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23/07/2014

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A bioenergy dialogue is being run by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

Duncan Eggar, Jennifer Cunniff and Marta Entradas explain how it works and explore some unexpected problems.

Exploring understanding and attitudes

Duncan Eggar wants to stimulate discussion.

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Bioenergy offers the potential to help meet the UK’s Green House Gas reduction targets, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and improve our energy security. Done well it can be sustainable, not compete with food and be a useful part of the UK’s energy mix. As with many other aspects of life, done badly bioenergy’s harms could outweigh its benefits.

Duncan Eggar wants to stimulate discussion.

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Bioenergy offers the potential to help meet the UK’s Green House Gas reduction targets, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and improve our energy security. Done well it can be sustainable, not compete with food and be a useful part of the UK’s energy mix. As with many other aspects of life, done badly bioenergy’s harms could outweigh its benefits.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is investing in bioenergy research that we aim to be socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. For instance, so called second generation or advanced bioenergy will not compete with food for land.

Our research is uncovering new insights in bioenergy: it is developing an understanding of how non-edible plant matter, such as straw or coppiced willow, can be used as the basis for energy. It is harnessing the power of new technologies like synthetic biology to create microbes that can make fuel from residues.

Sources of expertise

However, as exciting and promising as these discoveries are, bioenergy is part of a complex picture and we know that BBSRC is not the only source of expertise in the area.

Policy makers, other academics, NGOs and industry all have useful things to say – as indeed do the public. Our bioenergy public dialogue programme will help us to explore with people their understanding and attitudes towards bioenergy and the issues it raises; for instance how people think about ideas such as sustainability and what bioenergy done well looks like to them.

New method

The bioenergy public dialogue builds on BBSRC’s long experience in this area and is piloting a novel method of distributed dialogue. We have developed a dialogue toolkit which we are encouraging others to pick up and use.

The toolkit has a number of ways to stimulate and capture discussion and we hope that our research community and others with an interest in the topic will use it as a basis for stimulating discussion. The output and analysis from these discussions will allow us, and those we fund, to be responsive to public views and values as we develop the potential of bioenergy.

The researcher’s perspective

Jennifer Cunniff was surprised

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I have taken part in a range of public engagement events throughout my scientific career, generally where I have produced resources to teach others (largely schoolchildren) about my science. I jumped at the chance to attend a pilot event of the BBSRC Bioenergy Dialogue. The dialogue was billed to be an ‘interactive session to discuss the future of bioenergy,’ and was held at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre.

Jennifer Cunniff was surprised

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I have taken part in a range of public engagement events throughout my scientific career, generally where I have produced resources to teach others (largely schoolchildren) about my science. I jumped at the chance to attend a pilot event of the BBSRC Bioenergy Dialogue. The dialogue was billed to be an ‘interactive session to discuss the future of bioenergy,’ and was held at the Science Museum’s Dana Centre.

Scenario

I was given the role of a facilitator at the event, and was intrigued to find that I would be imparting very little of my knowledge on bioenergy to the public. Instead my role was to start off a group discussion to canvas opinions and concerns on the use of bioenergy in the future.

To start the conversation we had a ‘scenario’ to role play. Ours depicted a future where energy from algae dominated; unfortunately this had left other countries who had invested in alternatives in poverty.

Generally, I find role playing a little cringe worthy so I was pleased (and surprised) at the number of enthusiastic volunteers. The scenario acted as a great ice breaker to make everyone feel comfortable and after there was a debate on the issues it brought to light. I generally said very little, not wanting to sway the debate, but kept busy collating an interesting list of opinions.

Good challenge

My only criticism of the method was that the scenarios were all a little unrealistic and generally negative, meaning that the group had little chance to consider the positives that bioenergy may bring. That aside, I found the dialogue event to be an effective way of understanding the general public’s concerns over bioenergy.

Moreover, it was really interesting to be involved in and learn about a different method of public engagement. It was really interesting to be on the receiving end of the information, and it encouraged the group to think more and realise that their opinions really do count.

In the situation of the Dana Centre the Dialogue event wasn’t too challenging to deliver. The audience targeted were very specific; they were a group who already had a strong interest and opinions on scientific issues.

It will be interesting to see how the dialogue will run with a different audience. It is unlikely that researchers will always have a group who are as receptive to engage in role playing activities and offer opinion so readily. However, it offers a good challenge for researchers to hone their public engagement skills.

Researchers need support

Marta Entradas wants to boost take-up.

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I was very pleased to join BBSRC to coordinate the bioenergy dialogue project.

It is exciting to coordinate a project which is testing a new approach to dialogue, involving more researchers and members of the public and running for longer than previous ones. Also, this model relies on researchers and other interested groups to run dialogue events, which we recognise may offer a challenge.

Marta Entradas wants to boost take-up.

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I was very pleased to join BBSRC to coordinate the bioenergy dialogue project.

It is exciting to coordinate a project which is testing a new approach to dialogue, involving more researchers and members of the public and running for longer than previous ones. Also, this model relies on researchers and other interested groups to run dialogue events, which we recognise may offer a challenge.

Reluctance

In fact, despite public engagement practice seeming to be evolving among scientists in recent years, there are still many barriers facing scientists who want to be involved in public engagement activities, for instance, time constraints, pressure to publish and lack of support to name a few.

With this is mind, we developed a toolkit of resources which include future scenarios, a Democs card game and guidelines to help researchers plan and run dialogue events. We are also providing funding for researchers to run events, and training in public engagement skills and on how to use the toolkit.

However, despite all the support that BBSRC is offering to researchers, and the publicity that has been given to the dialogue on websites and in meetings with the bioenergy scientific community, there seems to be some reluctance from researchers to take the initiative to run an event.

Support for researchers

The project is still in its early stages in terms of our being able to identify the reasons behind this resistance. However, feedback collected at the pilot event and conversations I have had with researchers reveal that one of the main explanations seems to be the ‘seriousness’ of the dialogue as it involves collecting public opinion. Additionally, researchers do not all feel they have the training and skills to be able to have these sorts of effective discussion with members of the public.

In response to this challenge, we have developed a more robust strategy to provide extra support to researchers. This includes, training, one-to-one mentoring, attending the events and helping to facilitate the discussions.

We see this project as a great opportunity to forge links between scientists, policy-makers and the public, and we hope that BBSRC researchers and other groups will take part to help us make this public dialogue a success. We believe that this innovative model has the potential to collect a variety of public views that can lead to greater public involvement in policy and better science policies.

Duncan Eggar C Eng, FRSA
Duncan Eggar C Eng, FRSA is the Bioenergy Champion of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Dr Jennifer Cunniff
Dr Jennifer Cunniff is at Rothamsted Research
Marta Entradas
Marta Entradas is Bioenergy Dialogue Coordinator at BBSRC
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