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New NSF Priority Area Represents Significant Opportunity for Sociology

by Lee Herring, Public Affairs Office

Inching the National Science Foundation (NSF) ever closer to becoming an integrated collection of “virtual” research domains that transcend the constraints of traditional disciplinary boundaries, NSF’s recently approved $5.6-billion Fiscal Year 2004 budget includes, among five other priority areas, a nearly $18-million initiative to fund basic research on “Human and Social Dynamics.” [see sidebar on this page.] The research funding program is designed to foster breakthroughs in knowledge about human action and development as well as organizational, cultural, and societal adaptation to change. It represents an enormous opportunity for sociology.

HSD’s purpose is to increase science’s ability to predict behavioral and social consequences of change; better understand social and behavioral dynamics across levels of analysis; elucidate psychological and social structures that generate and define change; and help society and organizations navigate rapid and extensive change. These goals also necessitate a comprehensive, interdisciplinary effort that includes the development of associated research infrastructure. NSF anticipates awarding some 40-60 awards under this initiative. Learn more at www.nsf.gov/pubsys/ods/getpub.cfm?nsf04537.

Impetus for Human and Social Dynamics

Motivation for NSF’s development of HSD was the recognition that extreme uncertainty and change are inescapable facts of life in the twenty-first century and their social and economic disruptive potential is great. For example, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have awakened a new sense of American vulnerability; global economic vacillations have shaken American’s faith in the “new economy”; biotechnology advances paradoxically offer both hope for postponing aging and ameliorating the effects of once devastating or fatal disorders and disease, but also force us to face unparalleled ethical issues; and computer technology has created new employment opportunities but rendered many American jobs obsolete. Finally, workplace rewards for higher educational attainment have increased dramatically, yet the country’s educational system does not produce a sufficiently competitive science and technological workforce in the global market.

HSD is designed to better tap the potential of human creativity and human skill as “important raw materials and physical infrastructure,” according to HSD descriptive materials. Recognizing that humans develop new knowledge that leads to new technologies in the context of social institutions that largely shape what is produced and determine how these new products become part of everyday life, HSD is tailored to help us understand the interdependence of individual and social knowledge. HSD will drill through the human and social dynamics underlying the complex interdependencies and their essential contribution to our nation’s progress. At the heart of the research is a focus on the reciprocal relationship between human behavior and social and technological change and attitudes toward change. Such a goal requires attention to understanding the influence of social and economic forces related to gender, race, and culture as well as to social institutions like markets, government, schools, the media, and smaller scale institutions such as families, firms, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and police forces.

The long-term intellectual goals of the effort are to:

  • Develop a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary approach to understanding human and social dynamics, incorporating international, regional, and cross-cultural approaches.
  • Exploit the convergence in biology, engineering, information technology and cognition to advance our understanding of human behavior and performance at the individual, social, and population levels.
  • Refine our knowledge of decision-making, risk, and uncertainty, and to learn how to translate this knowledge into improved decision-making and risk communication.
  • Develop the broad range of infrastructure needed to support transformative interdisciplinary research. Examples include collaboratory research networks, large-scale repositories, and experimental laboratories, cognitive neuroimaging centers, national and international topic-focused research sites, and innovative research platforms such as real and modeled virtual communities and intelligent environments.
  • Create accessible large-scale data resources and advance methodological frontiers. Among the areas ripe for progress are agent-based modeling, complex network analysis, non-linear dynamics, computer-assisted qualitative analysis, multi-level, multi-scalar analysis, and measurement research and technologies. Advances in these areas will enhance the future foundation of social and behavioral science and even other sciences.

For more information about HSD generally, contact Sally Kane (skane@nsf.gov), Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences at NSF.