Communicating Contested Geoscience Conference – June 2014

Written by Jen Roberts, a ClimateXChange postdoc at the University of Strathclyde whose attendance at the event was supported by a UKCCSRC Career Development Bursary. Jen also wrote a companion piece to this report with her thoughts about communicating.

Effective communication is something that several areas of geosciences have struggled with. Some valuable lessons have been learnt, but there is always more to learn and more avenues to explore. With this sentiment, the Geological Society of London recently hosted a one-day conference entitled Communicating Contested Geoscience. ‘Energy’ was the shared theme of the three contested geological subjects discussed at this conference; shale gas, CCS, and radioactive waste disposal. The day brought together researchers, policy makers, operators and science communicators to share experiences and discuss together ‘new strategies for public engagement’.

Since my research with ClimateXChange is about perception and communication of risk from new energy technologies – and I mostly work on CCS and shale gas, this event was right up my street (and, ahem, the fact that two of the conference organizers are my bosses….). And so, with the aid of my UKCCSRC Career Development Bursary, I made the journey south from Glasgow to be at the Geological Society of London headquarters, Burlington House, on the 20 June 2014.

As I mentioned above, the three contested geological themes were shale gas, CCS, and radioactive waste disposal. These themes were explored through a mixture of keynote talks and expert panel discussions, alongside active Q & A. It was a full house all day at the conference venue – a great testament to the importance of the topic and the excellence of the speakers and discussions in the plenary and in the breaks. Hats off the organisers.

Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University kicked off the day in his energising manner, outlining upfront that:

a)The “information deficit” model is outdated, and so we should no longer aim to give people information in an attempt to get folks to understand the science. This doesn’t work.

b) We delegates were brought here under false pretences, and in fact the day is not about hearing about ‘new strategies for public engagement’ as the title of the conference suggested. Instead, the day is about sharing methods and experiences across different disciplines to inform a deeper understanding and appreciation of the problem, and to introduce new perspectives, which will assist the movement towards new strategies for engagement. i.e. the conference is not adopting the deficit model where the speaker tells the audience the facts and what to do. Excellent stuff.

The first presentation was given by David Manning, the new president of the Geological Society of London. The four key sessions followed, which were:

Session One: Shale Gas

Chair: Professor Zoe Shipton from the University of Strathclyde.

  • David MacKay – Regius Professor in Engineering, University of Cambridge, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)
  • Mike Stephenson – Director of Science and Technology, British Geological Survey (BGS)
  • Brigitte Nerlich – Professor of Science, Language and Society, Nottingham University
  • Mark Lappin – Subsurface Manager North Sea, Centrica Energy Upstream (formerly General Manager for Europe at Dart Energy).

David has both passion and talent for making information digestible, by breaking it down or by infographics (he is the author of the brilliant book Sustainable energy – Without the hot air which is downloadable for free), which he happily exhibits in his presentation. Mike’s insight into the sorts of fears and concerns he is confronted with by citizens concerned about shale gas development is extremely thought provoking and really brings home how much we (the audience) take for granted our knowledge and familiarity with the subsurface.

Brigitte’s overview of public opinion about shale gas, media analyses of newspaper coverage of the topic (which is polarised), and her work on science communication was just fascinating (in fact, so brilliant and fascinating that I took very few notes – and I wasn’t the only one who expressed this!). Brigitte really does approach what she calls the communication conundrum from a completely different dimension than us techy-folk. She illustrated the two approaches to communication (discussing different values vs science and better facts), reminding us that topics such as shale gas are not just technical, but are also about peoples values and world-outlook.  Brigitte closes with the notion that ‘facts bounce of frames’, i.e. if the fact does not fit with a person’s morally-based frame, or perspective, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. The notion of moral frames will be familiar to anyone working in the social and political sciences and psychology, but to those that have not come across this before, to explain, I will paraphrase George Lakoff, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the leading researchers on political frames who explains that “frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality – and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. Frames structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason. For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic”.

