‘It’s our intention to change the world’: Doerr announces environmental social sciences department

The Doerr School of Sustainability announced its plans to establish a new Department of Environmental Social Sciences Wednesday.

As the newest addition to Doerr’s programs, the department of environmental social sciences will explore applications of social sciences like political science and psychology to environmentalism, according to the department’s faculty. 

Doerr launched in 2022 with largely STEM-centric departments, supplemented by master’s and Ph.D. programs in environmental interdisciplinary studies that ventured into social science. William Barnett, who was named chair of the new department, said that the school’s division for social sciences did not initially have enough professors and courses to warrant a separate department. 

But over a year later, the school has accumulated a growing group of 23 social sciences. Doerr plans to develop both undergraduate and graduate degree programs in the new department.

“Most of the sustainability changes that we face — climate change being the primary one — are the consequence of human choices and actions,” said Marshall Burke, the department’s associate chair. “Social science is the study of human behaviors and choices, so integrating social sciences into the sustainability school is going to be key for solving sustainability challenges.”

The program broadly defines social sciences to include anthropology, business, economics, education, human health, law, political science, psychology and sociology. As of now, the department will center around two areas of study: global environmental policy and environmental behavioral sciences. 

Barnett said this change doesn’t seek to supplant Doerr’s existing interdisciplinary programs. Instead, its goal is to add a level of depth to the social science aspects of the program.

“The interdisciplinary programs are for developing students and scholarship that cuts across science, engineering and social science,” Barnett said. He said the department will improve existing interdisciplinary programs by adding faculty and programs focused entirely on social sciences. 

The main difference that students will see in the immediate future is an increase in both staff and courses that focus on environmental social sciences, Burke said. 

The team hopes to establish its graduate programs over the next two years. As the department develops, it also plans to add additional undergraduate offerings, either through a major of its own or through an integration of tracks within the university’s existing majors.

According to both Barnett and Burke, the goal is to more holistically prepare leaders for a sustainable future. 

“It’s our intention to change the world,” Barnett said. “We obviously can’t change the world overnight. But what we can do is put in place institutions to enable the tremendous students and faculty who call Stanford home to turn around and change the world.”