Workshop held by Transatlantic Platform for the Social Sciences & Humanities discussed methodologies to integrate researchers and promote cooperation among countries (photo: Leandro Negro/Agência FAPESP)

Humanities and natural sciences connect to solve environmental problems

Workshop held by Transatlantic Platform for the Social Sciences & Humanities discussed methodologies to integrate researchers and promote cooperation among countries.

Humanities and natural sciences connect to solve environmental problems

Workshop held by Transatlantic Platform for the Social Sciences & Humanities discussed methodologies to integrate researchers and promote cooperation among countries.


Workshop held by Transatlantic Platform for the Social Sciences & Humanities discussed methodologies to integrate researchers and promote cooperation among countries (photo: Leandro Negro/Agência FAPESP)


By Diego Freire

Agência FAPESP – At the third workshop of a series held in 2015 by the Transatlantic Platform for the Social Sciences & Humanities (TA-P), comprising 12 research funding agencies in the Americas and Europe, including FAPESP, specialists in different scientific disciplines discussed strategies for the integration of research involving environmental issues.

The title of the workshop was “Transformative Research – Interactions between Social Sciences, Humanities and Environmental Science.” It took place on September 1-3, 2015, at FAPESP’s headquarters in São Paulo City, Brazil. TA-P had previously held workshops on “Diversity, (In)equality and Differences” in July in London, UK, and on “Digital Scholarship” in January in Washington, DC, USA. A workshop on “Building Resilient and Innovative Societies” is planned for December in Dortmund, Germany.

“The goal of the workshop was to discuss joint strategies for research on the big environmental issues, which are global and interdisciplinary in nature and can bring together researchers from different parts of the world and scientific fields,” said Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, a professor at the University of Campinas’s Institute of Computing (IC-UNICAMP), Deputy Head Coordinator of FAPESP’s Special Programs, and the Foundation’s representative on TA-P’s Management Team.

Research performed in São Paulo, she added, offers significant potential for interaction with the international scientific community, owing to its scope as well as its quality. “But, for this to happen, we need to create more channels for dialogue,” Medeiros said.

The first part of the workshop, which was open to the public, was designed to discover, in alignment with TA-P’s focus and with the participation of researchers in São Paulo, opportunities for collaboration in the fields covered by the event and to determine the challenges faced by transatlantic cooperation toward solving problems of scientific, societal, economic and cultural relevance. Several speakers emphasized the contribution of research in social sciences and humanities to the development of solutions to environmental problems.

The workshop brought together researchers from the social sciences, humanities and environmental sciences who are involved in projects relating to environmental concerns to discuss the methodological challenges of integrating these disciplines. They included Carlos Joly, a professor at UNICAMP and coordinator of FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA).

“The workshop addressed the question of how social science and environmental science methodologies can be combined to develop environmental research focusing on communities and with a social impact, one of BIOTA’s priorities,” Joly said. “Concerns involving the environment aren’t confined to a specific group of researchers but involve efforts in multiple disciplines, especially social sciences and humanities in general.”

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, also attended the event. He noted that FAPESP runs other programs with strong potential for interaction among disciplines on environmental issues.

“It’s important for São Paulo State to encourage and support research in all fields that can produce answers to priority questions for its population,” Brito Cruz said. “This has been a major effort by FAPESP, especially in the last decade, as evidenced by the work done by BIOTA, the Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN), the Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC) and the Research Program on eScience.”

For Maria Carmen Lemos, political scientist, professor and Associate Dean for Research at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources & Environment in Ann Arbor (USA), research funding agencies play a key role in promoting interdisciplinary treatment of environmental issues.

“The natural sciences have tended to lead the agenda, but we need to reintegrate social systems, including political, economic and cultural systems,” she said. “The funding tradition also needs rethinking so as to find a more balanced distribution of funds. There have been few experiences of integration among teams in different areas around environmental concerns, and the process of changing this paradigm has been too slow, whereas the environmental challenges are urgent. The agencies can accelerate this process of building an interdisciplinary community.”


In the context of the methodological interactions proposed by the workshop, Fraser Taylor from Canada’s Carleton University presented cybercartography, which uses digital mapping of resources to organize and display information and analyses of different types on a single platform using convergent languages.

