to renewables, and it will be relatively fast to do (compared with building nuclear).

Green light for Hinkley nuclear power station
Proposed new Hinkley Point reactors  
But where are renewables and energy efficiency now?

Renewables cannot provide the amounts of energy we need. Wind, for example, is impractical.  If, for example, we switched our coal generation to wind, it would require 851,000 5 MW windmills working flat-out all year (while the average is less than 30%!). And that does not consider their effect on our environment, the radioactive and chemical pollution they cause in China (, the lack of constant wind (except in some parts of the Houses of Parliament) and the lack of space for such a number of mills (

Cutting back our use of energy is difficult to do. Even Greenpeace only pays lip service to it, offering no advice or schemes to help even its members cut back. Only government has the clout to push this forwards (, and recently its schemes have been sacrificed to the perception that energy prices are too high.

And we wait for fusion...

I am not a fan of fossil fuels. I would rather not see them used. But it seems at the moment wise to develop shale gas as a cleaner, less polluting, more secure and faster solution to our energy woes than any other.

At least we should press on speedily with enough test wells to be able to judge its effects properly and to provide some real data on which it can be judged. If tax breaks help, it will probably be a good investment for the future, whether or not shale gas proves to be a good thing.

One last thought - the government should institute a body to oversee the development of shale gas that is chaired by and contains some independent scientists to ensure that all the development is carried out transparently. That, in my view, would balance the tax breaks.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

12 Tips for scientists who want to communicate with politicians

Recently Nature has published an article containing twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims, which proposes that most MPs are not able to interpret scientific statements properly (Sutherland et al., 2013). The article was timely and, I believe, just as well targeted at the electorate as their representatives.

In this article, I turn the question around and propose that most scientists lack the skills to communicate their science effectively to politicians and the general public. In this case, what are the 20 things scientists need to know about communicating science to politicians?

The Nature article argues that the “immediate priority is to improve policy makers’ understanding of the imperfect nature of science” by suggesting 20 statistical and scientific concepts that should be taught to government ministers and public servants”. By contrast, this article suggests that the way scientists deliver information to policy and decision makers is key to having it understood and applied in governing the country.

If, according to Burgman (Guardian, 2013) “politicians, broadly speaking, struggle to critically examine scientific advice” it is also a truism to state that scientists are so immersed in their science that they often fail to take proper account of the broader application of their work where perception is as important as fact.

The bottom line is that scientists train for a very long time to be in the position where they can comment authoritatively on a particular area. Politicians cannot hope to understand the underlying science in such depth and become intimidated. The only solution is for the politician to either find a reliable scientist and to trust her, or to ignore the science completely. Sadly, it is often the latter case which occurs – politicians are not so hot on personal trust.

Unfortunately there are problems with the first approach too. For most politicians to trust a scientist is the same as saying find a scientist with whom you agree, and then the politician has already chosen a scientific advisor that is biased to the politicians view and hence unreliable as an independent source of advice.

It has been said that politics considers science to be either august and reputable or something to be dismissed because it’s done by a bunch of boffins. What we need is a more balanced approach where politicians and scientists make a good team, analysing the facts and probing their broader political implications in order to make the best decisions. This is a view that attenuates political constraints and personal beliefs, while accepting that a perfectly scientific solution is often not sufficiently pragmatic to work in the modern world.

A naïve friend of mine once said that the government should implement an independent body of scientists covering the entire scope of policy making. This scientific civil service would then attach its members to ministers and decision makers as some sort of scientific body-guard. The idea is quite ludicrous, but we need some sort of solution. We are entering a world of Big Data, and there is scope in it for some Big Mistakes unless the analysis is carried out correctly and implications are well understood.

I would say that we already have a scientific civil service. Each and every university academic is part of it. It is our job to inform the policy makers in a clear and concise manner, which they can understand. The list which follows, and which I hope is not too cynical, makes some basic observations that I hope will allow scientists to understand their audience a little better. I urge them to communicate more with their government representatives in order that the importance of science is aired where it matters. There is, in fact, nothing stopping any academic writing a short letter to their MP advising them on the important aspects of their research area that are currently relevant. I would imagine that most MPs would welcome the extra free expert advice!

