Brief Reflections on the SCoPEx Advisory Committee and Implications for Research Governance

March 25, 2024

I’ve often heard that governance for solar geoengineering research isn’t needed yet—that it will slow research down or create overly burdensome requirements for researchers. I’ve similarly heard that solar geoengineering research isn’t all that different from climate research, and we have sufficient oversight mechanisms in place. From the other end of the advocacy spectrum, I’ve also heard that governance for SRM isn’t possible to do well, and therefore we can’t pursue research. 

On both sides of the debate, many point to a belief that SCoPEx processes exemplified their concerns—that they showed that governance can’t work for early-stage, small-scale experiments. 

To be frank, I completely disagree. I was a member of the Independent Advisory Committee (AC) to oversee SCoPEx from July 2019 – January 2021, and after my time with the Department of Energy, I rejoined as co-chair from April 2022 – March 2024. The AC announced its dissolution on March 18, 2024, alongside the announcement that the experiment was canceled. 

While SCoPEx has had challenges across science and governance, I do see some aspects of the AC a success –  and a foundation on which future governance for experimentation can be built.  

The AC was itself a first of a kind governance experiment, as the first body to exist to actively create and build governance guidance that would be applied. It was also created a bit too late – SCoPEx had already been designed and in motion for a few years before the AC was put together (and intended for a domestic experiment). 

The AC created guidance for legal compliance, financial conflict of interest, technical safety, scientific merit, and public engagement. Not all of it was used or applied, and not all the AC processes were ideal. But it offers an existing model of how to govern future experiments and is an incredibly valuable tool that can be shaped and made better as the field evolves. 

Research governance is incredibly challenging to build for a new and emerging field. But it is absolutely necessary. Researchers and policymakers alike must acknowledge that SRM research is unique –  both in perception and reality –  and requires different governance mechanisms. At the same time, we should not prematurely limit scientific exploration that has merit and need for future informed decision-making around use or non use. We need a better understanding of SRM, but we need to make sure that it is done with the oversight and meaningful engagement it requires.

The final report from AC can be found here. Stay tuned for a more in-depth reflection piece from the full Advisory Committee.