Arthur Yip sought out MIT’s Technology and Policy master’s program for a very specific reason. It was the same reason he sought a coveted research position within the Joint Program. And it was the same reason his high school science project failed: Science and policy must work together.
Back in high school, Yip worked with a company that promised to have hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars on the road in five years. It was a similar goal then-President George W. Bush funded heavily.
“Today, people are promising to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. Ten years ago, they were saying the same thing about hydrogen,” Yip says. “It didn’t work out at all. Large investments were squandered while both our climate and energy security situations continued to deteriorate.”
Originally planning on a career in hydrogen and fuel cells, Yip started to rethink the direction in which he was going.
“I really wanted to learn how government programs and policies could get it so wrong,” Yip says. “Fuel cells are really efficient. The idea sounds so neat and tidy. But I found out there were a lot of other things, beyond technology, that didn’t get the consideration they should have. In the end, the fuel cells were too expensive and the hydrogen concept didn’t make enough sense. A lot of assumptions had been made, but the economic, environmental and social implications were never fully thought through.”
Yip went on to do internships in government and industry. He began to see that the problem wasn’t just with fuel cell technology. It was a problem within the research, government and industry communities themselves. Through his internships, he saw firsthand the silos of knowledge and research and the barriers to success.
“In the technical community, some people thought they had the best solution and everything else would work out on its own,” Yip said. “But on the other side, the policymakers did not fully understand the science and technology either.”
Going back to the example of hydrogen vehicles, politicians liked the idea because it deferred some of the hard decisions they had to make and they relied on the promise of technology. But hydrogen was something that needed to be produced, and that would require a lot of energy and infrastructure. Yip says that might have been a concept policymakers didn’t fully understand.
Seeing that both sides of the process were important, Yip wanted to be in the middle and take a truly interdisciplinary approach to solving such problems. That’s when he found the MIT Joint Program and the Technology and Policy master’s program.
“It’s a fairly unique program because it’s not a dual degree where there’s a mix of art and science, but we have courses and research work that weave both together,” Yip says, applying the same dynamic to the Joint Program.
Yip brings this perspective to his research with Sergey Paltsev, as this year’s BP fellow. He hopes to apply his interdisciplinary way of thinking to the concept of natural gas vehicles.
“We recently found we have much more natural gas than we previously thought. An interesting question is, what can this natural gas do for society? Will it help us mitigate climate change? Will it help the U.S. gain energy independence?” Yip asks.
He explains that these are two competing objectives. For natural gas to lower emissions, it would need to displace coal used for electricity production. To lower the nation’s reliance on foreign oil imports, natural gas could be deployed as a fuel for transportation to displace oil. Both have important implications.
“These questions really fit into an economic model like the Economic Projection and Policy Analysis (EPPA) model because it’s all about limited resources and deciding how best to allocate those resources,” Yip says.
To apply the lessons learned from hydrogen cars, Yip wants to look into proposed policies such as an open fuels standard to help policymakers understand what could go wrong if they do choose to adopt the standard.
The open fuels standard would require automakers to make flexible fuel vehicles that could run on gasoline, ethanol and methanol, which could be produced from natural gas. This would give consumers more choices at the pump, and likely save them money. This would also help reduce oil imports. But what about the implications and costs for society?
“I want to investigate the full opportunity costs of the new engines, infrastructure, and the natural gas itself, because there is a high risk of waste and inefficient allocation. There may be better options in terms of net societal benefit, and policies should be designed with this in mind,” Yip says.