8.1 Introduction: The Case in Outline

In the early 1970s in the United Kingdom (UK) and elsewhere research into ‘alternative’ energy sources was growing partly as a consequence of emergent theories of global warming and the oil crisis. The latter arose out of the Arab producers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) putting in place an embargo on oil exports to the United States in October 1973 and threatening to cut back overall production 25% (Udall 1973). Any research into a new, untested and unorthodox energy technology that could displace traditional and polluting energy supply methods required at least some realistic start-up funding. Given the size of funding needed the most likely source for such untested technologies would be governmental. The new technology discussed in this case study was one method for extracting energy from sea waves: the Edinburgh Wave Power Project led by Professor Stephen Salter who was head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Edinburgh University (ERA 2021).

Given that our concerns for this book relate to the ethical issues that can arise in such situations a series of questions immediately present themselves: What are the immediate consequences of giving funding to new technologies that could undermine previous (traditional) ways of producing energy? What range of ‘interests’ are involved? What broader policies influence the research and the views of funders and government? Does it matter who funds the research? Is there too much opportunity for misconduct depending on how funds are disbursed? And does it matter who analyses the results? These are the kind of questions addressed in the following case study.

At this point I must declare an interest of my own. I am a supporter of alternative energy technologies that could reduce all forms of environmental pollution and, thereby, help minimize human-induced global warming. More specifically the origins of such a view lie in my experience with the Wave Power Project itself from 1974 to 1977. My wife was then a Personal Assistant (P.A.) to Stephen Salter and told me of her frustration in getting the main source of funding to deliver the correct funding in good time. She constantly had to phone the funder and was regularly offered unreasonable excuses for delays—the consequence of which were that the salaries for the young engineering researchers were rarely paid in time and money for materials always delayed. Such a tactic seemed problematic to me at the time until she explained the funding was disbursed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority—one of the ‘old’ polluting technologies that alternative energy projects were directly challenging. Perhaps this was a rationale for the tactic that could only be described as ‘undermining’?

For my college teaching post at the time I was tasked with delivering a series of lectures of a ‘general’ nature and thought something on alternative energy technologies would be of interest to my experienced mature students—who were all ‘older adults’ entering further and higher education for the first time. I invited both the Wave Power Project and the Atomic Energy Authority to come and give a talk about the merits of their approach. The Wave Power Project sent one of their researchers who gave an informed and stimulating talk about the balance in terms of cost and effectiveness of different energy sources and showed some photographs to illustrate their ongoing work. The Atomic Energy Authority sent no-one but delivered (at their considerable expense) boxes of hundreds of reprinted articles to be distributed freely for the benefit of my students. All the articles were in support of nuclear energy without providing a balanced perspective on the controversies surrounding nuclear energy. I cannot say I suffered a ‘confirmation bias’ prior to those experiences, but it certainly grew subsequently as my suspicions of at least some lack of fairness in funding were aroused.

These details, in relation to a specific research activity, illustrates that ‘who funds and how?’ raises a series of ethical questions along with whether a balanced assessment of alternative options—in any field of research—is vital to honest, reliable and trustworthy research. Trust in the funding source becomes part of transparency of practice that can help the public and policymakers decide on the best ways of proceeding with an innovative, and potentially challenging, technology.

8.2 More Background and Context

Research into marine wave power really began with Salter’s experiments using a dynamically shaped float (the ‘Duck’) that linked via a spine to a series of other floating ‘Ducks’ which bobbed up and down in the waves. The Duck was a 300-tonne floating canister designed to drive a generator from the motion of bobbing up and down on waves like a duck. It is still regarded as the most efficient of any wave power system produced, converting up to 80% of the wave energy to electricity which was to be then cabled ashore. All the experiments were successful until 1982 when the work suddenly stopped. Salter (2016) provides a full discussion of both the key technical issues and the emergent governance problems.

