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Energy should form its own discipline

The international energy system needs an overhaul. The sector is multidisciplinary: it must serve modern civilization without compromising economic opportunity, undermining national security or impinging on the environment. Yet innovation today prioritizes improvements to discrete technologies and progress in single disciplines rather than rebuilding the whole system. A more joined-up approach is needed, beginning with education.

Retooling the system will require a range of experts who understand new technologies and can translate them to the public, while considering the economic drivers necessary for their adoption.

In the United States, for example, the educational framework for undergraduates does not always keep pace with advances in science, engineering and innovation. Even though energy is a leading international priority, it lacks definition in universities, where it is largely perceived as a professional pursuit, or as a subset of fields such as petroleum engineering. Often, students are exposed only to glimpses of the sector and do not acquire an integrated, systems-level perspective.

Whereas institutions such as Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, have created programmes to address the changing energy landscape, none offers an interdisciplinary energy-focused degree at undergraduate and graduate levels.

We propose that large energy departments should be set up at universities worldwide to tie seemingly disparate fields of knowledge together. Graduates could move between disciplines to promote ideas and work towards practical solutions. By fostering an open dialogue between specialists, this nascent labour force would then be well equipped to navigate through all of the technical, political and social issues related to energy.

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Correspondence to Sheril R. Kirshenbaum.

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Kirshenbaum, S., Webber, M. Energy should form its own discipline. Nature 478, 37 (2011).

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