Throw in a dash of politics

Political scientists and others new to energy research are being sought to help shape policy, writes Zoë Corbyn

April 2, 2009

The centre that brings together researchers from the natural and social sciences to help ensure a green energy supply for the future has just received its second tranche of funding - and it promises to open up about £5 million of it to researchers from around the UK.

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) is based at Imperial College London. It was established in 2004 as the centrepiece of the energy research programme run jointly by the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council. It now wants to attract academics from across all disciplines who are new to energy research.

The virtual centre brings together engineers, economists, physicists and experts in environmental and social sciences from 13 universities to help the UK plan for a sustainable energy future and bridge the gap between research and policy.

With its second phase of funding just announced, the centre will have a budget of £18.5 million from 2009 to 2014. But rather than keep the funding within the pool of about 80 researchers who make up the centre, the cash will be spread more widely.

About £5 million will be up for grabs to researchers from outside the centre, who will be able to apply for funding for specific projects via annual calls for proposals.

"(We want to) allow a wider range of people from around the country to engage in our research programme," said Jim Skea, research director at UKERC.

The aim is to bring in not only outside researchers already working in the field, but also to engage those who have never worked in energy research but who have relevant "competencies", he said.

"Overall expenditure in energy research is going up quite significantly internationally, and in some areas there is a shortage of capacity to deliver the aspirations ... We need a wider range of people engaged in energy research."

He cited political scientists as an example of a group that is little represented in energy research.

"At the moment, the economic and social contribution is heavily dominated by economics ... but there are other disciplines that can help," he said. "Political scientists can make an important contribution (to understanding how global institutions interact) ... We will be giving careful thought to how we work up a project requiring their skills."

One "very high political priority" was securing a reliable energy supply that did not add to greenhouse gas emissions, Professor Skea said.

With potentially devastating climate change on the horizon and the UK's gas and oil reserves diminishing, the two primary goals of the UK's energy policy are to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and to ensure reliability of supply.

The centre's role is not to duplicate the fundamental research that is covered by other parts of the research councils' programmes, but rather to take a "whole-systems" approach to working out how the UK's energy framework could develop over the next four decades to meet these policy goals.

At the end of April, UKERC will publish a document that sets out its vision and marks the culmination of the first phase of the centre's work.

"The strong message is that decarbonising the electricity system is essential," Professor Skea explained.

It will then move on to the second phase, which will focus on the action that must be taken during the 2020s and 2030s to realise its vision. Help from the wider research community will be sought at this point.

As to the detail of the calls for research proposals, however, those interested will have to wait until later this year. The intention is to offer a call every year over the next four years, with bids invited for two to three projects each year. A new UKERC research committee has just started to define the projects.

The opportunity was welcomed by Simon Marvin, co-director of the Centre for Sustainable and Regional Futures at the University of Salford, who does research council-funded work in energy but is not part of the UKERC. He noted that researchers would be watching to see how specific the calls were and how the dynamic with the research councils would work.

Although Nerc assesses the bids, UKERC will have the final say over funding to ensure that the projects meet its specifications.

"Researchers will want clarity and guidance about the application of these additional criteria," he said.

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