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15 September 2015

Why is the government funding research into overly optimistic outcomes of climate change?

The challenges for public science research are exposed as the government appears to fund the study of overly-optimistic scenarios of the effects of climate change.

By Emad Ahmed

A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), concludes that the future of climate change will bring about greater biodiversity in our oceans. A surprising outcome, especially with what is known so far about the potentially catastrophic effects climate change will have on our waters and the wider world. I dived deeper into the details and results of the study to see if I was missing something.

In order to predict this outcome, the authors chose to use two of the four climate models created by the well-respected, Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) body. These models are known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), and are different future trajectories of greenhouse gas concentration, allowing other researchers to study varying effects of climate change.

The RPCs chosen were the second and fourth models, the most severe prediction. However, studies in recent years have stated that the chance of preventing a 2oC increase is quickly slipping away, something to which the authors of this very study also admit, based on current emission levels.

This means the most severe prediction of climate change by the IPCC is quickly being rendered useless.

Let’s focus for a moment on just how good the UK’s world-class research sector is and its subsequent influence. According to a report produced by Elsevier in 2013 on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), despite settling just 0.9 per cent of the world’s population, Britain has 4.1 per cent of the world’s researchers, 11.6 per cent of citations and 15.9 per cent of the most highly-cited papers in the realms of research. Not bad for a fallen empire.

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“Our science productivity is absolutely stunning,” declares Professor Iain Gillespie, NERC’s Director of Science and Innovation. He adds, “UK science, pound for pound, is the most productive science in the world.”

So why is the government funding the study of overly-optimistic scenarios of the effects of climate change?

You might think this is a short-sighted question given the importance of studying ocean biodiversity and the effects humans are having on slowly killing the planet.

“I think publicly-funded science needs to deal with understanding climate change and mitigation, so what might we do to reduce climate change. And it needs to deal with adaptation to climate change,” Gillespie states. “And I think it would be entirely inappropriate for publicly-funded science to ignore any one of these three.”

This response shows the time has come for the scientific community to rally around a potential future of humanity dealing directly with the effects of climate change.

Looking into the effectiveness of NERC (funded by BIS, though not a part of government), I found two separate public reports that show them providing a huge benefit to businesses, in particular the extraction industries. Over the past 15 years, more accurate drilling technology produced by NERC has been estimated to have rewarded the industry to the tune of £500m. These are the results of open science. However, the studies are always independent of any external factors and influences.

Some businesses benefit not only from government-funded research, but also from huge corporate grants and subsidies from the Treasury. For example, the Guardian reported a figure recently of £58.2bn in grants and subsidies paid out for the financial year of 2012-13, with corporate tax receipts of just £41.3bn. But of course, as they pay their taxes, it makes sense for them to benefit from public research too.

“If science is open, then it’s open,” replies Gillespie, after being challenged about this. “If it’s publicly-funded, then the outcomes of that science should be available to all. If it’s UK industry or foreign industry, they can benefit from that science, and develop products and services, that’s what publicly-funded science is about.”

He clarifies that certain areas of research would always remain closed, such as military and defence.

There has recently been an increasing public appetite for more transparency in the relationship between government and the largest corporations trading in the UK, spearheaded by the likes of Margaret Hodge of the Public Accounts Committee during the last parliament.

Gillespie concludes: “Open science helps us get access to a whole range of ideas around the world and enables our scientists to collaborate with others.”

This new era of scientific competition and cooperation is going to be interesting.

Update 17th September: This article has been updated to reflect the role of NERC.