We’re very excited to bring you the MISTRAL project blog. MISTRAL (Multi-sectoral approaches to Innovative Skills Training for Renewable energy And sociaL acceptance) is an Innovative Training Network (ITN) funded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) to support 15 highly motivated Early Stage Researchers in their careers. MISTRAL will be active from January 1st 2019 to 31st December 2022.
This blog will bring you writing from ESRs about their work and experiences, project updates, and more!
MISTRAL has received funding as an Innovative Training Network from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (Grant Agreement No 813837).
As a PhD student, only reading books about your research topic sometimes gets tedious. From time to time, I enjoy getting my nose out of academic literature and picking up books from other genres. Recently, I got my hands on “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling. The premise of this extremely popular book was highly interesting as Rosling promised to expose all the things about the world that we’re commonly mistaken about. What could be more important at a time when our society is permeated with “alternative facts” and “fake news” in almost every sector from medicine and healthcare to climate and energy?
However, confusion quickly arose as Rosling started out by showing how facts and statistics can be collected, visualized and interpreted in many different and often manipulative ways; and then concluded that only he had the “right facts” and everyone else was wrong. It appeared straight away that Rosling didn’t seem to have a good grasp of the philosophy of science, otherwise he would have refrained from such claims. The rest of the book was then devoted to Rosling trying to convince the reader how he was right about everything and how the news media was guilty of making it seem otherwise. This was all the more surprising considering that he dedicated a whole chapter in his book to the falsity of attributing blame for a problem to a single cause.
The single or limited perspective instinct points to Rosling’s lack of system thinking: another vice he advised the reader against, but that was nevertheless prevalent throughout the book. In every chapter, Rosling presented a myriad of cherry-picked statistical trends that showed how the world had made progress along with a few passing examples to the contrary here and there. The problem was that he didn’t seem to care too much about sketching out the underlying logical links between the statistical trends. Being trained as a statistician, he fell prey to the common urge for empirical description while underestimating the need for logical and theoretical models to make sense of the statistics . As such, the book unfortunately reminded me of the phrase popularised by Mark Twain (among others): “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
Rosling’s background as a medical doctor and professor of public health had strongly shaped his belief that the world is constantly getting better. He had devoted his whole life to working in a field which had undergone mind-blowing improvements over the last few centuries. I am not in any way trying to deny that amazing progress has indeed been made in the medical sciences, healthcare and many other fields of science, technology and society. What concerned me was Rosling’s disregard to well-documented facts from fields such as environmental science or anthropology that point to the contrary, pointing to how most of the social and technological progress has come at the expense of other societies and societal groups or the natural world. Every statistic in his book about rising incomes and falling child mortality could be countered with data about spiking polluting and collapsing ecosystems as a consequence of overconsumption and overpopulation. A remarkable example was provided in Chapter 3 in which Rosling claimed that the decline in births per woman would even out population growth by the end of the century, thus bringing human population into balance with nature again, without in any way addressing the question whether our planet could actually support 11 billion people with constantly rising desires for consumption. In Chapter 10, Rosling dismissed the idea of climate refugees simply because he wasn’t aware of any connection between climate change and migration. I doubt that his colleagues in the environmental science department would agree with these “facts”.
All of this got me thinking about the role of facts, values and emotions in my own research area. I have sometimes heard those in the wind industry say that negative public opinions on wind turbines are purely emotional responses that nothing can be done about. At other times, their tactic seems to be to provide the public with as many facts about wind power as possible until they start to accept wind turbines. Similar to Rosling, they forget that facts can be presented from a number of different perspectives and that facts too are always intertwined with values and emotions. It would be wrong to rely solely on providing facts about the pros of wind energy and the progress it will bring to a person whose emotional attachment to a place overweighs these values or who has first-hand experience of the negative consequences of a development. In addition to disseminating data and statistics, developers and authorities need to find ways to engage citizens in an open and honest dialogue, and dig deeper to understand the true reasons for their negative reactions to wind turbines.
