The only way is ethics – principles for scientists

Seems about right to me.

The topic of having professional ethics for scientists isn’t new. Here is a list of principles proposed by the then chief scientific adviser in the UK, Professor Sir David King – in 2007:

  • Act with skill and care, keep skills up to date
  • Prevent corrupt practice and declare conflicts of interest
  • Respect and acknowledge the work of other scientists
  • Ensure that research is justified and lawful
  • Minimise impacts on people, animals and the environment
  • Discuss issues science raises for society
  • Do not mislead; present evidence honestly


Prelude in LNG major: Of Shell, #climate change and innovation

Innovation is double plus good? Well, depends…

preludestoryThe oil giant Shell is building a new ship, the BBC reports. Half-way through the story, after manfully capturing the scale of this big boy (it’s the biggest ship EVER. Over 400m long) we get, as they say in Hollywood, the “reveal.”

It’s going to be the FNG of fossil fuel extraction. It’s going to be a FLNG platform. That is, it’s going to be the world’s first Floating Liquefied Natural Gas Platform. It will, perhaps, “solve” pesky problems about pipelines and planning permission. And as with BP’s “Deep Water Horizon”, the clue is in the name.  And the name is… Prelude.

< Historical digression>

Shell got its corporate fingers very very badly burnt in 1995. It was trying to create a precedent where it could tow old oil rigs out into the deep Atlantic and sink them. Cost effective.  The first, as older readers may recall, was to be Brent Spar.  Greenpeace – and the car drivers of Europe who began to boycott Shell – scuttled the plan before Shell could scuttle the vessel (see Jeremy Leggett’s racy “The Carbon War for more details.)

</ Historical digression>

This ship-building project raises some interesting questions. We have what the European Union likes to call some “Grand Societal Challenges” (demographic shifts, food security etc). Maybe we will rise to those. But more likely, it seems, “we” instead will focus on some grand technological challenges, such as getting fossil fuels from the places that other technologies can’t reach.

Innovation is one of those words that has a halo around it, at least for people doing nicely out of technological intensification. It’s not quite “democracy”-good, but it’s not far off. Only luddites and hypocrites are opposed to “innovation”, right?

But halo words are by definition words with baggage. And we should be accustomed to checking what’s in the baggage before we let it travel with us. There are questions we should always ask.

Who is doing the innovating? For what purpose? What is the “opportunity cost”? That is, what ELSE could “we” be doing with all that money, all that steel, and – most of all – all that intelligence, ingenuity, enthusiasm and technical ability?  Is there a “lock-in” by pursuing some types of infrastructure?

And who is this “we” that I keep invoking, anyway?  It’s worth bringing up the story of the Lucas Aerospace Factory, which should be taught in primary schools.

In the mid-70s, a UK weapons company, Vickers Lucas, was planning to shut one of its factories. The workers did more than strike – they came up with a worked through plan for the factory to start making all sorts of social useful things (trams, dialysis machines etc.) And still be profitable.

It won’t do my career any harm to be quoting Adrian Smith of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Essex Sussex. Here’s a bit from a Guardian article he penned in early 2014.

The Financial Times described the Lucas Plan as, ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’ (Financial Times, 23 January 1976). It was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The New Statesman claimed (1st July 1977) ‘The philosophical and technical implications of the plan are now being discussed on average of twenty five times a week in international media’. Despite this attention, shop stewards suspected (correctly) that the Plan in isolation would convince neither management nor government. Even leaders in the trade union establishment were reluctant to back this grassroots initiative; wary its precedent would challenge privileged demarcations and hierarchies.

The management, perhaps not entirely comfortable with working-class people getting ideas above their station, nixed it. It’s almost as if technology has politics all the way through…

References and Further Reading

Cooley, M (1982) Architect or Bee? Boston: South End Press

Leggett, J. (2001) The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era. New York: Routledge, pp. 209-13

Unruh, G. (2000) Understanding carbon lock-in [paywall] Energy Policy 28, 12 p817-830.

UPDATE 17/12/2014:  My friend John points me to this quote from start of a  2013 article in the Economist.

“IDEALLY”, said Jack Welch in 1998, when he was chief executive of General Electric, “you’d have every plant you own on a barge to move with currencies and changes in the economy.” Reality followed vision for Mr Welch, who was a pioneer of offshoring, setting up one of the first offshore service centres in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi.

UPDATE 17/12/2014.  Many thanks to Adrian Smith of Sussex (not Essex!!) University for corrections.