The funding problem arose from the control of all renewable energy research—not just wave power—during the 1970s and 1980s coming from an organisation that was part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. The Department of Energy’s research and development advisory council (ACORD) operated at long range from all the projects and its staff was recruited largely from the nuclear and the depletable energy industries. In other words, wave power research was funded and controlled by the regulators of the nuclear, coal and gas industries.

By 1982, an independent consultant reported that the Duck could be expected, with further development, to produce electricity at a cost of around 5.5 pence per kW-h, which would have been a price competitive with nuclear power. Clive Grove-Palmer, a respected Department engineer seconded to work on the Duck project, estimated that the cost could be decreased to around 3 pence per kW-h. ACORD met in 1982, excluded Grove-Palmer and his findings, and instead accepted a secret report, prepared by a unit based at British Atomic Energy Authority headquarters, claiming that wind power had more immediate commercial possibilities than wave power, and research funds should be shifted to it. At the same time the Department of Energy, which was packed with nuclear supporters, had instructed ACORD to reduce its renewable energy research budget from £14 million to £11 million. The Department was then spending around £200 million on nuclear research (all data from GLW 1992).

The wave power researchers were not given sight of the report on which ACORD based its decision to denigrate and stop their work until eight months later. Then, in January 1983, a research unit based at the Atomic Energy Authority came out with another report concealing the highly favourable figures for the Duck by averaging them in with figures for all other wave power projects. This gave a non-commercial figure of 8–12 pence per kW-h. “Opponents of the project then produced figures overestimating capital costs by a factor of ten, massively underestimating the reliability of undersea cables, and claiming that in mass production each Duck would cost about the same as one prototype” (GLW 1992).

To illustrate the nature of the sabotage employed, the following is from the written evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee by A. Gordon Senior an independent consultant appointed by Rendell Palmer and Tritton (RPT) responsible for reporting specifically on the Duck project to the Department of Energy: “My final draft of these sections was submitted in May 1983. I expected a response from RPT within days to discuss these consistent with our established practice. When this was not forthcoming I telephoned the RPT Project Manager to be told that the report had been completed, was to be submitted that night and could not be discussed. When pressed I was told that the conclusions had been altered. When I asked for a copy to examine what changes had been made I was told that no copy had been allocated to me and that copies were in short supply. When I pressed harder I was offered a copy on loan. I found that most of the text of the report was as I had drafted but the key conclusions had indeed been changed and even reversed. I objected and asked for my views to be made known to the DEn (Dept. of Energy) but was told that this could not be done and that I was bound by client confidentiality to RPT not to reveal my disagreement. I was also advised not to have further contact with the device team” (HL Paper 88, 204). The extent of the dissembling, dishonesty and fraudulence beggars belief.

The seconded engineer Grove-Palmer took early retirement as a result of the decision. “I resigned … because they asked me to write the obituary of wave power. There was no way I could do that … We were just ready to do the final year of development and then go to sea” (GLW 1992).

After a long campaign to save the project, Professor Salter’s team was forced to disperse in early 1987. “We must not waste another 15 years and dissipate the high motivation of another generation of young engineers”, wrote Salter in a memorandum to the House of Lords committee on renewable energy. “We must stop using grossly different assessment methods in a rat race between technologies at widely differing stages of their development. We must find a way of reporting accurate results to decision makers and have decision makers with enough technical knowledge to spot data massage if it occurs. I believe that this will be possible only if the control of renewable energy projects is completely removed from nuclear influences.”Footnote 1 This is a plea for transparency, fairness and accurate comparative analyses of the competing sources.

This brief account makes it very clear just how conflicting the vested interests were. Having experts drawn from a competing energy source to cast judgement on innovative research that could challenge their own professional interests is a recipe for disaster and lacks fairness. The disparity in research funding in itself undermines any equality in allowing a realistic challenge from wave power. The lack of independent peer review and honest comparative analysis of the cost effectiveness of different energy sources immediately arouses suspicion of underhand behaviour. The decision to pervert the figures supplied by the independent consultant would today be regarded as fraudulent and a challenge to modern standards of research integrity. Selfish vested interest may not be enough to account for how these actions could have been allowed. Lack of transparency at the time would make it difficult to mount any public challenge of such research misbehaviour. But we also need to consider if there could be any valid reasons to promote nuclear power at the expense of green alternatives.

