LOXODONTA AFRICANA by Andries BothaThe World Social Science Report 2013 presents the urgency and complexity of global environmental change and stresses that social sciences have a key role to play in understanding the human aspects of these problems and in proposing solutions in different contexts. But are the social sciences able to play that role? Are social scientists ready to work jointly on such themes with other scientists? Are they ready to propose solutions? Answering these questions is not easy. The picture that comes out of the report is mixed in this respect. The glass is half empty and half full.

Glass half empty: Obstacles to the engagement of social scientists

To start with there are not enough social scientists where they are most needed – in countries in the South and in areas the most affected by drought, hurricanes, climate change and other major environment changes. Second these countries do not produce many social science publications on these issues. Europe, particularly western Europe, produces the most on global environmental change, followed closely by North America. Far behind, yet with a significant production come Oceania and East Asia. Even further behind are Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The Arab states and the Commonwealth of Independent States produce very little. Within regions disparities are also high. The countries producing the largest number of publications on of global environmental change are by far the United States followed by the United Kingdom.

One reason for this state of affairs is that in most southern and emergent countries social science research is not well funded nor does it get much support from universities and research councils. Public funding for social science research is limited: several emergent countries prefer to invest in natural science rather than social science research. Within the social sciences economic studies tend to be favoured as they are seen as more likely to provide answers to immediate problems. Funding for research on global environmental change is even more limited. Where social science research on global environmental and climate change does happen, it tends to be funded by international organisations and donor agencies and thus runs the risk of not being considered independent.

Another reason for this sorry situation is that social scientists themselves are often reluctant to engage in research on global environmental and climate change as they see it as more the domain of natural scientists. They prefer to study more traditional social science themes such as inequality, democracy, identity, multiculturalism or the impact of globalisation. And there are no incentives for them to do so given that few social science disciplinary journals publish articles on global environmental change. Social science researchers get more credit and recognition if they publish in prestigious journals within their own discipline and on traditional themes. This is what counts in terms of career advancement.

Finally, bar a few economists, social scientists are rarely invited to participate in multi-disciplinary research projects or in special commissions set up to study the impact of global environmental change and propose solutions. When they are, they are, in the main, expected to provide ready-made solutions to change human behaviour.

The glass is also half full…

Many authors from all over the world have contributed to the latest World Social Science Report. They present the consequences of global environmental change in different parts of the world and for different groups of people. They highlight the variety and complexity of the problems faced and illustrate the difficulty of having instant ready-made solutions whilst there is still a lot learn from history, local traditions and knowledge and analyses of people’s preferences and their behaviour. The production of social science research in some countries has increased faster than in many western countries – in South Africa, Brazil, and particularly in China. Indeed, the production of social science articles in global environmental change registered journals in the Web of Science database has increased significantly (30 times between 1990/1994 and 2005/2009). The number of social science articles produced on climate change in China, in journals registered in the national database (China National Knowledge Infrastructure), seems literally to have exploded, multiplying tenfold between 2006 and 2010.

The times they are a-changing

The number of social science publications in multidisciplinary and science journals is also increasing. More social scientists are getting involved in different commissions that advise government; in some cases, in the United States for example, they are being asked to chair such committees. In addition, surveys have been conducted to try and understand consumption patterns, the behaviour of individuals and groups with regard to climate change, their resilience and sustainability strategies. Programmes on sustainable development are being introduced at all educational levels in different countries to sensitise young people and prepare them to adapt and change. Green economics and green chemistry are also gaining ground in decision-making circles; last but not least many incremental step changes are happening at the local level.

So things are changing – slowly. Recent dramatic weather events tend to accelerate consciousness of the urgency of the problems we face and of the need to change. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan and subsequent disasters, Japanese scientific authorities have been asking scientists to pay more attention to societal issues and now demand that every research team working on the causes and consequences of environmental change include scientists from the natural and social sciences.

Let us hope that no more disasters are needed to get us moving. The World Social Science Report 2013 is engaging social scientists around the world, encouraging them to become more active in global environmental issues, to get more involved in making sure things happen, and to suggest how this could happen.

See introduction to Part 2 of the World Social Science Report 2013, Regional divides in global environmental change research capacity, for a fuller discussion of these issues

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