Baird Proposes Behavioral Research at the Department of Energy

Representative Brian Baird (D-WA), a long time champion of behavioral science, has introduced a bill (H.R. 3247) in Congress to establish a social and behavioral research program at the Department of Energy aimed at understanding, among other things, the patterns of energy consumption by individuals, households, and businesses, and the mechanisms involved in decisions to implement energy conservation measures and adopt energy efficient technologies and practices.
Baird’s bill was approved this summer by the House Science and Technology Committee — an important first step in the legislative process that we hope will eventually lead to the program’s creation. Rep. Baird spoke with APS Director of Government Relations Amy Pollick about his bill and his goals for the program.

Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) speaks with
APS Director of Government Relations Amy
Pollick about his bill to establish a social and
behavioral research program at the Department
of Energy.

Pollick (APS): One of your Committee colleagues has commented that that a behavioral research program at the Department of
Energy (DoE) is likely to be more applied than basic. How do you envision the balance of basic and applied research in such a program?

Brian Baird (BB): I think about how I would explain this to the citizens back home. Whether you are doing basic or applied research, we have an obligation to ask, “What will this mean at the end of the day?” Tax dollars are being used to fund something, so it better be worthwhile. It has to go beyond the typical academic justification for research because you have to sell it to the logger, the fisherman, the farmer, the steelworker, the nurse, and the dental hygienist who all are giving their hard-earned money to the federal government to do something.
In the case of this bill, I think that’s easy to do. The return on investment will be several orders of magnitude relative to the cost. Take research done by Robert Cialdini as one example. Cialdini’s research has demonstrated how the right wording in messages to hotel guests about reusing towels can result in reduced energy consumption (for more about Cialdini’s work, see the box below.). If that were applied to hotels across America, the energy savings would compensate for far more than what is necessary just for the DoE program. Other behavioral studies are coming up with comparably important results. And, importantly, we are making this investment in ARPA-E [a new federal agency, Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy, charged with identifying conservation technologies] and all sorts of other initiatives that, as many of my colleagues pointed out, if you don’t invest in up front you are not going to get that return on investment. In this case, you won’t get the behavioral, cultural, and cognitive linkages right to make conservation technologies effective. So, this is a long way of saying that in some ways it is all applied. For me, even the basic research has to have some thought about how it’s going to relate.

APS: One would hope that researchers funded by this program would be thinking about these issues right from the start.

BB: And hopefully behavioral researchers will be working side by side with the people working on energy technology, whether or not in the same department. This is different than a traditional academic situation. If NSF [the National Science Foundation] funds a grant in your psychology department, that is much different than if you are at a national lab or an integrated research facility on a campus and you’re interacting daily with someone who’s building the hydrogen fuel cells that are going to go into cars or working with others on smart grid metering.

APS: And you are in the behavioral science office next door…

BB: That’s my idea: to have the behavioral science office right next door and have behavioral scientists able to go into the field to see how things work. We had a hearing two years ago on human terrain teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the military commanders on the ground immediately got it that having this knowledge saves American lives every single day. Those in the field have seen lives saved by this research, and missions succeed that would have otherwise failed. That same principal applies to energy. The success of innovations, technologies, and behavioral interventions depends on getting the behavioral science right.

APS: Do you think those responsible for developing broad energy policies will appreciate behavioral and social science research?

