Rising to the Challenge: Integrating Social Science into NSF Environmental Observatories

Sep 30, 2007 | Shalini Vajjhala, Alan J. Krupnick, Eleanor B McCormick, Morgan Grove, Patricia McDowell, Charles Redman, Leonard A. Shabman, Mitchell Small

In early 2006, following meetings of the CLEANER (Collaborative Large-Scale Engineering Analysis Network for Environmental Research) Social Science Committee and Executive Committee, plans were developed for a workshop on improving social science integration into CLEANER and other NSF Environmental Observatories (EOs). This effort was motivated by the realization that first, social, behavioral, and economic science theory and research were centrally important to resolving the major "grand challenge" questions being addressed by the observatories, and second, more coordinated research efforts across social science, natural science, and engineering disciplines were necessary to "rise to these challenges."

This report is the product of these early discussions. Developed for a National Science Foundation-funded workshop, "Integrating Social Science at NSF Observatories," held on January 24-26, 2007 in Arlington, Virginia, the goal of this paper is to address both fundamental research and process questions associated with social science integration at NSF Environmental Observatories (EOs). Given the broad aims of this effort, the workshop and this report target ongoing observatory efforts including National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the Water and Environmental Research Systems (WATERS) Network, and parallel developments within the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, as well as addressing the lessons learned from past observatory initiatives, such as Collaborative Large-Scale Engineering Analysis Network for Environmental Research (CLEANER) and Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI).

These observatories are intended to provide multidecadal, continent-scale platforms for environmental science data collection; however, for a variety of reasons, the process of integrating social science into these efforts needs improvement and encouragement. Because NEON and WATERS are now in the early stages of agenda setting, there is currently a window of opportunity to begin to address basic social science integration issues within ongoing infrastructure planning and decisionmaking. To this end, a workshop was convened to bring together program officers from participating NSF Directorates, members of the different observatories' leadership, and representatives of the broader community of social and natural scientists. The workshop discussions offered a wide range of ideas for long-term multidisciplinary research and identified many overarching research opportunities and process barriers to linking social and natural science data collection at the observatories.

This report builds on these discussions and expands on the implementation issues facing the EOs as they move toward greater social science integration and large-scale, long-term multidisciplinary research. We identify three research themes--human activities and behaviors, human impacts and responses, and human welfare and development--as opportunity areas for potential advances in core social environmental science research and future collaboration at the EOs. Based on lessons learned from ongoing integration efforts within NSF's Coupled Natural-Human (CNH) program, the Human and Social Dynamics (HSD) priority area, and the LTER Network, we also identify four primary implementation issues--organization, funding, infrastructure, and data--that are central to integration at the observatories. Each of these issues is individually described here, specifically in the context of improving integration, to lay the groundwork for integrated EO planning in the near term.

Finally, to build on the interest and enthusiasm for integration, evidenced by the support of both social and natural scientists for this workshop, and to maintain the momentum from these dynamic discussions, we also make several key recommendations targeted at the research and process issues outlined in this paper. We propose, in collaboration with NSF and the broad community of social and natural scientists to (1) initiate a demonstration or test-bed project for integrated observation; (2) develop a cross-observatory advisory committee to guide integration efforts; (3) coordinate with the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate at NSF to align incentives for social scientists to participate in observatory planning and agenda setting; (4) engage NSF and other funding agencies to design programs and funding vehicles to sustain collaborative observatory research in the long term; and (5) establish a center, modeled on the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), to encourage and strengthen observatory collaborations. These recommendations are only a first step toward integration, and we see this paper and workshop as important building blocks in ongoing efforts to address existing and emerging grand challenges in environmental science.

Acknowledgements and Disclaimer

The authors would like to thank all workshop participants and presenters for their contributions to a dynamic and innovative two-day dialogue and gratefully acknowledge their time and efforts. We sincerely appreciate the support of Pat Brezonik, program officer with the NSF Engineering Directorate (ENG), whose financial, logistical, intellectual and moral support over the past 15 months helped to make this work possible. Special thanks to all of the participating National Science Foundation (NSF) Directors and program officers for their active involvement in workshop discussions and for their financial and logistical support. We especially appreciate the contributions of NSF program officers Elizabeth Blood and Henry Gholz, Biological Sciences (BIO); Cheryl Eavey, Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE); Doug James, Geosciences (GEO);and their respective Directorates.

Additional thanks to David Lightfoot, Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation, heading the Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science (SBE) and members of the "Big Green Working Group" including SBE/SES Division Director Ed Hackett and program officers Tom Baerwald, Bob O'Connor, and Paul Ciccantell for their early input and comments on this paper and initiative. Several members of the environmental science community also helped this effort enormously by providing detailed descriptions of their own collaborative experiences, and we would especially like to thank Coupled Natural-Human Systems program principal investigators David Campbell, John Loomis, Jiaguo Qi, and Billie Turner for their comments and contributions to this report. Finally, we are grateful for the support of our many colleagues from a wide variety of disciplines for sharing their experiences with initiating and supporting multidisciplinary research and demonstrating their enthusiasm for new interdisciplinary research looking forward.

Although this white paper was first developed as a background document for the January workshop, this final report and the recommendations herein are solely the views of the authors and do not represent official endorsements by the workshop participants.