Values-Informed Decision Support: The Place of Philosophy

This chapter, as with the collection of essays in this volume in general, is designed to provide examples of how the skills of philosophers can contribute to transdisciplinary research efforts to find solutions to pressing social problems. There is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy, but learning from one another and cultivating strategies for training ourselves, our peers, and our students on how best to engage in such research is an important first step. This chapter examines the role of embedded philosophers in two National Science Foundation (NSF) funded transdisciplinary research projects that focus on climate risk management. These research projects have as one of their primary aims collaborating with policymakers and stakeholders who make decisions about adapting to the impacts of climate change. Understanding the centrality of the role of philosophers to both of these projects provides a valuable example of field philosophy. The second half of the chapter will focus on lessons learned from almost a decade of being an embedded philosopher.

In 2016, the NSF announced the theme of convergence research as one of their “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments” (NSF 2016). According to the NSF (2016), convergence research “entails integrating knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines and forming novel frameworks to catalyze scientific discover)' and innovation” in order to offer solutions to specific and compelling societal problems. The NSF emphasizes that this “convergence paradigm” builds on transdisciplinary approaches to create multiple solutions to complex problems. However, in the supporting literature, convergence is almost always between the sciences and engineering.

Convergence is an approach to problem solving that cuts across disciplinary boundaries. It integrates knowledge, tools, and ways of thinking from life and health sciences, physical, mathematical, and computational sciences, engineering disciplines and beyond to form a comprehensive synthetic framework for tackling scientific and societal challenges that exist at the interfaces of multiple fields.

(National Academy of Sciences 2014, 1)

The tag-on, “and beyond,” in the list of knowledge producers reflects a general absence of attention to the role of the humanities in convergence research.

The palette broadens when we turn from the US-based National Science Foundation to international organizations that focus on sustainability. To pick just one exemplar, consider the international research program, Future Earth, which was launched as a globally distributed consortium in 2012 at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to build knowledge about the environmental and human aspects of global change and to find solutions for sustainable development.

Transdisciplinary research is the hallmark of Future Earth’s Knowledge-Action Networks. These networks are described as aiming

to generate knowledge by pulling from many areas of both academia and society. They involve fundamental research, integration of natural and social sciences and humanities, co-designed research questions with users, co-produced outcomes, and broader engagement activities through state-of-the-art communications, dialogues and involvement at policy interfaces. The co-design process ensures that the Knowledge-Action Networks deliver the knowledge that society needs.


Future Earth aspires to have a significant impact at the interface between science and international policy as well as catalyzing world-class research on sustainability solutions.

Unlike the NSF, Future Earth explicitly mentions the humanities, yet a search of their many projects reveals that only one philosopher is listed as engaged in this crucial research. This is a common problem. It is not that philosophers are not interested in sustainability and global change. A quick search of the Philosophers Index reveals almost 2,000 journal articles and over 150 books written on the topic of sustainability. However, the enormous gap between philosophical publications on topics such as sustainability or anthropogenic climate change and the participation of philosophers in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Future Earth that aim to have an impact on policy signals a serious problem.

The discipline of philosophy devotes itself to such highly relevant issues as:

• How should individuals and communities live sustainably in our era of anthropogenic climate change?

  • • How are we to assess responsibilities for past harms to groups of people, indeed to entire populations?
  • • What are our duties to future generations?
  • • What are the best ways to understand the uncertainties and risks that emerge in this time of global change?

Despite the centrality of such questions to ethically and epistemically relevant policymaking, few philosophers are actively involved in transdisciplinary research designed to have an impact on pressing social issues.1 As we examine the barriers to practicing philosophy in the field, to contributing to the coproduction of knowledge with scientists and engineers as well as with stakeholders and policymakers, it is important to examine whether such barriers are internal to our discipline—for example, in how we train students and our norms for collaboration—or external, in how philosophical contributions to transdisciplinary research are perceived.

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