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December 2013: The Visible Hand: Social Enterprise, Values and the Future of Entrepreneurship

Plymouth has recently been recognised as the UK’s first Social Enterprise City, building on a vision inspired by a network of social purpose businesses across the city who, a few years ago, began to ask “What would it be like if all businesses operated for social purpose?” “What if the economy of a whole city, country or even the world was dominated by activity which had social and environmental aims at its core?” This vision, of a world in which social and environmental benefit and costs are factored into the business model and where societal and individual wellbeing, fairness and sustainability are the reasons for going to work, has been championed by Plymouth’s growing Social Enterprise Network and is supported by an increasing number of people and organisations across the city. Plymouth University is a member of that Network and holds the Social Enterprise Mark, the only University in the UK to do so.

Social enterprises are businesses with “primarily social or environmental objectives, whose surpluses are principally re-invested for that purpose in the business or community, rather than mainly being paid to shareholders and owners(BIS). There are an estimated 70,000 in the UK, contributing £24bn to the economy and employing about a million people. It’s a model that is growing fast, with social enterprises more likely than comparable SMEs to report an increase in turnover last year. All stats are from the 2013 The People’s Business Report compiled by Social Enterprise UK.

So, what motivates the social entrepreneurs who choose this business model? What are the socio-political, fiscal and legislative conditions that encourage social enterprise development and what are the implications of a social enterprise economy for global sustainability? These are all questions in need of an answer.

Zebra Collective is a Plymouth-based social enterprise which has recently celebrated its tenth birthday. The founding members were, and still are, motivated by social justice; the desire to challenge inequality and make a difference in the world. They chose to do this by creating a worker co-operative which improves lives directly through community development projects and indirectly by training staff in service-providing organisations. They describe themselves as a value-driven organisation. Values are complex – they operate at the boundary between self and society, mediated by both and the interplay between the two. Two decades of cross-cultural research into human values have provided us with a good understanding of the patterns they typically take; patterns which present even more interesting questions in relation to sustainability and social entrepreneurial motivation.

It seems that the values which are close to each other on the diagram are complementary and tend be held simultaneously [1]. Values which are on opposing sides are thought of as being in conflict with each other and are not usually held together. Look at the axis which runs from social justice, protecting the environment and equality through to social power, wealth, ambition and influence. Does this mean that people who are motivated by social justice and sustainability are less likely to be ambitious and driven? Less likely to be successful? Might that explain a few things about the multiple social and environmental crises we find ourselves in? Are we fundamentally predisposed to be motivated either by social good or personal success, but not both? And if so, what about the very many people, often social entrepreneurs, who are ambitious, goal oriented, influential and passionate about social justice?  What can their value orientations tell us that might help in the quest for sustainability? This is one of the research questions I have been pursuing.

Whilst individual values are relatively stable, changing little over a lifetime, there is no doubt that they are also culturally influenced. It has been suggested to me that as society has changed in the decades since Schwartz did his seminal work, maybe value patterns have altered too. It was speculated that the rise of individualism and entrepreneurialism (or maybe the decline of the communist vs capitalist worldview) has caused a subtle shift in value patterns. This links to another of my earlier questions: What are the cultural, socio-political, fiscal and legislative conditions that encourage social enterprise development?

Charles Leadbeater in his work on co-operation offers some insights in this video and report. In particular, he talks about altering the structural conditions which “crush” co-operation. These are, quite possibly, the same structural conditions which institutionalise the values pattern in the diagram above, amplifying the practical and perceived differences between self-transcending and self-enhancing values and helping to steer each of us to make choices between them.

The recent series of Beyond Capitalism? lectures hosted by Plymouth Business School  (next one on 30th January 2014) has also kicked off some provocative discussions but there is much more work to be done.

I suspect that the phenomenon of social enterprise, currently receiving lots of popular attention but which, as any passing academic will point out, lacks clear definition or substantive theoretical underpinning is of value precisely because it is an anomaly in relation to our current understanding of how the world works. I wonder whether one day all enterprise will be social enterprise - combined social, environmental and economic purposes will be the norm and the aim will be the overall creation of value across these domains. Our current ideological and institutional bias towards the creation and capture of economic wealth; and even our belief that this is the best way to generate societal wellbeing and environmental sustainability may well be concepts that, like others before them, will one day be resigned to history.