“Putting the octopus in the jar…” Literature reviews…

“Whenever I thought about writing, I would think of climbing a huge mountain or drowning in a sea of literature. Pat says we should think about the literature review as more of a creative challenge. A much more useful analogy for the literature review is trying to get an octopus into a jar. When you think about drowning in a sea of literature and putting an octopus into a jar you feel totally different. The first invokes feelings of panic and fear. There is a sense of impending doom and the thought that the only way out is to swim for your life until your muscles give out. Drastic – I know, but this is how many of us feel. The second analogy makes us think about and interesting problem to solve. There is no impending doom, just an outcome that we want and hurdle in our way. We are free to observe the entire problem before making judgments and we are free to step away and think. “
And there is also this site –

Book Review: “The politics of global atmospheric change” (1995)

Book Review: Rowlands, I. (1995) The politics of global atmospheric change Manchester: Manchester University Press

rowlandsbookThis is one for the geeks only.  If you’re interested in the vicious fights in the 1980s an early 1990s about whether and how “we” would do something about ozone depletion and carbon dioxide build-up, then grab with both ands;  It’s well-written, with a useful format that looks – at both ozone and climate change-  at the Science, Interests, Equity and Catalysts (people and organisations that make stuff happen – or stop it happening). (1)

While it is far too specialised and “out of date” for the general reader, there are lots of useful snippets that help you understand the world.  My favourite is the fact that while scientists got the theory of ozone depletion caused by CFCs, there was an “unnecessary” delay in collecting the evidence.

Indeed, what made it even more unexpected was that the US satellites that had been gathering data over the Antarctic since 1979 had not detected any significant change in ozone levels. The reason being, tit was discerned later, was that the satellites’s computers had been programmed to discard any data that were outside an anticipated range. When the computers were reprogrammed, with this condition removed, they revealed the same pattern of spring-time depletion that had been discovered by the British ground-based stations. As John Gribbin (2) notes:

“The point is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s atmospheric scientists were increasingly confident that they understood, more or less, what was going on in the atmosphere. Both the chemistry and the dynamics of air movements were being analysed in more detail than ever before, and a coherent picture was emerging. But nowhere in that coherent picture was there even a hint that a dramatic change like the development of a huge hole in the ozone layer could occur.”

Rowlands (1995) Page 55

So, we are so sure of our theories that we misidentify signal as noise on occasion.  #hairlessape #epicfail.

Rowlands also quotes a New Scientist  journo on the subject of (science) policy entrepreneurs

“It could be argued that, if Bob Watson had been hit by a bus in 1980, we would not now have a treaty to save the ozone layer…. Watson did not discover the hole in the ozone layer, calculate how CFCs reach the stratosphere, or write the models that predict the damage. What he did do, however, was to bring the scientists who did that work together to reach a consensus on what was happening.  He then helped to translate what they said into a language that politicians could not obfuscate or ignore.  The result was the ozone treaty.”

Debora MacKenzie, How to use science and influence people New Scientist, 122 29 April 1989, page 69

That’s not Watson’s only service to an indifferent species. He also took over the reins of the IPCC from Bert Bolin in 1997. George W Bush got rid of him as soon as he could.


(1) There’s a super useful chronology of the politics of both ozone layer depletion and of climate change (the two issues overlap in profound ways)

(2) Gribbin, J. (1988) The Hole in the Sky: Man’s Threat to the Ozone Layer (London, Corgi Books, p. 95)

Reading on the Stepper: Coal, mentors, denial etc

Meditation and the Art of Writing. Yep. Should do that. I need my jedi mind tricks

The Great Climate Change Denial Industry by Robert M Thorson

Those Koch boys getting their money’s worth;

Leiserowitz proved this with an interesting turnaround regarding the public’s first thoughts about climate change after being prompted. In 2007, only 7 percent of respondents reported thinking about the “naysayer” position, which either denies or minimizes climate change, or dubs it a left-wing conspiracy. By 2010, this first thought had risen to 26 percent to become the nation’s most potent image of the subject, more important than melting ice, broiling soil or stranded polar bears.

Why the sharp turnaround between 2007 and 2010? Many causes. Economic collapse caused by greed. A decline in media coverage on climate change, down to about 0.1 percent of total news. Unusual weather. Political polarization. And most important, the strengthening of a climate denial industry.

How to find a Mentor

Typical youthful insanity is sending 3000-word emails at 2 a.m. It’s getting embarrassingly drunk at an event because you’re nervous. It’s hiding a mistake you made because you’re scared. It’s quitting because you’ve fallen behind or don’t feel encouraged. It’s arguing with feedback and thinking you know better, thinking that you’re special. Those weak emotions are luxurious. If you want to indulge them, then you’ve got no right to a busy person’s time.

Cultural politics of climate change: constructing and contesting low -carbon subjects Academic study, ongoing. Interesting.

How the “War on Coal” went global by Erica Martinson


As the projects lag, the blue-chip investment firms that used to provide financial backing for the proposed West Coast terminals have largely given way to smaller firms with a “penchant for high-risk” investments, said Clark Williams-Derry, a research and communications director for the Sightline Institute, which opposes boosting coal exports. “It’s really a shift from investment to speculation,” he said.

The Wikipedia article about the Wegman Report. Intimidation and flakking. I may have to read Michael Mann’s book about the Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars…

The decision that came outa Lima.

