Environmental science is especially broad because it encompasses not only the natural sciences (disciplines that examine the natural world) but also the social sciences (disciplines that address human interactions and institutions). Most environmental science programs focus more on the natural sciences, whereas programs that emphasize the social sciences often use the term environmental studies. Whichever approach one takes, these fields bring together many diverse perspectives and sources of knowledge. An interdisciplinary approach to addressing environmental problems can produce effective solutions for society.
For example, we used to add lead to gasoline to make cars run more smoothly, even though research showed that lead emissions from tailpipes caused health problems, including brain damage and premature death. In 1970 air pollution was severe in many American cities, and motor vehicles accounted for 78% of U.S. lead emissions.
In response, environmental scientists, engineers, medical researchers, and policymakers all merged their knowledge and skills into a process that eventually brought about a ban on leaded gasoline. By 1996 all gasoline sold in the United States was unleaded, and the nation’s largest source of atmospheric lead pollution had been completely eliminated. Not necessarily. Although environmental scientists search for solutions to environmental problems, they strive to keep their research rigorously objective and free from advocacy. Of course, like all human beings, scientists are motivated by personal values and interests—and like any human endeavor, science can never be entirely free of social influence.
However, whereas personal values and social concerns may help shape the questions scientists ask, scientists do their utmost to carry out their work impartially and to interpret their results with wide-open minds. Remaining open to whatever conclusions the data demand is a hallmark of the effective scientist.