Is everything becoming a ‘Science’? Next up: geographical science, poverty reduction science…

Is everything becoming a ‘Science’ these days? Land change science, sustainability science, conservation science, invasion science… what is behind all these new labels? This phenomenon seems to have somewhat contradictory drivers: one is an appeal to interdisciplinarity and crossing the natural-social divide; the other is a rhetorical or strategic retreat to the authority of Science-with-a-capital-S. The consequence is a number of approaches claiming intellectual territory and scientific, ‘apolitical’ authority and largely shutting the doors for reflective, interpretive, and critical social science and humanities approaches.

The penny dropped for me as I read an article introducing “invasion science” (Richardson and Ricciardi 2013) to replace, or enhance, the extant fields of “invasion biology” or “invasion ecology”. They justify the new term as follows:

“Invasion science is the study of the causes and consequences of the introduction of organisms to the areas outside their native ranges. It concerns all aspects relating to the transport, establishment and spread of organisms in a new target region, their interactions with resident organisms, and the costs and benefits of invasion with reference to human value systems. ‘Invasion science’ is a more appropriate name for the broad domain than ‘invasion ecology’ or ‘invasion biology’ because of the importance of engaging with many disciplines other than biology and ecology in understanding and managing invasions” (p. 1461)

So, the justification is interdisciplinarity. Yet their call on ‘science’ seems to engage with only the more quantitative social sciences (costs and benefits, i.e. economics), probably because the field of invasion biology has had some rough encounters with critical social science and humanities (Simberloff 2003).

The same day I discovered invasion science, Joern Fischer’s blog introduced me to “conservation science“. This field was proposed by Kareiva and Marvier (2012) on the 25th anniversary of Soulé’s classic manifesto for “conservation biology”. They explain it this way:

“Today, one of the most important intellectual developments is the recognition that ecological dynamics cannot be separated from human dynamics….. Therefore, Soulé’s original delineation of conservation biology is in need of a broader framework that we label conservation science to distinguish it from an enterprise concerned solely with the welfare of nonhuman nature. Unlike conservation biology, conservation science has as a key goal the improvement of human well-being through the management of the environment. … it is a discipline that requires the application of both natural and social sciences to the dynamics of coupled human–natural systems.” (p. 962)

They follow this with an argument for an “evidence based discipline”, preferably quantitative and less wooly than Soulé’s normative postulates, hence invoking that particular kind of authority implied in the word Science.

These two recent proposals follow a series of others that have appeared in the last decade. Remote sensing and GIS analyses of land cover and land use change, together with modelling of these changes in coupled social-natural systems, are now unified under a label of land change science (Gutman et al. 2004; Turner et al. 2008) with a clear appeal to scientific methodologies and approaches (this has been an agenda of Billie Lee Turner for human-environment geography for over a decade now – Turner 2002).

Through the advocacy of Robert Kates, William Clark, and others, an another entity called sustainability science has replaced part of what used to simply go under environmental studies. They build their argument on interdisciplinarity, but don’t explain the choice of the epithet science:

“A new field of sustainability science is emerging that seeks to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society. Such an understanding must encompass the interaction of global processes with the ecological and social characteristics of particular places and sectors” (Kates et al. 2001a, p. 641). Kates also wrote that sustainability science is an “integrative science committed to bridging both the barriers separating the traditional scientific disciplines and the sectoral distinctions between interconnected human activities such as energy production, agriculture, urban habitation, and transportation. It will also need to integrate across geographic scales to eliminate the sometimes convenient but ultimately artificial distinction between global and local perspectives. Finally, it will need to integrate across styles of knowing, bridging the gulf that separates the detached practice of scholarship from the engaged practice of engineering and management.” (source)

‘Sustainability science’ is now even a new section in the prestigious journal of the (American) National Academic of Sciences, PNAS. There is also a new journal called Sustainability Science. The editors of that new journal claim:

“There were, increasingly, calls for a science of sustainability predicated on recognition of the fundamental link between science and economy while remaining free from political bias of the sort seen, for example, when North–South issues are raised in debates over sustainable development” (Komiyama & Takeuchi 2006, p1).

They go on to emphasise disciplinary boundary crossing as a raison d’être for the new discipline, but as their quote indicates, clearly the label “Science” is strategically placed to avoid “Politics”.

