Energy and Human Behavior

Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Energy and Human Behavior


In "What Makes U.S. Energy Consumers Tick?", Kelly Gallagher and John Randell (Issues, Summer 2012) succinctly summarize a wide range of fundamental and applied research questions to which policymakers, consumers, governments, and energy producers/distributors will need clear answers, if the nation is to break from unsustainable and environmentally detrimental energy consumption habits.

The authors articulate key research questions and through their overview (1) highlight the immense and complex role of human behavior in energy production and consumption; (2) identify the critical need to better understand the most fundamental influences on individual, group, and societal behavior; (3) underscore science findings showing that behavior is inextricably integrated with economic prosperity; technology, and the health of civil society; and (4) emphasize the behavioral and economic implications for the shelf life of our standard of living and prospects for improving that of future generations.

Gallagher and Randell identify a monumental agenda for industry, policymakers, and science, generally. I say science, generally, because grand challenges such as these require "convergent science integrated responses across the full range of sciences; the challenges cannot be solved within one disciplinary framework. Diverse applied and interdisciplinary domains of physical, behavioral, and social research are necessary to ensure that we understand how we can take collective control of our energy practices.

Gallagher and Randell, however, do not address one critical issue affecting our ability to tackle this research agenda. Specifically, the community of behavioral and social scientists who are trained and interested in tackling these research questions is quite small. Our talent reservoir is shallow. A colleague at the November 2012 workshop on "Integrating Social and Behavioral Energy Research Activities," organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, lamented facetiously that the number of research topics alone almost outstrips the number of current researchers. But the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping expand this community through a number of innovative interdisciplinary programs. For example, the cross-agency SEES (Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability) initiative draws on every part of NSF's research and education portfolio and engages physical, social, and behavioral sciences. …

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