Evaluating Social and Cultural Impacts: Decision Theory Meets Practice

Robin Gregory, Joseph Arvai, Paul Slovic, & Nathan Dieckmann

National Science Foundation

March 26, 2018 – April 24, 2018


Developments are often promoted because they are expected to result in economic or environmental benefits to a region, state, or nation. In some cases, however, these same projects result in negative social, cultural, or health consequences to the local population. Although these impacts are common and widespread, methods used to assess the social and cultural effects of initiatives (either positive or adverse) have received far less attention than methods to address economic or environmental impacts. Reasons include the usual market-based perspective of economists or policy analysts and the practical challenges encountered when evaluating the broad range of social, cultural, or health effects of a project.

The proposal takes an interdisciplinary perspective to construct better measures of social, cultural, and health effects using methods based in the decision sciences, environmental risk analysis, cultural anthropology, planning and policy evaluation, and psychology and statistics. The underlying premise is that improved measures of less tangible impacts will require improvements in both analytical and deliberative approaches. Key tasks include better understanding and identification of social and cultural impacts, better and more widely accepted metrics for incorporating qualitative or quantitative measures of these effects, and new methods that will successfully address uncertain future impacts, cumulative effects, and community-wide values (in contrast to the individual values favored under current approaches).

This 2-year proposal begins with structured interviews with experienced experts to elicit key concerns and barriers to the routine inclusion of social, cultural, and health indicators as part of project evaluations. Phase 2 includes experiments, which will compare the responses of expert and public participants, and involvement by researchers as part of several ongoing case studies that are now being undertaken by federal (or state) regulatory and management government agencies. Phase 3 is a review and revision of project findings in light of the comments of experts drawn from Phase 1, and then the dissemination of results through papers and conferences.

Outcomes of the project will help analysts to better represent and evaluate the community-based health, social, and cultural components of impact assessments, thereby leading to reduced levels of social conflict and more widely acceptable public policy initiatives.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.