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Making the social sciences matter for energy policy: epistemic shifts and methodological advances


Most social scientists and scholars of energy policy share a common goal of wanting to positively impact the world by using their research to effect good changes in energy policy. The hope is that in so doing, impending catastrophes such as climate change and ecosystem collapse can be avoided or their impacts at least largely mitigated. Yet researchers rarely consider whether and how such research might actually impact energy policy and if it does whether such impacts are net positive. In this talk I discuss issues arising from my research and practice in energy research for policy which leads me to question whether the very foundations of energy research are actually built to generate ‘good’ impacts. I conclude they are not in important ways, and that some significant advancements in philosophy and practice are required for the social sciences to have significant, intentionally positive benefits for energy policy making. These are described in the talk with a view to generating discussion and debate about the future of what I call ‘socio-technical research’.


Dr Adam Cooper joined UCL STEaPP in September 2013 to help build the department from the ground up and is STEaPP’s Director of Education. He had previously spent 11 years as a leading member of the UK civil service’s Government Social Research profession. During his time in government he served as the first Head of Social Science Engagement in the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (2011-2013, now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). While there, he led a team responsible for drafting Developing DECC’s Evidence Base.

Most of his current research is about exploring how policy institutions with portfolios that focus on managing physical infrastructures for social benefit can ‘know’ how best to intervene in these systems. This includes developing cutting-edge ideas around socio-technical/socio-physical research methods, policy and institutional epistemics to inform policy research and evaluation practice. Dr Cooper is an editorial board member of the journal Energy Research and Social Science and a regular consultant to UK government on social research for energy policy research and evaluation.