Experts say that leaders must take into account society’s reaction to technological and energy issues right from the project’s planning stage

New low-carbon technologies are often analyzed from an engineering standpoint, as well as that of other areas of the exact sciences. But the social sciences play an important role in this process. This is what the project “Social Perception and Scientific Diplomacy in Technological Transitions to a Low-Carbon Society” intends to show, which has been under development since last year within the scope of the Research Centre for Innovation in Greenhouse Gases (RCGI), headquartered in the University of São Paulo (USP) and funded by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) in partnership with Shell of Brazil.

“All technology causes social impacts. It is essential that scientists and society, in general, reflect on this process,” states Sigmar Malvezzi, Project Coordinator and Professor in the Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo (IP-USP). Agreeing with him is Psychologist Karen Mascarenhas, Deputy Coordinator of the project and Director of Human Resources and Leadership Management at the RCGI. “In Brazil, little attention is paid to how society will react to these proposed technologies. This must be a part of the thinking right from the planning phase of the project, but Brazil is lagging behind in this sense. Just look at the little space given to social issues in such seminal planning documents as the National Energy Plan 2050,” she notes.

The study, above all, is working with the technologies being developed by the RCGI’s projects, namely, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Carbon Capture and Use (CCU), Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. “In addition, we plan to address other technologies associated with resources that are considered important to the global energy transition process, such as natural gas and hydrogen, as well as wind and solar energies,” adds Mascarenhas.

The project is working along five interconnected lines of study. “This is a transdisciplinary project that, in addition to psychology, philosophy, and anthropology, involves such areas as geography, history, physics, and international relations,” Malvezzi reveals. One of the lines of study is specifically related to social perceptions of energy and technological transition. “While renewable energy sources generally enjoy a high level of public acceptance, when we look deeper, we detect local resistance against those technologies. There is even a phenomenon known as NIMBY (‘Not In My Back Yard’), which denotes a possible acceptance of the technology by the general public, but a rejection of the establishment of such a project in their community, for a wide variety of reasons, such as noise and visual pollution, odors, or risk of leakage,” Mascarenhas points out.

The first step taken by the team was to review the literature – 535 articles published in international academic journals. Mascarenhas further explains, “There is a lot of talk about ‘public perception’, but from this analysis we confirm our understanding that the term refers to the lay public. It appears in this form in more than 80% of the articles reviewed. However, in the case of our project, the correct term is ‘social perception’, since we want to reach a wider audience, which includes, for example, government, media, academia, non-governmental organizations, industry executives, and investors.”

The next step will be to perform research studies, using projective techniques and multifactor analysis methods to understand how these agents behave in relation to new technologies and climate change, for instance. These studies will rely on socio-geographical data, which are being collected by the project’s second line of study. “We plan to create an atlas with geographic, social, and historical information that will suggest locations where we can perform our field studies and indicate the most appropriate places for future installations of new low-carbon technologies,” Mascarenhas adds.

Another study line of the project is focused on so-called scientific diplomacy, and its objective is to track the contributions of scientists and academic research institutions, such as the RCGI, to two global movements originated in 2015 by the United Nations (UN). One is the 2030 Agenda with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the other is the Paris Agreement, signed by 193 countries, which established Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) via targets set up to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, the team of researchers intends to develop communication strategies focusing on the scientific community. “During the Covid-19 pandemic we saw how people reacted differently to the same stimulus. That was the case with the vaccines. Some were against vaccinations for ideological or religious reasons. It is necessary to know how to present these new technologies and talk about them with society,” says Malvezzi.

The project’s fourth line of study will investigate the impact of social networks on scientific dissemination, experimentation, and construction. Another focus of the researchers will be to develop a methodology for investigating social behavior through social physics. In this case, the study work will be done in the Digital Lab, which is a creative space for scientific and artistic collaborations through digital technologies and interaction design that is being implemented in USP’s Institute of Physics. “Science deals with abstract issues. The purpose here is to bring the public closer to this subject through art-science or such creations as a Molecular Lab, which will be an immersive space for virtual and augmented reality,” Mascarenhas explains.

Finally, the researchers who are working on the fifth line of study aim to stimulate the formation of partnerships between the university and companies. “The purpose is to promote even more new technologies developed by the RCGI for use by private enterprise,” Mascarenhas adds.

The project is already bearing fruit. One of them is the book Energy Transition, Social Perception and Governance, which brings together the main results of the literature review carried out by the team of researchers and will likely be released this year. In addition, the project is currently participating in the study “Comparing Interventions for Collective Action against Climate Change”, coordinated by the Laboratory of Social Identity and Morality of the Department of Psychology at New York University and that is currently underway in 75 countries. Mascarenhas explains that “Our mission is to collect and interpret data on the Brazilian population in relation to that subject.”

Another development of the project was the roundtable on “The Challenges of Social Perception and Public Engagement for Sustainability” organized and coordinated by Mascarenhas. The event took place online, on July 27, within the scope of the 3rd Latin American Conference on Sustainable Development of Energy, Water and Environmental Systems, promoted by the International Center for Sustainable Development of Energy, Water and Environmental Systems (SDEWES), a non-governmental organization based in Croatia. Among the participants were such researchers as Rocio Díaz-Chavez, from Imperial College London (United Kingdom), Kathleen Araujo, from Boise State University (United States), and Fátima Bernardo, from the University of Évora (Portugal), as well as Malvezzi, who spoke about Leadership for Sustainability. “This exchange of information via networking is essential for the discussion to evolve among researchers,” concludes the psychologist.