Leading Science and Technology Experts Named Breakthrough Senior Fellows, 2010

February 3, 2010 | Breakthrough Staff,

The Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce its 2010 Breakthrough Senior Fellows. As leaders in the fields of sociology, science policy, energy, and technology, we are excited to welcome them to our unique team of multi-disciplinary experts and look forward to benefitting from their insight and collaboration on some of the most challenging issues of our time.

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour A professor and vice president for research at the Institut d'etudes politiques in Paris, France, he did pioneering fieldwork on the subjective quality of scientific practice, and has argued for an ecological politics that transcends outmoded ideas of science and nature.

Bruno Latour is a founder of science and technology studies (STS) and was listed as the 10th most-cited intellectual in the humanities and social sciences by The Times Higher Education Guide. His 1979 "Laboratory Life" was a watershed ethnography of how science works in the real world. Latour studied scientists and found that subjective judgments that look unscientific to outsiders are central to the scientific enterprise. In his most famous work, "We Have Never Been Modern," Latour's argues that modernity is a kind of faith characterized by efforts to purify concepts like nature and science even as they become invariably mixed up in politics, society, religion, and tradition.

Daniel Sarewitz

Daniel Sarewitz A professor of science and society at Arizona State University, he argues that over-stating science's potential to predict the future has had counterproductive and unintended consequences.

The question of science's potential, or lack thereof, to guide human decision-making and politics is also the focus of the work of 2010 Breakthrough Senior Fellow Dan Sarewitz, a columnist for Nature and a professor at Arizona State University. Sarewitz argues that people want science to play a policymaking role it cannot play because of high levels of uncertainty but, paradoxically, uncertainty should be the basis for action. For example, he writes, uncertainty was the best thing ever to happen for earthquake science, which "has moved away from prediction and towards the assessment, communication and reduction of vulnerabilities" -- a strategy very different from the dominant climate policy agenda, which imagines science can determine emissions limits and motivate the political action to enforce them.

Ulrich Beck

Ulrich Beck A professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Sociology of Munich University, he argues that in wealthy developed countries the way people think about state, the individual, and science are changing radically.

How wealthy nations manage risks like climate change has been the life-long work of one of Germany's leading sociologists, Ulrich Beck, author of the landmark "Risk Society." Beck has argued that as societies like Europe and the U.S. get richer and more developed they change their relationship to modern institutions like the nation. Beck calls these "second modern" societies because they are becoming more modern, not leaving modernity behind. On the one hand this can be positive and Beck writes of the need for a new global cosmopolitanism, but it can also create contradictions, with second modern individuals feeling little desire to make the kinds of investments nation states have traditionally made in infrastructure and technology to create prosperity and development.

If societies and governments are to make good choices about moving to non-fossil technologies to power civilization, they will need to hear from experts with not only technical knowledge but also knowledge of social systems, the economy, and politics. Breakthrough's current team of energy and climate experts -- David Douglas (Sun) Marty Hoffert (NYU), Roger Pielke, Jr. (CU), Frank Laird (DU) -- will be joined by 2010 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Bill Weihl, Greg Nemet, and Chris Green, all leading clean energy thinkers.

Bill Weihl

Bill Weihl Weihl serves as Google's Green Energy Czar, where he leads efforts in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and also manages the company's greenhouse-gas footprint.

Weihl oversees Google's "Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal" (RE<C for short) program, which has identified the large technology gap, and thus price gap, between renewables and coal as the central obstacle in the way of reducing emissions globally. Weihl, who won Time magazine 2009 Hero of the Environment, oversees
Google's more than $45 million in direct investments in clean energy companies and is outspoken on the need for the federal government to invest orders of magnitude more in everything from solar to nuclear technologies, telling the New York Times:

"Putting a price on carbon can help level the playing field, but to actually deploy renewables to the extent that we stop burning coal, I believe that's only going to happen if they can compete economically without any substantial price on carbon or substantial subsidies, because I don't think that people will tolerate that. I hope they will; I would be willing to pay that extra cost, but I can afford it. There are lots of people in the developing world who probably would say, I'm not going to pay that."

Christopher Green

Christopher Green A professor of economics at McGill University, he is a long-standing critic of the Kyoto-type targets and timetables approach, arguing that solving climate means creating, cost-effective and scalable low-carbon technologies.

Overcoming the energy technology gap between energy-dense, abundant and cheap fossil fuels and inefficient, high-tech, and expensive clean power sources has been the focus of the work of economist Chris Green of McGill University for nearly twenty years. The leading British science journal Nature chose research by Green and his colleague Isabel Galiana on how to accelerate low-carbon technological development to feature the week before Copenhagen climate talks last December.

The Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, a panel of leading economists, recently ranked investments in technology funded by a low, slowly rising carbon price one of the top policy solutions to climate change in the world. Green's work has also shown that while energy efficiency improvement measures are important in slowing the growth of energy consumption, globally, overall energy consumption will continue to grow along with carbon emissions unless there is an energy technology revolution in low-carbon energies.

Greg Nemet

Greg Nemet An assistant professor at University of Wisconsin in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, he has identified the key factors responsible for making solar panels cheaper.

The question of what specifically has reduced the price of low-carbon energy in the past has been a focus of the work done by Greg Nemet, Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin in the La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Nemet has identified the key factors driving performance improvements and cost reductions in clean energy technologies: R&D, knowledge spillovers, and learning-by-doing through market experience. The lesson is that some deployment policies are more effective than others. Research and development must be integrated into deployment and procurement, not separate from it, and consistent with the overarching goal of tech improvement to make clean energy cheap, not simply more and more deployment. Therefore, we should not only increased state funding for renewables, we should also be using it in smarter ways.