All things considered, I must pay credit to Rosling’s communication skills. I highly admire his ability of making complex statistics understandable to everyone and keeping the audience entertained, also exemplified in his TED talks (link to several). It is a shame that those skills were not put to better use to provide a more balanced account of social and technological progress that the environmental movement desperately needs right now. Otherwise, the existing social and cultural divisions will only deepen while the state of the natural world will continue getting worse.
 Taagepera, R. (2008). Making social sciences more scientific: The need for predictive models. Oxford University Press.
Last month, millions of people in Texas suffered through freezing temperatures and the loss of power due to a winter storm which knocked significant electrical generation capacity offline. Texas’ electrical grid suffered a catastrophic failure in a period when demand was surging due to the need for residents to heat their homes. Details of the technical and regulatory failures which led to this crisis have been covered by journalists and academics, and the essential summary of the complex situation is this: decades of deregulation, the independence of Texas’ grid from other states, and the avoidance of weatherization/winterization of electrical generation infrastructure due to cost concerns.[i][ii]
The storm knocked around 46 GW (gigawatts) of generation capacity offline on Monday, February 15th, more than half of the grid’s typical generation capacity (82 GW).[iii] Of the total generation capacity taken offline by the winter weather, around 18 GW was from wind energy generation, compared to 28 GW from thermal sources, including natural gas. Despite the fact that multiple energy technologies contributed to the failure, a narrative appeared in some media coverage that frozen wind turbines were to blame for the power outages. This narrative was picked up by conservative commentators and politicians, including the current Governor of Texas Greg Abbott, who stated “Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary” during an interview on Fox News.[iv]
It is not surprising that politicians and commentators (such as Gov. Abbott or Fox host Tucker Carlson) seized upon the narrative that renewable energy sources were to blame, as they have long opposed efforts to decarbonize the United States’ energy systems. Beyond ideological or policy-based opposition to renewables, it is important to note that many politicians who perpetuated the false narrative about wind power being the source of Texas’ energy woes have benefited substantially from political donations from the oil and gas industry. An investigation into donations to Texas Republican politicians found that Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and Representative Dan Crenshaw together received more than $1.1 million from the oil and gas industry in the 2020 election cycle.[v] One of the lessons to be drawn from this chapter, beyond the importance of preparation for extreme weather events caused by a changing climate, is that the process of decarbonizing the energy system is intensely political.[vi] This is something widely acknowledged within the academic literature, but often ignored in more technocratic debates about energy technology and innovation. We should remember that entrenched interests (such as the fossil fuel industry) will continue to push back against efforts to address climate change. Texas reveals that failure to invest in adaptation measures, as well as efforts to undermine public trust in sustainable energy sources, will have significant and long-reaching implications.
Deciding to do a PhD abroad is the start of a journey with a lot of unexpected turns. From deciding on which topics motivate you and where you want to pursue your studies, to eventually getting into a doctoral program, can be exhausting. However, if you are persistent and lucky enough, your journey can take you to places you could have never imagined.
For me, it started with an email inviting me to an interview in Saarbrücken, Germany, a small city I have never been to before. Just a few weeks later, I found myself walking next to the Saar River, the river that flows across north-eastern France into Germany, imagining how my life would be here. Leaving Istanbul, my friends and family, not speaking German were some of the topics that challenged me the most as I was making my mind up. Then, I was in Brussels meeting some of the colleagues from MISTRAL, getting familiar with the project and feeling all the excitement. The aim of the project and all the opportunities I could explore inspired me. Eventually, I became a part of MISTRAL, studying the interaction between social norms and justice perceptions of the public regarding wind energy projects at IZES gGmbH, Saarbrücken.