8.3 The Researchers’ Views

Professor Salter gave the following assessment of reasons for the failure of the Project to a House of Commons Parliamentary Select Committee in 2001: “If I had to supply reasons for the failure of the first UK wave programme I would cite over-optimism, the attempt to make very big (2GW) power stations and to assess infant devices too quickly. The programme was properly supported and enthusiastically led from 1976 to 1983, a period of only seven years, and then entered a very unhappy phase where researchers felt that they were always on the defensive. An account of this has been given to a Committee of another place (HL Paper 88 1988, 21 June 1988 page 178 and 190–206) and it does not, at present, seem helpful to repeat it here” (STC 2001).

The Select Committee asked what role wave and tidal stream energy should have in the Government’s renewable energy strategy? Should they have a higher priority?

Salter’s answer subtly shows recognition of the disguised vested interests that caused his early work to be sabotaged: “This must depend on whether the Government and its civil servants really want renewable energy to succeed or whether they want to appear to be supporting a programme but really want it to fail. Over the years many of the officials with whom we dealt certainly seemed to want success but this often proved to be a dangerous career move. I must warn the Committee that this danger is not confined to officials. There was a Commons Energy Committee which looked into renewables in 1992. A copy of my evidence (pages 62–68 of volume III) is attached. One of the Committee’s recommendations was the resurrection of the wave energy programme. The Energy Committee was immediately disbanded!”

This clearly suggests that a hidden underlying policy was governing decisions about allowing successful green energy competition more than ten years later and one would have to wonder if that applies even today—but how would we know?

Salter continued to the Committee: “Always there seems to be a layer, or indeed layers, of senior people with negative views about renewables and the power to make them stick. This power seems to be inversely related to technical knowledge of the subject or technology in general. If the concerns about carbon levels, global warming and long-term supplies of fossil fuels are well founded, then the Government policy should be that every possible renewable source should be thoroughly researched to the point that it could rapidly be employed at some stage in the future. The demonstration of this capability would do much to limit the dangers of a manipulated market for oil or gas and could be regarded as part of a nation’s defences.” This observation becomes particularly apt in the current climate, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the consequent disruption of energy supplies as a result of the sanctions imposed on Russia by a number of governments. So, as Salter observed, “The costs of a vigorous research programme are very small compared with the total spending on fuel or the possible future consequences of having insufficient energy supplies. The spin-off in unexpected directions has, so far, been quite sufficient to justify what has been spent. Diversity between renewable sources with different availability reduces the problems caused by lack of firmness of supply. This could be further reduced by the use of renewable sources for the manufacture of hydrogen, methanol, ammonia or even potable water” (HL Paper 88, 1988).

In an era when Government constantly reassures us that they are ‘following the science’ we have to wonder if that operates in only some spheres of influence and how much in other spheres is kept hidden. Then and now officials (elected and/or appointed) are clearly in a position to override scientific findings and can get away with it due to the impossibility of gaining full transparency for public awareness of why certain policy decisions are taken. There appears to have been (and still is?) a group of people at senior levels with the power to impose their own agenda—a lack of transparency permits a high degree of dishonesty. There is a question of whether policy responsibilities should be kept separate from those of the scientists/researchers. They are not after all elected to their position of responsibility and their responsibilities are to science and not to the electorate. On the other hand, that would suggest that scientists have no responsibility to society and such a view hardly holds water today in light of all the work done in the name of RRI (Responsible Research and Innovation). The question then must be how can scientists fairly represent the benefits of their work to those who must take the policy decisions? Evidently a fair, honest and transparent assessment of the relative merits of, in this case, alternative energy supplies that leads to a clear appraisal of the available options and their consequences would have been the most effective way of proceeding and in the best interests of society. We must still ask if there is any way in which both the scant unequal funding and the deliberate sabotage of findings could be ethically justified.

