Strolling along the Brighton seafront in neon FRACK OR NOT? t-shirts, my colleague and I drew the attention of a local member of Frack Off, an organisation campaigning against shale gas extraction in the UK. Our seaside location was on account of the Liberal Democrats’ annual party conference. And our less-than-typical work attire was an attempt to publicise our shale gas event – To frack or not to frack? The risks and benefits of shale gas extraction in the UK – as part of the conference fringe.
Following our encounter with Frack Off, we continued to employ the winning combination of neon, leafleting and pavement pounding to drum up interest in our event. The opportunity to grill the Chief Operating Officer at Cuadrilla Resources, the only company to have fracked a shale gas well in the UK, was clearly appealing to many of the people we spoke to. And not surprising given Cuadrilla’s 57 acres of assets in Sussex.
That evening, at another shale gas fringe event hosted by Friends of the Earth, the keen interest and strong feelings we had encountered on Brighton’s streets and in its conference halls were once again palpable. The event was populated by an overwhelmingly sceptical crowd. Indeed, the rebuttal to a question I posed about the role of scientific information in informing the panellists’ opinions was met with rapturous applause. And so the scene was set for a heated and polarised debate at our own fringe event the following day.
However, even as the Brighton skies whipped up a frenzied storm, the forecast for our event turned out to be considerably fairer…
When our Sunday lunchtime slot came around, I was surprised to witness such an amicable and mature debate. Far from being anticlimactic, I actually found this hugely encouraging. Perhaps most encouraging was the extent to which the campaign group representatives (many of whom had spoken out so vehemently at the Friends of the Earth event the previous night) were interested in, and receptive to, expert scientific and technical information. There was no heckling, no personal attacks, no tribalism. In fact, the closest thing to protest was a tray of cupcakes: the culinary equivalent of a sit-in.
For many scientists, it can be all too easy to criticise campaign organisations for pushing dogmatic beliefs in the absence of robust evidence to support them. But as our event demonstrated, bringing people together in a neutral and facilitative environment can render the simplistic ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction null and void. The Royal Society has a long history of employing its convening power to communicate science far beyond the bounds of the ‘scientific community’. Seeing this in action at an event with such potential to divert down simplistic for-and-against lines, was hugely rewarding: dare I say, the icing on the cake!
The Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society report on Shale gas extraction in the UK was published on 29 June 2012.