The past two weeks have been eventful ones for my doctoral research. As a result, the eventual thesis (one day I’ll get there…) will now be a single “nested” case study which examines the use of techniques and practices of prospection by the Energy Flagship within CSIRO, Australia’s national science organisation, with a focus on the participatory approach they’ve developed over the past decade.
A “nested” case study design means that within a single main case there are sub-cases, hence the term nested case study. In this case these sub-cases are foresight-style exercises that have been convened and run by the Energy Flagship. The advantage of having sub-cases include that there is the potential for comparative analysis to contribute to a better understanding of the outcomes of these exercises, including why these outcomes occurred, such as by considering the social contexts in which they were run and how this shaped the exercises. The following three exercises are being examined:
- The Future Fuels Forum run in 2007-08: This exercise considered liquid transportation fuel use and production in Australia out to 2050 from both greenhouse gas emission and energy security perspectives. It involved a wide cross-sectoral range of relevant organisations including GM Holden, Caltex Australia, Biofuels Association of Australia, Sasol Chevron, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO-Australia), etc, along with representatives from Federal and State government departments and major fuel users (E.g. Woolworths Limited);
- The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Roadmap forum run in 2010-11: This exercise was initiated by major players in the aviation sector (e.g. Boeing, Qantas, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand, and General Electric) and sought to advance the commercial production and use of bio-jetfuel in Australian and New Zealand. The process included long-term techno-economic modelling out to 2050 (like the Future Fuels Forum) and the production of a shorter-term “roadmap” which focussed on the first 10 years of a possible major shift to the use of bio-jetfuel; and
- The Future Grid Forum run in 2012-13: This exercise brought together well over 100 major stakeholders across the electricity sector (ranging from key “poles and wires” players to energy retailers and consumer representatives) to investigate the future of electricity production and use in Australia. Like the earlier examples it too had a longer-term focus, developing scenarios out to 2050 and assessing the implications of these scenarios such as for the electricity sector, future greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of energy and energy security/reliability.
My plan had been to do more of a broader comparative study (i.e. not only considering the use of techniques and practices of prospection by the Energy Flagship at CSIRO). However, focussing on this single ‘nested’ case may have some important advantages.
First it provides an opportunity to focus more on the complex interactions between science and politics, along with related assumptions about the power of scientific knowledge to shape political action (e.g. by resolving political disagreements) and the roles of scientists/scientific organisations. Related mental models include the linear model of expertise and what David Collingridge terms the “heroic” view of scientific research in which science is seen as “providing truths by which policy may be guided”.
For example Daniel Sarewitz, Professor of Science and Society at Arizona State University, argues that the common belief that political disputes centred on climate change can be tamed through scientific argumentation and explication has been detrimental to efforts to generate greater social action on climate change (see his provocative article entitled ‘Does climate change knowledge matter?’).
Related ideas can inform the use of techniques of prospection such as the idea that science can (or should) compel action, derived in part from the linear model of scientific expertise.
Second, linked with the above dimension, I believe that the use of techniques of prospection – such as modelling techniques, scenario-based methods, and simulation methods – is fertile terrain for examining the role of science in environmental politics and what influences/shapes these roles. For example, use of such techniques could help to entrench political disagreements in contrast to the intended outcomes. STS scholars often emphasise the uncertain authority of science (and related epistemic “boundary work”) and making future-oriented knowledge claims may intensify this important dynamic.
My own hypothesis which I wish to further examine is that forward-looking forms of inquiry – such as those noted above – can never have full autonomy from politics (just like other forms of knowledge production). In other words, anticipatory knowledge is political. If this is correct then it likely has some important implications – as explored in an earlier blog post – both for critically considering the forms of anticipatory knowledge we’re frequently exposed to and for understanding the impacts of such activities, why they happen, and, perhaps, how to enhance/strengthen these effects.
Third, it also enables me to focus on the use of techniques and practices of prospection in the context of energy innovation and energy research and, linked with this, climate change mitigation. These techniques and practices are increasingly used to try to support or advance climate change mitigation but little detailed evaluative research has actually assessed this.
Finally, the focal areas of transportation fuels, electricity generation and electricity network transformation are ones in which images of the future, generally, and images of future threats (the spectre of the future) are especially prominent. These sub-cases are therefore able to usefully engage with and analyse the ‘mobilisation’ of the future, such as the ways in which these images can be a useful political resource for those advocating change as well as those opposing such changes.
In these ways this research on the use of techniques and practices of prospection by the Energy Flagship within CSIRO can be seen as examining a critical case from which we may derive transferable lessons.