Viewpoint

A bad year for science

17 February 2006

The year 2005 was described in New Scientist (31 December 2005) as a devastating year for science’s credibility. This follows the fiasco of the publication by Science of a landmark paper by Woo Suk Hwang on the creation of embryonic stem cells. Hwang’s paper seemingly laid foundations for treating sick people with cells identical to their own, but has now been retracted because data in it was untrustworthy. Bad enough, but the crux, as New Scientist remarks, is the damage to science itself.

As NEI readers will know, trust is crucial. For many years scientists have been told, with demoralising effect, their credibility is low. The reaction has often been defensiveness and such traits can be detected in high-tech industries and even science institutions. While the ‘science is not trusted’ argument is simplistic and not universally supported, it is still influential.

What has this to do with Britain’s nuclear waste? In 2003 the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) set up a Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) to advise by August 2006 on what to do with the country’s intermediate- and high-level radioactive waste. This committee has since become embroiled in a major dispute over its attitude to and use of science. The situation is exacerbated because, despite the substantive nature of criticisms, and the implausibility of their incorrectness in totality, the prevailing establishment view appears to be that it is too late to do other than soldier on. It is better to paper over the cracks, rewrite history, and let CoRWM fade quietly into the night so that a new, properly-constituted taskforce may take over.

The advantages are the avoidance of political embarrassment for some, but on the line are the reputations of all those entangled in CoRWM’s attempt to reshape its image. The strategy is dangerous. As described here, there can be no doubt that CoRWM’s approach to science has been defective, even negligent, and likely continues so. All the PR in the world cannot hide that, and what has been done will provide a constant threat to science’s credibility. The nuclear industry in particular has been under relentless attack over scientific issues from antagonists who let slip no opportunity, and is therefore vulnerable, unfairly but by association. At a crucial point in its evolution, singular care is needed.

CHANGING TIMES

Times and perspectives change, sometimes rapidly and of necessity. Britain’s once-perceived, rosy situation regarding energy security has been shaken by the dawning reality of its finite oil and gas reserves, and by recognition that events in far-flung places like Russia and Ukraine have strategic implications. There is growing talk of an ‘energy gap’. This has contributed to Britain’s renewed interest in nuclear generation, against which antagonists tirelessly raise the spectre of Britain’s legacy of nuclear waste, for which there is still no formal long-term strategy.

Given the technical nature of these matters, one would have thought there would have been a major if not decisive role for scientists, but the era we live in is one of science under challenge. In the USA, Darwin’s theory of evolution is attacked through the courts by faith-led adherents of ‘Intelligent Design’, which, they say, should be given equal status in education. The phenomenon is not confined to debates over evolution, but is observable much more widely in society including the domain of high-tech industries. Some attribute it to lingering effects of postmodernism on universities, and others as a continuation of the centuries-old face-off between faith and the Enlightenment. As the writer Malcolm Bradbury put it in his send-up of postmodernism: “Postmodern times, I say. Everything goes.” Whatever the cause, the implications are potentially serious when the world faces multiple challenges. Where such matters surface they should be faced, not ducked. As Bradbury said, of the Paris orchestra which tried to defend the composer Rameau: “I just wish we had orchestras like that now. Musicians who care about something.”

SOME BACKGROUND

Nuclear waste is not an insoluble problem when properly managed, even in Britain where the job is more difficult because of the complexity of the waste. The main hurdle has been the absence of long-term policy. In the 1990s, Nirex, the body responsible for radioactive waste management, attempted to start the process of developing a geological disposal solution. It sought planning permission for an underground laboratory close to the Sellafield site but this was opposed and in 1997 a planning inquiry refused permission, saying the application was scientifically unsound. Although seen as a triumph in some circles, the hiatus has meant that the British public remains exposed to greater risk and cost than need be.

The question of what to do with the waste apparently passed to the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC) who set up a consensus subgroup which reported in 2001. Essentially this group recommended that a further committee examine the options, stressing the need for a solution that commanded public confidence. In turn, in 2003, CoRWM was established by Defra, seemingly for the purpose of breaking the impasse. By then thinking had moved on, and risk management decision making was no longer seen as largely technical, but requiring a deliberative element involving the public and stakeholders. The emphasis on deliberation can be discerned in CoRWM’s remit, which is to advise on options for the management of this waste which are practicable, capable of early implementation, and will “inspire public confidence.”

As risk management jobs go, that of quickly finding a long-term solution for dealing with this waste is an obvious priority. As currently stored, at various locations, in some cases as high-level liquid waste and spent nuclear fuel requiring constant cooling, it simultaneously poses an avoidable security threat and an unnecessary financial burden. Other countries are either implementing long-term strategies (for example, Finland and Sweden) or moving rapidly towards them (such as Canada). Both the European Commission and the IAEA have endorsed the concept of geological disposal. The need to move on is widely recognised.

