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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities Executive Summary The social and behavioral sciences provide an essential but often unappreciated knowledge base for wise choices affecting environmental quality. These sciences can help decision makers of all kinds to understand the environmental consequences of their choices and the human consequences of environmental processes and policies, as well as to organize decision-making processes to be well informed and democratic. Recognizing the need to develop more fully the social and behavioral science knowledge base for environmental decision making, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the National Academies to identify a few science priorities—areas in which concentrated new research efforts could both advance the environmental social and behavioral sciences and contribute to improved decisions affecting environmental quality. The National Academies were asked to focus primarily on the social and behavioral sciences other than economics, because they have not received much attention from environmental decision-making organizations, and to recommend research areas that scored well on three criteria: the likelihood of achieving significant scientific advances, the potential value of the expected knowledge for improving decisions that have important environmental implications, and the likelihood that the research would be used to improve those decisions. We were also asked to consider recommending ways to overcome barriers to the use of research that would have high priority if such barriers could be overcome and invited to make general recommendations for infrastructure that could increase the likelihood that the recommended knowledge across
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities several fields will be used. This report is addressed to two main audiences: potential researchers and potential sponsors of research. We contacted many research communities in our search for research areas to recommend and considered each suggestion in light of the above criteria. In order to consider the likelihood that research results would be used, we also reviewed available research on the use of scientific results by various kinds of decision makers. We recommend five science priorities that strongly meet the decision criteria. IMPROVING ENVIRONMENTAL DECISION PROCESSES Federal agencies should support a program of research in the decision sciences addressed to improving the analytical tools and deliberative processes necessary for good environmental decision making. Decisions affecting environmental processes are among the most challenging facing humanity because of the conjunction of several decision attributes, such as complexity, uncertain and conflicting values, incomplete and uncertain knowledge, long time horizons, high stakes, multiscale management, linkages among decisions, and time pressure. Good environmental decision making requires not only good environmental science, but also improved understanding of human-environment interactions and development and implementation of decision-making processes that integrate scientific understanding with deliberative processes to ensure that the science is judged to be decision relevant and credible by the range of parties interested in or affected by the decisions. The recommended research would use decision science methods to enable environmental decision processes to become increasingly responsible, competent, and socially acceptable. It would build on a foundation of basic research on decision processes, which we assume will continue to receive support. The effort would have three components. Developing criteria of decision quality. We recommend research to define decision quality for practical environmental decisions. It would consider such questions as: Which characteristics of decision processes are associated with judgments of decision quality or acceptability by decision participants and observers? Do different kinds of people apply different criteria of decision quality? To what extent does increased attention to ideals of good public decision processes yield more positive assessments of actual decision quality? Are decisions of higher normative quality associated with preferred social and environmental outcomes? How can research results on such questions best be disseminated to their potential users? Developing and testing formal tools for structuring decision processes. We recommend research to refine and apply tools from the decision sciences for helping decision makers better approximate ideals of good decision processes. The research might address such questions as: How can
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities formal methods of value elicitation be applied effectively in real world decision settings? How can judgments about the nature and likelihood of a range of outcomes be made more routine and workable through the use of information technologies? What systematic methods for arriving at collective preference can be applied in realistic environmental decision settings that can complement those of social benefit-cost analysis and that do not adopt problematic assumptions typical of that approach? How can learning be built into decision procedures to allow for updating over time? How can risk communication methods be used to make issues of preference and uncertainty intelligible and useful to key decision makers and affected parties? How can decision-aiding approaches help individuals by structuring the values, uncertainties, and broader implications of their choices? Creating effective analytic-deliberative processes. We recommend research to strengthen the scientific base for organizing processes, such as are now being used with increasing frequency in government, in which a broad range of participants take important roles in environmental decisions, including framing and interpreting scientific analyses. The recommended research would address such questions as: What are good indicators for key attributes of success for analytic-deliberative processes, such as decision quality, legitimacy, and improved capacity for future decision making? How are these outcomes affected by the ways the processes are organized, the ways they incorporate technical information, and the environmental, social, organizational, and legal contexts of the decision at hand? How can decision processes be organized to ensure that all sources of relevant information, including the local knowledge claims of nonscientists, are gathered and appropriately considered? How can these processes be organized to reach closure, given the challenges of diverse participants and perspectives? How can decision-analytic techniques be used to best advantage in these decision processes? How can technical analyses be made transparent to decision participants who lack technical training? The recommended research would advance understanding of the characteristics of good decisions, further develop decision science tools for practical uses, and advance theoretical and practical understanding of ways to inform decisions through analytic deliberation. It would offer scientific guidance to the growing numbers of federal agencies and others who are opening environmental decision making to a range of stakeholders and affected parties as to how best to make these processes serve societal goals. INSTITUTIONS FOR ENVIRONMENTAL GOVERNANCE Federal scientific and environmental agencies should support a concerted effort to build scientific understanding needed for designing and evaluating institutions for governing human activities that affect environ-
