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Dispatch: Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Agenda at the US Environmental Protection Agency.

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 16 February 2011

I recently responded to a broadcast call from the US Environmental Protection Agency to provide input into the shape of their social and behavioral science research agenda. I just finished an interview with the consultant they hired to gather input. The interview was conducted by a general environmental consultant firm under contract with EPA. It consisted of a few semi-structured interview questions that were very general, for example "what are the most important questions studied by social and behavioral sciences?" So one answer to that question that is basically useless is "how do humans behave?" There we some more focused questions though, for example what are the top 5 environmental problems facing the globe that EPA should be studying and how should social and behavioral sciences be involved.

The more important part of the discussion came after the semi-structured interview when we just talked about some recommendations I had on their research agenda background document and also the database they sent out. The research agenda itself was clearly heavily dominated by economists: Behavioral Economics, Decision Theory, Management Science, and Risk Perception. I told her that EPA needs to cast a wider net and make sure that political science, anthro, psych, and sociology are involved. She mentioned that several other interviewees had already made this point, in particular about political science. I also said that the current list is missing some obvious things. For example, there is not a bullet for policy analysis/governance---this is basically what EPA does when passing policies and programs! Also missing is something about coupled human-natural systems, integrated systems science, or social-ecological systems however you want to think about it. Trying to strengthen social sciences is great and it might make sense from the bureaucratic politics perspective to pretend that social science is the only thing that matters, but in reality we know that solving environmental problems requires equal and integrated contributions from social and natural sciences. A more minor logistical recommendation was that they make their database of Federal agency social science projects searchable, with instant links to papers and other products, and perhaps with a social network capacity to link researchers.

They have some next steps on the way, in particular some type of focus groups that build on these interviews. The question is whether or not these are participation exercises in vain. These initial statement from EPA apparently came from a fairly small and narrow group and they might just pick and choose the input that supports their initial preferences rather than adjust the agenda in light of comments, criticisms, and recommendations. But the consultant said that the EPA people seemed pretty open and flexible compared to other agencies she has worked with, so maybe there is some hope. I'll keep participating through the focus group anyway, and see what happens.