Analysis: A 10th of Climate Change Research Funding Goes to Social Science

Climate march
(Photo: South Bend Voice/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Given that the ‘anthro’ in “anthropogenic climate change” refers to humanity’s influence as the primary driver of global warming, it would make sense that spending on climate-change research include healthy funding for social and behavioral scientists.

A new analysis published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science finds that funding for social science climate-change research is not only unhealthy but downright anemic at roughly 10 percent of the total spend. Meanwhile, total spending on climate-change research in total, regardless of discipline, comes to just 5 percent of all competitive research grants funded between 1950 and 2018.

Research into the social science of climate mitigation, a salient subset of climate research, is at 5 percent of the total climate-change research total. That’s 0.12 percent – an eight of a percentage point – of all spending on research, on climate change or anything else, since 1950.

“The funding of climate research appears to be based on the assumption that if natural scientists work out the causes, impacts, and technological remedies of climate change, then politicians, officials, and citizens will spontaneously change their behavior to tackle the problem,” write the paper’s authors, Indra Overland and Benjamin K. Sovacool. “The past decades have shown that this assumption does not hold.”

Overland is with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs’ Center for Energy Research while Sovacool is at the University of Sussex’s Energy Policy, Science Policy Research Unit.

“Some of the key climate-change puzzles,” the pair argue in “The misallocation of climate research funding,” “are in the realm of the social sciences broadly defined: anthropology, economics, education, international relations, human geography, development studies, legal studies, media studies, political science, psychology, and sociology. Yet, as we find here, these are precisely the fields that receive least funding for climate research.”

They dismiss the idea that the funding imbalance is necessary since climate change is “unproven” science in some eyes. “[C]urrently, climate skepticism has almost no voice in the scientific community and even fossil fuel companies acknowledge anthropogenic climate change. There remains significant climate skepticism among laypeople, including prominent politicians; however, this is not a natural science problem but one of communication, vested interests, and politics—again the realm of the social sciences.”

To make their case, Overland and Sovacool analyzed the dimensions.ai dataset of competitive research grants from 1950 to 2018 (but with reach to 2021) that included 4.3 million awards totaling US$1.3 trillion. The awards came from 332 organizations, such as the U.S. National Science Foundation, national research councils. This covered 37 countries, from major members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development to Brazil, China, India, and Russia. (It did not include basic grants and non-competitive funding, which the authors acknowledge can be common in places like China, France, and Germany.)

Much of the paper details the difficulties of mining this material and the methodological solutions the authors came up with, including using obvious keywords (e.g. “climate change” or “global warming”) and a longer stream of more nuanced keywords to parse the titles and abstracts.

The authors offers some suggestions for the futurecentering on , “Funding for climate mitigation needs to match the magnitude of the threat.” In that vein, they note that the United States alone in 2019 spent $34.8 billion on HIV/AIDS research and treatment, compared to $1.8 billion – since 1990. “If similar efforts were invested into energy and climate social science, they could yield substantial dividends worldwide.” They also call for more coordination and transparency on research funding and alignment on determining – and then examining – the truly key questions.

Their suggestions do not let social scientists themselves off the hook. Overland and Sovacool identified several issues with some of the existing social science research on climate change, such as a lack of rigor and reliability or a poor understanding of natural processes. “Methods were often chosen based on familiarity or specialization of the researchers involved, rather than their suitability for a given research question.” They continue: “Some [research] is caught up in obscure theoretical debates—one assessment identified no less than 96 theories deemed relevant to the fairly narrow topic of the social acceptance of new technologies.”

They close by arguing that properly funding and integrating social science into the issue of climate-change will benefit the cause and social science itself. “Framing climate change more as a global social challenge that cuts across disciplines will expand the scope of research, its ability to offer critical insights, and its social legitimacy among a broader base of stakeholders.”

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