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Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world

January 16, 2020

  • Researchers from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the University of Sussex analysed USD 1.3 trillion of research funding around the world.

  • Between 1990 and 2018, less than 4.59% of the funding was spent on climate-related research.

  • Only 0.12% of the research funding was spent on a critical issue: how to change societies to mitigate climate change.

  • Vast funding goes into research on the impact of climate change and adaptation to it, rather than into trying find out how it can be prevented socially.

A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combatting global warming - how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

The analysis argues that despite many of the key climate-change puzzles residing in the social sciences (such as anthropology, economics, international relations, human geography, development studies, political science, psychology etc), these fields receive least funding for climate research.

Academics from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the University of Sussex analysed research grants from 332 donors around the world spanning 4.3 million awards with a cumulative value of USD 1.3 trillion from 1950 to 2021.

According to the study's estimates, between 1990 and 2018 the natural and technical sciences received 770% more funding than the social sciences for research on climate change - USD 40 billion compared to only USD 4.6 billion for the social sciences and humanities.

Only 0.12% of all research funding was spent on the social science of climate mitigation.

Even the countries that spent the most on social science climate research in absolute terms - the UK, the USA, and Germany - spent between 500% and 1200% more on climate research in the natural and technical sciences.

The report's co-authors say funding of climate research appears to be based on the assumption that if natural scientists work out the causes, impacts, and technological remedies of climate change, then politicians, officials, and citizens will spontaneously change their behaviour to tackle the problem. The academics argue the evidence from the past decades shows this assumption does not hold.

With the window of opportunity for mitigating climate change narrow and closing, the researchers recommend more funding is made available for social science research on climate mitigation; improved global research funding coordination and transparency; prioritisation around key questions within the social sciences and an increase in the rigorousness of social science research.

Benjamin K Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex, said: "Most people probably think that because climate change is so severe, responsive research would be a core priority. But the opposite is true. And, oddly, the smallest part of the funding goes into solving the most pressing issues."

Indra Overland, who heads the Centre for Energy Research at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said: "The one-sided emphasis on the natural sciences leaves one wondering whether funding for climate research is managed by climate sceptics. It's as if they don't quite believe in climate change, so they keep looking into out how it really works, rather than trying to work out how to actually stop it."

The authors recommend:
  • Funding for climate mitigation needs to match the magnitude of the threat - Global annual damages from climate change has already reached USD 10 to 40 billion from storm surge alone, and it could surpass USD 100 trillion over the next 80 years. Funding for research on climate mitigation should be increased to address the magnitude of this threat.

  • Improved funding transparency and coordination - There is a need for better global coordination and oversight of funding for climate research. The lack of oversight can cause significant overlaps in funding in some research areas, while other areas are neglected. More research financing organizations need to make their portfolios available online with standardized tags for such things such as project title, summary and discipline.

  • More rigorous social science research - While more funding is needed for social research on climate change, the social sciences also need to rise to the challenge. Social scientists need to do a better job of ensuring rigor and validity in their research. Social science research needs to show a greater understanding of the natural sciences and the physical world, move away from obscure theoretical debates and avoid focussing on very small groups of people or sample sizes that are difficult to generalize from.

  • Better alignment with emissions sources and trends - Prioritise truly problem-solving research on the burning mitigation issues.

  • Do not lose sight of climate change as a global challenge - Although global solutions also depend on understanding the micro level, it is still surprising how little social science research goes straight for the really big issues. Part of the solution could be to organize future research efforts not around disciplines, but around urgent puzzles linked to pressing social challenges related to climate change mitigation and energy systems. This challenges-based approach to research has been relatively successful in other domains, notably national defence.

University of Sussex

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