[1] For more on this see e.g. Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the Content and Structure of Values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 1–65

Michelle Virgo, Researcher for Futures Entrepreneurship Centre, ISSR Management Team and Social Entrepreneur

November 2013: Planetary Health: starting in Devonport!

What have sustainability, global health and health inequalities in Plymouth got in common, and why should they be part of medical education?

The link is of course that the ultimate source of human health is our shared home, the earth. As we overstep what Johan Rockström has usefully described as planetary boundaries – not only for greenhouse gases, but many other critical things such as water use and chemical pollution, it will inevitably impact on health.

Here is the link with inequalities though; it will often be other people’s health that we affect. More precisely, most of the consequences, at least to start with of rich lifestyles will be felt by the poor.  This is health inequalities on a global scale: early death is the ultimate social exclusion!

Within medicine, voices have been calling pretty much in the wilderness for doctors to think seriously about climate change. Organisations like Medact (, a pioneering group that grew out of the former International Physicians for the prevention of nuclear war have led the way. Its former chairman, Dr Robin Stott now leads the climate and health council ( The “campaign for greener healthcare” was founded in 2008. Now called the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (

Over the last year though everything has changed, doctors leaders have listened to their scientific colleagues and most of the major medical journals have run articles on global health and anthropogenic climate change.

Map of the City of Plymouth and differences in life expectancy
The city of Plymouth demonstrates the problem of inequalities in heath as starkly as anywhere in England. The map below shows that if one were to catch a bus from Widewell in the north to Devonport in the south, there would be on average 2 years of life expectancy less for every mile travelled.

Why is health so unequal? There are probably 2 main underlying factors. One has been underlined very eloquently by Sir Michael Marmot who now leads the Institute for Health Equity at UCL in London. His research (most accessibly presented in his book “Status Syndrome”) demonstrates that health is to a great extent socially constructed. That is, it depends on the conditions in which people are born, live and work. Put simply, being poor is very bad for your health. This does not only apply to absolute poverty but also to relative poverty. There is a social gradient in health that is not fixed but depends on how we organise our society.
Another book, by social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Katie Pickett called “The Spirit Level” shows that more unequal societies (and we are increasingly one of those) do worse not only on health, but on many other measures.

So, to answer my original question, the thread that links all this is that the way that we all live our lives and organise our societies will largely determine future health –and there is a win- win here. Most of the ways that we can respond to planetary threats like climate change will improve global and individual health too and reduce inequalities. Using cars less, walking and cycling more, eating less meat and processed food, producing clean energy, living in efficient homes – all will improve health.

This positive message drives what is now often known as “ecological public health” and it forms the basis for a curriculum in sustainable healthcare that has just been agreed across most of UK medical schools following a “Delphi” consultation conducted by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare mentioned above.

The full curriculum can be found at It is based around 3 main headings.

  1. Describe how the environment and human health interact at different levels.
  2. Demonstrate the knowledge and skills needed to improve the environmental sustainability of health systems.
  3. Discuss how the duty of a doctor to protect and promote health is shaped by the dependence of human health on the local and global environment.

At Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry we are now looking at extending sustainability teaching to include these outcomes. Perhaps more importantly, the new school has included “making a difference” firmly in its ethos.

The most practical outworking of this opened in February of this year. The new Devonport Academic Health Centre is a joint venture between the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Community Health Care, who provide primary care and community services in the city. Clinical academic staff both provide care and teach in the new centre. Medical students, together with dental, nursing and other healthcare students now divide their time between the safety of the medical school buildings and the more edgy environment of Devonport, a neighbourhood having one of the highest index of multiple deprivation scores and worst health outcomes in England.

Children in a Devonport primary school
Children in a Devonport primary school eating sausages and  “turkey twizzlers” produced in a welsh food factory (this situation has fortunately improved following the “Jamie Oliver” school lunch campaign)

Our aim is that puPSMD will truly be a socially accountable medical school, where students not only learn from a global and sustainable perspective, but are encouraged to make a difference themselves. I call this the “locally global” curriculum!

 Dr Richard Ayres, Lead for Population Health at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry and GP Cumberland Surgery, Devonport.