Mark Lappin then brought the points made in the previous talks together, asking the audience to consider what ‘community’ means.. A lively discussion between the panel members and the audience followed about what to communicate and how, new media tools, and building and maintaining trust (though Zoe had to expertly shepherd the questions to stay on topic). The discussion was in fact so lively that the audience opted to delay the refreshment break, reducing the window of opportunity for caffeine-and-sugar loading in favour of allowing the dialogue to continue.

Session Two: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

Chair: Dr Clare Bond, University of Aberdeen

  • Andy Chadwick – Individual Merit Research Scientist: CCS, British Geological Survey (BGS)
  • Jon Gluyas – Professor in CCS and Geo-Energy, Durham University
  • Kirsty Anderson – Public Engagement Manager, Global CCS Institute
  • Clair Gough – Research Fellow, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester

Kirsty gave a brilliant, energetic presentation reflecting on her work at Longannet and GCCSI. She shared her 5 themes for successful communication, which include the needs for (i) a shared vision between all parties (ii) a core communications function from the project outset (iii) the social context should be considered (iv) early engagement and (v) a targeted communication strategy. Kirsty then had an amusing ‘moan’ (her words!) about common things that she sees and key challenges, such as using jargon without explaining it, using facts that are just not interesting to normal folk, challenging analogies we use (rocks are like a sponge…only not really like a sponge since you can’t squeeze it…ergo confusion), before wrapping up with some examples of excellent communication, such as demonstrating porosity and permeability using chocolate bars. Winner.

In the final talk of this session, Clair reminded us that there is no one public, it is not a single entity but a diverse and evolving masse of people. Likewise, there is no one method to communicate effectively, and so we need to use a range of resources, with continued efforts, and adapt. We cannot ‘crack’ communication or the public response, which is unpredictable but depends on the local context, media, trust, process, and other developments.

Again, a lively discussion followed. First, this explored the importance of early CCS projects to demonstrate proof of concept and security. CCS-EOR (enhanced oil recovery) was then discussed, which although is less philanthropic, tends to be easier to communicate since the CO₂ has a use, there is a more measurable purpose to the process and economic value. Nick Pidgeon commented about some of the communication issues regarding risk; the main messages that are communicated are often technical risks which are very different from stakeholders perceived risks. Finally, the discussions closed on a positive note, of examples of successful communication particularly following where things have actually sort of gone wrong, like the Weyburn-Midale leak allegations, the Mongstadt response to leaking of capture chemicals and Hontomin CCS site.

Session Three: Radioactive Waste Disposal

Chair: Nick Smith from the National Nuclear Laboratory and the University of Manchester.

  • Becky Lunn – Professor of Engineering Geosciences, University of Strathclyde and UK Government’s Committee for Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM)
  • Bruce Yardley – Chief Geologist to the Radioactive Waste Management Directorate of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Professor of Metamorphic Geochemistry, Leeds University
  • Bruce Cairns – Office for Nuclear Development at DECC
  • Phil Richardson – Senior Consultant at Galson Sciences

This session differed slightly in that Becky Lunn gave the main overarching presentation, while the Bruce and Bruce (!) and Phil gave brief introductions and reflections before we launched into the discussion. Becky’s talk gave an excellent, clear introduction to radioactive waste disposal (RWD) in the UK and around the word, and some of the lessons learned about communication. According to the 2013 inventory, the UK has the equivalent volume of 4 x Wembley Stadiums in radwaste, but only particular types of waste come under CoRWM’s remit. A total of volume of 291,100 m3 (1/4 of Wembley stadium) is suitable for RWD and CoRWM has been working with the UK government to work out what is best to do with it. RWD is a decade or so ahead of CCS and shale gas, and so there are a number of transferable lessons, one of which is the need for completely robust and defendable regulation. However, RWD is quite different from, say, CCS in that there are lots of different geologies that would be successful for RWD so long as there is a ‘safety case’, whereas CCS requires specific geology. It takes approximately 20 years or so to build the safety case portfolio, and a lot can change in political attitudes, and energy in that time. Becky explored a problem that has been picked up on in previous talks, which is about ‘what makes an expert?’ and how to deal with reported bad science. Becky reminded us of the challenge of communicating uncertainty: most lessons from subsurface engineering tell us to expect the unexpected – which is a cross cutting theme across CCS, RWD and shale gas.

