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PhD Episode II: The Return of Ethnographic Methods

By laurent.liote.19, on 16 December 2021

Hi there, it’s been a while! I guess I’ve made some progress since the last time I wrote a post like this one. Rest assured the aim of my PhD has not changed, I’m still focused on understanding how engineering advice and related modelling insights are deployed in energy policy practice (the origin story can be found here). This post is about the initial work I’ve done to answer this question and where I’m going next.

In a UK government department not so far away…

So, what have I been up to in the last year then? Well, I did an initial case study with an engineering advice team within the UK government that provides advice on energy policy questions to the rest of their department. I interviewed engineers and policy advisors working together to gain insight into ‘the engineering-policy interface’ (a fancy way of saying ‘how engineers and policy advisors interact’). I turned the themes that emerged from the interviews into academic database search terms which returned four different strands of literature: science advice, engineering and philosophy, expertise in policy and models as boundary objects. I carried out a review of these fields and compared the literature’s conclusions against my findings, I call that ‘PhD Episode I’.

And what did I make of Episode I then? Like a first episode in what I hope to be a trilogy, it was interesting, set up the characters and storyline nicely but left quite a few questions unanswered. From what I saw, most of the engineering advice consisted of explaining a technology in layman’s terms to policy analysts, answering a question by providing a summary/diagram or designing/running a model. But that’s just scratching the surface and several findings warrant further investigation, constituting the basis for my second case study: Episode II.

A question of discipline

Based on the literature and what I have observed during my initial case study, there seems to be a difference in ontology and epistemology between science and engineering; and a difference in policy topics covered by the two disciplines. The discrepancy between my findings on engineering advice and the science advice literature however could also be due to a difference in cultural and institutional factors. Are the differences I spotted between science and engineering advice due to the difference in nature between the disciplines? Or are they due to the fact that the literature looks at independent agency to government relations in the US whereas I look at intergovernmental advice in the UK? Episode II will shed some light on this question to determine if/what conclusions from the science advice literature can be applied to engineering advice and if the disciplines complement each other or clash in the policy making process.

May the expertise be with you

Episode I has shown that explicit and tacit (or ‘implied’) knowledge elements are combined in energy policy practice. These knowledge elements come from outside and within the civil service, in other words, engineers and policy makers are not just mobilisers of expertise but experts as well. However, the notion of expertise is extremely relational: the policy teams are the ‘experts’ in the eyes of the minister, the engineering team is considered the ‘experts’ by the policy teams and academics are considered the ‘experts’ by the engineering team. This is complicated further in situations where the engineers have been in their position for a long time, as opposed to the high turnover in policy teams, and become holders of institutional knowledge in that area. Episode II will pick up right where I left off, investigating how these perceptions of expertise impact engineering advice.

The engineering advice process in models you will find

In Episode I, I was exposed to a small, bespoke model that bridged the engineering-policy interface and embodied the engineering advice process. In this case, the model was a successful boundary object because it enabled the clarification and negotiation of both policy views (lowering the cost of renewable energy, pleasing industry, pleasing constituents) and mathematical and technical concepts brought in by the engineer (impact on load factor, levelized cost of energy, electricity demand data). Episode II will also look at how engineering advice is embedded in energy policy models, and if/how different disciplines (engineering, science) and ‘experts’ clash in the making of those models.

Episode II: the return of ethnographic methods

In Episode II (my 2nd case study if you’re scan reading, which is totally acceptable), I aim to explore the difference between science and engineering further by carrying out fieldwork with a climate science advice team within the UK government. The team sits in the same directorate as the engineering advice team I worked with last year. Comparing a science advice team and an engineering advice team working in the same policy context (same country, both within the same department) should help me investigate the difference in ontology/epistemology and topics covered between the disciplines. The climate science team also collaborates with the engineering team on certain projects and deals with large scale climate models. This will shed light on how engineers and scientists work together, if the disciplines clash, what role expertise and experience play in providing advice and how that manifests itself in model creation and deployment.

The data in Episode II will of course be gathered using ethnographic methods including participant observation, interviews and vignettes, focus groups, surveys and document analysis. In parallel, I will delve deeper into the academic debates identified during my pilot and explore literature around ‘systems of professions’.

Hopefully, Episode II will help answer the sub-questions now guiding my work:

  • How do science and engineering view each other, collaborate or clash in the policy making process and what does that mean for engineering advice?
  • How do perceived levels of expertise influence the giving and reception of engineering advice?
  • How do models embody the processes of disciplines/expertise collaboration and clash identified above? If so, what does that mean for energy policy decision making?

Let me know your thoughts and stay tuned for Episode III!

Laurent Liote is a third-year PhD student at UCL STEaPP. Follow him on LinkedIn (Laurent Liote), Twitter (@LaurentLiote) or ping him an email (laurent.liote.19@ucl.ac.uk).

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