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The Durham Energy Institute hosted a visit from Professor Susan Christopherson, Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University, whose research focuses on political-economic policy. Sam Almond from DEI reviews Susan’s talk entitled: ‘A Distinctive US Approach to Shale Gas Development? Local Responses to Complex Risks’, that examined how communities react to and prioritise perceived risks from hydraulic fracturing operations. The talk was organised and hosted by Durham Energy Institute, Department of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience.

Shale gas exploitation (or ‘fracking‘) has revolutionised the US energy market over the last decade, with the country as a whole experiencing lower gas prices and increased energy independence. Some gas-rich regions have seen booms in their economy with reduced unemployment and large financial rewards for landowners and certain local businesses.

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Production of natural gas from shale in the United States has expanded rapidly in the last ten years, and is projected to continue through 2040 (EIA 2013a).

However, many local residents have opposed such developments and are concerned regarding issues such as safety, industry regulation, and disruption to their way of life. With shale gas exploitation becoming ever more likely in the UK, it is important to learn from the US experience to understand how communities react to the industry, and how best to regulate the industry to alleviate public concern and to mitigate any negative impacts of the shale gas industry.

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River Eden, UK. Eden Rivers Trust

The River Eden is one of the most beautiful rivers in the UK, if not all of Europe.  It is host to a wide variety of different plant and animal species and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  Many communities live on or near the River Eden or one of its tributaries.  Human impact on the landscape often has unintended or unforeseen consequences on ecosystems, including rivers.  Agriculture, primarily through the use of fertilisers, changes the ecology of river systems which affects all plant and wildlife as well as humans.

Over time, pollutants accumulate in the River Eden through farming practices, something that has been of concern to local communities and scientists alike.  In order to monitor and develop ways for decreasing diffuse pollution from agriculture, researchers from Durham, Lancaster, Newcastle, the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology, Askham Bryan College (Newton Rigg) and the Eden Rivers Trust, have come together with communities, including farmers, to develop new ways to monitor and improve river water quality.  The project known as the Eden Demonstration Test Catchment, or EdenDTC for short, has installed 10 river monitoring stations to monitor the water quality of the River Eden.  The EdenDTC has made live, real-time data about the River Eden freely available online. Read more

In this interview with Dr Mylene Riva, co-author of the recent study ‘Coalfield health effects: Variation in health across former coalfield areas in England‘, we looked at some aspects of the research  in detail, including how some communities have fared better than others despite living in harsh socioeconomic conditions, perhaps demonstrating resilience.

What are the health patterns that you found within coal mining communities?

What we observed among coalfield communities in England is quite interesting from a public health and public policy perspective.  Most research to date has focused on health differences between coalfield communities and other communities in England.  In our study we went further and we also looked at variability in health between different coal mining communities.  We observed that people living in former coalfield communities were about 27% more likely to report having a limiting long-term illness compared to people living in other communities across England.  This ‘coalfield effect’ was evident when we considered the age, sex and socioeconomic status of respondents and the levels of deprivation, social cohesion and the urban-rural location of the communities.

When we focussed on health variation among former coalfield communities only, we observed that the probabilities of reporting limiting long-term illness and less than good health varied across communities, suggesting that some coalfield communities were enjoying better health status than others.  This variation was largely explained, but not completely, by the type of people living in the communities, including their age, sex and socioeconomic status.  In addition, we observed that people living in the most deprived coalfields were more likely to report poorer health outcomes than people living in better off coalfields and that people living in most rural coalfields were more likely to report less than good health. Read more

A few months back, a statement was issued by the Federal Aviation Administration FAA in the US about chemical oxygen generators being disabled or removed from lavatories because they posed a ‘security vulnerability’ and could potentially be used to start a fire.  The problem of course is that if you happen to be in the lavatory of an American commercial aircraft thousands of metres above ground, and there is a loss of cabin pressure, it could lead to hypoxia — when the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply — causing injury or death.

