Bringing Insights from Social Science to Environmental Science and Policy

By Robert B. Richardson and Courtney Flint

Since 2014, we have had the pleasure of serving on EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), and as the chair and vice-chair of the subcommittee for Sustainable and Health Communities research. We provide advice, information, and recommendations to EPA on technical and management issues of its research programs.

The Board, as well as other EPA advisory bodies such as the Science Advisory Board, have recommended that EPA direct resources to more effectively draw upon the contributions of the behavioral and social sciences—like behavioral economics and psychology—when considering environmental policy alternatives. More recently, a White House executive order directed all federal agencies to draw upon the insights from behavioral science to “design government policies to better serve the American people.” Earlier this year, in our roles on the BOSC, we were invited to develop and deliver a workshop or “bootcamp” on the integration of behavioral and social sciences in environmental policy and management at EPA.

group photo The workshop was held on October 4th and 5th at EPA’s campus at Research Triangle Park, NC. About 40 scientists and program administrators were in attendance, and more than 100 Agency staff members participated via webinar. Many of these individuals trained in fields such as toxicology, chemistry, or environmental engineering, so the concepts and methods used in the social sciences were largely unfamiliar.

We began the workshop by introducing several key concepts that provide the foundation of the behavioral and social sciences, and we tried to dispel some of the myths about social science and the validity of its research findings. This overview was followed by two case studies that highlighted several insights from applications of social science in environmental contexts. The first case study focused on the social dimensions of water systems, and the applications ranged from the design of decision-support tools to analyses of drinking water disparities and the benefits of drinking water quality.  The second case study focused on the social dimensions of environmental contamination, and the applications ranged from participatory social science to analyses of the social effects of contamination and the economic benefits of remediation.

We provided examples from research that underscored the importance of stakeholder engagement, and we discussed contributions from economics, psychology, sociology, and other fields to demonstrate the value in understanding the drivers of pro-environmental behavior and the willingness of people to confront tradeoffs that are inherent to environmental decision-making. Many of the discussions emphasized the importance of considering social and spatial contexts when interpreting the generalizability of the findings from social science, particularly in environmental justice issues. Throughout the workshop, we highlighted the opportunities and challenges in the integration of social science in environmental health sciences.

It was inspiring to see these scientists engage deeply with the workshop material and discussions. Although some of them were open and honest about their doubts and skepticism about social science, they raised useful questions and offered numerous suggestions to demonstrate the value of incorporating social science research throughout EPA. The workshop concluded with small group discussions about how each of them could integrate these tools and approaches into their national research laboratories and programs.

As applied social scientists with interests in interdisciplinary scholarship, we were edified and encouraged to see these scientists willingly engage with the foundations and tools from the behavioral and social sciences, and consider the opportunities for enhancing the value of their own research with social science applications. As scholars and instructors, we were honored to have had the opportunity to offer our perspectives on the value of social science to scientists with the federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment.


About the Authors:

Robert B. Richardson is an ecological economist and Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State University.

Courtney G. Flint is a natural resource sociologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Social Work & Anthropology at Utah State University.

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