The following research statement is focussed on my doctoral research but may also shape my postdoctoral research directions when I (hopefully) finish my PhD:
My research examines the production, evaluation and use of anticipatory knowledge in relation to climate change responses and associated policy processes (e.g. energy policy, innovation policy, transport planning / infrastructure, etc). My current doctoral research is focused on the use of related prospective knowledge practices by scientists in Australia at the Energy Flagship division of the CSIRO. One reason for this focus is my growing interest in scientists as strategic actors – that is, scientists who often are seeking to enable change in addition to produce scientific knowledge – and how this influences the production, evaluation and use of knowledge. I have a broad research interest in anticipatory knowledge but in the short-term I will focus on the climate problem.
Following my earlier training in ‘strategic foresight’ and futures research (at Swinburne University) I became more active in climate change activism and action, including doing lots of related corporate consulting work. Related to this I developed an interest in the ways that future-oriented research methods and related practices such as scenario exercises (which I now term prospective knowledge practices) are used in the context of climate change. Recent examples of such future-oriented research include the ‘decarbonisation pathways’ research of groups like ClimateWorks Australia (and also done internationally in the Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project), modelling of potential electricity futures such as 100% renewable energy scenarios (e.g. the AEMO study), analysis by activists like Beyond Zero Emissions (e.g. see their Zero Carbon Australia work), and the myriad efforts of activists, advocates and academics to shift expectations and behaviour by producing scenarios and/or doing modelling.
Why is topic of interest? These are some of the main reasons:
- A personal interest of mine is learning how to best deploy my skills and knowledge in contributing to action on climate change, and this remains a strong interest. Related to this the theoretical underpinning of prospective knowledge practices and the evidence-base for related interventions is widely regarded as being limited;
- I believe we need to better understand the factors that influence the production, evaluation (e.g. whether it is deemed valuable/useful or credible) and use of anticipatory knowledge. This is for a few reasons, including: 1) it can assist with better understanding the impacts of prospective knowledge practices; 2) some forms of anticipatory knowledge have become omnipresent in social action (e.g. use of economic modelling results in policy-making processes and public debate) which makes them more socially important; and 3) the production, evaluation and use of anticipatory knowledge is frequently a prominent and influential feature of environmental politics and activism. As Sarewitz et al (2000, p.361) note there is often an assumption, e.g. made by those demanding action on an issue/social problem, “that knowledge of the future is required” and related efforts are made “to mobilize predictive science to pursue desired outcomes on behalf of society”;
- To the extent that it is a ‘good’ thing that scientists are effective strategic agents it is also important to know what influences their effectiveness in playing such roles and the efficacy of different strategic action tools (e.g. prospective knowledge practices). Other scholars like Miller (2015, p.4) have noted that in the context of contemporary sustainability problems more “scientists are moving to find ways to contribute more directly to the resolution of society’s most pressing problems”. I also agree with Miller (2015, p.5) who argues that “sustainability and scientific efforts to contribute to it are rich territory for analyzing the complex interplay of science and society”. The use of prospective knowledge practices by scientists is a rich site for examining this interplay of science and society such as through detailed case study research; and
- The research may also contribute to more agency-oriented understandings of ‘sustainability transitions’, given that the management of expectations can be an important agency process (see Beckert 2013; also see Beckert’s forthcoming book Imagined Futures which looks at the role of expectations in capitalist economies). Some sustainability transition researchers term this “expectations work” (Farla et al 2012). This may also provide insights into the politics of such sustainability-oriented change. For example Beckert (2013, p. 236) asserts that “a theory of fictional expectations is necessarily also a theory of politics in the sense that it considers the influencing of expectations as one of the crucial activities of actors in the economy”.
In addition, the production of anticipatory knowledge is something that I believe is insufficiently scrutinised. Related issues, which range from the issue of scientific reticence (which has been raised by climate scientist James Hansen) through to the ‘politico-economic’ dynamics of expectations raised by the Australian sociologist Alan Petersen, are under-appreciated. A crucial underlying issue is that all forward-looking exercises only consider a small subset of all possible futures. Therefore such exercises are always selective and partial. Which possible futures get emphasised and which possible futures aren’t considered? Why? With what social consequences? This issue is most obvious in the political sphere (e.g. consider the former Abbott Government’s Intergenerational Report) but it is important elsewhere. For instance, it could mean that some climate change risks aren’t adequately considered which could hamper adaptation (see Hansen’s concerns about scientific reticence). Or, as STS scholar Robin Williams has argued, “narrative bias” could mean that a forward-looking assessment is biased in ways that hamper efforts to develop or exhibit foresight. Related choices are made throughout the use of prospective knowledge practices which can be examined and reflected on.
Overall, I hope that this research can make research contributions to a number of fields (such as STS / social studies of science and technology, and ‘sustainability transition’ theory/research [see an earlier blogpost on transition studies]) as well as produce insights that are relevant to practitioners.