Professor Erin Baker of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department is one of seven faculty members from UMass Amherst named as Public Engagement Faculty Fellows by the Public Engagement Project (PEP). PEP supports and trains faculty members to use their research for contributing to social change, informing public policy, and enriching public debate. Baker and the other PEP fellows will each receive a $1,500 stipend and technical training in communicating with non-academic audiences. The PEP fellows will also travel to Beacon Hill to share their research with Massachusetts lawmakers.
During her fellowship, Baker, the director of the Wind Energy Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) based in the MIE Department, aims to inform local, state, national, and international policymakers how to make prudent decisions on energy technology in face of climate change. As a PEP Fellow, she will work to reach policy makers and analysts and improve their understanding of how to identify common ground on energy policy and avoid bad outcomes.
“I work on energy technology policy, especially with respect to climate change,” explains Baker. “My main focus is on how to balance investment in energy technology research & development portfolios: among technologies, among projects, and against competing demands for public dollars.”
The message Baker wants to communicate is that policy makers can draw on science when choosing how much to invest in which energy technologies.
“It can feel a bit like trying to read a crystal ball,” says Baker. “Scientists, industries, and stakeholders from all perspectives have input and arguments, often supporting a pet technology. We can provide data and analysis which can help, at least, to avoid the biggest mistakes, while at the same time identifying common ground across disagreeing experts and models. This analysis preserves flexibility to incorporate a wide range of concerns and information, beyond that which can be included in quantitative models. Yet, it accounts for the best available knowledge that does exist and helps to identify alternatives that may not be otherwise obvious.”
Baker adds that “My public engagement goals are at two levels. One goal is large, aimed at the federal and international level, and is related to the long-term goal I envision. This long-term large vision is an international climate agreement that is both effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and is cost effective and recognizes the dynamics of technology and human behavior.”
But, in addition to that panoramic vision, Baker says she is also interested in engaging at the state level, working with policy makers and activists to help them better understand the need for a wide approach to combatting climate change.
Along with the other Faculty Fellows, Baker will meet twice per month during the 2017 spring semester, attending panels and skill-building workshops offered by faculty, communications experts from University Relations, and others experienced with public engagement. Fellows will also have the opportunity to work in small groups and receive peer mentoring tailored to their engagement plans.
In the process, PEP Scholars learn new skills from experts and from each other to improve their communication and engagement with the media, community groups, policymakers, and practitioners. The project also helps faculty members build their own networks of institutions and individuals who can apply their research findings, and it helps create institutional spaces for communication between academics and non-academics who do applied work in common areas of expertise. This public engagement not only expands the impact of research on society, it also improves the quality of research.
“We are excited about continuing to build an interdisciplinary cadre of publicly engaged faculty at UMass,” says Amy Schalet, director of PEP. “More than ever, we need university based scholars to share their research outside the academy so that journalists, policymakers, practitioners, and others can use it.” (March 2017)