1.     MPs and Ministers do not read scientific papers. Neither do scientists if the statistics are correct (look at the citation rate for many papers). It is a big world, with big problems and everyone’s time is at a premium. I doubt whether our parliamentary representatives would have the time to read about the current issues of the day even if they knew where quickly to look. It is up to us to deliver short and balanced notes that are easy to digest and that are relevant to the day’s scientific discussion.
2.     Academic science is an under-used resource. They are highly trained and full of ideas – the government should use them. However, it would be useful if they talked more and were understandable when they did.
3.     However, UK Government and Parliament is served by a high quality scientific civil service. The UK has probably the best and certainly the most independent science advice system in the world. Each ministerial department has a chief scientific adviser that reports to the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (who reports to the PM) but also to a Private Secretary, who is in direct contact with the minister. These advisers are experts in their fields. There is a Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to give advice to Parliament and extra science advisers attached to the House of Commons Library.
4.     In politics passion trumps reason. No it doesn’t – they exist together. The reason will make something work, but the passion is necessary to ensure that whoever backs it can sell it to others. Politicians to other politicians, and indeed scientists to other scientists. Maybe there is not much difference between them after all.
5.     All politicians are primarily concerned with holding power. And wouldn’t you be. One needs to be in power to be able to get something done, to make a difference, to change things for the better. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Sometimes political people are more concerned with the means than the end. ‘Pragmatic’ is the polite term and who is to say that there is not a place for ‘polite’ in ‘politics’. Some are more concerned with the end rather than the means. The polite word this time is ‘dreamer’. Somewhere in between there lies a successful politician: one who knows about people, who is a pragmatic dreamer.
6.     Political reputations are not built on standing up for something whether you believe it or not.  Real life is not an empty debate. All successful politicians have a dream and try to fulfil it. Political success and political reputations are built upon standing up for something you believe in whether others believe it or not. As scientists we should seek out those who are driven by the same passions as they will be more open to expert advice.
7.     Finding political solutions is difficult. The fact of the matter is that improving the lives of the people of our country is difficult. It is never possible to start from square one as any new policy has to be implemented on the back of existing policies and procedures, some of which do not work well at all. This is a truism because if what we have works, what would be the point of replacing it. However, it means that policy implementations are dirty even if they are based on nice clean elegant science.
8.     Social structures are complex. Policies have to work in our existing social structures, and these are incredibly complex. The result is that no policy will improve everyone’s life across the board. Science represents only the seed to making an improvement, but there are the complexities of the social structure and implementation timescales to be taken account of too. Now consider that one small incontrovertible scientific fact, if given too much weight, could jam a whole policy, when ignoring it could make the policy work well on average for most people. Is it any wonder that politicians are wary of scientific facts. True wisdom might lie in the ability to judge which have to be taken account of and which are best ignored.
9.     All evidence can be interpreted. When advising anyone, scientists should be aware that no matter how clear they are, their advice will change as it passes up, down, sideways and diagonally to others. My advice is to ensure that. as a scientist, you do not make a judgement that you are not qualified to give, it is fully justified, it is submitted in writing and you keep a copy safely.
10.  Most of the electorate believe what they know without knowing why they believe it. While I believe it is true that most people have an opinion without supporting it with rigorous delving into the evidence, I have enormous faith in the common sense of the British people: The jury system works with such an engine. Most of the electorate believe what they know without knowing why they believe it – but just think what we could all achieve if we all knew why. Here is a challenge for Michael Gove.
11.  Pragmatism drives policy, compromise implements it. The science that forms the solid foundation to many policies is often hidden by its implementation. That is not necessarily a bad thing – science is the uncomfortable but beautifully formed designer shoe, the implemented policy is the comfy pair that have been worn in. I chose the latter to walk the world in.
12.  Both scientists and politicians live in a world of imagination, one to understand the world and the other to understand the people. Scientists and politicians have more in common than either of them think. They also have more in common with the general public than either of them think, and the sooner they start behaving more like one of the general public rather than something special the better for everyone. I feel that I do more good having a chat in the pub than in a lecture hall – it is rather more congenial too!

20 Things politicians should understand ... (Part 4)

Continuing the previous three postings here is the last set of 5 more "Things politicians need to know about shale gas science", inspired by the recent Guardian article entitled "Top 20 things politicians need to know about science" from an original article in Nature.  

It is not just politicians that need to know this stuff - without it the whole debate is not possible.

16. Data can be dredged or cherry picked

Evidence can be arranged to support one point of view.

Shale gas is a subject which stirs strong passions and in which opinions are extremely polarised. I would say that more than 95% of public commentators hold a strong view on shale gas, yet the majority of the general public would like clear unbiased, evidence-based information upon which they can make their minds up.

Everyone should realise that Nature is unbiased. If we make certain decisions Nature will give us the unbiased consequences, whether good or bad. We have, therefore, a duty to be unbiased too.

This disconnection between the sources of advice and those who need it is worrying. The few who try to give balanced and factual information are constantly being badgered by both sides to accept views which are not based on tested or testable reality. In this way sources of independent advice are eroded and silenced.

One should realise that industry will not lie to you, at least UK-based industry will not. It is not in their interest to do so, and existing local, national and European regulations are such that there are huge penalties for getting it wrong, in the courts of justice and in the courts of public opinion.

Industry, will, however, put the best possible spin on what they are doing. In the past most of what they did was kept secret; not so much in order to keep the general public in the dark, but because most information is commercially sensitive in a competitive business market. Now, in the UK at least, there is a move towards being more transparent, such that the general public knows more of the information which the companies are using to make their own decisions. An example of this is the before and after water and air quality analyses that Cuadrilla carried out at Balcombe, which are freely available.