“To understand all the complexities of interactions among different areas with common goals, different ontologies or narratives on the same topic should be presented in ways that people can easily understand without privileging one over the other. Cybercartography can do this,” Taylor said.

The transdisciplinary nature of new media such as the web, he went on, provides a space with major potential for interaction among the different areas of science.

“Environmental change is one of the major challenges facing societies all over the world. The social sciences and humanities have much to contribute in this respect, but a major problem is how this knowledge can be integrated both between the two disciplines and with the physical sciences,” he said. “New forms of digital communication offer new opportunities to connect different kinds of knowledge around common goals: that’s what cybercartography does.”

Taylor’s presentation focused on the social and human dimensions of maps and the process of knowledge mapping, including the multimedia aspects of cybercartography.

“Cartography in the digital environment uses the resources of several media platforms, such as Web 2.0, and is highly interactive so that users can also be creators,” he said. “It’s not a stand-alone product like the traditional map but part of an informational and analytical package that includes both qualitative and quantitative information. It’s not just multimedia but also multisensory, using vision, hearing, touch and eventually smell and taste, because people use all their senses in learning, and technology offers resources to activate them.”

Journalist and historian Jon Christensen of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States spoke about projects involving cybercartography in conjunction with other tools to enable joint interaction with and visualization of data on environmental issues, including a multidisciplinary project that used historiographical research to map the changing ecology of California’s Delta.

“Over 200 years of anthropic transformations, the Delta’s landscape has been remade,” Christensen said. “Wetlands have been drained and levees put up to create new farmland. The Delta has become the hub of a vast network of dams and pipelines that supply water to the state. Today, its ecosystem is in crisis, and California is considering major restoration efforts to reverse the decline of the Delta’s endangered species. But little is known about this complex ecosystem.”

Scientists at the San Francisco Estuary Institute have undertaken an unprecedented effort, funded by the California Department of Fish & Game, to reconstruct the landscape of the Delta using a discipline known as historical ecology.

“They brought together more than 3,000 historical sources from 40 different archives and institutions, including original navigational charts, government land surveys, drawings, photographs, and even journals,” Christensen said. “These materials were created for many purposes, but they all contain clues about what the Delta once looked like.”

By layering together this historical information in space and time, researchers have created a detailed map of the land types, waterways and plant communities of 200 years ago, among other elements of the landscape. The map reveals an interconnected ecosystem of incredible complexity. Researchers in all fields can access the material using multimedia resources.

“This map doesn’t provide a literal blueprint for remaking the Delta today. But understanding the physical and biological processes that once made the ecosystem flourish could dramatically improve habitat restoration efforts to come,” Christensen said. “Knowing the landscape as it was could also help reestablish an ecosystem that can adapt as the Delta continues to change.”

Christensen works at Stamen Design, a San Francisco-based design studio that specializes in data visualization, on other projects to organize and visualize public data. One of these projects, conducted in partnership with Climate Central, a US-based NGO, involves an analysis of the impact of the projected rise in sea levels and flooding on coastal communities nationwide. Another is an assessment of urban water quality, including risks and opportunities.

“Data visualization, digital mapping and interactive storytelling are becoming increasingly important in several areas,” he said. “Together, these tools create dialogues to identify potential solutions for the challenges facing our most important natural and cultural resources.”

For Karen Pittel, a professor of economics at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, the California Delta experience shows that many of the answers to environmental questions can come from the humanities.

“Historic natural events, socio-economic developments and cultural values lead to important perceptions and prepare research better for the environmental challenges it faces,” she said.

According to Pittel, problems are caused by barriers within as well as between disciplines, so intradisciplinary dialogue must also increase.

“This is a complex issue,” she said. “There are disputes about methods not just between the human and natural sciences, but also within each of these disciplines. Such challenges are often as daunting as the methodological gaps between the different specialties. We need a holistic approach to environmental systems, which are highly complex and plural. They can only be understood as totalities.”

The discussions held among participants during the closed part of the workshop on September 2-3 will serve as input for a report containing proposals for multiple approaches to environmental issues and identifying opportunities for cooperation among researchers on the continents represented in TA-P, as well as new directions for multilateral projects.

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