Bioenergy for society? The BBSRC is trying to find a way.

More than seven hours on the train on one of the hottest days of the year. Failing air conditioning on one leg of the journey. Conductors reduced to stoically handing out cups of ice to wilting passengers. Was it worth it?

My reason for entraining before dawn on Tuesday morning was to travel to York for a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) stakeholder workshop on bioenergy. In 2011, just as I joined the Council staff, we published a report, Biofuels: ethical issues, which continues to have traction not only in relation to biofuels policy, and bioenergy more generally, but as an example of a practical set of principles for responsible governance of emerging technologies where public values are at stake.

I have been impressed by the apparent earnestness of the BBSRC’s commitment to broadening their engagements. Patrick Middleton and others have worked hard to develop a public engagement agenda while simultaneously contributing to reflection on the purposes and processes of engagement. Duncan Eggar, the BBSRC’s Bioenergy Champion, who welcomed us to the workshop, seems cast in the same mould. BBSRC, conspicuously among research Councils, structurally integrates a Science for Society Strategy Panel (it’s interesting to track successive mutations of the preposition in these constructions). The panel is chaired by Roland Jackson, an authoritative advocate of the public voice, and includes Jane Calvert, one of the stars of our Emerging Biotechnologies Working Party. So there were good reasons for optimism.

The purpose of the workshop was to share opinions on the issues and opportunities associated with bioenergy. This was a stakeholder workshop, so opinions were naturally preformed. A good range of interests was represented – most people seemed to appreciate a similar set of issues, albeit from different perspectives. There were, for example, some fundamentally different understandings of the research and innovation ecosystem, and how one should approach it. There were dirigiste ‘hawks’ and precautionary doves. Part of the difficulty in finding a common ground on which to work was overcoming each’s construction of their ‘other’ and of the windmills at which they were tilting: for example, the alternative to state dirigisme cast as ‘leaving it to the market’ (and the market’s capacity to fail when social goods at stake); equally, casting the opposite of dirigisme as introverted hesitation (and balking at opportunities).

The facilitated sessions managed to flush out a large number of favourite ‘issues’ and ‘opportunities’ stretching right across the scales, from the narrowly technical to the broadly geopolitical. Perhaps the initial question was too open and the responses correspondingly too wide-ranging for the BBSRC itself to address. There is certainly food for further thought on the kind of relationships the BBSRC might seek to build, acknowledging the limitations of its role and competence, in the light of this.

Where I felt we ran into some trouble was when the workshop tried to close down around priorities. Of course, we did not agree unanimously about which were the priority issues, although the dot-voting method allowed us to identify some to talk about. But we weren’t really able to explore the implications of trying to identify priority issues, without any corresponding reflection on, for example, whether these issues might be tractable at all or, if they were, in what conditions or with what consequences. The same goes for the availability of opportunities. While we, collectively, (albeit to different degrees) acknowledged the existence of significant uncertainties, it would have been worthwhile to find an opportunity to discuss together what those uncertainties meant for what we were trying to do.

Likewise, though we raised – indeed tried to insist upon – the interdependency of various conditions of innovation, we ran out of time to reflect on the possibility that addressing one ‘issue’ might make others more grave, so that simply focussing on priority issues may lead round in circles. Mapping some of these interdependencies is difficult but may be a useful further step; however, it is unlikely to make the strategic objectives any more clear or certain.

The BBSRC is an enlightened agency to the extent that it recognises that its role is not a discrete one in respect of what are genuinely wicked problems of bioenergy development in the UK. I think it is approaching these problems seriously. I want to say that its best move would be to push the strategic questions that the workshop implicitly prefigures further into a public (and therefore more complex) space so that the interdependent conditions of innovation (social as well as technical) can seek out productive alignments interactively and synchronously.

Was it worth it? On a personal level, yes – I learned some things and (I hope) put across some worthwhile points. But at a more general level perhaps it’s too early to say. We were trying to speak with many voices, about a range of different technologies that raised a large number of very different questions. That’s difficult to distil. The reported outcome, when it’s written up, may reflect the composition of the sample, although perhaps only as a result of the focus on prioritisation. In any case, it will be tempered by the outcomes of other workshops. Nevertheless, I am hopeful, as long as the BBSRC don’t simply build strategy around the ‘highest priority’, but deepen their understanding of the role they – and those they fund – can play in ‘bioenergy for society’.

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