05 Feb 2014   |   Viewpoint

Join forces to save the world

Technology alone will not fix global problems such as climate change, food and water shortages, soil erosion or the rising tide of chronic disease. What’s needed is more dialogue and interchange between the natural and the social sciences

Science has run into a roadblock when it comes to tackling grand challenges of the 21st century. Governments around the world have made the transition to a sustainable economy and care for the ageing top priorities. But such problems are complex, interdisciplinary and global in nature. Even in the face of clear evidence, individuals and communities fail to heed scientific knowledge – and neglect to act in their own self-interest.

Can the social sciences help? That was the theme of the Robert Bosch Foundation’s 8th Berlin Debate on Science and Science Policy, “Joining Forces to Save the World: Why we need both the natural and social sciences to get the job done.” 

In a one day conference, natural and social scientists from around the world debated how to join forces to make progress tackling two of the central challenges of our time – sustainability and the ills of an ageing society. 

In particular, five key recommendations emerged to encourage natural and social scientists to cooperate and jointly increase their effectiveness in addressing the global challenges.

• Develop a process to integrate social science from the outset in research projects. 

• Develop incentives for scientists to take social responsibility and engage with their local communities.

• Create incentives in the scientific establishment to encourage collaboration with social science and interdisciplinary research. 

• Develop alternatives to publishing in journals to recognise scientific achievement and support action-oriented research journals.

• Develop a reward system that identifies social science research that makes a difference.

By increasing understanding of human behaviour and the kind of feedback that is most effective in encouraging individuals to “do the right thing,” social scientists have a key role to play in helping tackle the grand challenges. Their work may develop effective approaches for building greater public awareness of the costs to society of a problem. And once aware of the costs, public and private actors are more likely to embrace change. 

But incorporating social science into the problem-solving exercise means overcoming academic silos and obstacles to interdisciplinary collaboration both in academia and in government. That will require new structures and incentives. Above all, the natural and social scientists should work together from the beginning of any agenda-setting exercise to have the best chance of increasing the influence of scientific knowledge on decision-making.

“Joining Forces to Save the World: Why we need both the natural and social sciences to get the job done.” The Robert Bosch Foundation’s 8th Berlin Debate on Science and Science Policy, 8 November 2013.  The full report of the conference is available here.

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