Daryl Ilbury

Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

Fracking – it’s not just about the economy, stupid

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 28, 2012 at 8:19 am

Billy-Bob suspected his borehole had tapped into some methane reserves

Every so often an issue takes root in the South African national psyche that demands intense debate, at the very least some earnest navel-gazing. Invariably such an issue is political in nature, which is not surprising given the fractious intensity of our political heritage. But then occasionally, perhaps a little too infrequently, such an issue emerges from my neck of the woods – science – and sometimes, just sometimes, it opens up a wealth of opportunities for diverse research and analysis.

South Africa’s successful bid to co-host the SKA project is, unfortunately, not such an issue; the reason being is that its main focus is on astronomy; and whereas gazing back in time through the stars in the hope of discovering the origins of the universe may give astrophysicists a wonderful tingling sensation in their loins, it’s way out of the conceptual reach of most people.

But there is something else scientific that is inviting all manner of attention, a lot of it very emotional: hydraulic fracturing, or to use its more common name – fracking. For most people aware of fracking, it has two seemingly incongruent perspectives – one economical, the other environmental.

According to a Shell-sponsored Econometrix assessment, fracking in South Africa has the capacity to secure access to 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas; create 704 000 jobs; inject billions of Rands into the national economy and completely change this country’s energy profile. Volumes of estimated data has been submitted as proof.

According to environmentalists, wide-scale fracking in the Karoo (under which most of the South African shale gas reserves are situated) will both release tonnes of toxic hydrocarbons into the air and contaminate groundwater. They have as their proof their own data, as well as some video clips of tap water bursting into flames.

However, to summarise the fracking debate as essentially an economics versus environmental divide is to miss the opportunity for a broader discourse around the myriad avenues for examination it throws up. Read the rest of this entry »

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South Africa’s shameful science #epicfail

In Eish!, Politics, Science on September 27, 2012 at 9:45 am

South Africa sits in the science corner

The latest World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report makes for interesting reading, especially if you have anything to do with South Africa.

It essentially assesses the competitiveness landscape of 144 economies, providing insight into their productivity and prosperity. Countries are ranked according to how they perform in terms of drivers such as infrastructure, labour market efficiency and financial market development.

So what has this go to do with science, I hear you ask. Good question. Outside of the obvious economy-linked drivers, the WEF includes the levels of health and primary education, and higher education and training. Specifically included as a measure of a country’s global competitiveness is the quality of maths and science education. This makes sense as they are not only two subjects that cross all language and cultural differences, but they also drive innovation and development.

And this is where South Africa hangs its head in shame. In terms of the quality of its maths and science education, South Africa is ranked 143rd out of 144 countries; i.e. second-to-last.

Yeah, sure, it’s a developing country and all that; but that’s no excuse; especially when you examine the other figures. In terms of the strength of its auditing and reporting standards; the efficacy of corporate boards; the regulations of security exchanges; and the legal rights index, South Africa is ranked 1st in the world. First. It also does pretty well when it comes to the protection of the interests of minority shareholders, where it is ranked 2nd in the world.

It’s in the protection of the quality of education of its children that South Africa fails utterly. The term ‘disconnect’ comes to mind. [There’s an interesting caveat here: not all the education is bad. We’re ranked 15th in the world in terms of the quality of our management schools].

So who’s to blame? Obviously the gloriously inefficient Departments of Basic Education and Education and Training need a ruler across the knuckles; but so do the various mainstream media organisations for stripping science from their traditional and well-worn offering of politics, crime, sport, business, and celebrity shenanigans.

But here’s the twist: the Minister in the Presidency for National Planning – the well-respected Trevor Manuel – has made it clear that the focus of the Government over, especially, the next two years includes the following:

  1. Food security, water security and rural development
  2. Adaptation strategies and environmental resilience
  3. More effective models of black economic empowerment
  4. Exercise, diets, nutrition and other preventative health areas
  5. Social cohesion and language
  6. Disability policy and
  7. Partnerships for innovation.

Now go back and read them again, and this time think which would require a firm grasp of science.

The reality is that ‘science’ for South Africa is not about major kick-ass endeavours such as SKA or CERN, neither is about the charming minutiae of the sex lives of newts. It’s harsh and it’s very real, and it’s tied in with matters of social and economic development; and the mainstream media need to understand that.