October 2013: Belize to Babbacombe - from one extreme to another

Over the summer I led a group of 30 third year geography students on a fieldtrip to Belize – the only English speaking country in Central America with a population of around 350,000 in an area the size of Wales.  Despite enjoying a stunning natural environment (forests and coral barrier reef) and rich cultural heritage (Mayan, Creole, Mestizo and Garifuna) Belize faces significant challenges arising from climate change.  With a low lying coast and periodic hurricanes the population and economy of Belize City is vulnerable to flooding with some of the poorer areas lying below sea level.  Following Hurricane Hattie in 1961, which killed100’s and damaged or destroyed 80% of the city’s buildings, the British colonial and fledging self-government took the decision to build a new capital some 50 miles inland.  After diplomatic wrangling and a series of bureaucratic delays the government eventually transferred its operations to the newly planned ‘garden city’ of Belmopan in 1970.  

Today, despite clear risks to life and livelihoods, 70,000 people live in Belize City while the population of Belmopan has only reached 15,000 largely as the result of an influx of refugees and migrants wanting to escape from civil war and unrest in Central America.  It seems protection from natural hazards is not enough to dissuade people living at risk of coastal flooding – event which are going to become more common as a result of global warming.  However plans are afoot to direct continuing urban growth to less vulnerable locations.

This brings me to Babbacombe which I visited last weekend to be confronted by the sight of the remains of a house tottering precariously above a major cliff fall caused by last autumn’s intense rainfall event. It seems that living on the coast holds inherent risks.  That maybe fine if it means abandoning farmland to the sea but it’s a different matter when it comes to prime real estate in cities like London or Shanghai which will require heavy investment to raise their flood defences.  

It is clear that how we plan and manage human settlement on the coast is going to become an increasingly pressing issue globally and one where Plymouth University is uniquely placed to assist, particularly given our recent success in becoming the UK’s newest fully accredited Planning School offering specialist modules in marine and coastal planning and regeneration. Sign up now!

Chris Balch, Professor of Planning at Plymouth University and Chair of the ISSR Management Team

Sustainability Communications

Marketing and communications has been criticised for its role in helping to create an unsustainable economy: it is often seen that marketing is about selling more and sustainability is about consuming less. It also contributes to a culture where consumers, because of marketing, have a desire for a product which they can’t afford – it creates stereotypes that can alienate and depress customers.

So, how can communications help sustainability?

Without effective and honest sustainability communications, customers aren’t made aware of sustainable solutions and thus won’t change their behaviour to become more sustainable in their own lifestyles.

Sustainability communications need to communicate the sustainability solutions a company provides through its products and communicate with customers and stakeholders about the company as a whole. 

It is suggested that there are eight objectives a sustainability communications plan aims to do:
  1. Generate awareness about your sustainable product or service.
  2. Inform customers about your product with information such as where it was sourced.
  3. Remind people about the need to service, maintain and maybe even replace a product or a product park to keep it working efficiently. 
  4. Persuade people to try a new product or change their behaviour. 
  5. Reassure customers they have made the right choice.
  6. Motivate customers to respond to something.
  7. Reward customers for the loyalty or for other behaviours, (for example, H&M rewarding customers with a £5 gift voucher when clothes are recycled, regardless of where they were bought). 
  8. Connect with customers through relationship-building activities and interactive communications.
The resources involved with communicating sustainability are similar to traditional communications methods –but a sustainability communications plan needs to suit the customer and show solutions development for them by using techniques without criticism from social, environmental or economic issues.

What strikes me about the ISSR?

One of the first tasks I was given when I started with the ISSR was to work on the website to upload the videos from the 2nd Annual Sustainability Research event and to update the members and management team information. The final figure (currently – it seems to change all the time with new connections being made!) is that the ISSR has 380 members and 300 of these are researchers – that’s 300 people incorporating sustainability as part of their research and that’s something to be proud of!

What I also find great about the ISSR is that it really does include all disciplines in research including health, architecture, psychology, design and transport just to mention a few! It shows that sustainability isn’t just about driving less and recycling more – there is a wealth of expertise out there to help find solutions. 

All the research being done in the ISSR needs to be shouted about and people need to know what impact this has on their lives.

What does the ISSR do well?


The e-bulletin is something that is done really well in the ISSR. It’s monthly which means that it’s reminding people about the ISSR without having to spam email boxes every day. The amount and type of information included – research calls, internal events, external events and news means that people have all the important and interesting information in one easy to digest email.
Annual ISSR Sustainability Research Event 
This year I attended the 2nd Annual Sustainability Event which was great – really well put together with presentations from a wide range of expertise and an exhibition. It all went really well (even if Paul was doing his duck routine – calm on top, feet flapping crazily underwater!) and all the videos and presentation slides from the day are on our website so if you missed any or want to watch them again you can!

