Scientists and remedies: brainstorming


in Daily updates, M.Phil thesis, Oxford, Politics, Science, The environment

Statue in Nuffield College, Oxford

Tonight, I am brainstorming connections between scientists and remedy design. Addressing environmental problem basically seems to revolve around changing the intensity with which an activity is being carried out (ie. fish or cut down trees at the rate of regeneration) or finding substitutes (using solar power instead of natural gas power). Both kinds of solutions involve some critical imputs from scientists. Not surprisingly, my focus here is on types of actions that pertain specifically to my case studies.

I have come up with the following. Does anything else spring to mind?

Technological development

Development of:

  1. Alternative chemicals to replace ones that have been problematic (for instance, CFCs and POPs)
  2. Alternative mechanisms for energy generation, storage, and transmission
  3. Energy-using technologies that are more efficient
  4. Plant varieties that require fewer pesticides
  5. Mechanisms for the disposal or long-term storage of unwanted by-products
  6. Less polluting mechanisms for waste disposal


Anticipating the consequences of:

  1. Continuing to behave as we have been
  2. Adopting one or another alternative approach
  3. The combination of our impact upon the world with possible natural changes, such as major volcanic eruptions

Providing information about uncertainty:

  1. How good are our predictions?
  2. If they do fail, in what ways might it occur (what is not included in the models?)
  3. What kinds of uncertainty are out there (ie. magnitude of effects, distribution of effects, etc)

Predictions about technological development:

  1. What will the state of environmentally relevant technologies be in X years?
  2. Is it better to invest in the best technology we have now, or continue research and wait (partly an economic question)

Big ideas about the world

Establish and describe the limits of nature:

  1. Is this a factual or ideological exercise?
  2. The same facts could justify differing views
  3. Some ideologies have elements that can be pretty effectively undermined by science (ie. eugenics)

How should we treat uncertainty?:

  1. Are there categories of risk that it is more ‘rational’ to worry about?
  2. When does it make sense to ‘wait and see’ and when does it make sense to act in a precautionary way?

Naturally, those last few items extend into territory that is not obviously scientific. One big question about the social role of scientists is the extent to which they do or should contribute to such hybrid debates, with both empirical and ethical dimensions. Also, there is the question of whether they do or should do so ‘with their scientist hats on’ or whether they are no different from any other actor, once they have strayed from their area of core competence.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon @ Wadh March 30, 2007 at 12:42 pm

“But why did you engineer these giant killer bats?”

“We’re scientists…that’s what we do.”

. November 15, 2007 at 11:32 am

Should scientists act as advocates on [the climate change] issue?

MacCracken: If you want to avoid dangerous or catastrophic kinds of consequences such as the loss of Greenland, you’ve to get on a path where emissions from developed countries are going down by around 80% by 2050. You have to do that. And we’ll have to get developing countries to go along as they can, and go down further after that. So I think scientists need to speak out very clearly on the exact details of what the policies are.

Pershing: I think that the scientific community has been under-represented in the dialogue and has taken a pass when it should have taken a step forward. It has basically proposed that others know better as to what should be done, and that’s not evident. If we take the past 20 years where there has been complete and total inaction, the scientific community in the first IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] assessment report laid out explicitly the nature of the problem and made proposals as to what ought to be done. Twenty years later, very little has happened. So I suggest the scientific community needs to be much more aggressive.

Braithwaite: I think in an ideal world, they shouldn’t have to be advocates; their voice should be heard anyway. When their voice isn’t being heard, then that’s a different situation. I’m not going to comment on the United States, but in the United Kingdom, I think if we tried to put together public policy without basing it on the best available science, we’d get ourselves into trouble very quickly.

Grumet: The one other point that I will make is that, in our system, there is such a profound notion of there being two sides to every issue. I think where the scientific community finally rose up with some outrage — and outrage among scientists is kind of modest annoyance among the rest of us — was when the real scientific community was fully convinced of the basics of the ecological reality, but there were one or two folks out there pushing a different [sceptical] side. Yet the situation would be consistently set up as one scientist thinks this and the other scientist thinks something different. And finally I think about a year ago the scientific communities kind of got fed up with that.

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