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Why Young Researchers Are Vital to Climate and Innovation Policy and How to Support Them

Why Young Researchers Are Vital to Climate and Innovation Policy and How to Support Them

Innovation is an indispensable weapon in the fight against climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, technologies that are not yet on the market account for over 60 percent of the emissions reductions to achieve net-zero energy systems. Innovation is a complex and uncertain process, and policies that aim to accelerate it must be informed by the best research available. Worryingly, early-career scholars who bring fresh ideas to the field of climate and energy innovation policy face significant obstacles. Funders and academic institutions need to take action to encourage them. In this blog post, we discuss why attracting young researchers to this field is essential and describe the main challenges that face them. Our ideas draw from discussions among young scholars, policy officers, funders, and practitioners that took place at the 2022 ITIF’s Climate-tech Policy Bootcamp, a week-long event for strengthening researchers’ understanding of how leaders in government, business, and finance make policy and management decisions.

Young scholars play a key role in achieving the vast advances in technology and policy that are needed for three reasons. First, young researchers bring diverse and new perspectives to the field of climate and energy innovation policy. They are often more open to new and innovative ideas, and they are not bound by traditional approaches that guide older researchers. One example is energy justice. For decades, disadvantaged communities have suffered the pollution of their neighborhoods’ air, water and soil by nearby energy infrastructures; they have been ignored during planning processes and denied access to energy services. To a considerable degree, young scholars like Prof. Destenie Nock (an ITIF bootcamp alumna) have contributed to bringing justice issues to the forefront of energy and climate innovation policy. The impact of these young scholars can hardly be overstated. For instance, one of the Biden administration’s flagship innovation policies, the $8 billion Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs program, includes selection criteria informed by the work of these scholars, such as benefits to and engagement with disadvantaged communities.

Second, attracting young researchers to devote their careers to climate and energy innovation policy is essential to ensure sustainable progress. Policies developed today will have large implications for future generations. They must be based on the latest available science and consider the needs and perspectives of the diverse communities and generations affected by them. As climate considerations permeate policy decisions across all branches of government, more researchers will be needed to provide rigorous, objective guidance to policymakers, including analyzing clean energy technology, assessing rollouts, and warning about pitfalls and shortcomings.

A third and pragmatic reason is that there is often a gap between climate and energy innovation research and policy. Young researchers can help bridge this gap by bringing their findings to policymakers and translating complex scientific concepts into recommendations. Early career scholars engage more than senior scholars in social media, where practitioners and policymakers are more likely to see and read their findings. In this way, they can also provide policymakers with insights into emerging technologies and trends, informing decisions with the latest research. Leading examples include young scholars like Prof. Leah Stokes, another ITIF bootcamp alumna.

Concerningly, attracting young talent to academia is becoming harder. In the words of a graduate student: “the pay is bad, the work–life balance is bad and mental health is an issue.” It is even worse in the climate and energy innovation policy field, where early career scholars face additional challenges, as they have repeatedly stated in Science and Nature Sustainability.

The number one complaint is funding. In a nutshell, many research-funding institutions do not “walk the talk” regarding multi-disciplinarity and policy relevance. Single-discipline proposals with clearly defined (and quantifiable) objectives are far more likely to get funded than multi-disciplinary proposals with applied and policy-relevant objectives (that are often hard or impossible to quantify). This is all the more worrying because effective and just climate policies require combining knowledge from different disciplines.

The second main challenge is the misalignment of career incentives. The dominant “publish or perish” culture does not encourage young scholars to pursue policy-relevant projects. These are not only harder to fund, but it is also more difficult to find collaborators, get through the peer review process at reputable journals, and find time after publication to disseminate their findings. All of this goes unnoticed in most funding and hiring processes because the usual metrics to evaluate candidates simply do not consider it.

At a time when more and more money is flowing towards climate and energy research, funders and academic institutions should:

  • Offer stable, long-term funding opportunities in the field of climate and energy innovation policy to attract young talent;
  • Ensure that funding criteria consider the multi-disciplinarity and policy relevance of research proposals;
  • Broaden career incentives to encourage policy-relevant research by adding (but not mandating) policy outreach metrics to the usual criteria for tenure; and
  • Reward policy relevance in project evaluations, for example, by considering outreach and engagement with policymakers as project deliverables.

These are simple but necessary actions. If implemented, they will help attract young talent to climate and energy innovation policy research, incentivize projects that combine knowledge from diverse disciplines, align research career paths with public policy priorities, and promote the diffusion of the latest available science among practitioners. The result will be more effective innovation policies to accelerate the deployment of the technologies needed for achieving net-zero emissions and, with it, raise the odds to win the fight against climate change.

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Ryan Hanna, whose contributions were invaluable to the success of this work and the bootcamp itself.

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