What can the ISSR improve?


The ISSR website is the ‘hub’ of online activity which feeds into every other form of digital communication we have and it is also a vital part of our online presence. Therefore, it is important that the information included on the website is easy to understand, up-to-date and varied – something that I think we’re starting to do. 

We’ve now got a news and events page which includes filtered news and events from the main University website. In addition to this we have put up project pages which outline the completed, in progress and future projects that involve the ISSR. As well as this we have a list of all the members of the ISSR, as well as a dedicated page for photos and information about each of our management team members (yes, photos!). We have also uploaded our new ISSR brochure which includes information about all the different research groups and centres we work with – this is available as a PDF for people to download on it can be viewed online through an online digital publishing platform (  

Social media 

One thing that we’re currently developing is an ISSR twitter account. This twitter account will be used as another communication tool to inform people about sustainability and the projects on the ISSR, to start conversations around events, research, news and reports and to join in with conversations about our research event and other sustainability related events and days around the world.

We also now have a blogspot site ( where we’re posting our monthly blogs (as well as putting the posts in PDF form on the ISSR website). We’ve created as blogspot site so that we can reach even more people and so that people are able to comment on the posts we make. So far we have had visitors from the UK, USA, Netherlands, France, Greece, India, Poland, Russia, Argentina and Brazil!

What have I enjoyed?

Developing a Marketing and Communications and Twitter strategy

I have really enjoyed developing a real Marketing and Communications strategy. It’s all very well writing plans, reports and strategies when you’re doing your degree for ‘a made up business of your own’ or ‘Apple’ or ‘McDonalds’ but it’s nothing like doing it for real. I’ve really enjoyed using what I’ve learn and relating it to real life.

Website development

I also really enjoy working on the ISSR website – it throws all sorts of challenges at you which, even though are sometimes tricky to solve, make you learn so much more about web content and what to include.

Working with some great people

Okay… so this may just be a section I’ve put in to compare how Paul Hardman looks like Sergei from the ‘Compare the Meerkat’ marketing campaign run by ‘Compare the Market’… (I think I’m going to get myself into trouble!)

…but on a serious note the people I work with are great and have really helped me to settle into my role and with the transition from University to the world of work. Everyone I’ve met has been interesting and it feels like a real team!

Useful information and further reading

  • Creatively vs. climate change:
  • Futerra (sustainability communications agency):
  • The Guardian, communication in sustainable business:
  • Institute for Sustainable Communication: 
  • Belz, F. and Peattie, K. (2001) Sustainability Marketing: A Global Perspective. United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons Ltd.
  • Hitchcock, D. and Willard, M. (2006) The Business Guide to Sustainability: Practical Strategies and Tools for Organisations. UK: Earthscan
  • Djordjevic, A. and Cotton, D.R.E., (2011),"Communicating the sustainability message in higher education institutions", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 12 (Issue. 4) p. 381 – 394
  • Charter, M. (1992) Greener Marketing. Sheffield: Greenleaf Marketing

Kirsty Andrews is the Marketing and Communications Administrator for the ISSR. Before joining the ISSR Kirsty completed a BA (Hons) Business Studies degree at Plymouth University.

June 2013: Uncertainties, knowledge gaps and research priorities

“Imagine a world in which the scientists who were pioneering new understanding of earth system processes were also those who were most active in embedding that new knowledge in the delivery of social or economic value” Dr Tim Daley (i)

In the recent years, researchers are increasingly challenged not only participate in creating knowledge but to take a more active role in translating this knowledge into policy and practice. Researchers along with research organisations, funding agencies and charities make decisions every day what topics would be conducted as a research project. These research projects shape the available knowledge that policy makers, practitioners, managers and the public use to inform their decision making. However, there are few studies done evaluating systematically how decisions on selecting certain research questions affect the scope of the knowledge that is available to policy makers and the public (ii). For example a study engaging with patients with osteoarthritis of knee demonstrated a mismatch between the uncertainties that patients and clinicians face (effectiveness of physiotherapy and surgery, and assessment of educational and coping strategies) and the research that was conducted (research predominately evaluated drugs) (iii). Consequently, we need to ask ourselves (a) “are we, as researchers, doing enough to fill the knowledge gaps that policy makers and the public face in every day decision making” (b) can an earlier dialogue between the researchers and the public, practitioners and policy makers on shaping identifying, shaping and prioritisation of research questions increases the relevance and acceptability of our research”. As part of an international community called Cochrane Agenda and Priority Setting Methods Group (, we attempt to answer these and other methodological questions to develop an evidence base for methods to prioritise research and set a research agenda. (Photograph by Roland Gehrels from the Climate Science Group with Plymouth University).

