Social & Policy Science

Environmental Social Scientist
If you want to help conserve our natural resources, you have to understand people.
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Environmental Protection Specialist
One day I may be reviewing a proposal for a new public access site on one of the Chesapeake Bay rivers and the next I may be working with partners on mapping offshore migration patterns.
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Director of Safety, Security and Emergency Response
With America being the world's largest trading nation and most of that trade occurring by sea, the maritime industry is growing.
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Social Science

How do you compute the benefits of a beautiful day at the beach? What is the value of sunny skies overhead, warm sand between your toes, and splashing in the surf with your friends?

More and more, decision makers are recognizing the importance of bringing human behavior into the decision making process for coastal and ocean policy and the management of natural resources. This examination of human behavior is social science. Understanding the “people side” of coastal and resource management – the people who live in a coastal community and what they care about – helps inform how policies will impact them and whether or not a policy will be effective. As Caitie Nigrelli, an environmental social scientist profiled on this site, explains it, “If you want to influence natural resource decision-making, you have to understand the people who make, and will be affected by, those decisions.”

The social sciences are comprised of a variety of disciplines including: economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, geography, demography and policy. Social science is the scientific study of human thought and behavior, interpersonal relationships, institutional structure and the functioning of human society. Social scientists contribute to the understanding of people, their institutions and their decision-making processes by describing, explaining and predicting human behavior and institutional structures as they interact with their environment.

Examples of how the fields of social science relate to coastal issues include:

  • Economics can examine the potential financial impacts of weather and climate variability as a basis for planning and decision-making. Economics is used to estimate the value of a day at the beach or the value of surf boards that are sold.
  • Sociology, anthropology, demography and geography can provide information on a population’s vulnerabilities and behavioral responses to weather risk and climate change. These disciplines can look at the number of elderly people at risk during a hurricane and the likelihood of whether or not they evacuate.
  • Psychology can interpret how people perceive the risks of an impending storm or whether or not they worry about rising sea levels.

(Examples provided by NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management)

Social scientists are employed by governmental, industry and non-profit organizations. Planners and policy and decision makers use social science to help understand and quantify the human aspect of managing coastal resources. Having information about why people make the choices they do based on the information they have allows for more informed decision making and more effective policies and regulations. Social science brings an additional piece of information – human behavior – to the table in order to make better decisions, policies and plans for the future.

Marine Policy

Marine policy refers to courses of action that guide the present and future management and use of marine resources. Marine policy specialists work to ensure that these courses of action, or policies, protect the environment, marine life and humans. Marine policy and marine science are interrelated because good policy is based on accurate scientific information. Science -- and an understanding of the way science works -- is crucial to determining the success or failure of regulations or policies designed to protect the environment. As the number of environmental regulations continues to grow, the need for people who understand the science behind the regulations will increase.

Marine policy specialists analyze legal, social, political and economic issues relating to the law of the sea, ports and shipping, marine minerals, ocean and coastal zone management, fisheries and aquaculture, naval affairs, marine biotechnology, ocean energy resources, and many other areas, frequently making recommendations for policy at the regional, national and international level. They could be recommending regulations on fisheries, studying offshore wind power, or analyzing the economic effects of shoreline change. Their job is to analyze the implications of development, conflicting uses and interrelationships between physical processes such as sea level rise and human activities. (Information in part from Marine Science Careers, a Delaware Sea Grant publication)

Working in policy requires excellent communication skills, interpersonal skills to be able to build coalitions and resolve differences diplomatically, and the ability to work on a variety of issues at once and change direction quickly because an unexpected event, such as an oil spill, can dictate the policy agenda.

If you are considering working in marine policy, Juna Hickner, an ocean and coastal policy coordinator profiled on this site, gives this advice: “Having a strong science background will help you understand the physical effects and technical merits of projects, having a good understanding of government and the law will give you a solid basis for deciding if policy work is the right path for you, and strong writing will come in handy no matter what you decide to do.”

Policy experts can work as congressional staffers, at conservation and industry organizations, with scientific societies that have a public policy component, and in legislative affairs offices at federal agencies.