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date: 14 December 2018

Global Environmental Change and the New Social Contract for Research

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The human impact on Earth is altering the hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere in unprecedented ways. Since the late 1980s, a range of geoscience disciplines (such as climatology and ecology) has shown humans to be a “planetary force.” The scale, scope, and magnitude of peoples’ combined activities threatens to take the planet’s environmental systems out of their Holocene state. This raises new research questions for the academic community (such as, “what is the best way for a low income, low-lying country to adapt to sea level rise?”). It also invites the community to rethink its role in relation to the societies that fund its research and will be affected by the profound effects of global environmental change. In recent years, some global change researchers have called for a “new social contract.” These calls challenge the old social contract, wherein academic independence was assured by governments so long as universities produced a succession of benefits to society on the basis of fundamental research. The new social contract involves global change researchers actively seeking to produce knowledge that is “decision relevant” for governments and stakeholders. This means that global change research will become less dominated by geoscience and will include more social science and even humanities content; after all, it is human activities that are both the cause of, and solution to, our planetary maladies. A more applied and people-focused global change research community promises to deliver many benefits in the years ahead. However, there are problems with the way a new social contract is currently being conceived. Unless these problems are addressed, the global change research community will serve societies worldwide far less well than it could and should do.