Our ongoing quest to identify and prioritise key uncertainties for dental research has identified uncertainties on strategies to achieve and maintain environmental sustainability in the dental care. This was identified as part of a research priority setting project with the Shirley Glasstone Hughes Trust and British Dental Association (BDA). The BDA hosts an online forum called curious about ( Dentists are encouraged to join the online forum and submit burning question to problems they have encountered in their day to day dental practice. Once a month, they are given the opportunity to vote for the questions. The fund would commission a rapid evidence review on the most voted question; this review will be subsequently published in the British Dental Journal. The rapid evidence review intends to demonstrate whether (a) the question is already answered with research but there is a gap in translating the research to practice or (b) there is a genuine uncertainty and the question still remains unanswered. Every year, the trustees come together and make a decision informed by the rapid evidence reviews which of the prioritised topics are in more urgent need for new research to fill the knowledge gap. The selected topic (or topics) would be part of a commissioned funding call. The fund goes a step further in ensuring the relevance of its commissioned research to its final targeted audience (general dental practitioners); it requires that each grant proposal be led by a general dental practitioner in collaboration with academic researchers.

In 2012, one of the questions that was raised and prioritised was “can plastics used in dentistry act as an environmental pollutant? Can we avoid the use of plastics in dental practice?”. The rapid evidence review identified a narrative review on environmental legislations that are relevant to dental care environment. The narrative review suggested that dentists should consider using environmental audit as part of their daily practice. However, there were no studies identified evaluating the feasibility, applicability and impact of environmental audit in dental practices (iv). Further explorative searches (as part of the rapid evidence review) identified a randomised controlled trial (RCT) comparing two impression materials in a general dental practice. Unlike most RCTs which evaluate patient and biomedical outcomes, this one evaluated an environmental outcome, the relative wastage of the materials (v). The rapid evidence review has shown that despite a number of studies discussing and exploring the issue of environmental sustainability in dental care environment, there are no studies identified directly answering the prioritised question. We are currently working together with researchers in Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research on developing research proposals and applying for research grants to make the first step in filling up this knowledge gap. Finally, I do like to encourage you to “Imagine a world in which the scientists engage in a dialogue with policy makers, practitioners, managers and the public to understand their day to day problems, questions and uncertainties and reflect on strategies that facilitates making collective decisions on what research topics are most worth answering through research”.

Note: If you are interested in research priority setting methods, we developed a collection of publications and other resources on ( You could also join us on our next two events in the Cochrane Colloquium in Quebec City, Canada ( in Sep 2013. We are organising workshop on planning and conducting a research priority setting exercise and also a special session on responsive evidence development.

(i) Daley T. Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research JanuaryBlog.

(ii) Nasser M, Welch V, Ueffing E, Crowe S, Oliver S, Carlo R. Evidence in agenda setting: new directions for the Cochrane Collaboration. J Clin Epidemiol. 2013 May;66(5):469-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2012.08.006. Epub 2013 Jan 9. PubMed PMID: 23312393.

(iii) Tallon D, Chard J, Dieppe P. Exploring the priorities of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Arthritis Care Res. 2000 Oct;13(5):312-9. PubMed PMID: 14635301.

(iv) Nasser M. Evidence summary: can plastics used in dentistry act as an environmental pollutant? Can we avoid the use of plastics in dental practice? Br Dent J. 2012 Jan 27;212(2):89-91. doi: 10.1038/sj.bdj.2012.72. Review. PubMed PMID: 22281636.

(v) Wilson N H, Cowan A J, Crisp R J, Wilson M A. Wastage of a silicone impression material in a general practice setting: a comparison between hand and automixing methods. SADJ 2001;56: 233–236.

