Energy Ethics in Science and Engineering Education: EESE Collaborative Research
Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society, NAE
Clark A. Miller and Joseph Herkert
Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, ASU
This grant funds a collaborative project of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and Arizona State University (ASU). The project takes a problem-oriented approach to ethics education, focused on the international issue of energy in the 21st century. Current policy discussions in the U.S. stress the need for energy system change, even transformation, if national and global goals for justice and sustainability are to be met. This project examines energy ethics issues for the responsible conduct of science and engineering and in the intersections of science, engineering, technology, and society, emphasizing potential scenarios for the U.S., while acknowledging the critical roles other nations and international institutions play in the future of energy. It develops new research and educational activities involving graduate students in interdisciplinary research programs. Recent reports about America's Energy Future from The National Academies focus mainly on technological options for improving America's energy supply. In its first year, this project synthesizes and augments research findings and educational materials about ethical aspects of options for improving energy supply, distribution, and use in the U.S.; develops a more inclusive model that examines technological and sociological plausibility as well as ethical desirability of energy options; and develops materials and approaches that examine issues of research ethics in domains of energy research and development, so as to promote attention to these issues in graduate and post-doctoral education in these fields. In the second year, it implements and evaluates energy ethics research and education components in graduate programs at ASU. The third year includes a workshop and a National Institute on Energy, Ethics, and Society (NIEES) that engages fifteen graduate students from energy research programs around the nation in a week-long program to prepare them for leadership in the fields of energy ethics and energy ethics education. Also in the final year, the project workshop at the NAE will raise the visibility among energy science and policy audiences of the need for expanding ethics education in energy fields.
This project is designed to research and provide education regarding issues of ethics and justice in the context of an emerging energy transition from fossil fuels to other sources of energy. Specifically, the project aims to:
- Develop through research a problem-centered understanding of energy ethics focused on the challenge of incorporating ethical analysis and insights into decisions about energy systems made by scientific, engineering, business, and policy leaders.
- Facilitate learning regarding energy ethics for graduate students and faculty in science and engineering research centers pursuing energy research.
- Create a National Institute for Energy, Ethics, and Society to bring together graduate student researchers in energy ethics and energy science and engineering to learn about energy ethics education and to create models for energy ethics education in their home institutions.
An Energy Transition
Four factors are contributing to the desire on the part of many people around the world to create an energy transition. Those factors include:
- Climate change, for which the burning of fossil fuels constitutes 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions;
- Peak oil, the growing technological complexity and political economic challenges of continuing to produce oil in quantities sufficient to meet growing energy demands;
- Green jobs, the potential for new energy industries to contribute high skill, high paying jobs in the knowledge and innovation economy of the 21st century; and
- Energy security, as the demand for security expenditures and forces has grown to secure energy production and distribution.
Despite these pressures for change, any energy transition will be an uncertain, long-term affair. Energy is produced and consumed in a highly complex, socio-engineered system in which practices and institutions of production and consumption have co-evolved in a tightly coupled fashion. Politics, economics, technology, and society are deeply woven in energy systems that are, in some cases, resilient and, in others, brittle, but, regardless, essential to human wellbeing and highly resistant to change.
Energy: A Complex Network of Socio-Engineered Systems
Energy production and consumption occur within a complex network of systems that integrate engineered technologies with social values, behaviors, relationships, and institutions, on the one hand, and natural resources and ecological systems, on the other. This intertwining of nature, society, and technology takes place on scales that range from the local to the global, and from the individual to the organizational. For example:
- The layout of a city and its transportation systems structures the use of energy by people as they commute to work and other activities.
- Middle East protests in the past month have brought into focus once again the political economies of oil producing regions of the world.
- The surge of interest in rooftop and medium-scale solar development is challenging utilities to maintain the stability of US electricity grids.
Ethics and Justice in an Energy Transition
The complex integration of technology, society, and nature within the networks of systems that comprise energy means that changes will occur across all three, giving rise to a range of important ethical challenges.
- Distributive justice: allocation of benefits and costs, risks and rewards, wealth and power, today, as a dynamic function of time during an energy transition, and once a new, stable energy system is achieved.
- Procedural justice: voices and roles of diverse individuals, communities, industries, leaders, etc., in making decisions that shape an energy transition.
- Social and environmental justice: “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement” of an energy transition. (quoted section from EPA definition of environmental justice)
- Professional and organizational ethics: the organizational priorities that shape resource allocations (e.g., in research programs and technology investments), including considerations of individual and collective responsibility and ethical permissibility.
Contexts of Energy Choices
- Energy production and delivery organizations and networks, including electricity generation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, centralized vs. distributed; fuels, fuel production, and fuel consumption; smart grids and grid transformation.
- Energy research and innovation systems and institutions, including National Laboratories, universities, corporate R&D laboratories, etc.
- Energy policy and governance institutions, including regulatory agencies and administrative bodies, legislatures, courts, industry self-governing bodies, non-governmental organizations, social movements, etc.
- Energy consumption, including consumer choices and behavior, as well as the deeper structural and infrastructural arrangements of society that shape those choices.
Innovative Ethics Education
This project seeks to develop a suite of innovative developments in ethical analysis and ethics education:
- Problem-centered ethics education: Energy ethics cuts across a range of traditional areas of ethical analysis and teaching, including research ethics, business ethics, engineering ethics, social and environmental justice, etc. Energy also cuts across disciplines in the sciences, including bioethics, nanoethics, engineering ethics, etc. Building a problem-centered approach means developing integrated approaches to ethical analysis and teaching while also responding to the real-world needs of practitioners facing concrete challenges in the design and management of an energy transition.
- Center-based educational approaches: Increasingly, science and engineering research and training is taking place in the context of interdisciplinary centers. Energy is no exception. This project seeks to develop educational strategies focused on the context and work of these centers, bringing ethics education out of the classroom and into research settings. The project will work with several DOE- and NSF-funded research centers at ASU to develop educational initiatives.
- Complex socio-engineered systems ethics: As described above, energy production and consumption occur within complex socio-engineered systems. Understanding the ethical challenges such systems pose will be crucial to a full understanding of energy ethics.
- Infrastructure ethics: Energy, like many other forms of infrastructure, tends to structure human lives and livelihoods in ways that are hidden or occluded and that lie deep within what Langdon Winner calls the “technological constitution” of contemporary societies. This raises profound ethical challenges that the project will examine.
- The ethics of behavior modification: As the importance of energy has risen on the public agenda in recent years, it has been accompanied by a growing push for public policy strategies to alter human behavior on society-wide scales. The ethics of such strategies will also be an important focus of the project.
Year One – Synthetic research into energy ethics and the creation of a conceptual framework for educational initiatives (underway in an active ASU faculty and graduate student research seminar). Initial planning with energy research centers to develop educational plans. Host an initial meeting to explore energy ethics topics.
Year Two – Pilot and evaluate educational programs with partner energy research centers. Develop plans for and begin organizational work for a National Institute for Energy, Ethics, and Society.
Year Three – Continue educational programs. Host a National Institute for Energy, Ethics, and Society. Host an outreach and dissemination meeting.
The Energy Ethics in Science and Engineering Education project is funded by National Science Foundation award #1033082
Cite this page:
"Energy Ethics in Science and Engineering Education: EESE Collaborative Research"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Wednesday, May 22, 2013