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Do Environmental Sciences Programs Have a Bias Against Nuclear Energy?

What's on your reading list?
Over the course of the history of this blog, I've often written posts slugged, "Another Environmentalist for Nuclear Energy." In recent years, I've gotten out of the habit, given that when you see prominent names like James Hansen, Stuart Brand and Bill Gates all speak on behalf of the technology, that headline ought not to be a surprise any longer.

But given some reading I did earlier today, perhaps that shouldn't be the case. If the findings of a new study are accurate, academia is doing its level best to make sure the environmental professionals of tomorrow are exposed only to a narrow point of view that excludes nuclear energy from the global solutions toolbox.

Over at The Conversation, Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communications at Northeastern University, tells the story of Jacqueline Ho, an environmental studies graduate who recently conducted a study into how major colleges and university teach environmental issues.

What did she find? Apparently the reading materials in environmental sciences courses present only one side of the debate, and fail to challenge students to develop critical thinking skills they'll need to solve environmental management problems.
Yet only after taking an upper-level political science course on renewable energy and completing a summer fellowship with the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, was Ho introduced to alternative ways of thinking about climate change as a social problem and the possible solutions.

“I came to see the transition to a clean-energy economy as an issue requiring technological innovation and deployment, in addition to simply being caused by insufficient climate awareness or the inefficient pricing of fossil-based energy,” she writes in a new co-authored study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“Nuclear power, an energy solution I seldom encountered in my classes except in the context of the negative health impacts of uranium mining, became a default alternative energy option in my mind,” she writes.

Today, several core concepts and insights from her introductory courses continue to guide her work as a researcher at Resources for the Future, an environmental economics think tank. “Yet, in many ways, I would have appreciated being exposed to a greater diversity of perspectives and solutions earlier in my education so that I could have learned to wrestle with these controversial perspectives alongside my environmentally minded peers,” she writes.
It's good to see that Miss Ho was able to come into contact with the team at the Breakthrough Institute, an eminently reasonable group based out of Oakland that recently authored its own "Ecomodernist Manifesto." From my own perspective, Ms. Ho's experience gibes closely with what I was told by a graduate of a local Masters' degree program who took a course in environmental sustainability. In that course, like in Ms. Ho's experience, nuclear energy was mentioned with a sneer, if at all.

But what about the rest of Ms. Ho's counterparts at other institutions? What sort of education are they getting through introductory courses in environmental science at some of the nation's top institutions?
Of the 22 syllabi assessed, less than half explicitly mentioned the importance of critical thinking or exposing students to competing perspectives. Only 10 made any reference to the fact that even among those advocating for action to address a problem like climate change, there are competing narratives about the major societal challenges, the possible technological solutions, and the political strategies needed.
Ms. Ho found that the vast majority of readings assigned in these courses are authored by a group of public intellectuals that Nesbit calls "environmental activists." Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and George Monbiot are all on the list.

Of course, when you teach environmental science solely through the lens of environmental activism, it's safe to conclude that what you'll really produce is another generation of environmental activists. That would be unfortunate. Our world needs professionals comfortable integrating the disciplines of science, engineering, law and policy to craft real-world solutions to thorny environmental challenges, not just compelling narratives.

UPDATE: Ms. Ho reached out to us regarding our blog post, and passed along the following:
[W]e want to be careful about the way we present our findings: we mention in our article that the research is suggestive rather than conclusive given our small sample size ...
Fair enough. Though given the reaction I've gotten from of our readers, not too many folks were surprised by the findings.

One last note: the study was co-authored by Eric Kennedy. Props to both him and Ms. Ho for doing some important work. If I was the parent of a high school student planning on studying environmental science in college, Ms. Ho and Mr. Kennedy's study would give me pause, especially if I was financing that college education.

Editor's Note: Eric McErlain is NEI's director of digital strategy. He's currently pursuing a Masters' degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University. Photo courtesy of Mary Mactavish via a Creative Commons License.


Will Davis said…
I have seen it said that the teaching of environment has been perverted by, and in many cases is dominated by a rabid environmentalism that deflects the students down that path. Glad to see NEI has focused on this.
Arthur said…
Hmm, I don't think the real concern is that the sample is too small or unrepresentative. Rather, it is the difficulty in distinguishing how topics are discussed in classes beyond the syllabi and readings. The results strongly suggest a widespread bias towards "ecological activism" and lack of diversity, but it is hard to tell how strongly ideological (or not) the courses are.

For example, a follow-up study could study how a specific topic like nuclear is presented. Is there "false balance" being presented? How are authorities like IAEA, WHO, IPCC treated? Are there conspiracy theories presented? What is being taught about radiation, safety, risk? Energy security, electricity grid operations? How is the topic of cost and economics handled?

One could envision a similar study on how climate topics are covered - how are "skeptics", "deniers", refuted science being taught? "False balance"?

Essentially, what is being "told"/"taught" and what is being left for the students to decide? Are students being given the proper tools and exposed to an appropriate range and diversity of thought/perspectives/methodologies on thorny issues?
Anonymous said…
' ...Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and George Monbiot are all on the list.'
George Monbiot has reversed course on nuclear power, after Fukushima turned out to be ' not quite the catastrophe we were looking forward to ' ( courtesy Marty Feldman ). He has taken on Helen Caldicott, the veteran Aussie anti-nuke, in his column in the Guardian.
John ONeill
Anonymous said…
It starts in the high schools and grade school classrooms.
Anonymous said…
I was able to speak to 5 th grade classes about electric energy. I spoke about all forms coal, gas, geo, renewables, nuclear, etc. when I spoke about nuclear the teacher challenged me about the technology pictures I used stating that my picture of a cooling tower was the reactor. After a short discussion and assuring her that the technology was correct, I asked to see the text she was using and it was a book written by a TMI Reporter who clearly had the cooling tower indicated as a reactor. She was taken back as there were other errors.
The next year when I showed up for the same presentation she told me that the school decided to stop teaching nuclear because it was "too complex" so they only mentioned it as a form of energy.
The Bias begins at a young age.
Steve Aplin said…
From direct experience over the past decade leading private-academic research, which involved university researchers in environmental studies programs, I can say with absolute confidence that YES there is an entrenched bias in academia against nuclear energy.

With one single exception, every student and supervisor touted the viability of major chemical manufacturing processes powered with "renewable energy" -- i.e. wind and solar -- and dismissed nuclear as a dinosaur technology.

This though I took the trouble, every time the issue came up, to point out that most of the electricity on which we utterly depended for not only our research but every other aspect of our lives (here in Ottawa Ontario) comes out of nuclear reactors, designed, built, and commissioned by our fellow Ontarians.

I remain baffled and very disappointed by the safe-inside-the-box mainstream environmental ideology that produces and maintains this mindset. We could not have produced the CANDU reactor with this kind of thinking. What happened?

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