Dr Mona Nasser is a Clinical Lecturer in Evidence Based Dentistry

May 2013: 21st Century research: water

The UK public was told to expect future hotter, drier summers and milder, wet winters. For the past few years they have experienced the opposite and are now told that this could still be because of global warming via changes in the normal position of prevailing weather systems. One of the key public concerns for climate change, then, is the extent to which the mid-latitude weather systems deviate from their climatic norms. The socio-economic consequences were evident last summer (2012) and for the past two winters in the UK and Europe through freezing temperatures interspersed with drought then flooding!

Climate change, then, is not just about temperature. Amongst many other things, it concerns changes in our water resources. Water resource planning in the UK is based on 25-year time horizons and indeed provides an exemplar for long-term environmental resource planning. Precipitation records for the UK are some of the longest in the world, but still, at best, provide, perhaps 8 to 10 preceding “states” based on this time horizon.

Some of the novel research currently being undertaken within the Institute is focused on enhancing knowledge of water cycle variability and its interaction with other biochemical cycles. A key part of that research involves establishing how precipitation changed each decade, not just over the past couple of hundred years, but over the past few thousand years. In the past (pardon the pun), where differences were observed within 100km, for example, this might be questioned as error. Now, we recognise that such regional differences can tell us a lot about what was taking place in the atmosphere to drive those changes.

Where rain falls and its chemical composition depends on where it has come from. It has a fingerprint. This fingerprint can be found in modern rainfall distribution and chemistry. It should also be found in past records of these two indicators. Those records come from some of the most unlikely of places: buried plants and dead creatures. Extracting chemical stories from the remains of these former living beings, it is possible to map changes in the regional distribution of the amount of precipitation and chemistry of the water. In so doing, we can work out the latitudinal position or intensity of the westerly winds.

So what evidence is there to suggest that any of this is true? Stretching over to the other side of the planet, we are already able to observe these types of changes. In the last 30 years, the westerly winds that drive frontal rain-bearing depressions have moved south and intensified. The result has been more intense precipitation on the south-western side of the Andes and drying conditions on the eastern side. Warm air from the north has also been drawn down to mix with cooler air over the southern pampas of Argentina. In this region, where much of the drinking water is derived from glacial run-off, changing precipitation patterns matter greatly.

In the UK, drinking water sources vary across the country. Some regions rely on surface water (from captured rainfall). Others rely on “fossil” water from deep abstraction. Crucially, where the southern hemisphere westerlies have moved poleward, the pattern in the past seven years in NW Europe has been quite different and it is essential to know if this is unusual. Our team, made up of colleagues from near and colleagues from far is currently searching for these past “fingerprints” of change. This is not an issue to be scuttled sideways around. Instead, I propose that knowledge of the potential changes in where our water will come from is absolutely central to the sustainability of the UK in Europe.

Tim Daley is Director of the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research (ISSR)

February 2013: Hollywood Goes Hydraulic

Matt Damon’s latest film ‘Promised Land’ was released at the end of 2012 to mixed critical reviews. Damon stars as a ‘landsman’ for a hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) company intent on buying access to shale gas beneath the properties of struggling Pennsylvania farmers. Ultimately, Damon gets conflicted by his job and the ethics of his employer and blows the whistle.

Despite slow takings at the box office, the movie does seem to have shaken the US shale gas industry just a little. Nothing seismic of course, but according to The Guardian “industry groups have considered emailing pro-fracking studies to critics, handing out leaflets to movie-goers or setting up "truth squads" on Twitter.” No doubt the movie’s producers will relish the controversy, although they may struggle to improve ticket sales in Texas - the home of fracking - amid allegations that the movie was financed by Middle Eastern interests committed to destroying US energy security. Only in America…..

Given the International Energy Agency’s admission in 2010 that conventional oil production peaked in 2006, and taking into account mounting legal barriers to coal production, many would argue it is understandable that governments facing shortfalls in energy supply might be increasingly keen on new sources of natural gas. It has lower carbon intensity per unit of energy produced compared with coal and oil, and may even claim a climate change advantage. Fracking might be seen as an answer to the prayers of many Western governments – especially in those countries with gas related dependencies on the Middle East and Russia.

Hence it was no great surprise when late last year the coalition government embraced the potential of shale gas. This included both the removal of the moratorium on fracking and a commitment to providing future tax breaks for shale gas exploration. Companies like Cuadrilla, IGas and Centrica together with oil giants BP, Exxon and Shell all began to get excited. Cuadrilla’s Chairman and part owner is of course former ‘beyond petroleum’ CEO Sir John Browne.