Right after my move to Saarbrücken, I realized I desperately needed to learn German. My very basic knowledge of German I used in the supermarkets or cafes were not going to be enough. So, I started an evening course in the city. However, just a month after my courses started, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. Even though lockdowns turned everyone`s world upside-down, I was lucky enough to continue my research and German courses virtually. Learning a new language, as an idea or a goal, was very interesting for me, but the execution was a challenge. It can be a rollercoaster; one day I, surprisingly, could make an appointment at my dentist speaking in German. Later on, that week, as I went to my dentist, very proudly, I realized that I completely misunderstood the hour and the date. In the past 18 months I have had countless similar experiences and misunderstandings but I feel more adapted to my international experience every day as I learn the language more. Also, our German-speaking team at IZES encourages and supports me to improve my language skills. Weekly online courses, doing homework, reading and listening to news in German were helpful but the most effective way for me was to practice. Trying to speak German, even by making mistakes, with the neighbours, friends, colleagues or the cashier at the supermarket improved my ability to communicate better which gave me more confidence.
There are many challenges and advantages to international mobility during your PhD, as you leave your old home and create a new one. Particularly, if you are going to a country without knowing the language, additional effort is required to settle into the new culture. My journey, until now, led me to learn a new language, struggle on the way, but be rewarded as I can finally make spot-on appointments on the phone 🙂
My name is Mariangela Vespa, and I am an Early Stage Researcher in the MISTRAL project. I am a PhD Student, but above all, I am a mum. My day alternates between work/kindergarten/baby food/diapers/university. When I participated in the MISTRAL application process, my baby was just a few months old. It all went very fast, the first email inviting me to an online interview, the second one for an in-person interview in Saarbrücken (Germany), and a final email for an online interview in which they told me that I had got the position. WOW! And now? After a few months, we moved from Finland (where we lived for 4 years) to Germany. In a next step, we had to find a house and daycare, while in parallel trying to understand where we were, the new language, culture, places, and so on. Everything changed so fast that I could not keep up with it! Yet it went on, flowed, and somehow worked out. Unfortunately, just as everything seemed in order, the pandemic caused by Covid19 has changed all the balances, again. The kindergartens closed and I started working from home. That period was hard (for many people, I guess) and it was in that moment that we had to readjust all our family and work habits. The wisest decision seemed for us to leave Germany and return for a period to our homeland, Italy. We were sure we could find the comfort there and receive help from our parents. May grandparents be blessed! Therefore, a new phase began, made up of “Wait, I’ll turn off the webcam because my daughter has an urgency”; “Dear colleagues, my daughter wants to say hello to you” etc. Let us say that for a while the limits were not clear: am I working or am I a mother? A little of both, together, from the morning until the evening. It has been more than one year since I started to work in the MISTRAL project and I feel that everything is settling down. My research on the cumulative impact of the different renewable energies in the people-place relationship is taking shape. My first article from the title “Mental associations between renewable energies, place, cognitions and emotions. A social media analysis on Instagram” is about to be submitted. All the prerequisites to get a PhD at the end of these years at Saarland University have been respected. All of this was possible thanks to the research team at the Institute for Future Energy and Material Flow Systems (IZES gGmbH) where there is always a great propensity to understand the needs of the others. I am also grateful to our MISTRAL family, who organizes events trying to feel more in contact and taking care of us. Concluding, the PhD student- researcher- mum combination is scary; it scares me too. However, it can be done. In my opinion, the important things are to have the right people next to you, a lot of willpower, and learn to slow down when the rest of the world goes too rapidly.
The pandemic is affecting everyone, including the MISTRAL Network. More so since our project is rooted in principles of mobility and trans-institutional collaborations and exchanges. Innovative Training Networks (ITN) within the context of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions typically include many on-site events such as Summer Schools designed to strengthen the bonds between Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) and facilitate the initiation and blossoming of collaboration. MISTRAL includes three Summer Schools. The first took place in September 2019 in Belfast (see first picture). It provided the opportunity for ESRs and the wider network to meet and exchange for the first time. This event marked the start of a great adventure for most of us.
