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Updated 1:30 PM April 26, 2008




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Social sciences step toward a cleaner energy future

Cleaner technologies alone won't solve the world's energy problems. People and cultures must accept the new advances and use them, social scientists and engineers say.

Bridging the divide between engineering and social sciences — between innovation and behavior — is the goal of a May 6 symposium sponsored by three University units.

The Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society (CARSS), the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute (MMPEI) and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems (CSCS) are hosting Energy and the Social Sciences: Challenges and Opportunities.

"Once technological solutions are developed, we have to figure out how they fit into the social fabric. We have to determine the economics, figure out the business case, and look at the policy implications and regulatory issues," says professor Gary Was, director of MMPEI.

"A goal of this symposium is to engage the social science domain into the energy discussion."

At the forum, Was will present what he calls "the 70-percent solution for reduction in greenhouse gases" during a discussion about the University's energy vision.

Experts will talk about these issues from the social science, physical science and public policy perspectives. Panelists will present related U-M research on topics including plug-in hybrid electric vehicle design, consumer acceptance and optimizing renewable energy generation.

"Some of these energy problems are seen as the primary provenance of the physical and natural sciences and engineering. But that's a false assumption. These problems are everybody's," says Professor David Featherman, director of CARSS. "We must use these challenges as laboratories in which basic knowledge and new methodologies can be developed."

Social scientists can shed light on what society values, how cultures approach problems, how people get work done and structure their time, Featherman says. It's in this domain that researchers seek to understand the meaning of time and long-range planning.

"These are all issues humanists look at, but they don't necessarily look at them in the context of energy," Featherman says. "All those issues come up, though, in energy problems."

Michigan, home to the Institute for Social Research as well as top-ranked social science, engineering and public policy programs, is uniquely positioned to move collaboration among these disciplines forward, says professor Carl Simon, director of the CSCS.

"There's no problem in the world that can be solved within one discipline," Simon says. "Getting different disciplines to cooperate is something Michigan does well."

The symposium is from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. May 6 in the Michigan League Ballroom. A wine and cheese reception will follow. Attendance is free, but registration is required. Register at View a full symposium schedule at

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