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Global Change is a Societal Issue in Need of Social Science

We need to better incorporate the social and biophysical sciences into global change research, say the authors of a recent commentary in Nature Climate Change. With insights from social science, global change research will better transform into action.

From global change science to action with social sciences” summarizes key points made in a white paper by the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) Social Sciences Task Force. Charged with identifying ways to better integrate the social sciences throughout the USGCRP, the Task Force proposed a framework for linking research on the human dimensions of climate change with decision-making (see illustration). Adaptation and mitigation activities in response to climate change happen in contexts at multiple spatial and temporal scales, and activities that integrate and translate social science research are key to aiding decision-making processes that will achieve the best results.

At the national level, USGCRP has recognized the need to integrate the social sciences with the physical climate sciences in order to find actionable solutions. The recommendations of the Task Force illustrate ways in which the social sciences can inform the processes by which research and knowledge is turned into action. The conceptual framework, with its emphasis on common data standards and flow of information both to and from fundamental research and decision contexts, will help USGCRP build new partnerships and communities of research and practice to find solutions to climate change challenges.

The commentary relied upon contributions from current and alumni AAAS S&T Policy Fellows®. Lead author Chris Weaver (2005–07 Executive Branch Fellow, Environmental Protection Agency – EPA) is deputy director of USGCRP, on assignment from EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Additional authors include: Melissa Kenney at the University of Maryland (2010–12 Executive Branch Fellow, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration); Elisabeth Larson at NASA Goddard (2012–14 Executive Branch Fellow, NASA); and, Leah Nichols at the National Science Foundation (NSF) (2011–13 Executive Branch Fellow, NSF).

The participation of fellows on this commentary is a testament to the success of the AAAS Fellowship program in integrating scientists into the policy arena, as well as a testament to the significant skills fellows have in tackling inter- and transdisciplinary issues.

Conceptual framework: Understanding boundary management, science integration, and translational activities.

My experiences as an urban ecologist collaborating with social scientists has helped me manage the challenges interdisciplinary groups face frequently. I helped represent NASA's interests, needs, and expertise in the development of the conceptual framework, and will in turn help NASA use the framework for coordinating its own research and applications in climate change science.

This framework connects the scientific knowledge base with the need to support decision-making about responses to global change. It identifies bridging activities — including participatory decision-making and the development of information systems — that offer opportunities to improve the integration of the social sciences. It also identifies boundary activities – e.g., indicators, scenarios, and valuation – that offer the greatest potential for near-term progress.