8.4 Lessons Learned: How Should National Funding for New Technologies Be Managed?

Professor Salter’s further responses to House of Lords Committee’s questions (STC 2001) offer lessons:

…Private investors must protect their investment by secrecy in a way that is totally foreign to academics, even if a large fraction of the money is coming from public sources. There are even stronger motives for secrecy following poor productivity or the loss of a prototype. Mistakes will then be repeated by others. It does not have to be like this. Following an aircraft accident there is a very expensive investigation with the most detailed information supplied to and carefully studied by the entire industry. This should be an obligation in return for receipt of public money.

If such an approach can be adopted in the aviation industry, where one might argue the risks of harm are likely to be higher and the investment costs fairly similar then why not in energy supplies? Strict central/ministerial direction would violate the independence of research funding councils. “…This independence is important because there is also documentary evidence that an official from the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) at Harwell (then part of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority) tried hard… to discourage support for wave energy from Brussels. Over-strict co-ordination stifles original ideas. I am, therefore, on balance in favour of open published consultation between independent bodies and a degree of anarchy.”

Once again transparency was avoided, attempts to influence European policy one-sided, and Salter’s ‘anarchy’ seems to amount to a plea for fair competition to avoid the dirigiste errors of either monopoly capitalism or state control. However, Salter illustrates the dilemmas with a specific example: he sees “…a serious co-ordination problem concerning test tank facilitiesFootnote 2 which I would like to draw to the attention of your Committee. It concerns test facilities for wave energy research, which I regard as essential and which are expensive enough to have to be nationally coordinated. …Funding for most academic work, now including waves, is the responsibility of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which is given money by Government but notionally makes independent decisions. I have some evidence that this independence was not complete when, in 1986, a proposal for work on wave energy was rejected on the grounds that it was not strategic, as defined by the Renewable Energy Advisory Group set up by the DTI” (Department for Trade and Industry).

One could hardly challenge the rights, indeed responsibility, of governments to direct ‘strategic’ research and funding. But once again should that be decided entirely ‘behind the scenes’? Perhaps the public and the researchers should not be kept in the dark about such decisions and, in the case of the latter, undermine their work and careers by permitting them to work in fields that were not to be supported for hidden ‘strategic’ reasons. The strategic issue here surely relates to the mutual dependence of nuclear power and nuclear weaponry suggesting that full transparency about such sensitive matters might be unrealistic. Ultimately one suspects that the then Government could not allow nuclear power to ‘fail’ relative to alternative sources in order to maintain adequate fuel supplies for nuclear weaponry. But given that the maintenance of nuclear arms was an open governmental policy, why not be open about the inequality of treatment for the different energy sources? An obvious answer might be that the public, and interested pressure groups in particular, might find their nuclear disarmament perspective strengthened by the knowledge that the nuclear arms race was a factor in blocking the development of renewable energy sources that could deliver cheaper electricity that was less polluting and less likely to contribute to global warming. Defending continuing nuclear arms was a difficult enough policy without shooting themselves in the foot with admitting to blocking better energy sources.

Although this particular case happened some time ago it is interesting to note that the determination to hide the true costs of nuclear power has been sustained even after the turn of the century—for example, in the UK in 2003 a Green Party local government councillor was dismissed for a period from council duties for breaching confidentiality. The breach was over a discussion that was to be ‘kept secret’ over a deferment of payment of business rates that would cost the council £18,000, and the same had occurred in six other local authorities. No other commercial businesses would have been accorded this privilege. The British Government had recently removed the public interest clause from the councillors’ code of duties which would have protected the councillor’s duty to disclose (Dowding 2003).

