By Max Lacey-Barnacle, University of Sussex
After moving from academia into policy work after completing my PhD, my time at the Energy Saving Trust (EST) as a Policy Officer has been nothing short of fascinating, working primarily on EST’s three core policy areas; energy efficiency; community energy and low-carbon transport. Needless to say my knowledge of the research-policy interface has greatly expanded.
I have had numerous exciting opportunities to travel across the UK and Europe to meet with civil servants, policymakers and researchers all working to address core energy and climate policy challenges.
In addition, I’ve been able to work closely on fuel poverty and low-carbon transport policy with Welsh government, whilst also devoting time towards a Horizon 2020 project focused on energy efficiency (‘ENSMOV’) and the role of European energy agencies in the EU’s low-carbon transition through the European Energy Network.
The passion, commitment and intelligence of the individuals and organisations I’ve been involved with has been immensely inspiring in the face of the worsening global climate crisis. Moreover, I have learned (and still have much to learn) from the brilliant staff at the EST and their dedication to tackling climate change.
After my year at EST, I’m transitioning to a Research Fellow role in the innovative FAIR project – which is investigating the links between fuel and transport poverty in the UK’s energy transition. The research project will seek to understand how low-carbon energy transition processes may exacerbate and/or alleviate these forms of inequality, alongside understanding the geographical nature of how these two forms of inequality overlap.
Acclimatising to policy
Coming from the academic world of researching, writing and publishing original work, the change of pace was one of the first challenges I had to acclimatise to when confronted with navigating the policy world. Policy certainly moves at a much faster pace than academia. Indeed; having to keep up with the dynamic changes of government policy at multiple levels of governance (e.g. local, regional, devolved and national) requires a keen eye for how multi-level policy shifts influence the shape and trajectory of the low-carbon economy.
Seeing a temporal disparity between the two worlds of academia and policy led me to ask; how can the policy world be influenced by the academic world, when critical changes occur and core outputs emerge at such different paces and timescales?
Getting original research published in academic journals can take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years, whilst policy outputs such as blogs or briefings – or even consultation responses to influence policy – can sometimes take just a matter of weeks. However, in spite of this disparity, it’s clear that both worlds ‘speak’ to each other and this is evidenced through increasing engagement with concerns around the links between social inequality and climate change policy responses.
Areas of convergence between academia and policy
Issues such as ‘energy poverty’ and concepts such as ‘energy justice’ and a ‘Just Transition’ have begun to take centre stage in the policy world, whilst academics have arguably been writing about these concepts for many years. This year alone we have seen the European Green Deal integrate energy poverty concerns and a ‘Just Transition’ mechanism into its future plans, whilst the steady emergence of Just Transition commissions across the world demonstrates the importance of continued academic and policy engagement in how low-carbon transitions are governed and managed.
Being familiar with these concepts, I have sought to integrate these ideas into many aspects of my policy work at the EST. What stood out the most during my time there, was the willingness of the devolved governments to embrace the critical work and ideas of academics, potentially more so than the UK government. For example, both the Welsh and Scottish governments seem to show more progressive attitudes towards tackling climate change and social inequality together e.g. via innovative Welsh legislation (Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) and Scottish legislation (Fuel Poverty (Scotland) Act 2019). Additionally, Scotland has already established a Just Transition commission and Wales has announced intentions to set up a ‘Climate Justice Advisory Group’ that would perform broadly similar functions – monitoring the economic and social impacts of decommissioning fossil fuel power plants and what this means for fossil fuel industry workers. Currently, there are no equivalents in England, Northern Ireland and at the UK level.
The contribution of social science to energy and climate policy
Connecting these research-policy interactions forced me to think broadly about what social science research intends to achieve when analysing policy; do social scientists want to influence new policies or critically deconstruct the performance of existing ones? Is it possible to successfully do both? In many ways, the ultimate aim is to do both, particularly for policy oriented researchers.
However, one of the core goals of academic research is to shed new light on areas that have been neglected or ill considered. While academics may not see the immediate impact of their research on unexplored policy areas, patience may be a virtue if long-terms trends give rise to a renewed focus on their chosen area of research.
In addition, social scientists rightly feel compelled to highlight the potential exacerbation of social inequality by various policy responses to climate change and to ask such challenging questions in new contexts. For example, academic work on fuel poverty and ‘transport poverty’ shows a strong involvement of academics and researchers in policy on the fuel poverty side and less so on the transport side. This is because the idea of transport poverty is a particularly novel idea in UK policy.
There is therefore room to expand the concept of transport poverty and issues of social equity in low-carbon transport innovations, however, it will be some time before such as concept becomes the ‘norm’ within mainstream policy discourse.
Whilst my year working in policy has shown me that the diffusion of such concepts into policy takes time, it is comforting to know that these ideas are not falling on deaf ears – particularly in Wales and Scotland. As policy responses simultaneously addressing issues of social inequality and climate change intensify, policymakers will increasingly be forced to listen.