Diversity: Energy studies need social science

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Diversity: Energy studies need social science

To secure a safe, reliable and low-carbon energy future, we must change both technologies and human behavior. The US Department of Energy notes that supply and demand are "influenced as much by personal preference, preference, and behavior as by technological performance".

Yet many researchers and policy-makers continue to focus on only one side of the energy dilemma. In the United States, for every dollar in research funds spent on behavioral and demand-side energy research, $35 is spent on energy supply and infrastructure.

The social sciences, humanities, and arts are marginalized in energy research, and the major statistical agencies usually do not collect qualitative data about energy consumption. Similar problems are evident in Europe4.

My analysis of the peer-reviewed energy-research literature reveals how biases disrupt the field. Engineers and economists are ignoring people and making decisions and actions wrong. Academic researchers often focus on technological improvements rather than on ways to change lifestyles and social norms.

Interdisciplinary research is hampered by institutional barriers in academia and government. National and local energy bodies have traditionally had some social scientists on staff. And most of the major journals in this field focus on one topic.

Now the energy sector needs to learn from health, agriculture and business, and bring together social and physical scientists. Universities should develop curricula focused on solving energy problems, grant agencies should prioritize behavioral actions and direct more funding, and energy journals should expand their scope.

Already, there are promising examples of how inclusive and interdisciplinary energy research can encourage energy efficiency, and therefore address global environmental challenges such as climate change.

I examined the authorship and scope of 4,444 full-length articles over 15 years (1999 to 2013) in three major energy technology and policy journals: Energy Policy and The Energy Journal Has High Impact Factors, and The Electricity Journal A sample of the regulator was included for the magazine.

I found four worrying trends: an underestimation of the impact of social dimensions on energy use; bias towards science, engineering and economics over other social sciences and humanities; lack of interdisciplinary collaboration; and under-representation of women writers or people from minority groups.

For example, technology adoption, the complexity of making choices, and the human dimensions of energy use and environmental change were rarely covered (see 'Disregarded topics'). Most of the articles (85%) focused on advanced energy-generation systems, such as nuclear reactors, renewable electricity sources and biofuels, or the technical elements of electricity generation, transmission and distribution – the hardware – rather than the human 'software' behind it.

Simple appliances such as cooking stoves, bicycles, light bulbs and distributed generation were studied in less than 3.5% of the articles. Less than 2.2% of papers examined behavior and energy demand. If this work is being published, it is in the journals of environmental sociology, psychology and political science that some energy researchers have read.

Social outcast

Social-science authorship and citations are also relatively low (see 'Publication trends'). As pointed out by the authors, science, engineering, economics and statistics account for more than half (67%) of institutional affiliations; Non-Economic Social Science for less than 20%. Sociology, geography, history, psychology, communication studies and philosophy each constitute less than 0.3% of author affiliations.

References to social-science and humanities journals, along with their insights into the behavior of consumers and politicians, accounted for less than 4.3% of the 90,097 citations in the entire sample. There was little research in the 'real world'. Most study areas are the result of work done on a bench or desk using computer models and experiments, rather than research, interviews and surveys.

Another trend is that scientists and engineers writing in these journals rarely collaborate beyond their fields. About half of the published authors in the sample wrote alone and one-quarter published with their colleagues in their discipline. Less than 23% of articles contained interdisciplinary collaborations between authors.

Furthermore, the vast majority of authors come from affluent Western institutions and countries where research funding is abundant. They focus on the problems facing the industrialized world. Of the 9,549 authors who listed their country of residence, 87% came from North America or Western Europe.

African, Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern writers were few. The authors were mostly male: only 15.7% could be identified as female. Criteria for authorship and collaboration varied, but these trends held for each year examined: for example, female authorship remained below 17.4% and non-Western authorship was below 16%.
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