Testbed news

SPICE personal statement.

It is with some regret that today the SPICE team has announced we’ve decided to call off the outdoor ‘1km testbed’ experiment that was scheduled for later this year. The reasons for this are complex and I will try to explain the decision here. It should be noted that these views are my own and do not necessarily imply consensus within SPICE. Where a range of opinions exist I will try to make that clear. Importantly however, the decision to call of the experiment was made by all the project partners in agreement.

Firstly, there are issues of governance. Despite receiving considerable attention no international agreements exist. Whilst it is hard to imagine a more environmentally benign experiment, which sought to only pump 150 litres (2 bath loads) of pure water into the atmosphere to a height of one kilometre over a deserted field, in terms of SRMGI nomenclature, it represented a transition from stage 2 to stage 3 research. Most experts agree that governance architecture is needed and, to me personally, a technology demonstrator, even a benign 1/20 scale model, feels somewhat premature, though many in SPICE would disagree. Counter to my personal feelings is the argument that technologies that could inject SO2 into the stratosphere, particularly aircraft, already exist and that process could, but obviously should not, begin tomorrow. It is therefore wrong to consider the tested experiment as an enabling technology and that various delivery mechanisms should be tested given there is minimal, well managed proximal (e.g. health and safety) risk and no impacts on climate or biodiversity. 

Secondly, there are issues of intellectual property. SPICE, as a team, is committed to researching climate engineering carefully with the profound belief that all such research should be done, as per the Oxford Principles, for the greater good. We have all agreed, through a partner-wide collaboration agreement to (a) put all results into the public domain in a timely manner and (b) not to exploit (i.e. profit from or patent) results from the SPICE project. However, a patent application exists that was filed prior to the SPICE project being proposed, describing the delivery technology, presenting a potentially significant conflict of interest. The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort. Information regarding the patent application was immediately reported to the research councils, who have initiated an external investigation. Efforts are underway to make the patent application’s intentions unambiguous: to protect intellectual property and not for commercial purposes.

Thirdly, it will take time to explore these issues through deliberation and stakeholder engagement. This means that any postponement of the 1km tested would be a de factocancellation as the experiment’s value, to elucidate balloon and tether dynamics to inform computer models, diminishes over the project lifetime. The SPICE team sincerely hopes that this decision will facilitate rational, unrushed discussion on issues that include both governance and intellectual property but span broader issues surrounding SRM.