Science Directions

Earlier this year, some of the nation’s most successful business and technology leaders got together and developed a Business Plan for America’s Energy Future. It was a veritable who’s who of business and technology savvy — Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Immelt (General Electric) and Norm Augustine (formerly of Lockheed Martin), along with several other heavy hitters.

These leaders have come up with important insights and policy recommendations. They recognize that our energy challenges are far worse than most people realize. They predict dramatic negative consequences if we fail to take action. They are pushing for a significant and sustained increase in the federal investment in research, development and deployment of new energy technology.

This is a wise group of technology leaders, and they certainly know a few things about how to succeed in the development and deployment of technology. Indeed, every element of their business plan is rational and appropriate. As they argue so well, we need a national energy plan, we need to invest heavily in clean energy innovation, we should concentrate research resources in several centers of excellence rather than spreading resources too thin, we must tolerate high-risk research if we want high-payoff results, and we need to translate the basic research into commercial-scale applications.

This is all smart science policy. Yet, this vision of America’s energy future is surprisingly myopic. It leaves out one thing — the human element. These technology leaders seem to envision a world without people — people who demand and consume energy, people who pay for energy, and people who are harmed by the unanticipated negative consequences when energy technology goes awry (and it frequently goes awry).

Despite the best of intentions, no plan for America’s energy future can succeed if it fails to integrate the human element. These technology leaders know that. Many of their own successes have been built on heavy investments in human factors and designs that anticipate human users. Some of their greatest failures were the result of ignoring the human element.

It is in this spirit that I offer a few friendly amendments to the Business Plan for America’s Energy Future:

  • The proposed Energy Strategy Board should include positions that are filled with experts on human behavior, cognition and decision-making.

  • Of the proposed annual investment of $16 billion per year in clean energy innovation, allocate $500 million per year in basic research on human behavior. That’s a little more than 3 percent of the annual investment to address what is surely a much larger portion of the energy challenge.

  • Every Center of Excellence should contain domain expertise relevant to human behavior, and at least one center should specialize in human behavior.

  • The continued funding of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) should expand its mandate to include behavioral factors relevant to the development of high-risk, high-payoff technologies.

  • The proposed New Energy Challenge Program — the important translational and commercialization component of the business plan — must include behavioral scientists as members of the technology assessment working groups and as advisers to the technology demonstration initiatives.

To paraphrase the slogan of one famous company, technology has brought great things to life. A sustainable energy future will surely rely on technology. Yet technology alone will not suffice. It is time for our technology leaders to take off their blinders and embrace the full spectrum of what all of science has to offer. Only then will we achieve our goals.