In defense of the Social Sciences in Global Environmental Assessments

A response to “Why 2018 is a big year for global environmental assessments” by the International Council for Science

Update: Following the initial publication of this article on LinkedIn, two of the interviewees of the original blog-post have provided a response (scroll down). In particular the response by Martin Kowarsch (MCC) is very constructive and worth reading! Thanks ICSU and Martin!


On 12 December 2017, the International Science Council (ICSU) published an interesting blog-post on global environmental assessments.

Using an interview format with three experts – Bob Watson (Chair of IPBES), Bob Scholes (co-Chair of the IPBES assessment of Land Degradation), and Martin Kowarsch, head of the working group Scientific Assessments at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change) – the post highlights various aspects of global environmental assessments and the increasing focus of assessments on policy options.

With the focus on policy options, tensions become more obvious across the different and divergent stakeholder perspectives, and this makes it more important to explicitly treat divergent viewpoints and values. Increasingly, we need more from the social sciences to understand the drivers behind problems, but also to understand the social and political ramifications of policies.

So far so good. The inclusion of as many scientific disciplines as possible, including those from social sciences and humanities, into global environmental assessments is necessary anyway. Unfortunately, the post makes a number of further references to social sciences that are either in dire need of explanation or even false.

The first one:

It’s up to the scientific community to show that they have something to say on solutions, not just the problems. We think it’s possible, but many reforms are needed, notably in the social sciences.

The first part of this quote I agree with. Not in the sense that there is nothing to show in terms of solutions as there is plenty, but in terms of a necessity to better connect the scientific findings on solutions to the policy processes.

The second part of the above quote needs an explanation. Does it call for a reform of the way social science research is included in assessments? Or a reform of social sciences as such? In case of the latter: Why? What kind of reforms? This call for reform in social sciences seems to be en vogue in certain circles in the global environmental change research community. A keynote speaker at the recent International Sustainability Science Conference even called for a “revolution in social sciences” – also without providing any explanation of reasons for and aims of such a reform.

The next problematic quote:

Despite this more explicit focus on solutions, the social science community is not well organized to deliver. Take the IPCC: it’s very strong in Working Group 1 to synthesize knowledge on climate change, but in terms of socio-economic impacts of climate change and solution options, knowledge aggregation is still quite weak. Apart from the Integrated Assessment Modelling community – they are well organized to integrate different disciplines and to explain variation of results through meta-analyses.

As a research manager in the social sciences, I am well aware of the challenges to the organization of social sciences. However, when it comes to delivering to global environmental assessments, I fail to see how the social sciences are less well organized than the natural sciences.

In fact, I rather see structural disadvantages for the social sciences. For instance, the mandate of the IPCC requiring reports to be neutral with respect to policy, thereby, through a false understanding of normative social sciences research, de-facto excluding critical social sciences. Another example is the predominantly natural science framed scope and structure of the assessments, and that “natural scientists enjoy widespread authority, economists and social scientists, not to mention civil society stakeholders, enjoy less social status and authority” (Haas 2017).

And let alone the dominance of certain disciplines, epistemic communities, and cultural backgrounds of authors that make it “(…) hard to continue to think of the IPCC as an organization that is merely producing assessments of the state of current knowledge—as an organization separate from the fields of knowledge production that it is charged with assessing.” (Hughes and Patterson (2017) ). To put it provocatively: The Integrated Assessment Modelling community is of course better organized to provide input to the IPCC because of its symbiotic relationship with the IPCC. That community made and continues to shape the assessments and the assessments made and continue to shape that community.

It is not the organization of social sciences that is hampering social science knowledge uptake in the assessments, but the structures and processes of the assessments.

In blaming the organization of social sciences the quote also fails to understand a very important difference between the natural and social sciences (credits to my colleague Lennart Olsson for pointing me to this): In the social science, conflicting paradigms co-exist side by side and interact for very long time periods. Therefore we can never (and should never) get the same coherence of ideas in the social sciences as in the natural sciences. There will and should always be different and conflicting perspectives in the social sciences. In fact, what this quote and the call for reforms of social sciences seems to aim at, is to depoliticize the social sciences and reduce the diversity in terms of paradigms, ontological and epistemological approaches, and world perspectives into the simple language of integrated assessment models.

This is a remarkable lack of understanding of social sciences given that the interviewees repeatedly and correctly stress the importance of diversity and the recognition of different values, for example:

The key thing here is not that you’re trying to find the single “right” answer, but the distribution of well-founded answers, in order to provide the decision maker with the full set of arguments.

Or

With the focus on policy options, tensions become more obvious across the different and divergent stakeholder perspectives, and this makes it more important to explicitly treat divergent viewpoints and values.

And the final problematic statement in the otherwise interesting blog-post:

One big problem is that many social scientists are unwilling to focus on policy issues. They’re interested in politics or in broader social theories, and hardly anyone except for economists are delivering the kind of research we need on the critical analysis of policy options.

Sure, many scientists are wary of interacting with policy issues. Whether social scientists are more so than natural scientists remains to be shown. But at least those social scientist engaged in policy issues have a good grasp of the complexity of policy (and its inherent political and normative aspects) as well as the huge amount of social science research on policy making (including the role of assessments in policy making). Unfortunately, that is not always the case when prominent natural scientists venture into the field of ‘policy solutions’ or into assessment models incorporating ‘policy’ only by the proxy variable of ‘carbon prize’.

The last part of the above statement that “hardly anyone (…) [is] delivering the kind of research we need on the critical analysis of policy options” is simply too ignorant to deserve further comment.

In conclusion, there is certainly a challenge with aggregation of social science research findings and their uptake in global environmental assessments. But to attribute this to a perceived poor organization of social sciences, an assumed unwillingness of social scientists to engage with policy, or the proclaimed lack of analysis of policy options by social sciences, is partly false and certainly too simplistic. If it was that simple, there would not have been a vast amount of scholarly literature on these challenges!


Side note: In 2018, an IPCC Special Report on 1.5C, and a set of IPBES regional assessments will be released. But does that make 2018 a “big year for global environmental assessments” as the title of the blog post claims? Both are substantially important but institutionally minor assessments. And, how then to call 2019, a year in which the GSDR and GEO-6 are scheduled for release?

#Assessments#Disciplinary Imperialism#Humanities#International Science Council (ISC)#IPBES#IPCC#Social Sciences