Given the resurgence of new COVID-19 cases in Switzerland last October and the resulting mitigation measures, the ESRs were not able to reconvene for the second one-week Summer School which was planned to take place in St. Gallen, a PhD dreamland strategically located near the Swiss Alps. Like everybody else, we moved online in hope that, despite the virtuality of our interactions, the Summer School would still provide us with plenty of opportunities to present our progress to each other, get useful feedback, learn, and identify potential opportunities for further collaborations. Overall, we were all happily surprised how well the new format worked out. Although most of us reported screen-fatigue at the end of the intense week, we learned a lot from the different interactive sessions and trainings, but most importantly from each other.
The week started with a session on conflict management and mediation in contested wind energy projects. This input provided us with important insights about our role as researchers and highlighted possible ways to deal with emotional situations during data collection. Then, all ESRs were provided with the opportunity to present progress on their research projects and collect valuable feedback from peers and supervisors. It was inspiring to see how we all progressed during this first year. In preparation to the event, ESRs also prepared executive summaries which were shared broadly throughout the network. ESRs could also submit a piece of work in progress in order to obtain more thorough feedback from designated reviewers. Progress reports were useful in twofold. First, presentations always help to break down work to its essential parts, facilitating thus the streamlining of ideas. Second, this format provided us with the chance to obtain valuable feedback and identify potential synergies. The 15 ESRs part of the MISTRAL-ITN project are highly trans-disciplinary. We are all addressing questions related to the social acceptance of renewable energy infrastructure. The heterogeneity of our group always brings fruitful discussions since it forces us to look at the same issue through different lenses. The diversity of our respective background makes our strength as a group. Further, we also attended creative trainings such as “how to write our own book”. This interactive workshop used the ‘Design your Life’ method developed by researchers at Stanford to guide us through identifying our strengths, interests and motivations in life. This was a good way to prompt us to reflect on why we are doing what we are doing, and what we would like to achieve with it. It was again a great opportunity to grow individually through a collaborative process. Academic writing is a science in itself, even an art, and it is often underestimated. The Summer School provided us with different sessions during which we discovered helpful tools to successfully complete our PhD journeys. This ranged from improving our reading and writing habits and skills, to strategically disseminating our work through different channels to maximize impact. These sessions ultimately provided us with tools to make the writing process more enjoyable and efficient. One afternoon was dedicated to the development of a common communication and dissemination strategy. Many creative ideas on how to disseminate our work and research insights emerged from this brainstorming session. Stay tuned, more to follow soon! The Summer School was concluded by a methodology workshop. This session provided us with a broad range of ideas of how to conduct research and collect data during a pandemic. Overall, the Summer School was a success despite not being able to meet physically because it provided us with an opportunity to stay connected and exchange. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to further researching this interesting topic and hopefully meeting in person soon. Our understanding of social acceptance was challenged and further developed during this week. We are all little pieces of a puzzle, and it is only when we work together that we form a whole. In the end, we hope that we will be able to get a more comprehensive understanding of social acceptance. Until then, we can only keep on researching.
MISTRAL is a publicly funded research and training programme, with responsibilities to carry out rigorous research that benefits all of society. We are committed to making a research contribution to the sustainable energy transition and are developing partnerships with a range of different stakeholders to help us do this. A crucial element of this is the way we engage with non-academic interests and exchange ideas about our research findings. This is a neglected aspect of effective research, so we are now exploring the barriers and opportunities to knowledge exchange in the context of energy transition.
MISTRAL (Multi-sectoral approaches to Innovative Skills Training for Renewable energy & sociAL acceptance) is funded by the EU through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions. It is an Innovative Training Network (ITN) – a programme for training researchers who are early in their careers to evaluate the complexity of social engagement around deployment of renewable energy infrastructure. We aim to conduct research that will have an ‘impact’ on energy transition, so that our research will create real social benefits.
