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SBE Science Nuggets NSF
Informed Decisions: Can Scientific Knowledge Meet Society's Needs?

If ever a subject required a multidisciplinary approach, it is global climate change. The dynamics of climate change are incredibly complex and the subject is universally relevant. Climate affects everything, from floating Arctic ice to domestic crops on every continent, from corporate profits to human health.

Scientific evidence indicates that global warming has occurred at the rate of about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century, and that it is predominately the result of human industrial and agricultural activities. But the rest of the story is less straightforward, and we cannot say precisely how much warming will occur in the future, and what the long-term effects of the warming will be.

While the evidence mounts, the debate rages on, not only in the scientific community but publicly and privately the world over. What are the responsibilities of scientists to this debate? With so much conflicting information on the subject, how can anyone discern relevant knowledge? And how do we use the ever-growing knowledge base to respond to the problem?

These are some of the key questions being addressed in "Global Climate Change and Society" (GCCS), a 3-year project (2001-2003) funded by NSF's Social and Economic Sciences Division (SES) through its Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program. Each summer twelve undergraduates spend eight weeks in Colorado, participating in a cooperative academic/governmental program offered by the University of Colorado's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Co-directed by a philosopher, Principal Investigator Dr. Robert L. Frodeman of the University of Colorado in Boulder, an atmospheric scientist, Dr. Mark A. Bullock of the Southwest Research Institute, and a policy scientist, Dr. Roger A. Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado, GCCS is an interdisciplinary REU using climate change as a case study. Through active undergraduate research experiences like GCCS, the REU program seeks to attract a diversified pool of talented students into careers in science and engineering.

GCCS is an intensive program; it asks students to question what forms of knowledge are valued in the climate change debate, how knowledge must be structured in order to remain credible and legitimate, and whether the social sciences and the humanities have a critical role to play in thinking about the issue.

"We use every discipline as an optic to understand how to use knowledge to solve societal problems," Dr. Frodeman explains, "in this case, global climate change. We look at how each discipline measures and/or talks about the issue. And we ask: what are the policy implications when we look at the issue through these different lenses?"

For the first two weeks of the program, students are introduced to the "basics" via classroom dialogue with experts on subjects as diverse as atmospheric science, climate modeling, physics, philosophy, and public policy. They then spend the bulk of their time applying and translating their new-found knowledge to on-site internships with scholars and researchers at the participating institutions.

Research projects may involve the acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data from radiosondes (balloon-borne instruments which measure air pressure, air temperature, and moisture), characterizing cloud cover for general circulation models, or working with global datasets with scientists at NCAR. Other projects focus on research themes within the policy sciences and the humanities.

As the scientific inquiry continues, students engage in political and philosophical reflection upon their work and the relationships between science and public policy. During the last week of the program they complete essays on the relevance of global climate change research to societal needs in the context of their chosen subject, and present their internship results at a closing conference. Notably, students' papers have been published in scientific, public policy, and philosophic journals, and have been presented at national conferences.

The GCCS program is at its core interdisciplinary, with philosophy of science, technology studies, science and politics, and ethics sharing time with climate science.

"What impressed me most was that the co-leaders made sure that no matter what information or theories we were looking at, be it scientifically, philosophically or socially, we were not going off into the ether somewhere," says Glenn Willis, who was a University of Washington junior when he attended GCCS in the summer of 2001. "We may have been studying global warming and the atmosphere, but the focus was very much down to earth. Pertinence of knowledge to the "real" world was emphasized again and again. For me, that attitude of practicality was very different from my previous undergraduate experiences, and it was refreshing."

Through GCCS, a new generation of scientists are learning from experts in the field -- and from each other -- how scientific knowledge can meet the needs of an increasingly complex world.

For more information, please see:

Global Climate Change and Society

New Directions Initiative

NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program:

This project is supported by the Cross-Directorate Activities Program.

Posted: June, 2003


By providing students the opportunity to participate in the scientific research of scholars, researchers and faculty at host institutions, NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU's) help attract a diversified pool of talented students into careers in science, engineering, and science policy.

"This summer I have begun my own journey toward understanding the connections between the divisions of academia, and the true value in the ability to think like a literary critic, like a scientist, like an economist. To understand the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge is to comprehend the truly complex nature of an environmental issue such as climate change."
Humanities as Narrative: Why Experiential Knowledge Counts
--Natalie Gulsrud, 2002 GCCS Student Participant

GCCS students may have been studying global warming and the atmosphere, but the focus was very much down to earth. Pertinence of knowledge to the "real world" was emphasized again and again.

"There was a really exciting atmosphere of inquiry and dialog fostered by the directors. You had the opportunity to have a sustained dialog over eight weeks on the topic you were studying. At night, you could talk to a physics student from Stanford or an English student from Haverford about what you learned that day, so there was a wide variety of perspectives that were mutually enriching."
--Glenn Willis, 2001 GCCS Student Participant

Dr. Robert L. Frodeman
Research Scientist
Center for Science and Technology Policy Research
University of Colorado

"The political and societal discussion of global climate has reached a state of gridlock. Current climate research focuses on developing more accurate models. However, such research rests upon the assumption that we have failed to recognize - that these models rely on predictive storylines that are based on our choices and the values we hold. Our values, not scientific prediction, lie at the center of the global climate change debate."
--Excerpt from 2001 GCCS group essay

All photos courtesy Dr. Robert L. Frodeman

All photos and illustrations are copyright© of their respective owners and may not be used without permission.
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