The discussion explored the problem of trust in the scientific method, public comprehension of the subsurface and, once again, issues of scale of dialogue for national issues. This all led smoothly on to the final session of the day.

Session Four: Public Engagement

Chair: Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University

  • Nick Pidgeon – Professor of Environmental Psychology and Director of the Understanding Risk Research Group, Cardiff University
  • Ruth Allington – Senior Partner and Chief Engineering Geologist, GWP Partners
  • David Reiner – Senior Lecturer in Technology Policy, University of Cambridge

New approaches to effective engagement were reflected upon by these three excellent speakers. Nick first reminded the audience that correctly scaled images were not going to eradicate misperceived risk, since the nature of the risks perceived by non-experts are often quite different from the risks perceived by technical experts – who want the diagrams. Nick also reminded the audience that risk communication is not a new field, medics have been exploring the issue for decades – the trick is to transfer this knowledge into these geo-concepts. He and colleagues have been exploring methods of dialogue and deliberation about nuclear energy and other options over the past couple of years. One such deliberative workshop using the 2050 calculator to determine preferred energy futures on different spatial scales; home, local area, and national scale. This shed light on the value systems that were being challenged by energy developments or energy choices. Some of these values include the ethical discomfort about depleting finite resources; the longevity of the resource (transition, or ‘bridging’ technologies are not so popular), challenges to a persons sense of place; and social justice regarding the source, distribution and use of the energy and the emissions.

David then illustrated the difficulty in obtaining scientifically balanced information on the internet. An example is the wikipedia entry for CCS. Go on, take a look, and you will see how misleading and outdated this is, the fact that it has not been improved is a pretty poor show by the scientific community considering that wikipedia is the oracle of information for many folk around the world. David also points out that youtube hits for ‘bad science’ videos have  millions of views, meanwhile the youtube clip of Mike Stevenson explaining shale gas in a digestible, scientifically correct, balanced way, has only a fraction of the hits.

What are we scientists missing out on, and what can we do to correct this?

Ruth closed this session, reflecting on her experiences as a mediator between the operator and the publics. Ruth is a natural storyteller, and the crux of her experiences rest on the need to listen, on many levels, and work with the publics over time to respond to the concerns that they have. Mediation and facilitation is a craft, involving time, patience, measured reactive response, and some creativity – sometimes the root of the problem lies elsewhere, the challenge is to find this root!

The discussion following this enlightening, forward thinking session somehow reverted back to information provision, somewhat disappointingly, despite Iain’s best efforts to steer the discussion away! In a way, I felt that this beautifully illustrated the framing problem (see earlier), only this time the frame is held by the technical experts who are comfortable with the concept of information deficit, but struggle with the more modern concepts of values, risk perception, and dialogue. These new concepts bounce of their frames – and so the discussion returns to the need for facts and information! Given what has been said earlier today, these frames will be reconfigured with time, engagement, reengagement, dialogue, more time, more engagement and so on. There is hope for us yet…

Paul Younger, Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, who closed the conference, certainly felt there was hope. Paul, in his ever insightful, entertaining and musical manner, brought forward the concept of values and philosophy again, and told us not to feel to down hearted – we aren’t doing toooo badly, some things are done right enough, and, importantly, we are looking forward. Paul’s closing song (yes, song) set an excellent tone for the wine reception that followed, where the conversations continued until all the glasses were cleared away.


Other stuff

There were clearly some excellent communicators at the conference, the sessions, talks and emerging themes were brilliantly covered by a number of folks on Twitter (#CCG14), and on blogs following the event. I recommend PhD student Hazel Gibson’s blog and Storify

**And remember to read Jen’s companion piece to this report, It takes (at least) two to communicate**