Research that explores social engagement with the development of renewable energy infrastructure gives rise to a range of complex questions. There are many factors that prevent communities supporting local renewable energy projects, including concerns that they have not been sufficiently consulted about the proposals, that they believe the project may cause unacceptable local environmental impacts, or that they believe the community should be given a greater share of the benefits of the project through funding of local projects or creation of jobs. A lack of community support can have substantial consequences for consenting, operating and investment in the renewables sector. MISTRAL is a multi-disciplinary project that aims understand the factors and dynamics that may erode the social acceptance of renewable energy projects, and seeks to improve project design, policy-formulation and implementation of renewable energy infrastructure.
While we believe our research will provide valuable insights into these issues, its ultimate worth will not be realised unless it finds its way to project developers, policy makers, investors and communities, and that they see relevance to their activities. This relies on effective processes of communication; in terms of researchers sharing insights through the channels and formats appropriate for non-academic stakeholders, and feedback from them that highlights those areas that most need further research. Without an ongoing and dynamic process of such knowledge exchange, research cannot effectively change the trajectory of current practice.
Towards better knowledge exchange Researchers engaging in a more effective processes of knowledge exchange can enhance the interactions between the academic, policy, and practice communities. To understand how such interactions take place, we have developed a series of surveys to find out more about the current state of knowledge exchange in social science research on the energy transition. We first want to know what researchers think about their role the knowledge exchange process, the resources that they have to do this and the things they do to disseminate their research. This survey has already been launched, targeting published researchers in this field.
We are also now launching a second survey, which targets those individuals and organisations that could potentially use social science research on energy transition and asking them about where they gather the knowledge they need for their practice, the resources they have to do this and the way they adapt and apply it to their work. When the two surveys are brought together, we hope that we will be able to identify areas of good practice and specific barriers to knowledge exchange in this field. This will also help us to find the most effective ways to link our own cutting-edge research to the people who will use it to change the way we all work, and to share these lessons with those working in academia and in other activities related to the energy transition.
We will share the insights from these surveys through reports available on the MISTRAL website, and through a free webinar in the Spring of 2021. Whether you work in policy or practice, please consider helping us with this work by completing our survey (the link will take you to a page on our project website where you can read more about the survey, and a link to take you to the survey itself):
Many universities around the world have started to understand that research should be accessible to wider audiences. Research cannot exist in its own bubble, separate from the rest of society. This realisation has resulted in open access requirements becoming a more common occurrence. Still, not enough is being done to the most impregnable barrier of them all – the language we use in our academic publications.
I cannot help but join the long list of names* to criticise academic language. Too often I see comments recommending researchers not to use words such as ‘I’, and to write in the passive tense instead, and to use complicated words to sound more authoritative, professional or academic. What frustrates me most is the impracticality of it.
I am an early stage researcher and a PhD student. Even with more than 6 years (and counting) of higher education in two countries, I often find academic text exhausting to read. Sentences which last for five rows are not uncommon, decorated with long words to emit authority. The work to get to the core of the text feels like a waste and, above all, irrational.
Distrust of science and rampant misinformation are significant problems in the world today. This has become evident and detrimental during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a prominent example, some of the misguided and dangerous guidance to treat the disease included the infamous advice to drink bleach… …it is also too common that research is referenced incorrectly. Scientific knowledge is no longer enough to validate courses of action. Misinformation in media and politics is unchecked. These issues are strongly linked to the language we use as researchers.
So I ask, who is this complicated language benefitting? Researchers spend years perfecting their work, reading, collecting data, analysing and writing to produce publications. I for one, would like my research to reach as many people as possible, especially those whose life and work it is relevant to. Why would I use years to study my chosen topic if not to share the results of my work to all working in the field? We should make research dissemination as easy as possible for the people who it benefits most.
Perhaps the art of research lies in the ability to write about complicated issues in a simple and understandable way. Theory-laden and complex research is not easy to transform into simple, easy-to-read text. I am the first to confess that I am often guilty of this mistake. That is a point I want to focus on: it is a mistake and an unnecessary one at that, which we should all set as our goal to get rid of. I often think of how I could become a better at academic writing, but I will consciously avoid the idea of sounding academic, if it means the same as hard to understand.
