With a better understanding of the causes and effects associated with environmental concerns, there is a need for better communication of research findings across people, regions, and cultures. The goal for making research easier to understand stems from concerns such as public health and the environment.1 Environmental researchers at agencies like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) evaluate the effects of air pollution on children’s health, with the assistance of social scientists from the fields of public health, sociology, and other disciplines.2 For many environmental projects, there is plenty of information out there for everyone to read through, but there is evidence that those in the areas of concern who are likely to be most affected do not always have a clear understanding of potential environmental impacts.3 Therefore the USEPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) is studying how social sciences can help shape environmental research, and how they can change the way that community members and stakeholders understand the research process and its results.
In a previous study of a proposed Massachusetts offshore wind farm known as Cape Wind, social acceptance was not taken into consideration during the project planning process.4 Planned for Nantucket Sound off the south coast of Cape Cod, researchers believed that there would be overall acceptance of the Cape Wind project.5 However, stakeholders expressed concern with the financial need to fund the project during an economic downturn in the area, and its potential effects on tourism in the area.6 Originally proposed in 2000, the project faced 15 years of social opposition and ultimately ran out of both money and time.6 The Cape Wind project was put to rest in 2016 after years of the community resistance, but its failure emphasized the need to consider social perspectives as a part of the planning process.8
The USEPA’s Atlantic Ecology Division is one of the many agencies that have established teams of social scientists and environmental scientists to work hand-in-hand on environmental research projects.9 Social scientists with specializations in fields such as anthropology, economics, geography, political science, and sociology, are working on studies such as those taking place in Cape Cod, Massachusetts (figure 1).10 The focus of these environmental projects is to identify ways to manage water more effectively, and decrease damage to surrounding areas.11 To evaluate the influence social sciences had on the study, teams collected data to assess the level of understanding of stakeholders (those most affected by the project) with respect to the research process, results, and project outcomes.12In a separate Cape Cod, Massachusetts study, a team of social scientists and environmental researchers explored the degree to which local inhabitants accepted alternative technologies (Figure 2) for nutrient pollution.14 While collecting and analyzing social data is time consuming, especially when compared to more pressing matters such as an oil spill, the information gathered from these studies offers significant benefits to the overall research.15 However, benefits from taking the time to gather social data can assist with the necessary authorizations (e.g. study participant approval) that need to be collected prior to research beginning.16 In the Cape Cod study, early acknowledgment of the social context and information provided by community members allowed for the entire research process to go more smoothly.17
After realizing that there was context missing, the group looked into ways to learn more about the situation at Cape Cod.18 With the knowledge of the importance of social context, social scientists sought a betFrom: The EPA’s Cape Cod Pilot Project Research and Updatester understanding of community perspectives, and took into consideration policy documents that hadn’t previously been pulled for the pre-research phase.19 The inclusion of these new documents allowed for the researchers to have more background information as to why and how certain laws were enacted, which in turn allowed for a smoother, more collaborative prior permissions process.20One of the research groups, led by Dr. Emily Eisenhauer, credited the involvement of social scientists with having a positive impact on the overall environmental research program at Cape Cod.22 The social scientist involved in the study not only went to look at prior information for extra context, they encouraged community members (Figure 3) with emotional and financial ties to these areas to become more involved in the research process.23 Social scientists had listened to the concerns of the community, and took them into consideration when communicating with city officials about the possible long-term significance of the research.24 Community involvement not only assisted with the overall understanding of the research taking place, but also contributed to the findings of the research.25 The involvement of social scientists in the research not only gave locals a better understanding of the research outcomes, but gave natural scientists a chance to meet the community for whom they were conducting the research.26 A member of the team noted “I think that social science pulls us, the scientists, into the process as well. That’s where I had the human relationships; building those relationships is an important process”.27 The social scientists assisted the environmental researchers by implementing new ways of research, and strengthening community involvement in these studies.29 The continued assistance of social scientists on these environmental issues could open doors for other research projects in new sections of Cape Cod (Figure 4) that stakeholders believe to be of potential study interest.30 Based on the studies performed by USEPA’s ORD, the assistance of social scientists will not only benefit the environmental research, but the community members whose voices are being heard, and amplified, by these scientists.31