BB: I think so, and I think the engineers will by and far appreciate it the most. The research scientists on the committee were for this; they understood it. But it’s very important that we get behavioral researchers who can do things that will have impact, not only in their interactions with the scientists and engineers but also in terms of policy and implementations on the ground.
Let me give you another example: Research has been done in health care showing the critical importance of how you present the risks and benefits to people facing major health care decisions.  Say you have to decide whether or not to undergo a surgical procedure. Think about receiving a statement that there is a 10 percent chance you will die versus a 90 percent chance you will survive. They are the exact same information, but how you say it means everything. If you tell me I have a 1 in 10 chance of dying, that makes me think I have a good chance of dying, but if you tell me I have a 9 in 10 chance of surviving, I’ll probably think I’m going to survive. I use that as an example for why we have to build a theory-driven model for giving consumers relevant information for making decisions on what appliances they should buy. How you tell people about the return on their investment matters. And we’re not doing that well now. People will buy an Energy Star washing machine over a non-Energy Star one, but what if they have the choice between four or five Energy Star washing machines? DoE or EPA probably think they are giving consumers enough information, but when it really gets down to it, I don’t think they are doing that well. They haven’t market-tested the information; my guess is they probably just got their engineers to run all five machines at once and see which one uses the least amount of water and electricity, and then give them Energy Star ratings. What they probably haven’t done is ask the consumers what that specific Energy Star rating means to them. They focus on the engineer and the lab testing of consumption, but not on what that means to the average consumer or  what we would call the behavioral side of the equation. That’s why we need behavioral science research.

APS: How do you envision new insights from behavioral science research being integrated into the DoE?

BB: I would say two things: One, the biggest energy savings will come from behavioral change right now, not the new “gee-whiz” technology and hardware; and, two, we need to look where we are spending the most energy and essentially triage the system in that direction. Where are we using the most energy and producing the most carbon? The latter is important because frequently it’s a combination of energy usage and carbon production. It’s a little bit like an intellectual cap and trade. Let me give you an example: if you wanted to encourage people to use energy more efficiently, I would start that intervention in the Midwest, not the Pacific Northwest. Here’s why: I think we are already ahead of the curve in the Pacific Northwest in terms of energy consumption, and we have more renewable energy there. So if you have finite resources to do an intervention, you should do it where the amount of energy use is the most carbon-intense. Then I would ask, what are some broad lessons we can learn about the adoption of new technology? Then I’d drill down on that and ask what new technologies are the most likely to come online or are already online. After that, I’d look at how we get messages out, what messages are out there already, what other models work, etc. I would pay significant attention to new social media like Facebook and Twitter and ask what we know about these. I’d test messages through Twitter, I’d work with Google, Mozilla, Yahoo, Amazon, and use those for a preliminary sample.
Spending more time and money without knowledge of whether or not something works is completely unacceptable. Take the numbers of people who click on Google, Mozilla, Yahoo, or Bing; it doesn’t matter. Let’s take Bing for an example. When I click on that site, what message comes up? Well, Cialdini’s research says that matters a heck of a lot! If I want to work with Bing to communicate effectively, if we want to use their portals or homepage to convey an environmental message, I’d better get that message right because millions of people might look at it. Getting it wrong would be a disaster.

APS: You see examples of where the message is not crafted correctly all the time?

BB: I see that the message is either less efficient than it could be or just unrelated. Think of it like this: if you had a big sign at the entrance to a park announcing that there will be a $2 garbage clean-up fee charged to all those who enter, it turns out people litter more; they throw less trash in garbage bins because they’re saying to themselves, “Oh, I’ve already paid for that with my $2 fee” and so their pro-social behavior goes down. Why do it that way — why not get people to carry their own garbage? We could create messages that do just that. We have tons of relevant research in behavioral economics that could be fundamental to the energy crisis. If I say to you, “I’ll give you $10 now and you can either get $11 back tomorrow or $12 back two months from now,” people will almost always take the short term return, even though waiting a month will basically increase your return by 100%. What it boils down to is that people make the wrong call here, and they make the wrong call in energy all the time. That’s just an example of pure behavioral economics. The problem is applying that to real life. We need to take our behavioral, cognitive, and psychological theories, and also create new ones and apply them to real life.

APS: So that’s the sort of research you would envision?
BB: It’s the whole thing; it’s looking at conservation today, it’s adaptation of new technologies, taking basic research like the [Daniel] Kahneman data on return on investment and applying that to investments in energy efficiency, it’s getting public acceptance of new technologies, and so many other things.

APS: We wish you much good luck on this bill. Please count on us for support.

H.R. 3247 will likely go the House floor for a vote this fall. A counterpart Senate bill will need to be passed for this bill to reach the President for signature.

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