Faculty voice:

Robert Richardson: Insights from social science

Dec. 7, 2016

Robert Richardson is an ecological economist and associate professor in the Department of Community Sustainability, in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson said: “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That's why physics is easy and sociology is hard.” [Twitter, Feb. 5, 2016]

His comment about social science rings true for me in a new way given my service on the Board of Scientific Counselors of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and as chair of the subcommittee on the Sustainable and Health Communities research program in the Office of Research and Development at EPA.

The Board, as well as other EPA advisory bodies, have recommended that the Agency invest resources to more effectively draw upon the contributions of the behavioral and social sciences when considering environmental policy alternatives. More recently, the White House Executive Order 13707, “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People” (Sept. 15, 2015) 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 my role on the BOSC, I was asked to develop and deliver a workshop or “bootcamp” on the integration of behavioral and social sciences in environmental policy and management at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Preparations for this workshop have dominated my attention for the past seven to eight months. Working closely with the vice-chair of the subcommittee, we created content for a two-day workshop with scientists from EPA regional environmental research laboratories such as the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, and national research programs such as Human Health Risk Assessment and Safe and Sustainable Water.

Group of people at the EPA ORB workshopThe workshop was held in October at the EPA’s campus at Research Triangle Park, NC. About 40 scientists were in attendance, and more than 200 agency staff members had registered to participate via webinar. Many of these individuals are trained in fields such as toxicology, chemistry or environmental engineering, so the concepts and methods used in the social sciences were largely unfamiliar to most members of this group.

We discussed several key concepts that provide the foundation of the behavioral and social sciences, as well as some of the myths about social science and the validity of its research findings. We provided examples from research that highlighted the importance of stakeholder engagement and we discussed contributions from economics, sociology, psychology 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.

It was inspiring to see these scientists engage deeply with the material and discussions. Although they were open and honest about some of their doubts and skepticism about social science, they raised useful questions and offered numerous suggestions to underscore the value of expanding social science research throughout the agency. The workshop concluded with small group discussions about ideas for how they could integrate tools and approaches from the behavioral and social sciences into their regional research laboratories and national research programs.

As an applied economist with interests in interdisciplinary scholarship, I was edified and encouraged to see these scientists willingly engage with the foundations and tools from the behavioral and social sciences to consider the opportunities for enhancing the value of their own research. And as a faculty member from MSU, I was honored to have had the opportunity to offer my perspectives on the value of social science to scientists with the federal agency charged with protecting human health and the environment.