From brick walls to international energy systems: are academics any use?

Last week saw a continuation of Library and Committee staff outreach to the academic world (see earlier posts here and here). Professor Tadj Oreszczyn, Director of UCL Energy Institute and Professor of Energy and Environment, came to Parliament to give an overview of UCL Energy Institute’s research programme and important results to date.

UCL Energy Institute conducts research in the areas of energy systems and demand, with a particular focus on buildings and transport. From assessing the likely effectiveness of the Green Deal to the ramifications of Scottish independence and shale gas exploitation, this work is of key policy relevance.

The UCL Energy Institute is pioneering an epidemiological approach to researching energy systems. Drawing on the lessons learnt in health research, they combine large and diverse sets of data to better understand energy use at the population level. For example, combining data on the floor area, 3D geometry and specific use of non-domestic buildings with their energy use may help predict the impact in this sector of new technologies, policies or public spending priorities. The Institute is seeking to understand the issue from both the top-down and the bottom-up – integrating the social responses to energy policy interventions into our physical science understanding of how they ‘should’ work.  This approach has helped researchers understand why, for instance, a cutting-edge designed zero-carbon home ended up using far more energy than a normal home. Clue: the homeowner wasn’t kept in the loop, and unhooked the building’s sensors to stop the annoying whirring noise!

Parliament is home to many specialists advising, briefing and researching for MPs on a daily basis. Finding out about the latest developments in research and establishing connections with academics can be key to ensuring that specialists in Parliament are able to provide MPs with high quality, up-to-date, information when they need it, thus contributing to evidence based scrutiny and policy-making.

And the benefit can be two way. In the academic context where the “impact” of research is increasingly noted and monitored, considerations of the policy applications of research is increasingly emphasised. Establishing connections like those fostered by the UCL seminar this week can help both parties maintain their edge.

Such cross-fertilisation of knowledge between academic institutions and the specialist community in Parliament can be an important part of, to quote a House of Commons Library tag-line, “contributing to a well-informed democracy”.

Sarah Hartwell-Naguib