Finally, there is also earth system science, with origins in the 1990s as a means to integrate various fields of study (like biology, chemistry, geology, climatology, geography) through recourse to a systems approach (source). And even landscape sustainability science, building on inspirations in sustainability science. It defines itself as “a place- based, use-inspired science of understanding and improving the dynamic relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being with spatially explicit methods.” (Wu 2013, p. 1014).

Other uses of Science are more anecdotal from my experiencee at Monash University. My colleagues who study climate don’t want to be listed as “climatologists” anymore, that being too old-fashioned, they prefer “climate scientists“. Interesting! (And heaven forbid anyone be named a “physical geographer”.) In order to defend our geography classes and majors under the B.Sc. (administered by the Faculty of Science, our School is housed in the Faculty of Arts which manages the B.A.), we’ve had to rebadge our geography major over there as “Geographical Science“.

As I noted in the introduction, two contradictory trends seem to be pushing this fad. One is the use of ‘science’ to replace ‘biology’ or some disciplinary epithet in order to represent an interdisciplinary spirit. That spirit, in many cases, is linked to crossing a natural-social divide, and is often couched in the language of ‘coupled systems’. The second trend is the recourse to ‘Science’ to assert a sense of authority, and sometimes to draw a line between ‘sciency’ epistemologies (whether natural science or social science) and other interpretive, critical, approaches. As Demeritt (2009, p. 128) has argued (in the case of geography),

“much of the discussion about coupled human-environment systems, for instance, imagines integration on very particular terms. …. This vision of integrated environmental science for policy is aligned to a top–down vision of the relationship between physical and human geography. Typically, the ‘‘upstream’’ physical geography sets the factual parameters for some sort of ‘‘what if’’ scenario, whose impact can be assessed by human geographers.”

The consequence is that certain forms of knowledge production and communication are excluded from these approaches, and they can become apolitical, technical approaches indisposed to interrogating the social assumptions, values, and power relations that lie behind. I think for that reason we’re pretty safe from someone coming around to propose “development science” to replace “development studies”. Of course, then again, political science is already there and there is a possible slippery slope from ‘sustainability science’ to ‘development science’ via sustainable development….

Clark, WC & NM Dickson (2003) Sustainability science: The emerging research program. PNAS 100 (14):8059-8061.
Gutman, G et al., eds. (2004) Land Change Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Kareiva, P & M Marvier (2012) What is conservation science? BioScience 62 (11):962-969.
Kates, RW, et al. (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292 (5517):641-642.
Kates, RW, et al. (2001) Sustainability science. Vienna: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
Komiyama, H & K Takeuchi (2006) Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sustainability Science 1 (1):1-6.
Richardson, DM & A Ricciardi (2013) Misleading criticisms of invasion science: a field guide. Diversity and Distributions 19:1461-1467.
Simberloff, D (2003) Confronting introduced species: a form of xenophobia? Biological Invasions 5:179-92.
Turner, BL, II (2002) Contested identities: human-environment geography and disciplinary implications in a restructuring academy. Annals AAG 92 (1):52-74.
Turner, BL, II et al. (2007) The emergence of land change science for global environmental change and sustainability. PNAS 104 (52):20666-20671.
Wu, J (2013) Landscape sustainability science: ecosystem services and human well-being in changing landscapes. Landscape Ecology 28:999-1023.

2 Responses to Is everything becoming a ‘Science’? Next up: geographical science, poverty reduction science…

  1. milliontrees says:

    This is fascinating news! Thanks so much for bringing this to our attention. Now I must do some reading of the references you provide.

    I am particularly interested in Kareiva’s article because, as you may know, he is the Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy. One hopes that his viewpoint will influence the thousands of “restorations” in which the Conservancy is engaged all over the world. He’s been quite outspoken about his viewpoint, but the article you cite is new to me.

    As for what this new nomenclature means….I am bewildered by it, but will study your interpretation to see how it fits with the changes I’m observing in the related fields. Surely an interdisciplinary approach will improve all these fields. How could it be otherwise?

  2. Noel Castree notes the phenomena of Science-with-a-capital-S (or ‘science imperialism’) in his recent blog:
    Check out the last two paragraphs in particular.

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