15 September 2021

Considering the social science dimension in engineering and technology

By Dr Siti Salwa Hashim

Last weekend, this writer stumbled upon a handbook by Knut H. Sørensen titled The role of Social Science in Engineering. In it, the author quoted the dictionary definition of engineering as “the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and sources of energy in nature are made useful to people’’, a definition that clearly accentuates that the end product is ‘made useful to people’.

As an example, Sørensen quoted Thomas Edison’s assessment of the competitive situation of gas, when Edison embarked on the invention of electrical lighting. Edison’s system was designed by optimising the cross-section of copper power cables proportionate to the price of gas and copper. His ultimate aim? To make electrical lighting cheaper than lighting by using gas.

Another example quoted by the author was the synthetic fertiliser production in Norway which was based on the comprehensive study on the international fertiliser market and the decline in the supply of guano.

Coincidentally, this writer is currently working on public perception of hydrogen fuel cell buses in Kuching. Being a regular public bus user during her student days in Penang and with the introduction of the hydrogen fuel bus in Kuching, the writer is excited to know the thoughts of the locals on the introduction of public transport using this ‘new gas’. This is because public perceptions of hydrogen, in general, are merely guessed by the research and industry community in Sarawak, and in Malaysia. Consequently, researchers such as this writer have no idea how the general public would respond to the prospect of hydrogen fuel cell buses in Kuching.

Countries such as the European Union (EU) and Australia are heavily invested in hydrogen fuel cell development and therefore have set specific research, development, and demonstration and deployment targets. The European Clean Urban Transport for Europe (CUTE) and the Ecological City Transport System (ECTOS) projects, where about 30 hydrogen fuel cell buses are being operated in several European cities, are two notable demonstration projects. In Australia, hydrogen fuel cell bus trials are being conducted as part of the Sustainable Transport Energy for Perth (STEP) program.

These demonstration projects were to gather real-world data that would help in assessing the viability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and their supporting infrastructure. On the other hand, the successful introduction of these vehicles will depend not only on technical maturity but also on public attitude and acceptance of these new fuels and technologies.

Safety, high cost, unsatisfactory performance, and the absence of refuelling infrastructure are typical factors that could hinder public acceptance. To overcome these obstacles, it is imperative to determine public consensus on the investment made towards developing hydrogen-based technologies.

The attitude towards technology, and the risk, as well as satisfaction perceived from this technology, are dependent on the individual and his experience, interest and social background. Additionally increased concern on environmental and energy security issues, and the massive investment outlay required for research and development, and infrastructure imply that any large-scale projects must have the support of the public. With a better understanding of public perception, stakeholders can take proactive measures to anticipate and manage public responses.

To address the knowledge gap of public perception on hydrogen, and its relevance to Kuching, an online survey for research titled “Public Perception of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Buses in Kuching” was launched, targeting the public aged 18 years and above. Aimed at understanding the extent to which knowledge, awareness and perception influence public attitude and acceptance towards hydrogen fuel cell buses in the city, it is anticipated that the results of the survey will give insights into the public’s acceptance of hydrogen fuel cell buses in Kuching.

The cross-disciplinary study involves researchers from Swinburne Sarawak’s School of Chemical Engineering and Science, and researchers in the Accounting, Marketing and Law disciplines from the School of Business. For more information on the research and related survey, readers are welcome to get in touch with the writer.

Dr Siti Salwa Hashim is a lecturer from the School of Chemical Engineering and Science, Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at shashim@swinburne.edu.my.