Courtesy of Justin Farrell

Justin Farrell, a professor of sociology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was named one of the recipients of the National Science Foundation’s 2018 CAREER awards this summer.

Through the NSF’s CAREER Program, or Faculty Early Career Development Program, Farrell will receive $400,000 to support his five-year research project which focuses on the impact of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in rural communities across the United States. In the study, Farrell plans to use qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the societal and economic impacts of this energy transition.

“CAREER grants are NSF’s most prestigious award for early-career faculty. They are a considerable investment by NSF to help build leaders that integrate education and research,” said Peter Raymond, a professor of ecosystem ecology at F&ES. “Justin is leading the way, blending big data approaches and on-the-ground fieldwork to advance scientific knowledge in the social sciences.”

The CAREER award was granted through the NSF’s competitive Sociology Program, according to Toby Parcel, the sociology program director for the NSF. Parcel said that Farrell submitted a proposal in the summer of 2017, which was reviewed by several sociologists from around the country. He explained the importance of Farrell’s work, noting that it will increase the public’s understanding of how rural and underserved areas — particularly in the western U.S. — will adapt to the transition to renewable energy sources.

According to Farrell, beyond its prestige, the award validated his interest in the impact of energy transition on rural communities. Farrell, originally from Wyoming, noted that much of his interest in this field stemmed from his personal experiences and upbringing.

“It really validated the need for research in rural areas that often go unnoticed,” he explained. “I’m constantly going back to geographic reasons that scholars tend to ignore, partly because they are rural. Most scholars are unfamiliar with that territory and way of life.”

The first few years of Farrell’s study will focus on data collection, blending data science and computational methods with in-depth fieldwork. The fieldwork will consist of interviews with individuals working in the energy industry as well as observations of different field sites, which will be accompanied by analysis of digital texts and social media.

Once the data has been collected, Farrell will analyze the data using machine learning and qualitative methods. In the long term, Farrell hopes to write a more mainstream book that could be used by communities in similar circumstances to those he plans to study.

Farrell noted that one of the more difficult aspects of research of this nature is the travel time. According to Farrell, qualitative research is much more time intensive and complex, but produces rich data. As a result, he plans to do significant travelling back-and-forth for the first few years of his research.

Though Farrell’s research methods — which combine data science with ethnographic fieldwork — are unusual for his field, he emphasized the insights that could be gained from the use of both methods. Additionally, he said that he will draw from a number of different disciplines, including energy studies, religion, sociology, law, science and economics.

“Being at Yale has been very valuable. The resources I was able to draw on helped me put together this project,” Farrell said. “At F&ES, I have colleagues ranging from a climatologist to an economist. I’m swimming in this interdisciplinary world. I give a lot of credit to the culture of the University and my department.”

The NSF’s CAREER Program was founded in 1995, according to the NSF’s website.

Madison Mahoney | madison.mahoney@yale.edu .