Science and Engineering Values

Biodiversity and Sustainability · Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion · Open Science

Science and engineering are, at their heart, value-laden enterprises. When I decided to leave my position as an elementary school teacher, I had two major criteria for the next phase of my professional development: (i) it had to engage my love of science and mathematics, and (ii) there had to be a significant social impact. Tackling problems related to clean energy and clean water as a mechanical engineer addressed both.

As scientists and engineers, our work touches lives and impacts our environment on a very broad scope. Our work has implications for environmental sustainability, social justice, and public policy, among other spheres, and can be used to improve the lives of those around us. At the same time, poorly considered or perfunctory work which fails to fully consider its own impact can have significant negative consequences for those around us.

Below are some of the values and themes that inspire my work. They influence both why and how I do what I do. As you will see, they are all highly interrelated.

They are also all largely aspirational — they indicate ways in which I would like to grow, as a researcher and teacher, not milestones that I have already achieved. If you have suggestions, corrections, or would like to collaborate with me in any of these endeavors, please do not hesitate to reach out!

Click here to read about all three areas.

Conservation Biology and Environmental Sustainability

A major driver for leaving elementary education for academia was a passion for preserving biodiversity on Earth, both for moral/ethical reasons and also because of the vital role that this biodiversity plays in supporting and enriching human life on Earth. However, even though these concerns are shared by many in clean energy research, they are typically not given much direct attention in our research, which instead typically focuses on improving device efficiency, durability, or cost. While these aims are important for limiting humanity’s environmental impact, they are inadequate. ‘Sustainable energy’ goes further, incorporating approaches such as life cycle analysis (LCA) to understand a technology’s full impact on the environment, typically in terms of global warming potential (GWP) and resource extraction/utilization.

However, there is still another level to consider. At its heart, preserving biodiversity is about modifying human behavior. The fundamental role of technological innovation is also to change human behavior. While approaches such as LCA and GWP capture the major ways that western societies interact with and impact the environment, this is but a small slice of human-environment interactions, and ignores the majority of the human population, in particular those who interact directly with some of the Earth’s most fragile and diverse habitats. More thought is required on how device design impacts behavior in these populations, and in turn how this new behavior impacts local ecosystem health. Would such a lens, alter the design criteria for a particular technology?

To answer these questions, the first step is enabling and fostering better communication and collaboration across the diverse fields involved, including technology research, conservation biology, environmental science and engineering, and social science (among others). I am a member of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) and led a Knowledge Café at the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB) in 2017, titled “How can we foster collaboration between energy technologists and conservation biologists?”

I am also a member of SCB's Conservation Technology Working Group. Conservation Technology is an emerging topic at the intersection of the fields mentioned above, which covers three main topics (in my view; others may legitemately disagree!):

  • Horizon scanning: identifying and understanding the public and ecological health risks posed by existing and emergent technologies
  • Conservaation tools: design of technologies to aid in conservation work, including detectors, sensors, and analytical measurement systems and other technological solutions.
  • Conservation-inspired design: integation of engineering, biology, and social science perspectives to incorporate the full conservation impacts (including LCA, GWP analysis, and techno-economic impacts on human behavior) of a technology into the design process.
  • Disseminating best practices to practitioners and researchers.

There is great work being done in this space by groups such as Conservation X Labs and Wildlabs, to name just two, and I'm excited to contribute to the field and see how it can help preserve Earth's biodiversity, going forward.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

While it is tempting to think of science and engineering as purely objective pursuits, the truth is that they are human endeavors. The work is conceptualized and carried out by people, and a scientist's or engineer's background can influence the questions asked (and those not asked), what methods are used to collect data, how that data is interpreted and applied, and how the work is executed. For many reasons, then, it is essential that diversity, equity, and inclusion be a cornerstone of our science and engineering practice. Among many other factors, this includes who practices science, how science is communicated to the public, and which stakeholders are given a voice in deciding how scientific findings are applied.

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Open Science

Science plays many roles in our society, but perhaps the most important role is to unravel the mysteries of the world around us. To understand the physical, chemical, biological, and social forces which influence a whole range of phenomena around us, and to share our findings with others. Unfortunately, many practices in the current research climate are uantithetical to this goal. Open Science is a movement whose aim is to increase the openness of the entire scientific process, from the planning of a research project, through the execution, and up through the publication of scientific findings. When done well, these principles have been shown to increase impact, increase access to your findings to reduce inequality, while also improving the quality of the underlying science.

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