The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s draft 10-year Strategic Plan envisions a greater role for the social sciences in transitioning to a new era of climate change ‘decision support’, sustained assessment, and communications.  But what is the role of the social scientist, as distinct from the natural scientist, in characterizing the climate change problem and connecting it to societal decisionmaking?

Earlier post:  Draft federal climate research plan gives new emphasis to ‘decision support,’ sustained assessments, and communications

Text of draft plan:  United States Global Change Research Program Strategic Plan 2012-2021

I submitted the following comment to the USGCRP on the Draft Strategic Plan, November 29,2011:

General Comment

This new USGCRP Strategic Plan is potentially a big step in the right direction. While the review draft could be strengthened in a number of ways, I think the real proof will be in how the plan is implemented. In this regard, the draft raises some issues of concern.

One key concern has to do with the problem of the role ofthe social sciences — a matter that is increasingly salient given the new directions the USGCRP seeks to move in. It’s not clear to me that there is anything like the kind of fit for the social sciences that there has been for the geosciences, for several reasons.

The USGCRP was established during a period of significant relevant development in Earth system science, and was designed and led from the beginning to support work in atmospheric science, oceanography, biogeochemistry– observing systems, modeling, process studies. Leading mainstream scientists, working well within the mainstream of their fields, and publishing in leading mainstream journals, could readily be entrained in substantial numbers to produce a large body of scientific work with a pretty well-focused agenda that developed naturally out of their disciplinary skills and the kinds of research questions central to their fields, even if some of it stretched disciplinary boundaries.

When it came time to develop more fully the climate change impacts work, in particular requiring the talents of ecosystem scientists, the fit with theUSGCRP was not nearly as natural. A program that had been developed for years to support a large number of geoscientists, with agency programs and budgets and managers attuned to this work, i.e., IPCC Working Group I work basically, was quite different from how work in the environmental sciences was configured.  That work tended to deal with very small spatial scales, was typically place-based, tended to be species-specific, and the use-inspired issues were mainly in areas such as biological diversity and conservation biology. They had a bit of a challenge in trying to incorporate the work on global climatic disruption into their framework. And the USGCRP didn’t really know how to deal with it — climate science wanted something from them that they really weren’t focused on. To this day have we really seen the developent of a large community of environmental scientists with a well-orchestrated climate change impacts research agenda and taking the lead in pushing for it? How much of the literature on environmental issues that is cited in IPCC Working Group II reports is funded out of the USGCRP crosscut?

I believe the social sciences may be even farther away from USGCRP agendas and issues. From my reading of the draft Strategic Plan and myknowledge of the USGCRP, its leadership and history, I suspect the current leadership, for the most part, has not really even begun seriously to come to grips with the matter of the social sciences, beyond the platitudes about how natural scientists should become more interdisciplinary and find ways to involve the social scientists and deal with ‘human dimensions’.  I just don’t find that particularly helpful, as such. In order to even begin to discuss this type of integration, it will take people who actually know, in some depth, who the key players are and how the research agendas are framed among the leading mainstream practitioners of the social sciences, i.e., political science, sociology, anthropology, geography, social psychology, archaeology, linguistics, history.

I know political science the best, but I think it’s probably safe to say that NONE of these fields has climate change — or really, let’s put it more broadly, none of these fields has environment, energy, or science policy — central to their research agendas and theoretical-conceptual frameworks. Look at what their leading scholars are writing and talking about. Look at their journals and dissertations. Political science is primarily about standing outside the political system (intellectually, analytically speaking) and empirically analyzing its structure, processes, etc. The presidency, Congress, the court system, state and local governments, international relations, political parties and elections, interest groups, comparative politics focused on governments of other countries. The leading practitioners, with very few exceptions, don’t focus on anything the USGCRP is into. They are not, for the most part, focused on helping ‘decisionmakers’ and ‘stakeholders’ (whomever that might be – in the draft Strategic Plan they’re left even more poorly defined by the USGCRP than ‘global change’) solve problems. They’re not interested in being attached to someone else’s research agenda, what someone in a transdisciplinary problem-solving context wants them to work on. The ‘human dimensions’ community includes some excellent scholars in various disciplines, but they are for the most part not central to the social science mainstream. And there are not very many of them. A partial exception might be the relative handful of economists like Nordhaus who do analysis of mitigation policy and related issues. But the field of economics is largely concerned with other matters, and how much of the current economics research that is cited in IPCC Working Group III reports is funded out of the USGCRP crosscut?

So: WHICH social sciences, WHICH social scientists, with what current research interests, are supposedly going to take on a big role in moving the USGCRP into a new era of societal relevance? In a program that has a leadership that has never been strong on social science expertise or specific detailed vocabulary or scholarly networks. For a government that hasn’t had anywhere to put mission-oriented (i.e., not NSF) social science funding and research.

Finally, and this is a big issue that I’ll only touch on here– I’m not sure to what extent the proper role of the social sciences is to do research that is user-needs-driven by public officials and designed to help ‘decisionmakers’ solve problems. Shouldn’t political scientists, for example, maintain an arm’s length relationship with the power elite, rather than become the servants of power?  Social scientists should be careful about getting entrained into a service role that could compromise their intellectual independence and ability to speak truth to power.

Good social science that analyzes and explains how the system works, if it is not strictly of academic interest within a discipline, may be perceived as threatening to the powerful – perhaps especially to the anti-intellectual know-nothings so prominent in Congress today who have influence over research appropriations. I don’t mean to over-simplify a very complex terrain, but the USGCRP should be careful about how it talks about the role of social science in the program until the leadership decides to bring together a critical mass of relevant people who are capable of discussing knowledgeably the professional realities of the social sciences and their research and normative agendas.

Reviewer’s name, affiliation: Rick Piltz, Climate Science Watch