Chesley Bonestell, “The Exploration of Mars” (1953), oil on board, 143/8 x 28 inches, gift of William Estler, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Reproduced courtesy of Bonestell LLC.

Innovative, Opportunistic, Faster


Lessons From a Decade of Philanthropy for Interdisciplinary Energy Research

It is safe to say that research into the production, distribution, and use of energy in the United States has emphasized the technological over the social. Let’s be clear: this focus has had its successes. We see physical improvements today in our homes and offices and in the growth of renewable sources in large part due to research and development investments begun in the 1970s. In some cases, these efforts were paired with inquiries into the economic, demographic, and behavioral contexts surrounding the technology in question. But this kind of comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to our energy system has been rare—at least until recently.

As Evan Michelson and Isabella Gee demonstrate by example in “Lessons From a Decade of Philanthropy for Interdisciplinary Energy Research” (Issues, Winter 2024), the questions that social scientists, policymakers, the media, and consumers might have about the energy system extend far beyond resistors and wires. These questions are unwieldy. They are also challenging for researchers accustomed to working in their siloes. For example, many energy scholars are unfamiliar with our complex housing, property, utility, and household practices and their regulatory history. Likewise, social scientists have been sidelined not just due to their disciplinary silos and inability to engage with the engineers and scientists but because of the historical underinvestment in their methods.

Unfamiliarity has practical implications, such as not knowing which data are available, how to collect them, and whether indicators represented by these data are the most valid and aligned to the underlying concept in question. Put simply, humans—or more specifically, our understanding of humans and their energy use—are a missing link in energy research.

The questions that social scientists, policymakers, the media, and consumers might have about the energy system extend far beyond resistors and wires.

Enter philanthropy. Michelson and Gee rightfully point out the critical role of philanthropic funders based on their universal mission to improve social conditions. But they also note how philanthropy offers a unique vehicle compared with the public sector’s statutory restrictiveness and private sector’s profit motivation. Philanthropy can be innovative (funding risky propositions with potentially large societal benefit), opportunistic (targeting questions and researchers that have been excluded from methods and institutions), and, quite frankly, faster and nimbler, along with being more altruistic.

But philanthropy and, in turn, philanthropy’s reach is limited. In the broad and still-murky field of energy and its socioeconomic soup, there are few philanthropic energy R&D funders, often with very limited budgets in competition with foundations’ other pressing social program allocations. Federal funding’s crowding out of foundation contributions might convince some funders to simply stay out of the business altogether.

For the few funders that stay in the race, there can be real rewards. The subject matter and researcher pools supported by the two largest federal energy research funders—the National Science Foundation and US Department of Energy—have expanded. In some cases, this has been made explicit through interdisciplinary research calls as well as stated research questions that require collaboration across silos. Anecdotally, every energy conference I have attended in the last five years has consciously discussed the integration of social sciences as a fundamental component of energy research. While each philanthropic entity rightfully evaluates its impact—and in the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s case, quantitative indicators of those effects—we can see that these efforts have already had a massive qualitative effect.

Director of Remodeling Futures

Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Cite this Article

“Innovative, Opportunistic, Faster.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 3 (Spring 2024).

Vol. XL, No. 3, Spring 2024