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities mental resources. The question of environmental governance is typically posed as a choice among a few basic policy strategies, such as direct management or regulation by centralized government agencies, market-based governance that relies on privatizing certain rights and allowing markets to emerge for them, and strategies that devolve authority to voluntary action or to organizations at state or local levels. Research indicates that no governance structure works best for all situations; rather the critical task is to find the arrangement that is most appropriate for particular governance problems. The recommended research would link the research traditions of policy analysis and evaluation with a research tradition that analyzes environmental policies in terms of institutional design. It would address ways of meeting the key requirements for adaptive governance of complex systems of human-environment relationships, such as providing information, managing conflict, inducing rule compliance, providing physical and informational infrastructure, and providing flexibility to adapt to change. It would also address ways to design context-specific property rules, build legitimacy and trust when facing complex and large-scale environmental problems and multiple interested publics, and develop institutional forms that cross scales of organization. This research priority, which has been identified in several previous National Research Council reports, would bring together two separate research traditions on environmental governance. It would elaborate a conceptual framework and supporting bodies of knowledge that environmental policy makers, natural resource managers, and other participants in environmental governance could use to improve resource management institutions and to design more effective linkages among institutions at different levels of governance. THE ENVIRONMENT IN BUSINESS DECISION MAKING Federal agencies should substantially expand support for research to understand the influence of environmental considerations in business decisions. Although business decisions are among the dominant forces in humanity’s impact on the environment, and although many of these decisions create societal commitments that are difficult if not impossible to reverse, the role of environmental considerations in business decision making has been surprisingly and seriously understudied. Several research directions are highly promising. Environmental performance and competitive advantage. When does it pay for businesses to be “green”? When it does pay, to what extent does competitive advantage come from external incentives or from characteristics of firms? Do the pro-environmental practices of leading firms diffuse to other businesses, or do they just segment the market and have little broader
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities effect? Why do some firms fail to adopt pro-environmental practices that would offer attractive rates of return? Effects of demand on environmental performance. Under what conditions is the environmental performance of firms driven by demands from current customers? Current or potential investors? International or emerging markets? Influential business partners? Effects of supply chains and production networks. Under what conditions do the demands of dominant businesses affect performance throughout their supply chains? How can supply chain mandates leverage environmental performance? How can product life-cycle analysis aid environmental decision making at the level of supply chains? Sectoral standard-setting. How can trade associations effectively regulate the environmental decision making of their members? Which industries are amenable to this kind of influence to greater or lesser extent, and why? Decision factors in industrial ecology. Under what conditions have industrial innovations reshaped entire materials chains to reduce extraction and waste production? How have decisions about single technologies influenced entire systems of energy and materials transformation and created opportunities or barriers to the development of more closed-cycle industrial systems? Environmental accounting and disclosure practices. How can the effects of environmental performance on economic performance be measured more effectively? How can environmental disclosure practices be standardized to enable better accounting? Government policy influences on business decision making. How can environmental policies designed to create incentives for green innovation avoid privileging particular technologies? How can voluntary initiatives be combined effectively with other policy instruments? This science priority would begin to integrate several bodies of research being pursued by a growing number of researchers to generate knowledge of value to policy makers in government and the private sector who want to improve the environmental performance of businesses. ENVIRONMENTALLY SIGNIFICANT INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR Federal agencies should support a concerted research effort to better understand and inform environmentally significant decisions by individuals. Because the activities of individuals and households have major environmental consequences in the aggregate, considerable environmental improvement can in principle result from change in their behavior. However, fundamental understanding is only beginning to develop regarding how various influences interact to shape and alter that behavior, and we lack
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities good measures of environmentally significant consumption. Research in four specific areas could provide usable results in the relatively near term. Indicators of environmentally significant consumption. The recommended research would link measures of environmental impact, such as of energy and materials transformations and life-cycle impact of products and activities, to important individual choices. Careful accounting studies that combine physical science expertise and knowledge of human behavior can provide individuals with better understanding of which choices really make an environmental difference. Information transmission systems. Recommended research would address ways that information transmission systems, including networks of information sources and ways of producing and validating indicators, affect the likelihood that audiences will receive accurate information about the environmental implications of their choices from trusted sources when they need it. Integration of information with other policy instruments. The effects of information on behavior depend on incentives and infrastructure, and vice versa. The recommended research concerns the joint effects of information and other policy instruments, in particular individual-behavior contexts, such as transportation mode choice, investment in energy efficiency, and management of household wastes. Fundamental understanding of consumer choice and constraint. Recommended research would build a basis of fundamental knowledge of the ways in which personal factors (values, attitudes, skills, etc.) and contextual factors (economic costs, properties of the built environment, government policies, etc.) combine to influence various types of environmentally significant consumer choices. The recommended research will inform decision makers at various levels who want to understand and anticipate changes in environmentally significant individual behavior or to use information and other policy tools to promote socially desired environmentally significant behavior. It is also likely to lead to practical understanding relevant to other areas of policy and to better fundamental understanding of individual behavior under complex real-world conditions and of the determinants of environmental resource consumption. DECISION-RELEVANT SCIENCE FOR EVIDENCE-BASED ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY To strengthen the scientific infrastructure for evidence-based environmental policy, the federal government should pursue a research strategy that emphasizes decision relevance. The strategy should encompass four substantive research elements: (1) developing indicators for environmental
