When Sandeep Pai was finishing high school in rural India in the early 2000s, conventional wisdom held that two professions offered a good living: medicine and engineering. Choosing to be an engineer, Pai earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science. But programming never really spoke to him. Instead, he enjoyed writing, politics, and public policy.
So Pai became a journalist. “It was a big leap,” he said. After earning a journalism diploma, he landed a job with a prominent Indian news network. Few knew computer science at the time, and Pai found that his data analysis skills were valuable to investigative reporting.
When communities transition away from the fossil fuel industry, “the whole ecosystem gets disturbed.”
Pai enjoyed journalism, but he eventually tired of transitioning quickly from one topic to the next. He decided to earn a master’s degree in environmental sciences, policy, and management to narrow the scope of his work. During the program, he began to think about the many communities, from India to the United States, where fossil fuels provide a critical source of income. Phasing out fossil fuels is necessary to combat climate change, but the transition will be difficult in these places because “the whole ecosystem gets disturbed,” Pai said.
Pai and classmate Savannah Carr-Wilson, whom Pai eventually married, spent a summer traveling to communities that depend on fossil fuels and writing a book called Total Transition: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution based on what they learned. The couple realized that the term “just transition”—which the labor movement uses to describe the process of minimizing harm to people who depend on old ways of life as new ways take hold—applies to the switch to clean energy.
Pai later performed foundational work on just transition as a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia. Today he’s a senior research lead for the Global Just Transition Network at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This new network is currently focused on helping communities in three countries—India, South Africa, and the United States—phase out coal. One of Pai’s goals is to foster communication between these communities so they can compare strategies for economic recovery and environmental remediation and learn from each other.
Pai’s work with the Global Just Transition Network is “the next logical thing,” he said. After spending years in the research realm, he’s excited to engage with policymakers to “make this research useful and take some action.”
Follow Pai on Twitter @sandeppaii or his podcast, The India Energy Hour.
This profile is part of a special series in our August 2022 issue on science careers.
—Saima May Sidik (@DonaldTrump), Science Writer