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Geoengineering: the latest test in public engagement

Geoengineering researchers were due to test the technology of Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) in Norfolk this autumn. However, amid various challenges from the public and the media, the body overseeing the project - the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) - decided that further consultation with stakeholders is needed before going ahead.

Geoengineering will be a challenge for science dialogue over the coming years. It combines political and ethical issues which deal with many of the most controversial aspects of the climate change debate. Last year, Sciencewise-ERC supported a public dialogue on geoengineering in partnership with the Natural Environment Research Council. Considering this dialogue and subsequent events raises some interesting lessons and questions about the role of these dialogues in emerging areas of science and technology.

What range of engagement activities are needed?

Participants in the Sciencewise-ERC public dialogue gave cautious support for geoengineering, laying down caveats but suggesting that research in various areas should go ahead. The proposed SPICE test fitted within these parameters; indeed, the test did not in fact constitute geoengineering itself, but rather aimed to test the mechanics of spraying particles high in the atmosphere, using only water. However, this issue is a helpful reminder that despite the importance of national level public dialogues, they do not guarantee acceptance at a local level, or with stakeholders or the media. These different strands of engagement will continue to be necessary as geoengineering develops.

Is the EPSRC’s decision to pause the experiment an example of good governance in action?

Hilary Sutcliffe has described the decision to delay the work as evidence of a failure in the project’s governance. However, EPSRC explained that the decision was taken as part of its responsible innovation approach. The SPICE team was asked to reflect on the ethical implications of the project so far and at this ‘stage gate’ took the decision which, project organisers have stressed, was supported by the scientists involved. Therefore, is this an example of good governance of responsible innovation, with checks and balances ensuring decisions are reconsidered when necessary?

Is the decision an example of bowing to the loudest voices over the views of the public?

One blogger who is supportive of geoengineering sees the decision to pause the project as a response to the actions of ‘loud, organised opposition to climate engineering’. This raises a tension between stakeholder and public engagement: have noisy anti-geoengineering campaigners essentially ‘trumped’ the results of a public engagement initiative that gave it cautious support? The border between stakeholder and public is not always a clear one. However, as Jack Stilgoe suggested in last months’ interview, they do require a different approach. Future dialogue needs to find ways of adapting to this.

Continue the discussion on the Sciencewise Forum.