Fabian Wagner talks about science-based approaches to air pollution

Wednesday, Dec 3, 2014

Fabian WagnerFabian Wagner is the 2014-15 Gerhard R. Andlinger Visiting Professor in Energy and the Environment. He comes to Princeton from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, the world’s leading research institution for solution-oriented science for public policy. In his position as a senior research scholar in the Mitigation of Air Pollution & Greenhouse Gases Program, Wagner brings together scientists from different academic fields to develop science-based policy options that address transnational environmental problems.

Here at Princeton, Wagner is currently co-teaching MAE 228/EGR 228/CBE228/ENE 228: Energy Solutions for the Next Century with Jay Benziger and will teach CBE 335/MAE 338/ENV 335/ENE 335: The Energy Water Nexus and WWS 586E: Topics in STEP – Energy Policy and Energy Technologies in the spring.

Fabian shared with us his thoughts on communication between scientists and policymakers, his focus for the year, and the concepts he hopes to impart to Princeton students.

What factors make communication between scientists and policymakers problematic?

I think policymakers and scientists often speak different languages, which leads to a gap in our understanding of one another. We see the world through different lenses: politics is the art of the possible, whereas science doesn’t know there are boundaries. Scientists want to push the limits, but policymakers need to bring different interests together, and science is just one of them.

These perspectives are rooted in our two different incentive systems. At the end of a research project, scientists not only want to have an answer, but also to have more questions. After all, the more we investigate, the more questions we have, and that may lead to further research. Policymakers also face very complex issues and uncertainties, but in the end have to make pragmatic decisions.

How can the relationship between scientists and policymakers be improved upon?

We need to develop more two-way communication. As scientists, we don’t always understand policymakers’ needs, motivations, limitations, and incentives. What they often need is a decision framework with very clear options and implications to help put scientific research into perspective.

What will you focus on during this year at Princeton?

One of my interests is to understand what it means for stakeholders – power companies, private consumers – to make the transition to renewable energy. How do we make the transition from a coal-fired power plant to renewable sources of energy? It is very complicated. We need to better understand the difficulties power companies face, and how policy can help them. Many people perceive policy to be about rules and making life more difficult, but we must use it in a positive way to facilitate the transition.

What concepts do you want to impart to your students?

One concept is to recognize that we sometimes become so accustomed to the way things are that we forget things can be different. When thinking about future technologies, we often focus on how difficult the path seems. In the course I’m currently teaching, Energy Solutions for the Next Century, I emphasize the importance of keeping an open mind and a broad vision for the future.

Secondly, the world is complex. Students may be trained to solve increasingly difficult questions in one discipline, but the complexities of the world often demand bringing two or more fields together. As educators we can no longer train specialists in just one field. I think people need to be fluent in at least two or three disciplines to understand how issues interact.