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Social Science Has Impact on NSF’s Environmental R & E Plans

New NSF environmental agenda names social science as major component of portfolio

When the National Science Foundation (NSF) released its “10-year outlook” report regarding its Environmental Research and Education portfolio on January 8, 2003, during a formal public briefing, the term social science was being uttered by everyone at the podium, including NSF Director Rita Colwell. And the reason the report had such a clear focus on the importance of social science as a common thread in this newly planned portfolio was in large part because of the substantial input from the social science community, including members of ASA’s own Environment and Technology Section.

The report, Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century, was written by the NSF Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (AC-ERE) and outlines an ambitious agenda of NSF-funded environmental research and training over the next decade. NSF’s fiscal year 2001 environmental research and training budget totaled nearly $1 billion, and while social science has traditionally accounted for only a small slice of this, the expectation is that the social sciences would play a larger role in the new plan, which is very much organized to break through traditional disciplinary boundaries and capitalize on research and talent in more disciplines than environmental science has typically done.

NSF clearly treated the release of the report rather seriously, as evidenced by the fact that Colwell and National Science Board Chairman Warren Washington participated in the report’s release. David Skole, Chair of AC-ERE, Stephanie Pfirman, Past Chair of the Advisory Committee, and Margaret Leinen, NSF Coordinator, joined them in commenting on the report.

Praising the report’s groundbreaking nature, Colwell stated, “Environmental researchers and educators in the next decade must be synthesizers. To meet the complex challenges outlined in the report, and to respond to urgent human environmental needs, we must develop new ways of merging data sets, scientific approaches, and ideas across scales of space from the smallest to the largest, scales of time from the shortest to the longest, and scales of society, including investigations of human dimensions such as land use economics and social and resource dynamics.”

NSF’s Unique Position

The report concludes that NSF is uniquely suited to support fundamental research on complex environmental systems across broad areas because it funds all fields of science and engineering. In addition to support for science and engineering, that support includes support for the social sciences, the research and training agenda crosses disciplinary and organizational boundaries and aims to integrate new knowledge in education. Environmental programs need to be expanded, according to the report, in the social sciences, cyber-infrastructure, observing systems, and education.

“The concept of synthesis-based research is a touchstone for environmental research and education,” said Pfirman, “and long-term support is necessary to fulfill its promise.” Skole added that “[e]nvironmental science and engineering problems will provide great challenges and opportunities in the next decade. Environmental research and education are central elements of local, national, and global security, health, and prosperity.”

New instrumentation, data-handling, and methodological capabilities have expanded the horizons of what we can study and understand about the environment, the report states. “These advances create the demand for collaborative teams of engineers and natural and social scientists that go beyond current disciplinary research and educational frameworks, advisory committee members believe,” according to NSF.

Humans and Other Natural Systems

Leinen said that “an emerging culture of interdisciplinary science, engineering, and education needs to be supported and continued to be built from the ground up. The report is instructive about the necessary relationships that need to be built to do that.” Leinen indicated that the report emphasizes the “coupling of human and natural, biological and physical, and people and technology” and she stressed the necessity of involving the social sciences in all three of these necessary relationships.

Colwell echoed Leinen’s assertion that human and natural systems are coupled. “Increasingly apparent is the need to understand how people live in and use the environment, how this changes the environment, sometimes irreversibly, and how the resulting environmental changes affect people.”

Sociological Input

All this emphasis on social science was a distinct departure from past NSF environmental research agendas, but the frequent and prominent mention of the importance of the social sciences in the oral presentations of the speakers and in the publicity materials accompanying the report’s release was a welcome occurrence. This high visibility of social science—in a research domain not known for its understanding or linking with the social sciences—was a direct function of the hard work contributed by sociologists Tom Dietz, George Mason University, and Loren Lutzenhiser, Washington State University (now at Portland State University), who was acknowledged in the NSF report as a contributor. Dietz is Chair of the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Human Dimensions of Global Change.

The sociological public comments submitted to the NSF advisory committee were developed by a subcommittee of the Council of ASA’s Section on Environment and Technology (including Lutzenhiser, chair; Dietz; Phil Brown, Brown University, as chair-elect; and Rik Scarce, Michigan State University), with review by four other members.

Lutzenhiser said that sociologists will “continue to be committed to providing whatever assistance we can to help bring crucially needed social science insights and methods to bear on the study of significant problems in the society-environment dynamic.”

Commenting on the agenda, Lutzenhiser said, “NSF’s direction has nearly completely been set in the past by natural scientists, whose interests naturally lie with biophysical systems/problems and ‘big-science’—including, for example, laboratory, machine, and satellite—research investments. While these are all necessary, crucial, actually, the human aspects of the human/environment systems that are at risk have been largely neglected (or at least poorly supported) at NSF.” Explaining what he believed to be the reason for the turnaround, Lutzenhiser stated, “Any success in influencing the rethinking of the NSF environmental research agenda was also due to the substance of our comments, which pointed to insights about the society/environment dynamic developed by environmental sociologists over the past half century, though with little federal science funding of any kind.”

And in summarizing the sociological community’s longstanding efforts to achieve better recognition of the key role of social research in this domain of science, Lutzenhiser indicated that “there are many stories that could be told about all of this, but the sociological statement submitted to the advisory committee represents an effort to constructively engage an NSF that seems to have renewed interest in humans in the environment.”

Among the report’s findings are that NSF is a leader among federal agencies in fundamental, complex environmental science and engineering systems research across broad areas. NSF’s environmental programs need to be expanded, according to the report, in the social sciences, cyberinfrastructure, observing systems, and education. Synthesis-based research is a touchstone for environmental research and education, and long-term support of environmental research is necessary to fulfill its promise.

The AC-ERE was formed in response to a National Science Board (NSB) report, Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: The Role of the National Science Foundation. The report recommended an increase of $1 billion per year in NSF support for environmental research, education, and assessment and an emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches. The NSB report was catalyzed by the efforts of the National Council for Science and the Environment.

To obtain a copy of Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century, e-mail with your name and address.