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Social and Economic Dimensions
of Environmental Change
The social and economic sciences represent a critical component of any research agenda on environmental change. The environment is home to the
human activities that people have shaped to establish their communities and improve their quality of life. Neither that environment nor human activities remain static. Just as the
geologic record provides a lens on changes over millennia in earth systems, so does the archaeological record contain a wealth of information on human communities under varying environmental
conditions. Comparative studies of contemporary societies show that the use humans make of land impacts on the quality and availability of natural resources. What the studies reveal, too, is that the
size, composition, and location of human populations both mold and are molded by environmental conditions. Finally, the research illustrates that environmental effects are not randomly
distributed across societies or population groups. Essentially, research in the social and economic sciences aims to clarify how human activities affect the environment; how environmental
changes affect our society and its component groups; and how we and our institutions respond to environmental change.
The extant research on land use, population change, economic incentives, cultural values, individual preferences has advanced our
understanding of the interplay between human and environmental forces. It shows, for example, that people's perceptions of risk affect quite
significantly their responses to hazards. There are patterns to these perceptions. Among other things, people generally regard events they
control as less risky than those over which they have little influence. Needed now are analyses that translate findings from across the social,
economic, and other sciences into temporal and territorial scales that are meaningful for human and community activity.
Industrial societies have developed an array of instruments to prevent or mitigate the impacts of environmental dislocations. These societies seek the same end through the development of technologies
that are benign to the environment, or that remediate environmental problems. What remains to be deciphered are the conditions that permit the effective development and deployment of innovative
technologies and instruments of public policy.
Research Needs for Social and Economic Dimensions
of Environmental Change
Examine societal factors influencing environmental changes, such as population growth, economic development, and
Analyze policy instruments and decision tools, including the design, comparison, and ex poste evaluation of policies
undertaken to address environmental problems.
Identify social, economic, and institutional barriers to the diffusion of environmental technologies and evaluate the measure of
policies to reduce them.
Develop methods to measure nonmarket values of environmental amenities and to calculate national resource accounts.
The CENR strives to mobilize the resources of the social and economic sciences to answer central
questions about the relationship between human behavior, well-being, and the environment. Federally
sponsored research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences provides a foundation on which
knowledge about the interaction of human, physical, and biological systems can be built. This research
aids in the design and evaluation of environmental policies, enhances understanding of the role of
human activity for critical environmental issues, and helps to identify issues and policies that can
affect the highest social and economic returns.
Key Policy Objectives
Efforts to improve environmental management and regulation have evolved over the past two decades,
a period of profound social and economic change in the United States and elsewhere. Stronger
economic bonds around the globe, and acknowledgement that environmental problems transcend
borders, have changed the landscape for research and policy. Industrial and industrializing nations
increasingly recognize the importance of common solutions that can ease environmental threats without
exacerbating regional and local disparities.
Policies about the environment do not occur in isolation from other policy questions. Communities
across the United States struggle to determine levels of acceptable risks for pesticides; the regulations
appropriate for protecting fisheries and marine life; and mechanisms for preserving jobs and protecting
endangered species. The social and economic sciences cannot resolve such policy dilemmas. These
sciences can contribute, however, by identifying innovative policy options and management strategies,
and specifying their trade-offs, options, and their probable consequences.
Areas of Enhanced Emphasis
Long-term research is needed on human-environmental interactions and system dynamics. Their
complexity requires greater collaboration of physical, life, and engineering scientists with social
scientists than usually prevails. Greater expertise is needed, too, on the diversity of values that drive
environmental concerns, that affect preferences and trade-offs, and that govern resource use and
Fundamental human and social processes. Informed policy demands an understanding of human
beings as component and prime custodian of the environment. High priority should be given to
improving our knowledge of the fundamental human and social processes that affect our use of the
Policy instruments and decision tools. Decisionmakers need a better portfolio of policy
instruments for encompassing a broad set of environmental, social and economic goals and for
balancing the effectiveness and distributional outcomes of alternative solutions. The development
of improved methodologies is essential for allocating scarce resources as efficiently as possible.