Unfortunately, however, and unlike Canada’s NWMO (Nuclear Waste Management Organization), which has recently fulfilled a remit similar to its own, CoRWM is the butt of severe criticism. This has rained down from many respected sources, notably the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, the British Medical Association, and the Royal Society, as well as a plethora of independent scientists and the media. Recently, in October 2005, CoRWM’s own self-appointed evaluator, David Collier, added his own concerns, a principal one, as with the other agencies, being the absence until halfway through CoRWM’s programme of any strategy to employ science and engineering expertise (CoRWM report No 1355).

During 2005 CoRWM attempted to counter the onslaught by recasting its image. The CoRWM website in 2006 now features science prominently, a quality assurance working group has been established, and Defra has, belatedly, set up an independent panel to oversee scientific input. But it was not always like this: questions should be asked as to why for half the programme there was no science strategy; why the change; and, importantly, is it genuine? As former members of CoRWM we have a unique insight. In this article we examine key issues raised by third parties, their veracity (since all are contested by CoRWM’s management and sponsors), and consider the response and its implications.

KEY ISSUES OF THIRD PARTIES

The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology criticised the absence of hands-on experience on waste management issues, doubting CoRWM had even the expertise to be an intelligent customer. Is there substance to this criticism and does it matter?

CoRWM’s terms of reference (ToR) call for a wide variety of expertise to be represented on the committee, including the management of radioactive waste using geological solutions. Yet surprisingly the appointees had no expertise of this nature. Four were essentially from public relations backgrounds, with minimal, if any, scientific background, albeit some with a history of involvement in waste issues. Of the remaining eight, only three could be described as ‘career scientists’ and one as a nuclear engineer. Likewise, as the British Medical Association pointed out, there was no medical expertise.

These facts are self-evident, but the matter was not insuperable had CoRWM enlisted external support as it was perfectly entitled to do. However, there was great antipathy towards this. Instead it was argued that all the technical input was encapsulated in a pre-CoRWM report, known as the information needs research project, which had been written by some members, but even a cursory glance at this document shows it to be remarkably unfit for this purpose. Revealingly, CoRWM had produced a set of what it called ‘principles’ to which it would adhere and these omitted, not by accident because it had been raised, any reference to the need for sound technical input.

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The prevailing establishment view appears to be that it is too late to do other than soldier on

It took a year, and substantial pressure, to get this conspicuous omission rectified, but by then the programme had slipped, for CoRWM had been required to eliminate rapidly options for which there was no immediate prospect of implementation. An expert group could have quickly achieved this task, as the requirement of more-or-less immediate implementation eliminated most options without lengthy consideration. Rather than do this, CoRWM commissioned many work packages, some from business associates, examining bizarre options like sinking waste in ice caps. Tellingly, despite an avowed principle of openness and transparency, the peer reviews of these packages are omitted from CoRWM’s website, but Collier pointed out that many were highly critical. This seems to endorse their Lords’ concerns about the competence of the committee to even commission technical input.

The committee’s tactic is now to recast this work retrospectively as ‘rough and ready science,’ a curious term but with the apparent implication that it was planned and adequate for purpose. In the case of shortlisting, for the reason given above, such technical incompetence may have been of little consequence, but it wasted time and resources on a significant scale and, as Collier said, threw the committee’s work into ill-repute. It is but one example of shoddy use of science, natural and social.

Collier said that failing to set a science strategy before January 2005 caused avoidable damage to the credibility of the committee. Is this so and why did it happen?

The ToR for CoRWM leave one in no doubt that its authors understood the importance of employing the best available scientific knowledge as well as the nature of the process of decision making in democratic societies, that is, with appropriate engagement of stakeholders and the public. We fully support this approach subject to the quality of technical input being maintained. Collier analysed CoRWM’s approach in considerable detail, but acknowledged lacking insight prior to October 2004 when he was appointed. The facts are that prior to that date two major attempts to initiate a discussion on a science strategy (May and July 2004) had been made but were rejected by the committee, not on the basis of logic but politics. The feeling of a core group, supported by the chair, appeared to be that asking for expert input was somehow mistrustful of the public.

We were, at that time, fearful that CoRWM’s strategy would ultimately amount to the ad hoc introduction of scientific knowledge in response to questions from stakeholders and the public. According to Collier, we were close to the mark. In January 2005, over a year into its term, CoRWM at last conceded that scientific knowledge would be introduced into the decision making process, but only as required by the various panels and round tables, including the expert panels, by what Collier terms an ‘on demand’ strategy.

The policy is set out in CoRWM’s document 898, which defines in outline a multi-criteria decision analytic (MCDA) process which would form part of the overall methodology. In the section headed Overview of The OA (Options Assessment) Process, CoRWM recognises the need for expert input beyond that on the committee concerning the evaluation criteria and determines to set up expert panels in “appropriate specialist areas.” These panels would be asked to identify scoring schemes consistent with the overall method of scoring to be adopted, to be used as input to the MCDA process. At a later date they would be asked to score each shortlisted option. These specialist panels now constitute the main ‘science strategy’. The scores would then be weighted by panels of the public and stakeholders to “reflect their relative value” and arrive at an overall assessment of each option. In parallel with this reductive process these same stakeholder and public panels would undertake a holistic (options judged intuitively as a whole) decision process. Further detail as to what this will involve is best characterised by its absence. On the bases of these two sources of public and stakeholder advice, CoRWM will formulate its final recommendations.

