Human Engineering and the Energy Crisis
MIT is at the epicenter of future energy technology research excellence. There is much vigor in our collective pursuit of technological solutions to our nation's energy problems, and the future looks brighter because of it. Every week we read in journals, the popular press, and local MIT publications of innovative energy engineering and science done by our colleagues and students. The MIT Energy Research Council site provides a focal point, web.mit.edu/erc/.
A large research portfolio is in place, spanning a wide range – from basic science to immediately applicable technologies. Research directed towards life-cycle analyses of technologies, for instance of catalysts for solar-fueled water splitting, biofuels, and the automobile, are examples. Such research provides important information for policy makers in Washington and for corporate decision makers as well. Educational and student-generated initiatives are also in evidence on campus. And all of this is to the collective good.
But the energy "problem" is as much about culture, social perspective, the will to change our societal energy behavior, and politics as it is about science and technology.
How does the "hard" research done here fit into this broader view of the energy problem? More precisely, what are we at MIT doing to accelerate our understanding of the cultural, social, and political dimensions of the country's energy problems, with the aim of sparking productive changes in our collective behavior?
If we were to do a careful inventory of energy-related research at MIT (we ourselves have not), we would surely find groups that are addressing these other dimensions of the energy problem. There is work on management of regulatory regimes for nuclear power and electricity, and work on analyses of coal usage and its consequences. But here at MIT these efforts do not shine as brightly in our collective public vision as does "hard" science and technology. They should.
For those of us old enough to recall sitting in line waiting an hour or more to get a tank of gasoline in the early 1970s, there is a reference point. A pervading sense of crisis stimulated the populace. Do we need to wait for a similar wake-up call? What would it take? – worldwide rationing of electric power to ameliorate the drain placed on supply systems as the large-population Asian countries come fully on line?
The precise nature of the "problem" of inducing changes in our nation's energy behavior that can pass muster in political and fiscal domains is not clear. The public media (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times) frequently publish Op-Ed pieces that offer partial solutions. Who at MIT is bringing to bear an in-depth analytical treatment of these options?
A small example: Economists know that an aggressive increase in gasoline taxes – a "Patriot's Tax”– will reduce medium- to longer-term demand for gasoline even if very short-term demand is inelastic. Are there clever political-economic tradeoffs that can be designed to sell such a tax to a reluctant public and an even more reluctant Congress? Who at MIT is working on such tactics?
Some might cite the Principle of Comparative Advantage: do what you do best and leave the rest to others! However, that is not really the spirit of MIT. If the governors of many states can galvanize their constituents to conserve energy, and can provide detailed blueprints to achieve this goal, cannot we and our leaders do as well?