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Natural and Social Sciences Need Each Other

Natural and social sciences need each other to address grand and complex social problems. This sounds like a simple and logical statement. However, reality is quite far from it. In spite of several years’ efforts promoting multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity across the natural and the social sciences, these kinds of projects and endeavors are still quite limited in number. Academic careers are mostly based in discipline based job openings and discipline based scientific journals and conferences. The increased professionalization and associationalism of scientists has generated many positive developments, but it has also tended to cement disciplinary boundaries to the detriment of more flexible approaches. However this needs to change soon for two reasons. Firstly, tax payers of public-funded scientific production, and society in general, are increasingly asking “what solutions is science delivering?”. At a time of severe budgetary cuts this ‘value for money’ approach to science is gradually coming to the fore. And this is increasing societal demands for science to be able to provide solutions, not just research results.
Secondly, and paradoxically enough, many natural sciences solutions are already known, but they are not used or put into practice. There might be many different reasons for that, but generally it is so that having the knowledge is quite different from having the real ability to address social problems. We need to understand that the knowledge produced by natural sciences are part of a much broader reality which is a social system. Hence, we need to understand the socially-generated barriers, opportunities and incentive mechanisms and behavioural traits that are relevant. This is where social sciences must come into the equation, not as an appendix to the natural sciences, but as an integral part of framing questions and research endeavors from the beginning.

I was very lucky to be invited to attend a seminar on this topic organized by the Robert Bosch Stiftung last November in Berlin. In order to concretize the discussion, the seminar focused on two areas, namely, how to address the challenges of a sustainable earth system and of rapidly ageing societies. In both areas natural and social sciences are needed to make real changes and to provide real solutions to these extremely complex and multi-dimension problems.

The report from the seminar, recently published, underlines the pressing nature of this matter and puts forward five recommendations to encourage natural and social scientists to cooperate:

1) Develop a process to integrate social science from the outset in research projects.
2) Develop incentives for scientists to take social responsibility and engage with their local communities.
3) Create incentives in the scientific establishment to encourage collaboration with social science and interdisciplinary research.
4) Develop alternatives to publishing in prestigious journals to recognize scientific achievement and support action-oriented research journals.
5) Develop a reward system that identifies social science research that makes a difference.

A summary of the report can be found here: http://www.sciencebusiness.net/news/76437/Join-forces-to-save-the-world

The whole report can be downloaded here: http://www.bosch-stiftung.de/content/language2/downloads/Berlin_Debate_2013_report.pdf

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcwathieu/2945445895/

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