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Strengthening Social Sciences in the Weather–Climate Enterprise

A Professional Guidance Statement of the American Meteorological Society
(Adopted by the AMS Council on 2 February 2014)

PDF Version

The atmospheric sciences have made remarkable progress in understanding Earth's atmosphere and even predicting its future course across a broad range of time and geographic scales. Yet, despite these gains, the destruction and loss of life wrought by atmospheric phenomena remain immense.  There is a clear and compelling need to enhance the utility of weather and climate research, observations, and information — from short-fused tornado warnings to longer-term regional climate model output — using knowledge from the social sciences about how individuals and society interact with weather and climate. This American Meteorological Society (AMS) Statement advocates the need for stronger integration of the social sciences in the design and execution of future weather and climate research as well as the dissemination of atmospheric information.

Many distinct disciplines comprise what often are referred to as the social sciences, including but not limited to, anthropology, communication science, economics, geography, political science, psychology, and sociology, reflecting a range of inquiry into the diversity and complexity of human life. Each discipline rests on strong theoretical foundations, employs rigorous methodological approaches, and pursues scientific inquiry in a robust, peer-reviewed manner. Social scientists receive training in a range of data collection methods including experiments, surveys, interviews, focus groups, ethnography, and participant observation.  From these methodological tools, particular techniques are selected to help understand a specific situation based on the investigator’s training and intention, the nature of the problem, and specific considerations of the study population. For example, qualitative methods are appropriate for exploratory, highly complex, emotive, or sensitive topics about which little is known, while quantitative methods are appropriate for counting, classifying, or modeling features of a topic about which general principles are already understood.

The scope of social science research relevant to the weather and climate arena is broad and multifaceted. Areas of research range from foundational knowledge (e.g., the drivers and environmental impacts of production systems, technology, and lifestyles; the societal and environmental factors associated with vulnerability and resilience; and the role of weather and climate patterns in culture) to knowledge geared toward applications (e.g., how resource management decisions can be improved; how weather and climate risk can be best communicated; how vulnerability to atmospheric hazards can be alleviated; and how long-term mitigation and adaptation to climate change can be achieved). In some cases, theories and knowledge from social science disciplines derived in other contexts may offer insight relevant to understanding the intersections between society, weather, and climate (e.g., understanding the roles of risk and uncertainty in decision making; how information is coproduced, interpreted, and used; how institutions function; and how social capital and adaptive capacity are built).    

Social scientists working in collaboration with atmospheric scientists contribute new ideas and approaches to their own disciplines. In turn, the work of social scientists may also drive advances in the atmospheric sciences as, for example, when new scientific priorities for society are identified (such as improved seasonal weather outlooks) or when previously unrecognized environmental dynamics become apparent (e.g., the changeable appearance of stars used by farmers to forecast rain in the Andes due to changes in the moisture content of the atmosphere). Through this two-way process, not only do social scientists gain understanding of the roles of weather and climate in people’s lives, but this information can then, in turn, guide future weather and climate research.

Opportunities for including social science in the weather and climate enterprise are growing. The American Meteorological Society’s Weather, Climate, and Society journal, for example, publishes relevant and cutting-edge social and physical science research. The AMS also hosts several social science sessions at its Annual Meetings and has developed partnerships with disciplinary organizations in the social sciences. Universities are increasingly offering academic curricula that expose atmospheric science students to social science approaches, and vice versa. This training should enhance integration of the social and atmospheric sciences. Moreover, research institutions, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations in the United States and internationally are providing some funding for social science research on weather and climate related issues, but more is needed.

To continue to promote social and atmospheric science collaboration, regular and sustained funding opportunities that reflect and promote broad research agendas need to be established. Research agendas should respond to demands for more accurate, timely, and relevant weather and climate information. Such demands are growing as both the nature of the global climate and society’s relationship to weather and climate are transformed. At the same time that new technologies afford novel approaches to managing weather and climate risks, exposure and sensitivity to atmospheric hazards are increasing around the world. Weather and climate research and applications are needed that foster sustainable growth and reduce vulnerability to atmospheric hazards.

The outcomes of strengthening the social sciences in the weather and climate enterprise are already evident. They include the provision of more useful — and used — scientific, technical and applied information that promotes novel scientific insights, enhances decision making, and contributes to a safer and more sustainable future.

[This statement is considered in force until February 2020 unless superseded by a new statement issued by the AMS Council before this date.]






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