To assess the feasibility of nonstate governance systems fulfilling the incremental governance needs associated with near-term solar geoengineering research, in this section we consider six specific types of nonstate actors routinely involved in research: the researchers themselves, the universities or other institutions that employ them, funders, academic publishers, professional societies, and advocacy NGOs, both environmental and other. For each type of actor, we assess their ability to contribute based on three characteristics:
Capacity: To what extent can they influence the focus, process, and impacts of research?
Knowledge: What knowledge do they possess to guide their exercise of this capacity in pursuit of effective governance?
Interests: How well do their motivating interests—both material and normative—align with the aims of effective governance?
In addition to being targets of governance, researchers are also on the front lines as potential sources of governance. They choose what experiments, projects, risk management measures, and other procedures to undertake, individually and in consultation with their peers. There is a robust and long-standing tradition of scholarly self-regulation on matters ranging from broad defense of scientific integrity to specific concerns about novel risks and impacts from particular methods. Researchers also have detailed knowledge of present methods and techniques, their likely contributions and limits in addressing specific scientific questions, and their associated risks and potential responses to mitigate these.
Researchers’ interests, like those of other actors, reflect a combination of material self-interest in professional success and advancement, social approval and reputation, and internal normative commitments to advancing knowledge and doing so in socially beneficial ways. These interests are all linked to other actors—including their employers, funders, scholarly publishers, and professional societies, as well as their collective community of peers—on whom they depend for institutional and financial support, communication outlets, recognition, and validation.
Solar geoengineering researchers are presently a small community within larger disciplinary groups and institutions. They acknowledge and are sensitive to the risk and controversy associated with their work, and recognize that they depend on their collective reputation because the public and decision-makers are unlikely to differentiate among them individually (Anshelm and Hansson 2014). They are thus motivated to avoid reckless or inflammatory statements and actions, and to police these in other researchers—as geoengineering researchers’ widespread censure of a badly designed, over-hyped, and possibly illegal ocean fertilization experiment suggests (Marshall 2012). In some fields, scientists act as entrepreneurs promoting commercial applications of their work and thus face incentives that can be in tension with scientific norms, but this is not currently the case for solar geoengineering and appears unlikely. Present projections of the structure of any potential future geoengineering enterprise suggest that there will not be great fortunes to be made, and state actors will be in charge of making major decisions. Some researchers might seek patents and aim to profit from future public procurement contracts (Reynolds et al. 2017), but there are few signs of such activity at present. Indeed, the interests of the current cohort of scientists appear not to be grounded in promoting solar geoengineering’s use, but in the increasing gravity of climate change risks and the limited prospects for mitigation to reduce them (e.g., Caldeira (2008); Shepherd et al. (2009); Parson and Keith (2013); National Research Councils (2015); MacMartin and Kravitz (2019)).
The most important constraints to solar geoengineering researchers’ ability to contribute to effective governance pertain not to interests, but to capacity and knowledge. Scientists’ capacity to self-regulate collectively is limited because they lack larger-scale resources to coordinate or to change behavior beyond what is feasible through voluntary agreements (see Parker (2014), pp. 11–12). Researchers also lack knowledge about their work’s indirect, longer-term, or socially and politically mediated risks and challenges, and about effective governance approaches to address these (Marchant and Wallach 2015). These must come from other types of actors.
Most researchers, in solar geoengineering as in other fields, are employed by universities or other research institutions. As employers, these bodies have authority to hire or fire, promote or demote, and provide or deny resources, honors, or platforms. This represents substantial capacity to govern work conducted by their employees, students, and affiliates when it affects matters of public concern. The exercise of this authority is routine, embodied in mechanisms like the institutional review boards (IRBs), grant management, technology transfer, and compliance offices for environment, health, and safety, discrimination, and other areas of regulatory concern. These institutions also have large bodies of accumulated knowledge on research governance, including in rapidly evolving and controversial areas such as work with human embryos. They have strong interests in maintaining their good reputations, which affect their success in funding, recruitment, and other sources of support and legitimation. They are thus sensitive to reputational damage related to research and its oversight, balancing efforts to defend freedom of inquiry even in controversial areas with strict oversight, including dismissal, in cases of scientific misconduct (Levelt Committee et al. 2012). Because of their large scale and multidisciplinary reach, their pursuit of these aims is unlikely to be easily swayed, either by strong interests of one research group or by targeted objections of a few activists.
