December 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 8

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Challenges and Opportunities for the Social and Behavioral Sciences

Brad Smith, ASA Public Affairs Department

Senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren

On November 4 and 5, COSSA (Consortium of Social Science Associations) held its annual colloquium, with over 100 people in attendance. In addition to talks by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), National Science Foundation (NSF) Acting Director Cora Marrett, and Census Bureau Director John Thompson, the colloquium featured panels on America’s political institutions, how society has changed, changes related to race, and the press and social science. The event concluded with COSSA Director Howard Silver sharing some of his 30 years of experiences at COSSA.

The pinnacle of the meeting was Senator Warren’s address. As a former social science researcher and a past recipient of a National Science Foundation grant, Warren pointed out the “tough challenges,” and “major issues” the country faces today, including falling behind our economic competitors in educational achievement; families increasingly being squeezed by stagnant wages and the rising cost of housing, health care, and education; and an aging population that is putting pressure on the labor market, healthcare system, and retirement plans. She underscored the fact that health costs are rising for everyone, and said, “[E]ven as we pay more, our health outcomes are no better than any other industrialized nation.”

Warren on the Need for Social Science

“As a country, we owe it to our children to address these problems,” Warren stated. She emphasized that the we know what to do for “a lot of problems”—including investing more in rebuilding our infrastructure, passing a farm bill and maintaining food stamps, and fixing our immigration system. “But in a lot of areas,” the Senator said, “we don’t have all the answers. And what we need is not just political will but rigorous social and behavioral sciences research to provide insight into key questions.”

Social science research, Warren later said, “is part of the equation. Put simply, if we want to make sound choices for the future—choices that are based on facts and science, not assertions and assumptions, choices that will actually solve our most pressing problems, and not just make us feel good about doing something—we need research in economics, law, education, sociology. Otherwise, we are just doing some very expensive guessing,” she insisted.

Warren observed that “given the importance of such work to the effectiveness of policymakers, one might expect that there would be broad support for this work. And yet, federal support for social sciences research is constantly under attack.” Without explicitly saying so, Warren pointed to the amendment by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) added to the FY 2013 Consolidated Appropriations Act last March “that limited NSF funding for political science research only to those projects certified as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States.” These restrictions, based on politics, said Warren, “makes as little sense for social science as they do for technical disciplines. Knowledge is knowledge; discovery is discovery. No one should have an interest in perpetuating ignorance.”

She stressed that, over time, the targeted efforts to cut the U.S. investment in social science research will “threaten the ability of Congress to make good decisions by cutting off the pipeline of rigorous analysis that is necessary to help identify what policies will and won’t work. When policymakers tie the hands of social science researchers, they are tying their own hands as well,” Warren maintained.

She concluded her remarks by emphasizing that support for “research is the starting point for all of our innovations, and the federal government must maintain its commitment to funding research in the social sciences.” Furthermore, “Social science research is critical to developing a safer, stronger America. I applaud the Consortium for fighting for the social sciences, and I am proud to join you.”

NSF and the Census

While Senator Warren focused on the big picture (i.e., saving the social sciences),NSF Acting Director Marrett and Census Director Thompson used their addresses to share specific issues facing their agencies.

Acting Director Marrett spoke about the state of the social and behavioral sciences at NSF. Following a summary of the government’s support for the social and behavioral sciences, Marrett addressed the impact the sequestration and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the annual congressional spending bills has had on the NSF. She also discussed some of the external challenges to the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE) directorate, which she predicted will not be going away anytime soon. She concluded by urging the audience to work together and spread the message that all scientific disciplines are important and that our nation needs a strong investment in basic research.

Census Director Thompson presented on the societal, technological, and scientific changes facing the Census Bureau. While he addressed many changes facing the Bureau, the most significant he said would be the increased use of the Internet for 2020 Census data collection. According to Thompson, Internet data collection is vitally important because it will reduce costs in printing, postage, and processing. Use of online resources will also allow the Bureau to move away from its traditional address canvassing methods to methods used by companies like UPS and FedEx. The potential use of the Internet did raise concerns from the audience, specifically issues of privacy. Effectively addressing these privacy concerns as the 2020 Census approaches may be the greatest public relations challenge facing the Bureau.

The 2013 COSSA Colloquium highlighted the many challenges facing the social sciences but also clearly demonstrated, as Howard Silver stated, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Next year’s COSSA meeting will be the first one in over 30 years without the leadership of Howard Silver.

Additional summaries and powerpoint presentations are available on the COSSA website at www.cossa.org/.

COSSA staff contributed to this article.

 

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