A Conversation with NAS & NAE Member Marilyn Brown

Posted November 20, 2020

Any way you slice it, Public Policy Professor Marilyn A. Brown has had an acclaimed career in climate and energy policy. She served as director of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program and the Engineering Science and Technology Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Brown also has served on the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Valley Authority and in key advisory roles at the U.S. Department of Energy.

She is a Regents Professor and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in the School of Public Policy whose deep expertise in climate and energy policy helped shape numerous reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including one that led to the organization receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

This year, she also became one of only a handful of scholars to be elected to multiple branches of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

In February, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) announced Brown’s election to its membership, adding her to a roster of former and current members that includes former Georgia Tech presidents G. Wayne Clough and Joseph M. Pettit and former provost Rafael Bras.

Just three months later, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) named her to its august membership, which includes 190 Nobel Prize recipients. That made her one of only two Georgia Institute of Technology faculty elected to both Academies.

Membership in these venerated peer-elected academies further extends Brown’s range and influence – as well as Georgia Tech’s— in advising the nation on clean energy policy.

We asked Brown to reflect on her elections to the NAE and NAS and what keeps her energized.

What is the significance of your membership in the academies?

If you want to know how technology can be made to better benefit humankind, you need to know something about how it will operate within policy and social systems. That’s what my work is all about. So I think my election reflects the growing recognition by engineers and scientists that translating technology advances into practical solutions to solve grand challenges requires broad transdisciplinarity. Whether it’s policy, economic or social science, natural or engineering science, the analytical rigor and underlying methodologies are often the same. As a result, there’s a mutual understanding of what constitutes strong, defensible, and important science.

These academies advise the nation and are influential around the world. What impact do you hope to make through them?

The National Academy of Sciences was created around the time of the Civil War to bring science to governance. It still fills that role today, and I am so excited to be a part of it. Every year, the Academies provide science-based recommendations to Congress on a variety of important issues, including climate and energy policy, and that’s what I’m thrilled to be part of: bringing social, behavioral, economics-based policy thinking and a concern for equitable solutions to what would otherwise be more limited engineering and physical science discussions.

Beyond that, I’m finding that being a member of the Academies is a bit like lighting a beacon in my office window, in that people from across the country are now seeking me out more than ever to collaborate on their research projects. It’s exciting to have that platform to expand my opportunities to do impactful work in this field.

You are a center of work to address global climate change and energy efficiency? How would you describe our progress in addressing global climate and energy challenges?

Simply put, there’s not enough progress. Across the globe, we have to bend the curve of CO2 emissions over the next decade to prevent dangerous levels of climate change. And that’s not happening. It’s very challenging, but pathways forward are emerging. In the United States, the electric grid is being reshaped by four trends: One, the grid is moving toward renewable and variable resources such as wind and solar. Two, transportation and building services are electrifying. A third trend is that many coal plants are being retired, and finally, fourth, distributed energy resources are proliferating. The result is a challenging era for the orchestration of power management, but advanced information and communications technologies are coming to the rescue. Energy efficiency is also a clean and affordable energy resource we too often overlook, partly because of how utility markets and regulations are designed.

You are currently the principal investigator for the multi-institutional Georgia Drawdown initiative, a first-in-the-nation effort to reduce the state’s carbon footprint. What are your hopes for that project?

Everything we’ve done with Drawdown Georgia is about giving businesses and policymakers the tools they need to turn Georgia a leader in climate and energy policy, to show the region and the southeast how carbon footprints can be reduced, how we can be better custodians of the natural environment, and how we can grow our economy at the same time. Our next step will be all about creating a kind of a gaming environment in which counties can track their carbon footprints and compete among their peers on a per capita basis. We’re really excited about the prospects.

You’ve been in a position to teach and mentor many students over the years. You were recently pivotal in helping stand up the Master of Sustainable Energy and Environmental Management (MSEEM) program. Talk about that legacy.

Many of my former students are in influential positions in climate and energy policy. We have employees at the Georgia Public Service Commission, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, just all over. And we have students in corporate sustainability positions and in start-ups, including Matt Cox at the Greenlink Analytics, who is doing great work for the city of Atlanta and across the country advising governments about energy policy, including diversity and inclusion issues. So having students there where the rubber meets the road is really fun to watch. It’s also fun to watch the growth of our current and recently graduated students, such as the first cohort of MSEEM students who just graduated in August and are off to do great things.

What excites you most about your work?

I like to get deep into numbers and calculations, develop iconic graphics that visualize the results, and then develop narratives that explain what it all means for the future of society.

If you weren’t a global climate/energy superhero, what else would you be doing? Or What do you enjoy when you’re not working on energy/climate issues?

I’d be in my garden. I’d be on the tennis court. I might be playing a little more bridge. And I’d be spending more time with my husband, a transport planner, and my daughter, an environmental lawyer.

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Michael Pearson