Young people from across the country debate science and ethics at 2013 unconference

Young people voice support for an immediate start to fracking as a short-term measure to address the UK’s energy crisis at national policy event.

  • Students presenting at the 2013 Ri unconference

    Students presenting at the 2013 Ri unconference

    Credit: Charlotte Medlicott
  • Female students voting at the 2013 LYSC unconference
    Credit: Charlotte Medlicott

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Teenage delegates at a national unconference have demonstrated overwhelming support for fracking* as a stop-gap for the current UK energy crisis, but called for greater global co-operation to combat climate change and ensure our long-term energy needs are met exclusively by renewable energy sources.

Over two-thirds of the 280 14-18 year old delegates at last week’s event, run by the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre (LYSC), voted in favour of an immediate start to fracking as a way to boost the UK energy industry and meet current supply demands. The event, which was designed to encourage young people to think creatively about science policy and ethical issues such as energy supply, advances in bioscience, genetic engineering and personal data acquisition, provided the opportunity for students to voice their thoughts and solutions to problems facing decision makers  today.

Opening the day’s discussions, Professor Sir David King, the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Climate Change, set the challenge to students that it was time to ‘de-fossilise society’ and focus on alternative energy to ensure a sustainable supply that continues to meet the demands of modern society. Sir David highlighted that those countries who are likely to be most negatively affected by climate change are those least equipped to deal with it, and if we fail to slow the rate of climate change through the increased use of alternative energy supplies, we could be faced the emergence of ‘eco-terrorism’ as people and countries compete for ever dwindling fossil fuel resources.

The young people rose to the challenge on the energy debate and recommended that:

  • The provision of a sustainable and safe energy supply should be a global responsibility and that greater co-operation between countries is needed to facilitate and fund effective research into new methods of creating energy, such as solar and fusion power.
  • Developed countries have an ethical responsibility to support developing countries to diversify their energy supply and should meet this through the provision of education initiatives and by offering ‘no strings attached’ practical support and funding into alternative energy supplies.
  • Energy infrastructure should be designed to maximise the renewable energy opportunities found in and around local communities to ensure genuine sustainability. Developed countries should support developing countries to identify those renewable energy sources that hold the most potential for meeting the needs of their population.

When asked his thoughts on the role of young people in the energy debate, Sir David said: “We are at the most exciting time for new innovations since the beginning of the industrial revolution and these are the people who will determine the future of the planet. I want them to feel that they are ready to launch the second industrial revolution.”

The students were presented with similar challenges from Dr Adam Rutherford on bioscience, Prof Tim Wheeler on food security and the environment and Dr Susan Wallace on personal data acquisition and security. Their policy recommendations were put to a panel of experts, including representatives from industry, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Home Office, University College London, Wellcome Trust and the media.

David Porter, Manager of the Royal Institution’s L’Oréal Young Scientist Centre, said: “The unconference is a unique opportunity for young people to work through complex issues such as the energy crisis and to debate amongst their peers the scientific, ethical, environmental and economic considerations. As a potential energy crisis solution, fracking has polarised opinion amongst the UK public and the media, so it is an interesting outcome of this peer-led discussion that the majority of students were strongly in favour of fracking in the UK as a short-term fix to our energy needs.

“The student recommendations from the 2011 and 2012 unconferences were presented to Rt Hon David Willetts MP and Vince Cable MP respectively, and we intend to highlight the creativity and innovative thinking demonstrated by this year’s unconference cohort in a similar report for government consideration.”

More information

2013 LYSC unconference

The theme of the 2013 unconference was ‘Future technologies and their ethical implications’ and explored four key areas, each introduced by a scientific expert in the morning with recommendations made by the students to a panel of government, science, business and media representatives in the afternoon:

  • Climate and the environment – Professor Sir David King, the Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Climate Change
  • Personal data and security – Dr Susan Wallace, working party member of Nuffield Council on Bioethics
  • Food security and the environment – Professor Tim Wheeler, Director of Research and Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for International Development
  • Bioscience – Dr Adam Rutherford, geneticist, author and broadcaster

Additional recommendations from the students include:

  • Food security and the environment - The government should support the food and manufacturing industry in making biodegradable packaging more mainstream and cost-effective, and in using genetic modification to make food last longer. Greater investment into research examining how to turn waste food into fuel is needed.
  • Personal data and security- Genome mapping should become ‘opt-out’ by parents at birth, due to the positive impact this data could have on our future understanding and treatment of genetic disorders.