For an excellent example of this in the media, check out SciDev.net

The conveniently forgotten connection between cows and fracking

In Eish!, Fools, Science on September 12, 2012 at 6:52 am

“I never mince my words when it comes to my opinion on beef”

I never complain about the price I pay for beef, because no price I pay is greater than that paid by the cow in order that I may eat it. And so it is with hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

I am well aware that I am a consumer, right at the bottom of a myriad chains of production, refinement and distribution. This means that although I never squeezed the trigger that delivered the killing blow to the cow that is now minced and vacuum packed in front of me, I am still part of the demand element that set in motion the inevitability of its demise. Do I like to be reminded of it? No. Do I deserve the epithet ‘murderer’ that vegans would afford me? No. Does that mean I can blithely go about my shopping for beef free of any guilt? No.

So what does it mean? It means that I need to be a responsible consumer; so I reach a compromise: I only eat free range beef.

I was reminded of this when I read a piece in the Daily Maverick on fracking by the always engaging Ivo Vegter. Ivo has the capacity to deliver a strong and well-research argument that seems to rub a lot of people up the wrong way; and I admire him for that. There are few things more disengaging for the  journalist in me than reading plodding, but factually rich, copy, or the garbled and factually deficient ramblings of a volatile extremist.

Ivo’s point supports my belief that fracking in South Africa, if properly managed and regulated (and there’s the challenge), has the capacity to reshape the country’s energy profile. This is not about big business, it’s about recognising the fact, conveniently forgotten by environmental extremists, that we are consumers of energy. We are therefore just as responsible for the sourcing, drilling and refining of the fuel when we use a computer to fire off an angry anti-fracking e-mail, as we are for the death of the cow when we grab a vacuum-sealed pack of free-range meat at Woolworths.

Unless we are willing to eschew all forms of energy and live in the bush cooking hand-picked veggies over an open fire (oh wait, that’s a form of energy) we need to reach a compromise: we need to tap into the natural energy reserves we have whilst actively encouraging the development of alternative forms of energy. To this end the Government needs to put in place tax breaks and other forms of financial encouragement to encourage the development of alternative energy provision, especially in rural areas.

It won’t save any more cows, but it’s the realistic, responsible thing to do.

The problem with science…and Science

In Eish!, Science on September 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm

My old chum Ed Yong* – one of the few to crack the nod.

…so there I was looking at one of my favourite science journal websites, deservedly and authoritatively simply called ‘Science‘, when my attention was caught by the section titled ‘Careers‘. Seeing I had committed myself to a career as a science journalist and writer, and I was armed with over 20 years in commercial media, nine as a journalist, and a Masters in Science Journalism under my belt, I thought “let me see what opportunities await me”.

Imagine my surprise, nay shock, when a search under ‘Writer’ left me with the following message: “The specified search produced no results. Try changing your criteria or use the form below to save your search and create a Search Agent”

Thinking I must have filled in the multitude different fields incorrectly, I tried a different combination. The result was the same. My journalist instinct kicked in and I went straight to the source, and inquired of Tracy Holmes, the Worldwide Associate Director of Science Careers, if there was any need for science writers in the world of Science (capital intended), or if I was just filling in the search field incorrectly.

Her reply (within an hour I must add) was the following:

Hi Daryl,

We don’t publish many ads of this type on sciencecareers.org.  The majority of our ads are for more traditional research careers.  Typically we do run ads for science editors, we publish our own editorial vacancies this way and both Elsevier and Nature have advertised for editors on our site. Kind regards, Tracy.

And that, in my opinion, is what’s wrong with science (no capital intended): a reluctance to accept science writers into the ‘fold’ as it were; the refusal, it seems, to acknowledge the specialisation needed of a journalist/writer to write about science; and the reluctance to share its research and endeavours with the great unwashed – an aloofness, if you like.

The reality is that science needs science writers; because without them, the world would be more distrustful of science and its intense specialisation; because science research needs funding, and funding is directed where there’s a need or a public fascination; because science writers give real purpose to what science does; and because, at the end of the day, scientists, just like like everyone else, sit down to take a crap.

So come on science…and Science…give science writers a break.

*You can read the work of Ed Yong on his excellent Discovery blog Not Exactly Rocket Science