Powering Conversations

The foundation of better energy policy is better communication between scientists and policymakers.

Professor Russell Composto’s work wasn’t always focused on climate change. But over his career researching polymer science and studying coatings, many of which had applications in reducing energy use, his primary focus evolved from advancing scientific knowledge to using science as a lever for fighting climate change.

Now he says: “For the rest of my life, I want to focus on how science and climate change could be better interconnected. Because we can’t wait.”

Composto’s goal isn’t just a better coating (although he’s passionate about that, too). It’s a completely different paradigm: Changing the way scientists and policymakers interface.

“We need to start talking among ourselves—the scientists and policymakers—so we both understand each other better,” he says. How many policymakers can handily discuss thermodynamics? How many engineers know how to push through a piece of legislation? Composto believes this lack of understanding is a challenge for crafting better energy policy.

Despite often having common goals of increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy use, scientists and policymakers rarely share the same language, knowledge, or experiences. As a result, Composto says, “There’s a big gap between what we’re doing in the laboratory and what’s being promised.”

Policies like the Paris Agreement, or even a city’s sustainability plan, are based upon assumptions about how effective technologies can be. “Many times we can do these things at the laboratory scale, but as we translate them into the real world, there’s 10 to 15 years of testing and scale up that needs to happen,” he says.

Policymakers risk overpromising and underdelivering because of a lack of nuanced expertise. For example, critics of the Green New Deal question the goal of moving the United States to exclusively “carbon-free” energy. While such an ambition sounds good, it excludes the use of nuclear energy and energy plants that burn fossil fuels but capture their emissions—two options considered essential to quickly bring down emissions. Since a policy is only as good as the science that supports it, policymakers’ lack of scientific expertise can be problematic.

As a first step toward convening scientists and policymakers, Composto and colleagues from the Kleinman Center and Perry World House hosted a conference called REACT@Penn in January 2019. The event gathered scholars doing basic science at Penn, international collaborators from France and South Korea, and policymakers for discussions about interdisciplinary topics such as water, health, infectious disease transmission and how to collect and store energy. (REACT stands for Research and Education in Active Coating Technologies and is sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and French National Research Agency.)

The event gave students a taste of what interdisciplinary connection looks like.

“A lot of our students are interested in going in the policy direction, but they just don’t know how. They don’t know the pathway,” Composto says. In his role as undergraduate dean of Engineering, Composto says that a large percentage of students applying to Penn’s engineering program write about “wanting to save the world” and climate change. After the REACT conference, students came up to Composto to say this was perfect exposure given where they want to take their career.

For Composto, the REACT conference was just the beginning of Penn’s effort to educate what he calls “the future generation of scientifically literate policymakers that really understand thermodynamics.” He believes Penn is in the perfect position to create a new curriculum that helps scientists learn more about crafting policy and teaches policy students basic science. “There needs to be enough in common where they’re actually in the same classroom, working together on case studies or projects where they’re learning together,” he says.

In addition to policy and science students, Composto sees a role for business students, as economic drivers play a major role in the way energy policy plays out. “Penn should be the place where this happens,” Composto says. Such an interdisciplinary program “could make Penn quite unique,” he adds.

For now, Composto is focused on helping students, not only with their studies but also with their climate activism. “I’ve always liked training students. That’s always been my passion, as much as the science.”

For the rest of my life, I want to focus on how science and climate change could be better interconnected. Because we can’t wait.

Russell Composto