Learning to ask new questionsSoundings Spring 2007

Professors Ansolabehere, Joskow, and Jacobs gather in the MIT Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, one of many MIT labs and centers that contribute to energy research, and the only non-government pressurized wind tunnel in the U.S.

Think humanists, economists, and political scientists don't have much to contribute to the energy debate? Think again! In a series of conversations this spring, soundings learned about the innovative energy work being done by three SHASS professors: Paul Joskow, Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, Elting E. Morison Professor of Political Science Stephen Ansolabehere, and historian and Class of 1947 Career Development Associate Professor Meg Jacobs. Here's a quick snapshot of their work, and a glimpse into the world of energy research at SHASS.

In recent years, the energy conversation has been gaining currency within SHASS—particularly since the arrival of President Susan Hockfield. In a December 2006 opinion piece in TechTalk, Hockfield made the case that universities “have the potential to play key roles in energy innovation,” and called for a rethinking of traditional academic structures to stimulate multidisciplinary work in the energy field. In that spirit, Hockfield announced the formation of the MIT Energy Council, an executive group charged with directing the Institute-wide MIT Energy Initiative, and aimed in part at increasing the cross-pollination of ideas among energy scholars across multiple fields.

Advances in technology are crucial if the world is to overcome the twin challenges of global warming and resource depletion. But—as Hockfield pointed out—the energy crisis requires multidisciplinary teams that can focus on all angles of the energy crisis. What use is a new battery technology, for example, if businesses don’t believe that the cost of conversion will pay dividends in the long run? Or if consumers can’t even be convinced that there is an energy crisis?

SHASS’s Professor of Political Science Steve Ansolabehere encountered this dilemma in early 2003, when an MIT scientist approached him about doing a public opinion study on carbon sequestration: a technology by which carbon is removed from the atmosphere and trapped deep underground. “My answer,” Ansolabehere recalled, “was, ‘Opinion? Nobody will even know what carbon sequestration is!’”

Ansolabehere’s response was to turn the proposed study into a broader survey about global warming and carbon generally. How much did the public know or understand about global warming? How much were they willing to pay, if anything, to address the situation? The survey revealed little urgency among respondents on the subject of global warming. In a ranking of environmental problems, global warming didn’t even make the top five. How could the scientists make a case for carbon sequestration without even a general acceptance of the carbon emissions problem? Clearly, finding the “right technology” was only one piece of a larger puzzle.

When Ansolabehere did a follow-up study in 2006, he discovered an encouraging trend. In a surprising shift, global warming now was ranked the most pressing environmental concern facing the nation, and the survey also found a substantial rise in the public’s willingness to pay for the problem. This was welcome news, indeed, for businesses that were considering alternative technologies and scientists who were looking at what they perceived to be a dire future: the American public was showing a greater understanding of the issue, and a willingness to make some sacrifices to find a solution.

Like many of the SHASS scholars now engaged in trying to make progress on the energy front, Ansolabehere didn’t originally set out to study energy matters. A specialist in the American political system, his work generally focuses on elections and public opinion. But the 2003 survey on carbon and global warming wasn’t Ansolabehere’s first foray into the energy realm. A year earlier, Ansolabehere had been approached by MIT Professors Paul Joskow—another central figure in SHASS’s energy studies landscape—and Richard Lester. The two were interested in understanding whether global warming had changed people’s perceptions of nuclear power, and how nuclear energy measured up in the public opinion when compared to other energy fuel sources. Ansolabehere was intrigued, and agreed to carry out a public opinion survey on the question.

Ansolabehere’s survey found that nuclear power was just as unpopular as ever...as was coal. But there was the rub: together, coal and nuclear power were (and are) the two major U.S. domestic sources of electricity, and were (and are) cheaper than the alternatives. When offered choices about how to replace these sources of power, Ansolabehere’s respondents stuck with the cheaper, if unloved, nuclear and coal technologies. “It was striking,” recalls Ansolabehere, “how quickly people snap into line with their economic interests. They’re very price sensitive...which is a good story line for economists!”

One of the economists interested in this story line is Joskow, who is the Director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, a member of Hockfield’s newly formed MIT Council for Energy, and a longtime scholar of the U.S. electricity market. Joskow’s specialty is industrial organization, with a focus on regulation, restructuring, and competition in the electricity sector, and the design and performance of cap and trade systems to control pollution. Like Ansolabehere, Joskow didn’t enter the energy field because of a burning desire to work on energy per se; rather, he was attracted to the electric power sector by the large number of electric utilities and, because they were regulated, the excellent detailed data on prices, costs, and consumption, and regulatory institutions that varied widely across companies and over a long period.

