December 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 9

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The Social and Behavioral Sciences
Look to the Future at COSSA Annual Meeting

National science policy leaders provide updates to the social science community

Dan Fowler, ASA Public Information Office

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate is looking to the future and is considering input from the SBE community about what the directorate should be doing in 10 years and how it might frame next generation research, an NSF official recently told Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) members

Myron Gutmann, head of the SBE Sciences Directorate, made his comments at COSSA’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, on November 1, where he was one of several notable national science policy leaders who addressed the nearly 75 attendees.

Gutmann said that his directorate sent a letter to the SBE community in August asking for people to submit white papers "proposing the future of SBE science." That request for ideas closed in October; Gutmann’s team received 244 submissions from six countries and 41 states.

"We wanted to move beyond the notion that what we think about is what people are proposing today or what we or the administration thinks is important for tomorrow," Gutmann said. "We want to recognize that there’s been important scientific success in the last few years in a number of significant areas and we want to move into the notion that there are opportunities for new and robust data and multiple disciplinary data resources. We want to get to next generation science and we wanted cooperation with other disciplines."

The SBE Sciences Directorate has already started to review the diverse submissions, which came from the "citizen scientist to the Nobel Prize winner and pretty much everything in between," said Gutmann, who shared some preliminary findings at the COSSA meeting. Some of the emerging themes are interest in networks of information and their relationship to mobile devices; infrastructure; understanding how changes in population and globalization of society is reshaping our world; how language, linguistics and learning have opportunities to be reshaped; and how technological change is critical, Gutmann said.

The SBE Sciences Directorate asked people to think about big questions, capacity building, and infrastructure, Gutmann told attendees. "They responded to all of those" he said. "They also thought about big problems and they thought about ways to advance what they were doing, obviously, but to advance science for all of us."

SBE Sciences Directorate staff should have their interpretative report of the submissions available for comment in April or May of 2011. Input on what the directorate should be doing in the next 10 years will also come from the SBE Advisory Committee, SBE program staff, and regional meetings across the country.

Social Science at the National Institutes of Health

While Gutmann talked about a new initiative aimed at shaping the future of SBE Sciences at NSF, Debra Olster, Acting Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), also provided some exciting updates about NIH activities.

According to Olster, NIH Director Frances Collins has outlined five major priority areas for NIH investments, four of which cover the behavioral and social sciences. They include translating basic science discoveries into new and better treatments; encouraging a greater focus on global health; reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community; and putting science to work for the benefit of health care reform.

Olster also told attendees about a new multidisciplinary network of experts who will explore innovative approaches to understanding the origins of health disparities. NIH launched the Network on Inequality, Complexity, and Health in August with the goal of identifying important areas where interventions or policy changes could have the greatest impact in eliminating health disparities (see November 2010 Footnotes, p. 2, for more information).

"NIH takes seriously this idea that we really have to figure out how to reduce and eliminate health disparities," Olster said. In addition, Olster noted that spending on health care as a percentage of the gross domestic product is going up very quickly.

"In an effort to put science to work to improve this situation … NIH is stepping up its activities in health economics research and this is a fairly new area for NIH," Olster said.

The effort known as the Health Economics Research program is being spearheaded using money from the "common fund" out of the NIH Office of the Director. Thus far, the program has released two funding opportunities. For more information, see nihroadmap.nih.gov/healtheconomics/.

The Future of Higher Education in America

The COSSA Annual Meeting concluded with a panel discussion on the future of higher education in the United States, featuring Peter Henderson, Director of the National Research Council’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies; Gary Sandefur, Dean of the College of Letters and Science and a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and John Crowley, a consultant to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Henderson told the audience about a study his board is overseeing on research universities aimed at ensuring they maintain their prominence. Under the initiative, an ad hoc committee comprised of 22 people (including sociologist Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia) from academics, business, industry and politics is charged with producing a report that answers the question, "What are the top ten actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?" The committee plans to release its full report in the summer of 2011.

Sandefur followed Henderson and spoke glowingly about America’s higher education system, while noting that there are some challenges. "I think that we can easily say we have the best system of higher education in the world, one that the rest of the world aspires to have, one that they find to be a great role model and there are lots of indications of that," Sandefur said.

According to Sandefur, those indications include international rankings in which U.S. universities do very well, the fact that "most of the world" still wants to attend American universities, and that the Chinese government has chosen the U.S. system of higher education as its model for developing its own.

But, Crowley painted a much darker picture, saying that U.S. universities are no longer the best. As evidence, he pointed to an October 2010 New York Times op-ed, which talked about how the United States has fallen behind other countries in a variety of key areas related to competiveness and research prowess. "Is it time to seriously, deeply rethink the model?" he wondered. "To begin with, how can more productive collaborations across disciplines, schools, institutions and sectors—and all of them with industry and government—be created?"

Howard Silver, executive director of COSSA, contributed to this article. logosmall

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