June 24, 2017

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WESEP: Wind Energy Science, Engineering, and Policy

Communication and Ethics

At least 2 real-time research collaborative (RTRC) classes per semester will be dedicated to these areas. In addition, we have created two textual modules each on communications and ethics, and we will deliver them in a once-per-year weekend retreat all students are required to attend. In the conduct of projects and during industry internships and international visits, students will be instructed to observe and report examples of how colleagues adhere to professional conduct and values, including honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and salient instances of either good or poor communication. Students will work in groups during weekend retreats to develop recorded presentations for undergraduate courses that address ethics and good communication practices.

Communication

Expanding the use of wind energy will entail communicating with a number of stakeholders and centers of influence. Principal stakeholder groups may include farmers, farm families and farming communities, policy-makers at the local and national levels, the energy industry, regulatory agencies, and the general public–each of which will have different information requirements and demands. Students will be exposed to these different audience segments to enhance their awareness that the level of people’s support for any scientific or technological undertaking determines, to a large extent, the nature and amount of public spending for research and development. Thus, a public that is literate about wind science and engineering can result in a range of outcomes, including motivating greater general interests and concern, influencing political or personal behavior, and defining policy choices or options.

Communication entails understanding the public’s perception of this relatively new enterprise. Preliminary studies have already indicated that many hold skeptical attitudes about wind energy due to 4 major concerns: (1) they consider the turbines a scar on the landscape and thus create “visual pollution”; (2) the turning blades and whirring generators produce noise many say they cannot tolerate; and (3) there are worries that the rotating blades may be detrimental to bats and migrating birds.  (4) In Iowa, farmers who experience complications with aerial spraying in wind farms worry that the turbines might interfere with the pollination of corn and other biophysical processes. These findings suggest areas of information deficits that can be addressed in WESEP students’ projects and interactions with members of the general public. Communication strategies can also be designed to address the information deficits of policy-makers. These include enhancing their awareness of the need to reduce CO2 emissions significantly and the need to grow transmission from the Midwest to either coast. Such efforts will reinforce students’ appreciation of their communication responsibility and their ability to actively engage in influencing policies at the local, state, and federal levels.

The mass media are considered the most available and sometimes the only source for most of the public to gain information about scientific discoveries, controversies, events, and the work of scientists after formal education ends. Some studies have shown that general public perception of wind energy is ambiguous at best. Thus, studying media performance in informing the public about wind energy is another important area of inquiry.

Ethics

Students exposed to our ethics training will be able to (1) understand and articulate major ethical issues raised by wind power generation research and development; (2) distinguish between perceived and measured risk, and to discuss the moral and political significance of risk perception, measurement, and communication; and (3) understand and explain different competing views about human and environmental risks posed by wind power generation research and development.

All science students and prospective scientists need to have a strong background considering and addressing and issues involved in the responsible conduct of research (RCR). Accordingly, students must understand the motives that can lead to misconduct, and the conditions that render scientists vulnerable to misconduct. Recent investigation indicates that problems can frequently be averted by proactive informal intervention, and that the best way to avert misconduct is to foster, within the informal culture of the laboratory, informal and cordial norms of peer oversight and review. Accordingly, students in these workshops will not only address traditional RCR topics, but will also read and discuss recent studies that identify specific proactive methods to intervene and address problems before they arise. It is also crucial for researchers and scientists to have a broader understanding of the social, political, economic, and legal issues that lead to the acceptance and use (or rejection and neglect) of new technologies. Participants in this project will be acquainted with controversies, public attitudes and legislative choices that make wind power generation a crucial component of a broader energy policy. Accordingly, students will participate in classes and case study exercises designed to help them understand and articulate these broader concerns. Science educators are not typically trained to teach ethics or to train students to evaluate ethical aspects of scientific research. But ethical controversies typically arise when people with different interests or different beliefs come to different conclusions. In case study exercises, students are required to evaluate such controversies after considering the competing arguments and positions of those who disagree.  Instead of telling students what values to hold, or what conclusions they should draw, the case study method helps students come to a sympathetic understanding of competing positions, and to arrive at their own well-reasoned conclusions. This project will involve the development of portable ethics case studies that will focus on social and ethical concerns raised by wind power generation.  These case studies will have similar format to other successful case studies that have been developed by participants in the Iowa State University Bioethics Program. These resources, developed and housed at Iowa State University, have been successfully used in RCR sessions around the world.