• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Arts and Sciences Academy Tackles Social Science and Green Power

20 May 2011 2:30 pm

Why are some efforts to get people to conserve energy more successful than others?

A 3-day workshop in Washington, D.C., this week on "Social Science and the Alternative Energy Future" tackled those and other questions as part of a major new initiative sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The goal is to understand what social science work is required to speed the adoption of green energy technologies. Yesterday's sessions, for example, looked at factors that affect public acceptance of new technologies and how to incorporate human decision-making research into economic modeling and policymaking regarding energy.

With public opposition to windmills, nuclear power, and even solar power plants among the obstacles to expanding low-carbon energy sources, understanding how people relate to and use energy is extremely important. The sessions ScienceInsider attended gave a preview of the central dilemma facing energy experts interested in social science: While much is known about how people perceive energy systems, society has yet to tap insights into how citizens use energy.

Mediator and social science researcher Juliana Birkhoff, with mediation firm RESOLVE in Washington, D.C., said that various efforts to engage the public on big wind power, nuclear energy, and fishing management have actually achieved consensus on controversial projects.

That success suggests that scientists and policymakers understand the way people tick enough to bridge gaps with the public and help smooth change on controversial energy projects. "It's not that hard," she said. But others spelled out gaps in researchers' knowledge about how citizens use energy—or for that matter, how they make decisions.

Jeanne Fox, a commissioner on New Jersey's state energy board, described how inclusive, "science-and-technology based" programs meant to explain offshore wind power won over state environmentalists and fishers who originally were "vociferously against it."

What made the difference were multiple public events that highlighted the climate advantages of wind power and the latest findings on bird strikes, as well as state studies on the ecological effects. Noting the success in assisting ecosystems that some underwater manmade reefs have shown, Fox said, some fisherman figure the windmills' foundations may attract fish "who might want to hang out by them." Now one of the biggest builders of wind turbines off the New Jersey coast is Fishermen's Energy, an energy developer founded by commercial fishermen. Other successful outreach efforts, Birkhoff said, include the National Wind Coordinating Colaborative and the Nuclear Power Joint Fact-Finding Dialogue. "Good public participation always improves quality of outcome," she said.

Charlie Wilson, a behavioral expert at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, said that understanding personal behaviors around energy choices is a "fertile" area of research that needs lots more collaborations between disciplines, he said.

The effort of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences may also examine the experiences of states, which deal more directly with consumers on energy issues than the federal government. Marsha Lia Walton from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), presented initial findings from a study of 308 college students that looked at how to encourage students to turn off computers after using them in a computer lab. Of the 308, 11% responded to little cards on the computer itself that urged them to turn the machines off. But 48% did so if the computers were off when the students arrived—sending a message to the students that the person before them had complied with the advice. (The two approaches touch on the difference between so-called injunctive versus descriptive norms.)

In another study, companies filled vans quickly after their HR departments told employees about van-pooling programs, -suggesting the power of personal interactions in encouraging change. "We were amazed," Walton said. "Congratulations to NYSERDA," Morgan said. "Too many states" are doing energy-efficiency pilot projects without properly measuring the results," he added, making it difficult for scientists to make use of their efforts.

The leader of the project, energy expert Robert Fri of Resources for the Future in Washington D.C., told ScienceInsider that a report from the workshop should be released in the next 3 months, followed next year by articles in Daedelus, the academy's journal. Beyond that, however, the path is uncertain. "We're just getting started figuring out what we want to do," Fri says.

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