The vexed nature of big environmental issues like climate change and water security underscore the role that social scientists can play in the development of public policy, according to Professor Phyllis Tharenou.
The new Executive Dean of Flinders Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences says that understanding human behaviour is an important ingredient in achieving the cultural change required to address issues like climate change.
Professor Tharenou said that governments can make decisions that change peoples’ behaviour but the ultimate success of a particular policy response relies on generating attitudinal changes.
“The problem with social science issues is that you don’t have an automatic converter like you do, for example, in medicine, where everyone is concerned about cancer. We all want a cure and you don’t have to convince people of the merits of curing cancer,” Professor Tharenou said.
“But compare cancer with climate change. Climate change is not solely a technical issue, it’s a social science issue. We have most of the technical knowledge about climate change at this minute to affect a positive outcome. The problem is our attitude to climate change, we cannot agree on it,” she said.
“If you are looking to achieve broad cultural change, then our sociologists can look at society as a whole, psychologists can look at groups and individuals, and the economists can analyse the cost and the return on investment for the community.
“All of these social scientists can contribute to an understanding of how people might respond to a government initiative on climate change or water management. Making that knowledge available can inform and contribute to effective decision-making.”
On a personal level, Professor Tharenou said she combined her study of psychology and teaching of management theory and practice in a career that has included positions at Monash University, University of South Australia, University of Queensland, Griffith University, the Queensland Institute of Technology and, most recently, the Australian Research Council.
“I’ve always been interested in bringing a number of disciplines to solving problems. In my case it’s been psychology and management,” she said.