Barriers to information flow and technology diffusion. This research focuses on improving the
flow of information between the research and policy communities and between and within the
public and private sectors; it includes a better understanding of the factors responsible for the
diffusion of technologies in the industrial, commercial, and household sectors. This research will
identify existing institutional barriers to market penetration and will identify, develop, and pilot
strategies and incentives to shorten the commercialization pathway.
Selected Milestones, 1995 - 1998
Improve computational and modeling methods for linking data, drawn from different times and locales, on
Establish the social and economic processes through which environmentally benigh technologies are
designed and adopted, in developed and developing countries.
Improve methods for examining risk in complex and interdependent physical, engineering, and social
environments in order to design more effective risk management systems.
Develop sound methodologies for policy analysis that can provide non-market valuation of resources,
environmental attributes, and ecosystems.
Improve communication links between fundamental researchers in the social and economic sciences and
analysts of policies on the environment and natural resources.
Develop innovative policy and management approaches that enhance efficiency and equity in environmental
and natural resource management.
As the world's population and economies grow, there will be increasing stress placed on both natural and human systems. Technology will play a
critical role in mitigating these pressures and in allowing our society to provide key goods and services with reduced environmental impacts. The primary goal of this research strategy is to develop
environmental technologies that increase our productivity, reduce environmental problems, and create wealth and jobs. This goal cannot be accomplished by the federal government alone but will require a
broad range of partnerships and integrated policies to ensure that our investments in R&D result in environmentally efficient products and services for both the U.S. and global markets. We are
committed to building those partnerships both within the government and with industry, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and state and local governments.
Research Needs for Environmental Technology
Facilitate a fundamental shift from cleanup to the avoidance of environmental harm.
Develop systemic technological solutions that cut across media, processes, organizations, sectors, and geographic
areas and that solve multiple problems simultaneously.
Integrate R&D activities within the government, and with the private sector, that are necessary to develop these new solutions.
Ensure that federally funded research on environmental technologies achieves commercial benefit, resulting in marketable
products, processes, and approaches.
Besides providing the knowledge base for developing environmentally sound technologies, research is also needed to help us achieve a
better understanding of various technological options, their costs, and benefits. Our long-term research therefore addresses predictive modeling
and assessment to determine where environmental technologies might best be deployed and how they might perform.
International coordination of R&D programs through the efforts of the Committee on International Science, Engineering, and
Technology will help ensure cross-fertilization and cooperation with R&D in other countries. Consideration of global technology needs, such
as special needs of developing countries for sustainable technologies, will help broaden the applicability of technology research results.
Finally, a significant cost to the nation's economy is incurred by cleaning up wastes already in the
environment from past actions and inefficiencies in earlier systems of production. Estimates for the
cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites and inactive federal facilities, for example, range from
$100 billion to $1 trillion over the next 20 years. Research to find cost-effective site characterization
and remediation technologies is an important element in this strategy.
Over the coming decades, R&D will be the key to establishing new technological solutions and
environmental management options. As the Vice President recently remarked, . . . we must shift to
fundamentally new technology trajectories rather than just increase our pace along the same old
technological paths. The enabling knowledge for the next generation of environmental technologies
and practices is being built now in our laboratories, universities, and classrooms. This strategy seeks to
capitalize on our innovative capacity and provide the technological solutions to existing and future
The Administration supports the development of innovative technologies for improving environmental
quality, sustaining our natural resource base, and contributing to long-term economic growth and job
creation. To maintain its strength over the coming decades, the U.S. economy must be able to deliver
high-quality products and services to domestic and world markets with significantly less energy and
material inputs and a dramatic decrease in environmental impacts. Environmental technologies and
practices are needed to increase the overall productivity of our energy, food, manufacturing,
transportation, building, and service sectors by significantly reducing energy, materials, and other
inputs. Environmental technologies also are needed to heal harm from past process inefficiencies.
Key Policy Objectives
Avoiding successive generations of technology-induced environmental problems is one of the greatest
challenges facing our research enterprise. The transformation of environmentally sound ideas into
innovations (and eventually marketable commodities and practices) typically takes 5 to 15 years. In the
case of large physical infrastructures that deliver our energy, food, water, and transportation services,
the substitution of new technologies often requires 40 to 50 years. Clearly, the economic costs of
traveling down any number of suboptimal, unsustainable technology paths is high.