One of the most seductive arguments of fracking advocates is the impact it has had on US gas prices in recent years. Indeed it is US style price reductions as much as long term energy security considerations that seem to have clinched the case for fracking – at least in the minds of some politicians. In an article in The Telegraph last December Boris Johnson chided sceptical Greens and eco-warriors who “In their mad denunciations of fracking……betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news.”

However the IEA, the CBI and even the UK government recognise that it is far from inevitable the US price scenario will be replicated in the UK. A study by energy consultants Pöyry indicated that in a best case scenario UK gas prices would be only 2-4% lower even if UK shale production were to reach 20% of Britain's energy supply by 2030. Meanwhile, the Committee on Climate Change recently concluded that "the average annual household bill in a gas-based system could be as much as £600 higher in 2050 than in a low-carbon system if gas and carbon prices turn out to be high”.

When it comes to scaling up fracking, it is entirely unclear that it would fare any better than onshore wind development. When one adds fears of water pollution and earth tremors to the planning nightmare of sprinkling several thousand fracking rigs across densely populated Middle England, shale gas starts to lose some of its allure. Indeed, commenting on a range of economic, environmental, planning and supply chain constraints, Sam Laidlaw, CEO of Centrica told an audience at Davos this year that fracking would not be “the game changer we’ve seen in North America” (quoted in The Telegraph)

Another potential risk associated with over-playing the fracking card – and something it has in common with the nuclear ‘fix’ much loved of DECC strategists - is that investment in more sustainable and climate friendly energy sources might begin to appear less urgent or even unnecessary. In the US, many have commented on a silencing of calls for clean energy investment since fracking took off. In an article criticising green energy initiatives in the US and the UK, the Wall Street Journal commented that “Historians will one day marvel that so much political and financial capital was invested in a green-energy revolution at the very moment a fossil fuel revolution was aborning [sic]”.

As with all questions of energy supply in the 21st Century – the issues are complex. It seems that shale gas will indeed be exploited in the UK, if not in France and many other jurisdictions. However it is unlikely to prove the perfect solution to cheap energy security that some advocates have claimed.

David Wheeler is currently Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Business, Plymouth University. He is President Designate, Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia @drdavidwheeler1. (At time of writing). 

This article will appear in Croner’s Environment Magazine

January 2013: A PhD students experience at their first International conference

As a PhD student in the Faculty of Health, Education and society on a studentship funded in part by the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research, I am conducting research into the sustainable management of healthcare waste. This led to my participation in the 3rd International Conference on Industrial and Hazardous Waste. The conference was held in Chania, Crete from 12th to 14th September 2012 and organised by the International Waste Working Group (IWWG -

On the second day of the conference I gave an oral presentation titled ‘Towards Sustainable Waste Management: An Observational study of Healthcare Practice’. As the only person presenting research on the psychological and behavioural aspects of waste management my one concern was how my research would be received at a conference dominated by chemists and engineers. I need not have worried. Following my presentation and the round table discussion I received positive feedback from a number of conference delegates. Many researchers from physical science disciplines had encountered person centred issues while conducting their own research. Previously they had not been aware of how to investigate such issues. My approach to the topic of waste management appears to have opened up new possibilities in interdisciplinary research not previously considered by many scientists.

The interest in my work displayed by other conference delegates led to a number of networking opportunities. The conference has provided me with research contacts from across Europe with whom I can potentially collaborate on future research projects. The chair of the IWWG hospital waste working group also extended an invitation to join the group. These opportunities are now being pursued.

It is important for PhD students to attend international conferences as part of their professional development. The experience of preparing and delivering a presentation at such a conference gives the student the opportunity to disseminate their research to an international audience, develop a reputation in their specific field and have their work critiqued by established experts in that field. The whole experience builds not only the students confidence in their academic abilities but also their self-confidence when conversing informally with other researchers. This process of developing international contacts will aid the student in their future career.

My experience at the 3rd International Conference on Industrial and Hazardous Waste conference has been invaluable. The success of the conference was not just due to my own hard work but also that of my supervisory team and the Institute for Sustainability Solutions Research without whom none of this would have been possible. I hope other PhD students and I are able to continue to benefit from such fruitful experiences.

Sean Manzi