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Energy research in academic journals is skewed towards big, pricey tech projects and Western scientists’ agendas, researchers have said. This means that simpler technologies and social research into behaviour that could empower the poor and address their challenges are being overlooked.

This follows a recent ongoing debate on the pages of Nature after Benjamin Sovacool, director of the Centre for Energy Technologies at Aarhus University, Denmark, wrote in July about the results of his study on 15 years of peer-reviewed literature in three leading energy technology and policy journals.

Less than 2.2 per cent of those studies investigated human behaviour and energy demand, he found.

Another finding was that few energy studies were by developing world researchers, with almost 90 per cent of authors from Europe or North America.

Moreover, the article says that research funding in the developed world is overwhelmingly weighted towards energy supply and infrastructure rather than behavioural and demand-side issues. This, it says, is partly because of the focus on single disciplines in universities rather than interdisciplinary studies.

It adds that research tends to disproportionately favour advanced technologies, commercial fuels and large-scale power plants, despite billions of people worldwide relying on more basic facilities and on wood, charcoal and other biomass fuels.

“Because these experts live in industrial countries, they frame energy problems around industrial lifestyles,” even though needs in developing countries often differ radically, Sovacool tells SciDev.Net.

Instead, more research on such regions should focus on cookstoves, bicycles, light bulbs and lanterns, his article suggests. Less than 3.5 per cent of articles he studied looked at these issues.

“Discussions tend to be dominated by electricity,” Sovacool says, despite more than 1.3 billion people worldwide lacking access to it.

“Imagine if all the effort put towards nuclear power was suddenly diverted to cookstoves. We’d be able to solve a lot of these energy problems.”

Noel Castree, a researcher at the University of Wollongong in Australia, and the University of Manchester, United Kingdom says it is “absolutely essential” for energy research to be more socially oriented, especially given that the frequent lack of money, stable governments and research and development capacity in developing nations means the “human element comes to the fore”.

“Behaviour-change measures are, when successful, usually more effective and cheaper than throwing billions of pounds at new technological fixes,” says Castree.

In developing countries, simple, small-scale technologies can be embedded through a community-led approach, he says.

But some argue that many socially oriented energy projects and research initiatives are already under way — though they may not make it into the pages of academic journals.

David Rodgers, an energy specialist at the Global Environment Facility, an international funding partnership designed to tackle environmental problems, says “things are happening big time” in this area, but much of this is led by the private sector not academics.

Link to article in Nature


Nature doi: 10.1038/511529a (2014)