Both rounds of expert panels have now been conducted. The panels met mainly in autonomous groups based on the criteria for selection of options, for example, security, safety, and cost. Each of these expert panels has met for two one-to-two-day sessions, in late 2005. There was no plan for ‘cross-talk’ between expert groups, making this so-called science strategy essentially a linear approach.

Under the new banner of CoRWM’s Use of Science on its website, CoRWM states: “It is essential that CoRWM uses the best available scientific and technical input into its options assessment process.” We assume this statement should be interpreted as advocating a strategy of “making the best possible use of the best available scientific and technical input.” Interpreted in this way it is questionable whether this has been achieved, notwithstanding the fact that those recruited to the panels were probably of the highest calibre. It is clear that however good the expertise, if the method of introducing the science to the process and propagating it is lacking, so will be the output. Indeed, the process has been described by some participants and observers as so prescribed and compartmentalised as to inhibit proper science.

It is clear that this linear approach has a number of other drawbacks, most notably that it provides no opportunity for expert input on trade-offs that have to be made between criteria. Thus, to what extent might it be advisable to relax the security criterion to achieve a saving in cost, or vice versa? It is inevitable that a prolific number of questions of this nature will arise and if not addressed with reference to expertise, how else? Some of these trade-offs require detailed technical knowledge to protect from the law of unintended consequences.

In July 2004, one member who repeatedly demonstrated antagonism to science, stated in plenary session that CoRWM should work to the formula ‘experts on tap not on top’ and this appears to sum up CoRWM’s science strategy. Of course, there should be no-one ‘on top’; there should be close cooperation between experts, public and stakeholders, each contributing what they could, but according to the Royal Society this was not achieved, for, as part of its response to the Office of Science and Technology’s evaluation of Defra’s use of science, it noted: “Defra has failed to establish a committee where scientists and social scientists can work effectively together to provide the best policy advice.” What seems to have happened is that the formula of ‘experts on tap…’ was coded language for a much-reduced, highly circumscribed role for expert input, whether natural or social science, and substitution of amateurism. Effectively, this amounted to a trade-off of sound science for public relations, a deeply disturbing trait considering the waste has implications for countless generations.

CONSEQUENCES

CoRWM adopted an approach to its task which, despite persistent denials by its management, deviates unequivocally from stipulations in its ToR, and which, in the context of such a highly important issue of technical complexity, can only, on the most generous interpretation, be described as ‘experimental’ or ‘untried’. More realistically, it is incompetent and dangerous.

We have expressed our view that CoRWM’s ToR are far sighted and extremely well conceived (Journal of Radiological Protection (2005) 25: 313-320). They are also relatively prescriptive. The reason was, we believe, because it was recognised that the public would only have confidence in technically-sound solutions. The authors of the ToR showed considerable prescience in this respect as various polls, including the Eurobarometer poll taken in 2005, show that a large majority of the public would prefer to rely on expert rather than public opinion in such decisions. CoRWM’s main departures from the prescriptions in the ToR are in exactly those areas involving the appropriate introduction of science and engineering knowledge.

There is also a growing feeling that CoRWM may now be diluting its objectives. Having finally conceded that feasible and practicable recommendations require sound technical input, the long delay in introducing a science policy, and then only under duress, suggests CoRWM can do little more than provide shallow pointers. The true decision, which has to be technically and economically sound and confront hard tradeoffs, could then only be made by commissioning yet another, post-CoRWM, agency to fulfil the task.

This is a sad prospect, and not one which should be allowed to slip quietly into the night. For one, CoRWM’s management, with a budget in excess of £5 million ($9 million), should be accountable. Secondly, the longer a plan is absent, the greater the risk and cost to Britain and its neighbours. Thirdly, the issue of new build is back on the agenda and, rightly or wrongly, will entrain the waste issue. But overall, and of greatest importance, is the matter of how key technological decisions are made. We believe it is imperative and in everyone’s interest that instances of the misuse or misappropriation of science should be dealt with openly by the scientific community, and not by allowing non-scientists to repackage poor work, open to public view, as ‘rough and ready science’ or by some other sleight of hand.

The behaviour of Defra, a department whose mandate requires the best use of science expertise, is also deeply worrying. Rather than have our professional concerns about CoRWM’s conduct considered by peers, they chose a businessman for the task who apparently concluded that all were unfounded. Yet Collier raised as criticisms all the issues we and others identified prior to October 2004. The Royal Society, in January 2006, has done the same.

Bradbury was right. What we need is: “Musicians who care about something.”


Author Info:

David J Ball, Middlesex University, School of Health and Social Sciences, Queensway, Enfield, EN3 4SA, UK; Keith Baverstock, Department of Environmental Science, University of Kuopio, PL 1627, 70211 Kuopio, Finland



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