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Good Timing Q&A

KE Q&A - The Benefits of Good Timing

‘Joined up thinking’ on the timing of stakeholder inputs can really pay dividends in terms of shaping and strengthening research initiatives. Dr Faith Culshaw of NERC describes how careful scheduling of ‘Experiment Earth?’, an LWEC-supported public dialogue on geoengineering, meant that the findings were able to influence the future direction of research in this controversial field.

Q: What did ‘Experiment Earth?’ aim to do?  

A:  It set out to provide an indication of how the general public view geoengineering and its potential contribution to tackling climate change. Geoengineering involves deliberately manipulating the Earth’s climate system on a large scale, so it inevitably has a significant ethical and moral dimension. As very little work had previously been undertaken to pinpoint public attitudes and concerns, this dialogue aimed to give people a chance to have their say and make their voices heard by scientists, funding bodies and policy-makers.       

Q: What did the process involve?

A: A range of methods were used, such as group discussions in Birmingham, Cardiff and Cornwall involving 85 people in total, an online survey which secured 65 responses and, at science centres around the country, open-access events that included discussions between scientists and members of the public.

Q: Can you summarise the key findings?

A: It was clear that some geoengineering technologies, mainly those using a Carbon Dioxide Removal approach (e.g. biochar and afforestation), had more public support and were regarded as more acceptable than others, particularly those using a Solar Radiation Management approach (e.g. sulphate particle injection). Overall, there was cautious backing for geoengineering research. People saw the potential benefits but didn’t want scientists to ‘interfere’ with complex systems in the natural world unless they first undertook detailed assessments of possible consequences. Recognising that public acceptability will be a critical factor influencing the future of geoengineering, one key recommendation from ‘Experiment Earth?’ was that researchers in this field should make ongoing engagement with the public a priority.    

Q: Why was the precise timing of the initiative so important?

A: The timetable was driven by the need to ensure that the findings could feed directly into a ‘sandpit’ on geoengineering research that was to be led by EPSRC. A sandpit is basically a free-thinking, interactive workshop that lasts several days, with a range of researchers and potential research users coming together to discuss priorities and challenges in a specific field of study and developing ideas to drive research forward in an innovative way. The geoengineering sandpit was therefore able to use initial findings from ‘Experiment Earth?’ to help shape its deliberations. In fact, the findings were presented on the very first day of the workshop, which is a good indication of how their importance was acknowledged.

Q: How else did the public dialogue and the sandpit dovetail together? 

A: Because the two happened in parallel, the sandpit scientists could actually attend some of the ‘Experiment Earth?’ discussion sessions. That made the public’s views much more immediate and compelling, and helped ensure that their opinions really were given due weight during the workshop.       

Q: Were there any tangible benefits?

A: Very much so. One of the two research projects recommended for funding – Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP) – has a large public dialogue component and is directly using and building on outputs from ‘Experiment Earth?’. There was also a recommendation that this research project should provide a public dialogue addition to the other research project recommended for funding, which is looking at the feasibility of a Solar Radiation Management technique. There’s absolutely no doubt that if the sandpit hadn’t been able to take on board the results from the public dialogue, the research recommendations it produced simply wouldn’t have been as valuable.

For reports on the geoengineering dialogue, please use the following links: