Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy through Social Science

Chapter 1: Strategies for Strengthening Energy Policy through the Social Sciences

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The Alternative Energy Future

The question of how to bring policymakers and social scientists into closer collaboration was discussed extensively during the workshop, both in the breakout sessions and informally throughout the two days of panel discussions. Synthesizing these discussions, the workshop steering group identified five broad strategies that can aid in bridging the gap between energy policymakers and the social science research community. These strategies are briefly described in this chapter. Included are examples (drawn from suggestions made in the course of the workshop) of specific policies or programs for executing each strategy.

Although each of these five strategies will be critical for addressing the behavioral and regulatory barriers to the adoption of new technologies, the steering group strongly suggests the immediate adoption of the steps described under strategies 1 and 2. These steps have the potential to yield rapid results and insights that will demonstrate the value of behavioral research and possible applications within existing programs and build a foundation for the other three strategies, which will require longer-term efforts.


Strategy 1: Demonstrate the value of social and behavioral research for enhancing the effectiveness of energy policy and transforming the energy system.

Because energy policy makers are largely unfamiliar with the tools of social science, they are often unaware of the value of those tools for policy development. On the other hand, much excellent social science research has not been translated into practical lessons or “off the shelf” tools. Practical demonstration of how the social sciences can make energy policy more effective is therefore an important first step in creating a demand for further collaboration.

Fortunately, several opportunities exist to create such demonstrations in the near term, either by documenting work already done or by applying well-known social science tools to current energy policy issues. Actors at all levels of government should be enabled to use these tools conveniently. For instance, social scientists understand how to design productive public participation programs, but this knowledge is often not incorporated into such programs or is integrated into the process at too late a stage to be useful.

Suggested steps:

  • DOE should commission a set of discrete policy papers that summarize the existing research in the priority areas outlined in chapter 3 of this report and that demonstrate how this knowledge could be applied within specific DOE programs. This effort could be undertaken in collaboration with an outside agency such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the National Research Council.
  • DOE should conduct pilot demonstrations to test the application of social science within existing energy programs. Rather than trying to change underlying attitudes and motivations, these demonstrations should focus on influencing actions that people are already taking or are willing to take. Many potential social science applications can be found within existing federal energy programs, including:
    • the application of behavioral research to smart meter programs and to the effective design of informational labels on energy use by appliances and vehicles;
    • the application of established public participation approaches in the design process for new energy supply technologies to identify and address public concerns and human factors;
    • the incorporation of behavioral data into the construction of energy-economic models to examine the potential impact of alternative policies; and
    • comparative policy analysis to examine the effectiveness of existing policies.
  • Policy makers and program managers should draw on the experience of other governments and agencies. Particular attention should be paid to scaling up lessons from individual states and municipalities (see the sidebars in chapter 2 for examples). Similarly, other countries have practical experience in applying interdisciplinary social science research to energy policy development that could be useful for this effort. Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Bureau of Land Management have enacted guidelines for using social science expertise in siting decisions, and these guidelines could serve as a model for developing best practices for other agencies.


Strategy 2: Encourage the use of interdisciplinary social science research within energy programs.

DOE has little experience in introducing social sciences into its technology programs or policy development. Even if this capacity existed, individual program managers lack the proper incentives to make use of it. A useful way to encourage the application of social science expertise to energy programs is to evaluate how well those programs are working and to identify how social sciences could contribute to improved effectiveness.

Suggested steps:

  • Government agencies should require periodic studies of adoption potential for each energy technology being developed. These studies should be undertaken throughout the research, development, demonstration, and adoption process, perhaps in preparation for the Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) proposed in a 2010 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).1 These adoption studies would consider in an integrated way technical and economic barriers, public acceptance, human behavior, and other issues that might constitute obstacles to the adoption of the technology. The studies would also be used to inform design of the technologies with adoption in mind. This strategy would facilitate the integration of social and behavioral science into the technology design process, especially with the hiring of relevant social science expertise.
  • DOE and NSF, along with the American Academy, should create or support a forum for ongoing dialogue among policymakers, the private sector, and social science researchers to share expertise on innovation and on technology adoption at the individual and community levels. The private sector is the principal actor in diffusing new technology and practices in the energy sector, and its experience will be crucial for identifying societal obstacles to diffusion and for implementing social science methods to remove them. For example, industry experience in using marketing techniques to promote technology adoption could be readily applied to government programs. Private sector experience with innovation also offers lessons for the creation of regulatory frameworks that are adaptive and encourage innovation. Conversely, existing social science research on innovation and on community-based approaches to technology deployment will be useful to both companies and government agencies. This step is also consistent with the intent of the QER.
  • The design and outcomes of energy programs and policies should be evaluated to determine both their policy and cost-effectiveness and the underlying reasons for these results, including the roles of behavioral and regulatory barriers. To facilitate this effort, DOE should develop a common framework for evaluating pilot programs for technology adoption, including not only experiments sponsored by DOE but experiments sponsored by utilities and other private institutions. Relevant topics for study include the effect of policy framing on the success of outreach efforts and the efficacy of informational, educational, or behavioral interventions as compared to regulatory interventions.


Strategy 3: Build capacity for connecting the energy policy and social science communities.

Despite decades of awareness of the societal issues related to energy, energy policymakers and social scientists do not have a history of close collaboration. Bringing these communities together on substantive issues will build the bridges necessary to make effective use of the social sciences over the long haul. Meeting this objective will involve the previous two strategies because the policy and research and development communities will first need to be persuaded that the social sciences, and especially the behavioral sciences, hold value for policy and technology development.

Needed is both more research that is useful to energy policy and an increased human capacity to conduct and apply social science research. Lines of communication must be developed between researchers and the audience for this research, including industry, private foundations, and state and federal policymakers. A major barrier to academic research on energy issues is the lack of rewards for applied social science research. A widespread perception among the academic social science community is that applied research is not valued in promotion decisions, including tenure decisions.

Suggested steps:

  • DOE should enhance its organizational capacity to adopt social science knowledge within energy programs. Although creation of a dedicated “office of social science” within DOE might be possible, such an office is unlikely to be politically sustainable, and thus other avenues should be explored. A critical step will be to employ behavioral scientists who are familiar with the research literature and best practices and can thus identify the most productive research directions and policy and program applications.
  • DOE and NSF should establish a collaborative research program based on the priority research questions described in chapter 3. Priority research areas should include effective design of labels and standards, the effects of social networks on shaping social norms, dynamic pricing and adoption of smart grid technologies, policy evaluation, and understanding the bases for individual and household decisions as they relate to energy use. Also needed is more research on how to create durable energy policies and effective polycentric governance mechanisms and more research on the role of government in the U.S. energy innovation system.
  • Agencies should sponsor pre- and/or postdoctoral fellowships to examine the societal obstacles to new energy technologies. For instance, DOE might fund postdoctoral researchers to work with social scientists from NSF on energy issues. Establishment of an interdisciplinary research and training program, as recommended by PCAST in 2010, would be an excellent step forward. DOE could also provide funding for social scientists from NSF to work with energy researchers from DOE or for DOE staff to work with university researchers on social science questions.
  • Interdisciplinary teams of technical and behavioral experts should be organized to work on high-payoff issues. These include facility siting, the design of consumer-oriented labels, and smart meter deployment programs.
  • DOE should sponsor annual conferences or summer sessions for researchers, perhaps in collaboration with other agencies such as NSF. These meetings would be primarily for the research community rather than for practitioners and would facilitate communication among social science disciplines. They would also provide an opportunity for policymakers to learn about the most current social science research.


Strategy 4: Incorporate social science into federal energy policy analysis.

Workshop participants emphasized the need to incorporate behavioral considerations into energy economic modeling efforts and offered suggestions for modeling the human dimensions of energy use. Because of the expense and time required to develop new models, participants generally agreed that modelers should focus on modifying existing models to account for incomplete policy compliance and the nonrationality of individual actors.

Suggested steps:

  • The energy modeling communities in government, academia, and industry should rethink the role of economic models in policy development. First, the energy modeling communities should develop capabilities to gain insights from complementary models that more accurately reflect behavioral considerations. Second, more attention should be paid to incorporating behavioral considerations other than price- and income-driven behavior into economic models, while avoiding making models overly complex.
  • The Energy Information Administration (EIA) should collect and organize data useful for social science. This effort would be facilitated by the creation of a social science advisory group to advise EIA on how to include behavioral data in its energy surveys and how to format technical data on energy so they are useful to social scientist researchers. Because the available information on the technical potential of behavioral interventions is often scattered across many sources, particular attention should be paid to increasing the availability of these data.


Strategy 5: Engage state and local governments and regulatory communities.

Many efforts to promote the spread of innovative policies and technologies take place at the regional, state, and local levels. Not only does each level of government have considerable experience on which to build, but engaging each level will be essential to any mechanism for scaling social science tools to design more-effective energy policies. Regulatory commissions can direct the entire electric utility sector to undertake certain actions, but traditional forms of oversight and the makeup of commissions (e.g., the rapid turnover of public utility commission chairs) inhibit commissions from taking a proactive approach to energy policy. Commission staffs are generally stable, however. Staff training should thus include training on behavioral issues.

A particularly relevant social science research question for the state and local sectors, and one needing further research, is how to guide consumer choices. What motivates consumers, and how can policies and regulations reinforce these motivations? When researching consumer motivations, attitudes, and behavior, an important consideration is the impact of regional, socioeconomic, and educational differences.

Suggested steps:

  • State public utility commissioners should require utilities to use social science research when deploying new technologies, such as smart meters, whose success depends on public acceptance or active effort on the part of individuals. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners could work with social scientists to identify lessons that could be applied to technology deployment programs. Other communities that should be approached include developers, builders, planning commissioners, and real estate appraisers.
  • Public utility commissions should perform evaluations of the behavioral and regulatory barriers to technology deployment programs. These evaluations would be similar to those recommended for federal agencies under strategy 2.
  • Utilities should work with state regulators and behavioral experts to conduct field experiments on how to most effectively engage consumers on dynamic pricing.
  • DOE should work with the National Governors Association (NGA) and others to analyze model programs and adapt their lessons to the circumstances of individual states. NGA has performed pilot studies that could be a useful starting point for examining regional and socioeconomic differences in consumer behavior and how policies and regulations can affect consumer decision making.


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),