While loss of cabin pressure itself seems a rarity nowadays, this recent regulation shows that risks posed by terrorism can transform how we view other risks, such as health.  And while releasing information about eliminating this security risk definitely seems reasonable, will other airlines outside the US have to follow suit since the risk has been made available publicly?  Where do the boundaries lie between security, risk and national law?  When does making something secure create new risks while preventing others?  Obviously, preventing the possibility of terrorist attacks through various means has priority, as these risks can lead to disasters resulting in the loss of many lives and tremendous damage. Read more

An exciting workshop will be taking place at Durham University on synthetic biology.  Synthetic biology is an innovative scientific and technological field that has many potential opportunities for a variety of different sectors including industry, agriculture and medicine, but also concerns regarding how it will be regulated and understood in society.  The public dialogue meeting includes an open discussion chaired by Prof Rob Edwards from the Food and Environment Research Agency and University of York and Prof Phil Macnaghten from IHRR and Durham University’s Dept of Geography. Read more

Uncertainty surrounding technology and risk is something we live with everyday, but rarely question in society.  I talked to Professor Phil Macnaghten and Dr Matthew Kearnes about their research in how people outside of the scientific community understand nanotechnology in particular.  I think social research in this area is something that has large implications for how we will deal with new hazards and risks posed by technology in the present and future, not to mention for understanding the mistakes of the past.


Download ‘Telling stories about nanotechnology’

 

Dr Matthew Kearnes and Professor Phil Macnaghten from IHRR were advisors for a new project on public attitudes to synthetic biology called Synthetic Biology Dialogue.  They provide an introduction to the project’s research and insights into public perception of risks associated with emerging technologies.

How will we regulate new innovations in synthetic biology? (J.Craig Venter Institute)

 

In a month when new proposals for public engagement on GM foods have hit the headlines due to allegations of political interference and bias, the launch of the Synthetic Biology Dialogue report is a testament to the capacity for techniques of “upstream public engagement” to enable public consideration of the possible ramifications of emerging areas of scientific and technological development.

Synthetic biology is an emerging area of interdisciplinary research that seeks to apply the principles of engineering design to biological systems and processes. Credited with attempting to create life from scratch, the recent announcement by the Craig Venter Group of the creation of the ‘first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell’ has made synthetic biology the focus of much debate and discussion. As with many areas of scientific and technological innovation this debate is characterised by competing claims of possible benefits and risks. For its proponents the field is full of promises with the potential to lead to new applications in areas as diverse as new energy systems and bio-fuels, new medical therapies, cellular computing and new forms of bio-remediation. Against this a number of reports have highlighted significant areas of potential social and ethical concerns together with calls for regulation of the field.

International research in synthetic biology is developing rapidly, centred on the development of the Registry of Standard Biological Parts and the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) held every year at MIT. In the UK, a number of interdisciplinary networks in synthetic biology networks have been recently established such as the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) built on collaboration between researchers at Imperial College London and the London School of Economic and Political Science (LSE). Read more

River Eden flowing through Appleby, Cumbria

IHRR works closely with community organisations, government and the public to develop solutions to some of the biggest flood hazards in UK.  One particular strategy is using the landscape to reduce flood risk by making small changes in land use.  This could potentially have a large impact on flood risks and hazards, but also local ecology.  By making changes to the land in order to prevent flooding, it is also possible to create ecological benefits at the same time, such as creating new wildlife habitats for different kinds of animal species imperative to the overall health of the river and surrounding countryside.

One local organisation that IHRR works closely with is the Eden Rivers Trust located in Cumbria.  The Eden Rivers Trust’s aims and goals are focused on conservation, scientific research and education.  It includes large involvement from the public in conservation projects and helps local communities become increasingly aware of the ecological importance of the Eden and its tributaries. Read more

How do we understand the potential benefits, impacts and risks of nanotechnology?  Last year researchers with the DEEPEN (Deepening Ethical Engagement and Participation in Emerging Nanotechnologies) project at IHRR, brought together some members of the public, policy makers, scientists and industrialists to discuss where should nanotechnology go next? and who should be involved in directing its development?  The video below is an example of some of the materials produced from this project.  Also, check out the links below for other outputs from the DEEPEN project, especially their final report:

Outputs from the DEEPEN Project

Reconfiguring Responsibility: Deepening Debate on Nanotechnology (DEEPEN Final Report)

Hazard Risk Resilience Magazine Issue 2 Out Now!

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