Gonna have to turn this into Frank and Ern toons (with my cartoonist buddy)

Australian #climate wrecking is a bi-partisan, long-term thing. Or “Abbott is not unique”

Here’s what the excellent books by Guy Pearse and Clive Hamilton about the Australian government’s climate policy under John Howard miss(1); during the premiership of Paul Keating, much loved for his views on Aboriginal reconciliation, Labor was also a “blocker” on climate change, both domestically and internationally.

The reason is pretty simple. It’s four letters. C.O.A.L. It was a big Australian export back in the day, and it’s a much bigger one now. (2)

So, I will be writing much more (40,000 words? More?) on this. For now, two little snippets, separated by twenty years.

This from August 1994. The author is Jeremy Leggett (3).

… the foreign minister warned that Australia might refuse to discuss greenhouse-gas reduction commitments at all. The Cabinet had actually discussed the option of not accepting commitments on climate change, he admitted. The government had only ever put forward its target as an interim planning measure.

And, 20 years and 5 months later, at the Lima Climate Conference …

Lima: Trade Minister Andrew Robb has told  business leaders at climate change negotiations in Lima that Canberra may not sign up to a new global deal if major trade competitors are not pulling their weight,  stating Australia will not “get it in the neck”…. Robb told the meeting with business officials  – which included representatives of BHP Billiton and the Business Council of Australia  – Australia would make a particular effort to ensure trade competitors “are as ambitious as we will be.”
“If we are not convinced they (trade competitors) are doing what they should, it will influence whether we sign up or not. Outcomes must be comparable…we are not going to get it in the neck and increase our costs for nothing,” he said. [The Age]

Liberal, Labor, 1994, 2014. Plus ςa change…

(1) It would be unfair to say  “miss altogether.” They make very little of it, preferring to stick the boot into the Liberals. It’s an understandable aim, but we shouldn’t lose sight of just how short-sighted governments of any hue have been.
(2) Though as Pearse, Hamilton, and many others have pointed out – favouring mineral extraction every time has consequences for tourism, agriculture, health, manufacturing etc.  For a recent (August 2014) example, see this Reserve Bank of Australia discussion paper, The Effectof the Mining Boom on the Australian Economy.

“This paper estimates the effects of the mining boom in Australia, using a large-scale structural macro-econometric model, AUS -M. We estimate that the mining boom boosted real per capita household disposable income by 13 per cent by 2013.
The boom has contributed to a large appreciation of the Australian dollar that has weighed on other industries exposed to trade, such as manufacturing and agriculture.
However, because manufacturing benefits from higher demand for
inputs to mining, the deindustrialisation that sometimes accompanies resource booms– the so-called ‘Dutch disease’ has not been strong.

(3) Leggett, J. (2001) The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era New York: Routledge, p. 165.

Stepping up 14 December 2014: innovation, coal, the AGGG

Gonna see if insta-commenting helps me retain factoids post-reading-on-the-stepper…

Finished off “Emerging challenges for science, technology and innovation policy research: a reflexive overview” (Research Policy 38,: 571-582. Brain stretching stuff – this, among others, was gold –

“For example, Weick (1995) recounts a story told by the Hungarian Nobel Laureate, Albert Szent-Gyorti, about a small Hungarian detachment that, after becoming lost in the snow in the Swiss Alps, managed to survive and to return to the main camp using and putting their faith (and lives), without realising it, in the wrong map (in this case, a map of the Pyrenees). The story suggests that when we are lost, any old map will do and good outcomes can come even from bad or wrong maps because they do at least allow us to begin to act, generating outcomes in a particular social context and making sense of those outcomes.”

Weick, 1995 isn’t in the references. Might be a typo for Weick, K. (1999) Theory construction as disciplined reflexivity: tradeoffs in the 90s Academy of Management Reviewe, 24, 797-806

Nope, it’s not, and after a quick google the whole story (!) thickens considerably. See here and here.

So I am clearly going to have to read: Andrew Gelman and Thomas Basbøll (2014) “When Do Stories Work? Evidence and Illustration in the Social Sciences” Sociological Methods and Research Vol 43 (5) p 547-570.

There is some great advice about academic writing on Basboll’s site.

Then there was “The UNFCCC and Beyond: Transnational Climate Change Governance” – Matthew Paterson (author of many many things, including “Global Warming and Global Politics” from 1996.  There are lots of other climate governance “experiments” at different scales and in different sectors. But is our children learning?

Then Tim Loh, journo for Bloomberg, doing a very interesting piece on coal magnate Robert Murray – “A Provocateur Sees Profits in Coal’s Long, Slow, Death.” Good stuff on how he’s spotted regulation coming, and knows how to profit from it.

Finally, an excellent paper called “Early science policy interaction in climate change: lessons from the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases” [paywalled] by Shardul Agrawala, whose work I have blogged about before. The AGGG was a short-lived group of scientists that came out of the crucial Villach conference in October 1985. Agrawala interviewed the scientists in the de jure (official) group and some in the shadow/“de facto” group of scientists. The AGGG seems to have been crucial in getting the June 1988 Toronto conference going. Agrawala’s account of the science developments in the 70s and 80s is crystal clear, and his “lessons learned” is also exemplary.

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