Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science

Message from the Under Secretary for Science, U.S. Department of Energy

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The Alternative Energy Future

In November 2010, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the Report to the President on Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy. Among its recommendations to the Administration and to the Department of Energy (DOE) is a call to integrate the social sciences in energy. Specifically, the report calls for DOE to initiate with the National Science Foundation (NSF) “a multidisciplinary social science research program that will provide critical information and support for policy development that advances diffusion of innovative energy technologies.”1

In that same report, PCAST also recommended DOE undertake its first Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) before the government embarks on a multiagency Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) for a national energy policy. Completed in September 2011, the QTR discusses the current energy landscape, the challenges we face, Six Strategies for accelerating energy technology innovation (three in the transport sector and three in the stationary sector), and DOE’s three modes of operation (harnessing capability, pushing technology, and serving as a source of information or a convener).

Currently, DOE has inadequate information on how consumers interact with the energy system or how firms decide in which technologies to invest. The social sciences are the most important to the information role, and there is good reason to believe that insights from this area would improve the prospects for success in DOE’s efforts to move technologies toward commercialization. As a start on such studies, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is funding Stanford University’s H-STAR Institute and Precourt Energy Efficiency Center to develop an interactive software system to better understand energy efficiency and human behavior.

The QTR asserts that the “aggregated actions of individuals and organizations determine many aspects of the energy system, with demands on the system and the balance of supply and demand affected as much by individual choice, preference, and behavior, as by technical performance.”2 Energy Secretary Steven Chu has affirmed the importance of integrating applied social science into DOE’s technology programs in order to better understand how technologies diffuse through a sector and are used in the real world.

The five strategies and the specific actions recommended in this report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences align with DOE’s capacity as a convener and highlight areas in which DOE can draw upon its role as a source of information. A strong partnership between DOE and NSF in creating and supporting an ongoing dialogue among technologists, policy communities, social scientists, federal agencies, local governments, and regulatory communities would be tremendously valuable in this endeavor. NSF’s recently released Sustainable Energy Pathways solicitations call for teams of researchers, including social scientists, to address sustainable energy. My discussions with the NSF leadership show eagerness for DOE and NSF to move ahead together on developing interdisciplinary, systems approaches to energy.

I would like to acknowledge Bob Fri, Leslie Berlowitz, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for taking the initiative to answer the PCAST call to action by organizing the Workshop on Social Science and the Alternative Energy Future held on May 19–20, 2011. This workshop is an exemplar of the Academy’s role in convening the different parts of the federal government and in stimulating interactions among a variety of actors. The workshop catalyzed discussion among thought leaders in the field who shared ideas on ways energy policy objectives and technology development objectives could benefit from insights produced through social science. In addition, it developed a research agenda intended to give us an improved understanding and to better inform us of energy technology applications through the social science lens. Lastly, I commend the participants for producing such a succinct summary of the many lessons from the workshop.

This report not only makes insights from the workshop discussions available more broadly, but it poses social science questions relevant to the QTR’s Six Strategies and provides specific ideas about relevant lines of inquiry to which social scientists could provide direct value. Together with the QTR, this report takes us one step closer to implementing the PCAST recommendation to integrate social science in federal energy research and development.

Steven E. Koonin
Under Secretary for Science
U.S. Department of Energy


1 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Report to the President on Accelerating the Pace of Change in Energy Technologies through an Integrated Federal Energy Policy (Washington, D.C.: Executive Office of the President, 2010), ix, -tech-report.pdf.

2 United States Department of Energy, Report of the First Quadrennial Technology Review (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy, 2011), 125,