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University Energy Initiative Symposium

by Sarah Armitage on Sunday May 1, 2016

On April 29, 2016, CEEPR and the Alfred P. Sloan foundation convened a symposium for the leadership and management of major energy economics and policy research initiatives across the United States. The daylong conference facilitated a first-ever strategic discussion of current and emerging research priorities, funding opportunities, and effective communication and outreach practices among major energy initiatives. Distinguished participants included representatives from 14 university-affiliated energy initiatives and four independent organizations.

The first session, on “Energy Policy Research Today – Evolving Research Themes, Methods, and Stakeholder Demands,” addressed the intersection between academic research questions and those of greatest interest to policymakers. Priority research themes highlighted by participants included the role of energy efficiency in meeting climate targets; energy for development, especially large-scale energy infrastructure; environmental implications of natural gas fracking; electricity storage and grid integration of renewable energy; and new modes of transport. Other participants spoke about the challenge of co-authoring research papers across disciplines, given the importance of discipline-specific journals in faculty promotion. Participants agreed that policy-oriented publications are more suitable for tenured faculty or research staff.

The second session handled “Sustaining the Relevance of Energy Policy Research – Engaging Stakeholders and Reaching Intended Audiences.” Successful examples of public-facing research that resurfaced throughout the symposium included MIT’s “Future of…” studies; Harvard’s Electricity Policy Group; and collaborations between methodologists from various disciplines, such as machine learning or remote sensing. Speakers noted that the success of these projects stemmed from the complexity of the policy problems and policymakers’ recognition of that complexity; the contributors’ general agreement about project purpose and process; and the separation of the research process from public engagement activities. Beyond traditional white papers and policy briefs, participants also discussed the merits of other forms of public engagement, from popular press articles and op-eds (described as “the social media equivalent of the peer review process”), to podcasts with on-campus speakers.

During this session, one speaker distinguished between “policy-reactive” and “policy-responsive” research, and others agreed that meaningful public engagement requires an ongoing, repetitive process that emphasizes research themes rather than narrowly focusing on “the questions of the day.” In this respect, participants identified a tension between the quality of policy-oriented research and its timeliness and frequency. Participants also agreed about the importance of distinguishing between engagement and impact, and of developing appropriate metrics for each.

The third formal session, on “Securing Resources for Energy Policy Research – A Survey of Fundraising Strategies and Partnership Models,” sparked discussion about resource challenges among research institutes with varied organizational structures. Participants highlighted several broader trends in the fundraising landscape: a relative shift to funding from individual philanthropists, away from corporate funding; funders’ diminishing interest in providing unrestricted research funding; and funders’ encouragement of greater collaboration among grantees.

During the closing session, participants discussed follow-on activities that could leverage their respective platforms and comparative advantages to create a “whole greater than the sum of the parts” among U.S. energy initiatives. Potential avenues included hosting journalists for short courses or longer fellowships to study energy systems and markets; workshops for Congressional staffers on key energy policy issues; and central repositories for working papers or other research dissemination. Participants also discussed establishing an ongoing platform for sharing ideas – and potentially resources – among university energy initiatives. The manifold challenges and opportunities highlighted during the symposium will provide ample reason for continued dialogue and collaboration.