Joskow, who helped design the first “cap and trade” program for sulfur dioxide emissions (put in place in 1995), quickly became immersed in the energy discussion, and has remained focused on the political and economic implications of new programs and technologies to address energy issues. So when he was approached about doing a study of the future of nuclear power, he pushed for Ansolabehere’s inclusion in the project.

Joskow’s deep experience in energy matters made him a natural choice for MIT’s new Energy Council. (In addition to his research and teaching, Joskow has served on the boards of several prominent energy companies.) Some of the early goals of the new Council, Joskow says, are to “attract additional research money to support research initiatives at MIT, to provide ways of increasing coordination between people doing research in different areas of the Institute, and to develop educational programs that will allow our students to deepen their knowledge about energy and environmental issues.”

The concept of facilitating connections is especially crucial: “There are many people at MIT doing interesting work in different areas of energy studies,” Joskow explains. “In SHASS, for example, we have Nancy Rose doing work on the effects of deregulation on the operating performance of electric generating plants, Olivier Blanchard doing work on the effects of oil price shocks on the macroeconomy, Jim Poterba has done work on energy taxes, Michael Greenstone on environmental issues, Dick Eckaus (a retired faculty member) on climate change in China, and of course, Steve Ansolabehere.”

Much of this work, Joskow points out, ties directly into science and engineering work done in other schools at MIT, and could create fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations. “Success,” Joskow concludes, “is going to require building bridges between people and departments. Faculty, research staff, and students get to know each other, and look for opportunities that are mutually beneficial. In the end, in my experience, all successful initiatives at MIT are successful because they bubble up from the faculty and the students, and not because they’re driven down too aggressively from the top.”

Joskow himself actively looks to build bridges in his own research and teaching. This spring, for example, he plans to have Leon Glicksman, an MIT professor of architecture and mechanical engineering, speak at a workshop about new developments in energy-efficient building materials. Then he’ll follow up with a presentation by an economist studying why people aren’t adapting some of these new technologies as quickly as the cost data suggest that they should.

Another SHASS scholar who took an indirect route into the energy field is Professor Meg Jacobs, who became interested in the energy crisis in 1970s America by way of her work in American politics. Jacobs’s current book project, Panic at the Pump, grows out of a short talk that she gave in 2004 on the energy crisis as a shared cultural experience—one that might shed light on the way Americans’ perceptions and expectations of their government have changed over time. As her research progressed, Jacobs came to understand that the episode, rather than a simple lens through which to view a larger trend, was really a seminal event in American political history. The energy crisis became a way for newly powerful conservatives (among them President Ford’s chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, and his aide, Dick Cheney) to push for small government, and argue against any kind of liberally-oriented “New Deal” for energy.

When the energy crisis hit in late 1973, for example, the Democratic Congress was able to push through industry-wide price controls and create the Federal Energy Office, a new government body intended to interact with the energy industry. President Ford’s young conservative ideologues, however, viewed both measures as rank government interference. And because of their hands-off policies, the Energy Office gradually became weakened and de-legitimized from within. At the same time, the group worked to shift perceptions among the American public to discredit the idea of government intervention. The parallels to events in the George W. Bush administration—even featuring some of the same players—are “intriguing,” Jacobs says. “What I’m really interested in, though,” she explains, “is not only the machinations of these reformers both inside and outside government, but also how their efforts succeeded in transforming American political culture, and how Americans view their government.”

Jacobs’s work on Panic at the Pump led to an invitation to present her research to the MIT Academic Council in December 2006. (She was joined by Ansolabehere, who presented his energy polling research at the same gathering.) Jacobs has also been asked to be a member of the Walk the Talk committee, a sub-committee of the Energy Council dedicated to making MIT a “shining example” of energy conservation.

The energy crisis

Jacobs, Joskow, and Ansolabehere all note that they’re sensing a gradual shift across MIT in the interest students and faculty are showing in energy studies. Joskow, for example, has added a course this semester specifically focusing on energy economics and policy. The course was significantly oversubscribed and, unfortunately, many students were turned away. And graduate student Peter Shulman, who has worked closely with Jacobs, also taught a course in the fall semester on energy and environment in American history. About 90 percent of his students were engineering majors, Shulman noted, which he found interesting. “I started to realize as part of this course,” he explained, “how energy questions have been shaped by the chemical engineering profession throughout the 20th century. So part of the focus of the course was to encourage the students to go out and keep doing the technology, but to also understand the political, economic, social, and consumer choice dimensions of energy systems.”

To many within SHASS, Hockfield’s energy initiative is both intellectually exciting and the right thing to do. In addition, they believe, MIT is uniquely positioned to make major contributions. As Jacobs puts it, “If MIT can help to build an atomic bomb, it ought to be able to help solve the energy problem.”

In that spirit, SHASS students and faculty alike are taking part in the energy shift—and in the process, are broadening the debate to extend beyond the purely technical aspects of that shift.