Individuals who are against shale gas do not lie either, but they also commonly choose results which and support their preconceptions.  For example, there are very real worries concerning the environmental damage that mining and processing of rare earth elements in China is causing.  Some of these rare earth elements, such as neodymium, are necessary to make the magnets that wind turbines use, and the by-products of mining and processing are toxic and radioactive.  Yet search for neodymium on the Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth web sites and you will not find it.  Rare earth element pollution is not consistent with the message that these organisations want to convey.  Since the pollution happens in rural China, it is simply ignored.  As lobbying groups, these organisations are simply controlling what is made public, and therefore behaving exactly like industry.
Studies have shown that the conscious or subconscious choice of results to fulfil preconceptions is a very human trait, and extremely difficult to guard against no matter how mindful the individual is.

George Bernard Shaw once saidThe moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it.

Scientists are trained to keep an open and unbiased mind, but even they have a duty to be constantly mindful of what the evidence says, and not to interpret the evidence beyond its limits. One of the best tests of such a commentator is to ask whether all of the evidence supports his or her main point.

The authors of the article “Top 20 things politicians need to know about science” concern themselves with the needing to know whether the authors set out to test a sole hypothesis, or happening across a finding in a huge data set. Data that one happens across when not looking for it can be extremely good, useful and relevant. However, often it is not applicable to the argument because it applies to a different group/location/problem/population etc., or was obtained using inapplicable assumptions or using different premises.

The question one should ask is whether the study was designed to answer the particular question it is being used on, and if not whether there are differences that make its use inapplicable.

17. Extreme measurements may mislead

Any set of data (concentrations of methane in ground-water, say) will show  
  • natural variation between locations (due to different geological histories), 
  • plus sampling (sampling may be atypical because it is done in areas where problems are suspected),
  • plus bias (the concentration of methane may depend on some other unknown factor),
  • plus measurement errors (different testers using different methodologies in different locations, or simply using erroneous methods, inaccurate tools or uncalibrated tools).
However, the resulting variation is typically interpreted only with respect to the distance to the nearest well, ignoring the other sources.

Difference, even extreme ones, may be due to a combination of other factors than that in which you are interested.

18. Study relevance limits generalisations

The relevance of a study depends on how much the conditions under which it is done resemble the conditions of the issue under consideration.

For example, there are limits to the generalisations that one can make from US data when trying to predict the effect in the UK or Europe.

19. Feelings influence risk perception

Broadly, risk can be thought of as the likelihood of an event occurring in some time frame, multiplied by the consequences should the event occur. People’s risk perception is influenced disproportionately by many things, including the rarity of the event, how much control they believe they have, the adverseness of the outcomes, and whether the risk is voluntarily or not.

According to David Ropeik roughly 20% of Americans still do not wear safety belts in motor vehicles. The risk perception literature would suggest that this is, in part, because we have a sense of control when we are behind the wheel, and the risk of crashing is both familiar and chronic—factors that make risks seem less threatening. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if safety belt usage increased from 80% to 85%, 2,700 lives would have been saved in 2002 (National Center for Statistics & Analysis (2003) Traffic Safety Facts 2002: Occupant Protection. Washington, DC, USA: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DOT HS 809 610).

Similarly, many people fail to protect themselves adequately from the sun, in part because the sun is natural and because, for some of us, the benefit of a healthy glowing tan outweighs the risks of solar exposure. However, solar radiation is widely believed to be the leading cause of melanoma, which will kill an estimated 7,910 Americans this year (American Cancer Society (2004) Cancer Facts & Figures 2004. Atlanta, GA, USA: American Cancer Society).

Focussing on the negative aspects of a development such as a shale gas pollution incident may raise fear despite the extent, timescale and likelihood of the event being small, while ignoring the risks of not carrying out the development, which would include financial and social growth, provision of jobs, better health care etc.

Risk perception should be judged both ways: the risk of doing and the risk of not doing!

20. Dependencies change the risks

It is possible to calculate the consequences of individual events, such as an extreme storm, high tides and the availability of key workers. However, if the events are interrelated then the probability of a disaster is much higher than might be expected.
This is exactly what happened recently in the Philippines. The government was well prepared for storms because it gets lots of them (together with earthquakes and volcanoes – who would want to live there!?). It had dumps of emergency stuff distributed around the country. Yet a combination of a large storm, an unexpectedly large storm surge and the death or ineffectiveness of police and local government workers ensured that Typhoon Haiyan was a dreadful disaster.

 Most disasters that damage the environment and take lives in Europe are due, in the last analysis, to more than one factor, which exacerbate each other. That is the reason why all new and unusual processes have to be considered extremely carefully. Shale gas operations qualify for special care simply because we have not carried many of them out in Europe.