The main limitations of research institutions for governing solar geoengineering research are that they only have oversight authority over their own employees and associates, and that they may lack knowledge of risks and responses specific to solar geoengineering research. These deficits can both be mitigated. Knowledge and capacities developed in other scientific areas are likely to be transferable, at least partially, to solar geoengineering research. Universities are prominent and effective forums for information gathering and sharing activities and consultations on matters of public concern. They conduct such activities routinely, both in pursuit of their general mission to advance knowledge and to inform their own practices. And research institutions, like researchers, have open cultures, shared reputational interests, and informally recognized leaders. They are thus likely able to effectively consult and coordinate to collectively address challenges posed by controversial areas and consequently extend the reach of agreed norms and practices.
Most scientific research depends on external funding, of which a substantial fraction is private. The world’s largest private research funder, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gave 5 billion USD in grants in 2018, on the same order of magnitude as the US National Science Foundation’s 6.6 billion USD budget (Science News Staff 2018; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation n.d.-a). Solar geoengineering researchers rely disproportionately on nonstate sources (Necheles et al. 2018).
Funders have the capacity, knowledge, and interest to contribute to governance of research in areas they fund, directly for their own grantees and with varying degrees of indirect influence over other activities in the same area (see Parker (2014), pp. 12–13). Funders’ exercise of their governance capacity regularly encompasses diverse types of conditions and requirements imposed on projects they fund, such as procedural standards, review criteria, operational requirements on subsequent research conduct and dissemination of results, and participation in ancillary processes. For example, the Gates Foundation has contractual terms regarding human research subjects, intellectual property, privacy, vicarious legal responsibility, and compliance with local laws and regulations, including those concerning ethics (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation n.d.-b). Funders that are large presences in particular research fields—those that are large overall, as well as pass-through foundations and others focusing on specific issues—exercise significant strategic influence over norms and practices in those entire fields, through their own bargaining power with scientists and institutions and through consultation and coordination with other funders.
Effective grantmaking requires funders to have deep knowledge of the fields they support, which they develop and keep current by retaining expert program staff and through the detailed information they receive in funding applications and other interactions with researchers. They thus have good understanding of current priorities and approaches, attendant challenges and controversies, and potential responses. Funders who support multiple areas of high-stakes or controversial research are also well-positioned to generalize this learning across fields.
Like large research institutions, major funders have broad substantive scope; even funders targeting specific areas such as climate change or energy have much wider scope than solar geoengineering. Funders also, again like research institutions, are sensitive to potential reputational harm that could follow from supporting activities widely viewed as reckless or illegitimate. They thus have interests in constructively addressing social and political controversies related to their research agenda, and promoting and complying with widely accepted governance norms for responsible research.
As the primary means of communicating scientific findings, academic publishers are important gatekeepers for research. Journals are numerous and hierarchically ranked according to prestige, reputation for quality, and visibility, with few at the top and many at the bottom. Publication in respected outlets is the main currency of academic research, valuable for scientists’ careers, reputations, and ability to transmit their ideas.
Publishers can exercise significant governance authority over researchers through conditions or requirements attendant on publication. Indeed, a core mission of academic publishers is to impose standards of scientific quality control. Editors of journals and other outlets also routinely exercise their gatekeeping function to require conformity with relevant ethical norms, on diverse matters including protection of human research subjects, treatment of animals, intellectual property, confidentiality, security-sensitive information, and compliance with local laws and regulations. In coordinating these requirements and identifying related best practices, they are aided by professional bodies such as the Council of Science Editors in the USA and the Committee on Publication Ethics in the UK. Prominent examples of publishers exercising authority are Nature’s requirement that certain types of human stem cell research submit ethics statements and in some cases submit to ethics review (Nature 2018), and the agreement among multiple leading journals on requirements for publication of dual-use biomedical research (Journal Editors and Authors’ Group 2003; Editors 2012).
Individual editors must deal with large number of submissions and may have limited knowledge of controversies specific to a particular field. Most journals, however—especially those of higher status—have many editors with large informal networks of peer reviewers and advisors, and so are able to access information about concerns and to identify researchers with reputations for suspect practices or norm transgression. Like research institutions and funders, prominent publishers also have reputational interests in avoiding association with work viewed as reckless or violating widely agreed norms, and operate with a breadth of scope that limits their vulnerability to any individual scientist or research group.
The main limitations to publishers’ effectiveness as governance participants are related to the large number of journals, which makes collective organization difficult and means that many journals, particularly lower-status ones, have limited ability to decline submissions—and indeed may have an interest in gaining attention by publishing controversial work. Coordination difficulties may be mitigated by the concentration of journal ownership among relatively few publishers (Larivière et al. 2015), but norm-violating scientists can still usually evade conditions by shopping for a lenient journal. Because the promulgation of research norms is led by top journals, this shopping comes at the cost of lower visibility and prestige. However, this disincentive may be weakened by current disruption of the traditional academic publishing model, visible in the proliferation of new, open access titles and the increasing prominence of online publication outlets. In fact, those researchers willing to break norms and court controversy may be precisely those least interested in highly ranked journals and most inclined to pursue wide public attention through means including low-status journals, nonscientific outlets, or social media.