The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) report Technology for a Sustainable Future
sketches a long-term scenario (30 to 40 years) that emphasizes a move away from cleanup and control
to a future built on anticipation, avoidance, and assessment. The report emphasizes the need to develop
more cost-effective means to remediate existing environmental problems in the short term, while
shifting to a new avoidance trajectory. The diffusion of new technologies into the marketplace should
be accelerated through partnerships with industry, state and local governments, academia, and
nongovernmental organizations. Our challenge is to speed the evolution from pollution control and
waste management to avoidance of environmental harm and resource conservation and restoration,
while continuing to aggressively clean up existing environmental hazards.
Environmental technology research addresses a wide range of environmental problems by increasing
environmental and resource-use efficiency of production processes, developing new approaches for
remediating and restoring damaged systems, and improving our ability to monitor and assess the
environmental impacts of technological innovation and interventions (both real and proposed).
Areas of Enhanced Emphasis
Research priorities reflect the need to deal cost effectively with today's environmental harm while
exploring and shifting to new system paradigms that avoid environmental harm.
Industrial ecology and lean production. The research priority is to develop a more
comprehensive understanding of the flows and uses of materials and energy in our industrial
system and the implications with respect to the environment and sustainable economic activity.
Many industrial processes and practices will require revision or reengineering to avoid pollution
and encourage recycling, and the development of more sustainable technologies and practices is
Clean energy, alternative energy. Research priorities will increasingly address economically
viable sustainable or renewable energy forms that shift from control and remediation technologies
for high-emission fuels to integrated production of clean renewable energy and increased
efficiency of energy use in all major sectors: residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, and
Materials. The research priority is to develop a system of material use that is compatible with the
constraints of the environment and available natural resources by reducing production of wastes,
minimizing extraction and use of virgin resources, mitigating pollution, and improving energy
efficiency. Also of key importance are advances in molecular modeling, computational chemistry,
and molecular design to simulate on a computer the chemical and physical properties of new
Sustainable communities. The overarching technological challenge for urban areas is the redesign
of the built environment in the context of the natural systems in which it exists to achieve
sustainable development. Implementing this restructuring will require new technologies that will
enable us to analyze and predictively model vast quantities of complex data and information links
about technical, social, economic, and cultural systems. Specifically, our mid- to long-range
research priority is to increase understanding of the links among the five major elements of the
urban ecosystem: (1) the built environment, (2) flora and fauna, (3) wastes and water, (4) energy,
and (5) transportation.
Environmental biotechnology. A key research priority is to learn how to integrate biological and
engineered systems and to continue development of biotechnological approaches to increase their
effectiveness in remediation, monitoring, and control.
Cost-effective remediation. Research priorities will focus on improving our capability to assess
subsurface contamination with greater speed, higher degrees of accuracy, and lower cost and on
improving the effectiveness and permanence of subsurface remediation efforts. In addition, special
attention should be paid to increasing the range and effectiveness of biotechnological approaches
Develop a new generation of models and simulation techniques to improve our knowledge of fate and transport phenomena
in the subsurface environment, and facilitate the optimization of remediation techniques.
Expand data collection and analytic efforts to define existing and anticipated material and energy flow patterns and trends, as well
as their implications for sustainable production systems. These efforts include developing and improving understanding of the impacts of
material and energy flows and substitutions on the environment and the creation of regional data bases for materials.
Develop R&D partnerships with utilities and industry to promote pollution prevention and increase the efficiency of commercial
power generation and energy-intensive industries (such as refining and metal production).
Expand R&D that is critical to reducing the cost of power generation from renewable energy resources, particularly those with
high impacts on carbon emissions.
Develop means to extend the service life of materials and improve recycling technologies to reduce consumption of renewable
and nonrenewable resources (resource use).
Characterize the process of development and adoption of environmental technologies in developing countries. Such
characterization includes analysis of the influence of innovations made in industrialized countries on energy paths in developing
countries in the absence of concerted efforts to facilitate technology transfer.