As a conclusion, I want to highlight that it is a huge loss to the world that much of the brilliant and valuable research gets lost to the jargon, when it could be used by the wider society to benefit many. I think this is something all of us should keep in mind: Who are we writing our research for?
In MISTRAL, we believe that collaboration and engagement between those who create and those who use research is key to making research impactful. That principle has been built into the design of MISTRAL, partnerships with organisations from the field of renewable energy being integral part of the network. Some members of the MISTRAL network are also working on a piece of research on knowledge exchange to further improve this engagement, but you will soon hear more about that from us. 😉
*Some sources for criticism of Academic Writing:
Clayton, V. (2015). The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing: A new movement strives for simplicity. The Atlantic: Education. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/complex-academic-writing/412255/
Fullick, M. (2015). The politics of knowledge are made visible through simplistic critiques of academic writing. The London School of Economics and Political Science. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/02/25/the-politics-of-academic-style/
Pinker, S. (2013). Why Academics Stink at Writing. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1–10.
Rothman, J. (2014). Why is Academic Writing so Academic? New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-is-academic-writing-so-academic
My colleague Robert Wade and I presented an overview of our draft paper “Size Matters: The Cultural Political Economy of Research and Innovation of Wind Energy” which we are co-authoring alongside researchers from the Technical University of Denmark (Tom Cronin, Julia Kirch Kirkegaard, and Cristian Pons-Seres de Brauwer). Presented at the MISTRAL Online Symposium hosted on the 13th and 14th of May 2020.
For more information about the MISTRAL symposium, please visit the MISTRAL project website
Recently, I visited Finland, and was able to attend an energy conference and speak in a lecture in the University of Eastern Finland (UEF).
The Energy Transitions 2020 conference was organized by UEF, UEF Law School and the Centre for Climate Change, Energy and Environmental Law (CCEEL) in Joensuu, Finland 27-28.2.2020. I was able to attend this conference thanks to MISTRAL-ITN and MSCA, and got to enjoy many interesting viewpoints into energy transitions.
The participants of the conference had to endure some travel disruptions and problems due to ground maintenance workers strike at Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Due to the strikes, many flights were cancelled and late, and the baggage of many got delayed. This caused some of them to have no coat in Finnish -16 Celsius weather and just the clothes on their back! Many of the participants earned my admiration in how this did not stop them from participating in the conference.
Their endurance was not the only reason for my admiration. It was fascinating to hear about their research interests, such as different descriptions used in law and legislation for just transition, prosumers and vulnerable citizens and the role of the public in the low carbon transition. These topics were part of for example Viola Cappelli’s, Louis Sandiford’s and Romain Mauger’s talks. These topics piqued my interest, because names, concepts and definitions used can give light to underlying power dynamics. One of the key speaker’s, Benjamin Sovacool’s, speech was also of major interest to me. He talked about the acceleration of the low-carbon transition, temporality and previous energy transitions, and how the transition to low carbon economy requires interdisciplinary collaboration. I could not agree more on the need for interdisciplinarity, which is a central principle of MISTRAL.
The conference overall was a really pleasant experience, and the way the panel sessions were organized was especially successful in my opinion. Most of the conference consisted of panel sessions, and the sessions were ongoing simultaneously in multiple locations in small group sessions. The sessions where thematic, and the organization of the sessions into small groups made genuine discussions on the topics possible. I found out that this less formal way to organize conferences can be more useful to both participants and presenters themselves, even if less people get to hear the talks. I would love to see these kinds of panel sessions more often, as I felt like I was more engaged with the topics and speakers.
In addition to attending the conference, I also talked about research career to social sciences students in a lecture at UEF. As an UEF alumni, I was happy to return to the university to share my experiences after having finished my master’s degree only a year ago. I told the students about my experience so far in MISTRAL-ITN and of PhD studies at Queen’s University Belfast, highlighting how passion for research is in my opinion the most important requirement and driving force for being a researcher and enjoying it. That point in mind, my goal for the talk was to show the students an example of a researcher who is enthusiastic about her work.