Like many other professionals, researchers self-organize into discipline-based professional societies that enjoy significant stature and convening authority among relevant cohorts. These offer recognition and honor among communities of peers, as well as networking and communication opportunities. Such societies have some—but limited—capacity, knowledge, and interest to monitor and enforce members’ compliance with research norms. They sometimes promulgate formal and informal standards, and can discipline or expel members for serious misconduct (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2018; National Academy of Sciences 2018). Although disciplinary actions are infrequent, they are an important means by which fields enforce norms to protect their shared reputations.
Scientific societies already police their members. The examples of nonstate governance, given above in section 3, include several in which professional societies such as the American and World Medical Associations, the US National Academies, and the UK Royal Society played important roles. Moreover, policies of publishers and funders are often developed in concert with guidelines issued by professional societies. For example, Nature’s stem cell research policy draws on guidelines of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (Nature 2018). These societies also have, in their leaders and members, access to the specific expertise to assess proposed research’s potential value, risks, associated controversies, and conformity with relevant norms. And like research institutions, funders, and publishers, they have collective reputational interests that are diffuse enough that a single rogue scientist is unlikely to have meaningful influence over the society.
Professional societies have already been active in debates on solar geoengineering research. The Royal Society and US National Academies released influential reports (Shepherd et al. 2009; National Research Councils 2015; see Gupta and Möller (2018)), and a committee of the latter is developing an agenda and recommended governance approaches. Others have issued statements calling for more research (American Geophysical Union Council 2009; Institution of Mechanical Engineers 2009; American Meteorological Society Council 2013).
Among limits to the potential governance role of professional societies are their substantive scope, their member-driven decision-making, and the rarity and narrow focus of their disciplinary actions. Their scope, usually either along disciplinary lines or encompassing all of science, suggests they may lack focused interest or expertise related to controversies in a particular field, especially one like solar geoengineering for which multiple disciplines are implicated. Societies’ official statements on important social issues must be acceptable to most active members, which for controversial areas usually include both vigorous proponents and critics. Thus these statements—if made at all—tend to be generic and weak. And their disciplinary actions are highly limited. They traditionally address only clear violations of scientific integrity such as falsification or plagiarism, and are now expanding to include personal misconduct such as harassment and bullying. Application of these mechanisms to societal implications of contentious evolving research areas would be even more severely limited than policy statements.
Advocacy nongovernmental organizations
Advocacy NGOs play strong, increasingly recognized roles, both in the political processes that lead to governance and in its subsequent development, monitoring, and enforcement (Boli and Thomas 1999). They perform these both informally, through mechanisms such as pressure campaigns or “naming and shaming” norm violators (Keck and Sikkink 2014), and formally, through such means as codified private regulation and quasi-official roles in some environmental, human rights, and other agreements (Edwards 2009). Advocacy NGOs are particularly active and effective on environmental issues (Betsill and Corell 2008), where some have developed reputations that grant them widely recognized authority among policy-makers, scientists, and concerned citizens. For example, NGOs have played leading roles in recent research, advocacy, and litigation aiming to hold fossil fuel interests to account for their contributions to climate change and their support for efforts to discredit associated scientific knowledge (Ekwurzel et al. 2017).
Thus far, environmental groups’ engagement on solar geoengineering and research has been heterogeneous. Some groups reject future use under any conditions, and thus also reject research (Friends of the Earth 2015), while others support research subject to various conditions including effective governance (Environmental Defense Fund 2015; Natural Resources Defense Council 2015; Union of Concerned Scientists 2019). Representatives from these latter groups are currently participating on both the US National Academies and the SCoPEx advisory committees.
Environmental groups’ likely roles in nonstate governance of solar geoengineering research are shaped and limited by this heterogeneity among them. Several leading groups have substantial expertise in current scientific debates, governance concerns, and the context of the broader climate change issue. They are thus potentially valuable participants in collaborative processes to develop, implement, and assess research governance arrangements. But the more familiar mechanisms of NGO influence—public and policy campaigns—are stronger when multiple groups, or at least the major ones, express consistent views. Present division among NGOs suggests that such consistency is only likely to be possible as a response to conspicuous instances of reckless or norm violation. NGOs other than environmental and scientific ones have not yet been involved in solar geoengineering debates, but as it and the climate change issue grow more prominent and contentious, religious, labor, civic, and development groups can bring larger constituencies and potentially increased legitimacy to the governance system.