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities quality, including pressures on the environment, environmental states, and human responses and consequences, that are designed to serve the needs of decision makers; (2) making concerted efforts to evaluate environmental policies; (3) developing better methods for identifying the trends that will determine environmental quality in the future; and (4) improving methods for determining the distributional impacts of environmental policies and programs. Major research efforts in environmental science are often justified by their societal relevance. Such efforts typically produce high-quality science, but they have repeatedly fallen short in addressing the questions most important to societal decision makers. This science priority would enable federal agencies to greatly improve the infrastructure of scientific information and methods toward the goal of informing practical decisions. The recommended scientific activities would integrate the social sciences and the natural sciences of the environment and would address both environmental conditions and their human connections. They would help inform practical decision making while also informing scientific research and help increase the influence of science in environmental decisions relative to the influences of politics and ideology. Processes for determining which research is most decision relevant should be participatory: choices about how to construct indicators, evaluate policies, and so forth should be made with the participation of the full range of likely users of measures, evaluations, and analyses. These choices are not purely technical. Measurement embodies values about what is most worthy of attention, a matter on which affected parties often disagree. Choices about what evidence to collect for policy are probably most appropriately made through broad-based analytic-deliberative processes. Federal agencies should work to make environmental science more decision relevant in each important area of environmental policy. The effort should involve the following activities: Improving human-environment indicators. Indicators are essential for making sense of an overwhelming amount of environmental information, but no set of environmental indicators in the United States commands the respect and attention of the public or policy makers. An integrated effort based on the following principles can change this situation. Social science and natural science research should be integrated in a comprehensive approach to developing indicators that are relevant and usable for environmental policy. These indicators should cover not only states of the biophysical environment, but also human influences on nature (pressures on the environment, such as population, technology, consumption, and pollutant emissions) and the impact of the physical world on humans, including public and private actions taken to reduce pressures,
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities protect states, and adapt to environmental changes, as well as the human consequences of environmental events, taking responses into account. To ensure the decision relevance and comprehensibility of indicators, government agencies involved in developing them should create them in collaboration with the producers and potential users of the information, including a variety of nonscientists. Good indicators require close collaboration among existing organizations and may require the creation of new ones. Recommendations to create a federal Bureau of Environmental Statistics deserve serious attention because of this need for collaboration. Special efforts may be required to enable rapid development of useful indicators under conditions of surprise or disaster, when existing indicators are inadequate. Efforts to develop indicators, regardless of the environmental system or problem that requires measurement, should entail the following steps: (1) identifying the user audience and the uses to which the indicators will be put; (2) assessing and evaluating existing efforts and indicators; (3) developing new methods for indicator construction, if necessary; (4) identifying the data needed for the indicators and evaluating their availability; (5) pilot testing each indicator to analyze how well it meets the specified uses. Environmental policy evaluation. Federal agencies should support a concerted research effort to evaluate the effectiveness of environmental policies established by public and private actors at the international, national, state, and local levels. This research would apply techniques of evaluation research that have been used primarily to assess the effectiveness of social welfare policies to the domain of environmental protection. It would examine the outcomes of environmental regulations and other environmental policies in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, fairness, and public acceptability and strengthen methods and capacity for determining the results of environmental policies. Improving environmental forecasting. Federal environmental agencies should undertake an assortment of research initiatives to collect, appraise, develop, and extend analytic activities related to forecasting in order to improve environmental understanding and decision making. As with the development of indicators, forecasting efforts should focus from the start on the human setting of environmental decision making, should encompass human influences on the environment as well as biophysical processes, and should be directed at decision-relevant outcomes, including environmental, health, and socioeconomic outcomes and the distribution of these outcomes across segments of the population. We specifically recommend support for efforts to identify best practices in forecasting, for continuing environmental modeling forums patterned on the Energy Modeling Forum at Stanford University, and for improving ways to describe uncertainties in forecasts.
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Decision Making for the Environment: Social and Behavioral Science Research Priorities Determining distributional impacts. Federal agencies should support concerted efforts to improve the data, methods, and analytic techniques for determining the distributional impacts of environmental policies and programs related to issues of environmental inequities and their abatement. These efforts should include research to determine the most appropriate levels of social, spatial, and temporal aggregation of measurement for environmental monitoring and indicator development and should address the following themes: defining key variables (e.g., minority population), analyzing dependence of impacts on spatial and temporal scale; developing integrated biophysical and social models that include multiple stressors, multiple exposure pathways, and social vulnerability; and improving visualization and risk communication regarding the impacts of environmental conditions and policies. Research to develop the scientific foundation for evidence-based environmental policy would enable major advances in fundamental understanding of the dynamics of human-environment interaction by vastly increasing the possibility of analyzing these relationships quantitatively. It would also greatly increase the decision relevance of environmental analyses by providing credible measures and methods of analysis for addressing issues of critical concern to both decision makers and scientists.
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