So many ethical issues arise in trying to find the balance for new technology research between ‘national coordination’ and what Salter called ‘anarchy’. Given the strategic issues raised above the question then becomes how an effective balance can be struck between central government funding, private investment and ‘independent’ research councils—each with their specific vested and possibly conflicting interests. Of course this does not only apply to energy research but research into any new, disruptive technologies that challenge governmental strategic decisions—it just becomes more complicated when those strategies remain undisclosed. One might argue that, in the interests of democracy, government should retain the ultimate control—of both private enterprise and research funding councils. The questions then are—how much control, should it be limited and, if so, how?

Clearly the answers to those questions must be contextual. It will depend upon just what the topics of interest are and precisely the kind of ‘disruption’ the innovative technologies are likely to create. Energy research is clearly such an area—even excluding the nuclear arms issue. The threats to coal, gas and oil, regardless of their inevitably limited supply, in the short term, threatens to undermine a major material and socioeconomic infrastructure. However, in the long term, it is obvious these energy sources will be depleted in a short enough timespan to require a centrally coordinated, probably international, plan to replace them with alternative, renewable and non-polluting sources. Evidence can be found for such an approach within the European Union.Footnote 3 It is also important to note that my argument in this case is not about whether or not nuclear power should be ditched in favour of alternative, ‘greener’, technologies. Even ecologists argue for a sustainable nuclear industry on the grounds that the alternatives are incapable of meeting growing power demands (Jancovici 2021). Rather it is about how that debate should be conducted and how the evidence is produced and used.

Our remaining concern is how we can be assured that any future policies draw on ethical evidence in making such crucial decisions. The evidence from the Wave Power Project case study suggests that peer review processes should be independent, entirely separated from funding and strategic issues. That evidence should be delivered transparently to the key decision takers along with any available appraisal of options, and the decisions taken should be open, especially if they are governed by strategic factors. The public and scientists have a right to know what the strategies are of those who they elected.

8.5 Summary Lessons Learned: Guidance for Policymakers

Professor Michael Davis of the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, has made some interesting observations about ethics in engineering research which illustrate some of the problems that faced the Duck Project: “Engineering research takes place in at least four domains: the laboratory, the pilot, digital models, and ‘the field.’ In the laboratory, engineering research most resembles research in physics, chemistry, or biology. Issues concerning accuracy, truthfulness, crediting, and the like are much the same in engineering as in the sciences. The chief distinctive ethical issue in engineering research in the lab is that the research should seek to improve the material condition of humanity, not just seek knowledge for its own sake. There is no ‘pure engineering.’ … In the field, the ethical issues in engineering research most resemble those in public health. For example, engineers should keep good records of complaints about their products; have procedures for quickly identifying threats to the public health, safety, or welfare; and have procedures in place for responding appropriately. Research in engineering is continuous with the practice of engineering” (Davis 2020, 967–968).

Policymakers and regulators have a responsibility to consider how best to manage emergent technologies in light of strategic contradictions. What may be seen as ‘anarchy’ from one perspective, may be legitimately viewed as ‘healthy competition’ from another. For example, in the later 1990s there was a distinct drive towards the globally coordinated regulation of genetics research—the ‘risks’ estimated to be so high that such uniform standards were seen as a necessary alternative to a dangerous anarchy (see HGP 2021). Little consideration was given to the possibility of allowing diverse national regulation leading to a ‘regulatory competition’ which could then be studied to assess what sort of regime worked best rather than having global standards imposed by individual unaccountable bioethicists.

Thus Salter’s Duck illustrates the problem of balancing independence in research, free markets in technological developments and governmental dirigisme. The project received funding via the administrative structure of the traditional and ‘competing’ technical system. Funding was constantly delayed and then results of the research assessed by ‘experts’ who worked within the old technology—and, crucially, they knowingly distorted the findings. Centralised coordination can stultify genuine innovation if researchers are prevented from pursuing their own promising lines of thought. The possibility of ‘dead ends’ and the ‘waste’ of scarce funding resources might have to be risked for exciting and productive innovation to win through.

The major ethical lesson arising out of these observations is that though transparency in governmental actions may seem the most moral course, that may be balanced against strategic requirements that ensure societal safety and stability. How to identify such a rationale against ‘political expediency’ remains moot.