Social scientists demand bigger role in environmental research

Social science cornerstones should be integrated into work on global climate change, say scientists Copyright: Flickr/Oxfam International

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[RIO DE JANEIRO] Social science leaders have launched a campaign to make their work more "visible", saying that their research into global environmental change is being ignored.

They argue that social scientists should be central to the process of identifying research topics, and framing questions and methodologies in international research on global change.

"Social scientists are often called upon to sell solutions found by natural scientists," Heide Hackmann, executive director of the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC), told the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation and Sustainable Development, which is underway in Brazil (12–15 June).

Instead, she said, they should be involved at the outset of research projects. "A lot of social scientists doing this work … have remained invisible. Our role is to make them visible."

This article is part of our coverage of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development — the ICSU-led conference that is taking place on 11-15 June 2012, and looking at science and policy before Rio+20

Hackmann presented an ISSC report outlining six social science questions — or ‘cornerstones’ — which would apply to research regardless of the subject being studied, and which could be used as lenses for understanding issues such as climate change.

For example, applying the ‘interpretation and subjective sense-making’ cornerstone to climate change research would address the question: "why, in the face of decades of scientific knowledge, do we have  climate change indifference and denial?"

Another cornerstone, governance and decision-making, would ask: "what is the role of science — and what is the role of emotion — in policymaking?"

Although there was a "real commitment" to these principles at the international organisational level, there was a poor understanding of how to implement them at the level of ordinary (natural) scientists, Hackmann told SciDev.Net.

Olive Shisana, president of the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa, said: "Social sciences should be at the centre of all sustainable development work, for the simple reason that we are dealing with human behaviour".

The ISSC is now developing good practice guidelines to address these issues, and to encourage social scientists to take up global change research.

"We must mobilise social scientists to take the lead in reaching out to natural scientists: it’s a two-way process," said Hackmann.

The ‘cornerstones framework’ has already been taken up by the French national funding agency for assessing proposals in the field of global environmental change, to elicit responses from mainstream social scientists.

In early 2013, the ISSC will launch a fund to enable international teams of social scientists to assume leadership roles in interdisciplinary research.

The fund will include provisions to involve developing countries and for capacity building for international collaboration.

It will use the cornerstones framework when issuing funding calls.

Funding and willingness aside, some important challenges to full integration remain, said Shisana. These include: defining integrated science; measuring quality; agreeing on shared methodology and acceptable evidence which can differ in the natural and social sciences; and finding journals willing to publish results.

Link to full ISSC report [552kB]

This article is part of our news coverage of the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development. Read more in our live blog.