FOOTNOTES Januray 2001
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COSSA Annual Meeting Takes Up Key Issues

The Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) held its Annual Meeting in Washington on December 4. Meeting at a time of considerable post-election uncertainty about the leading players for science (on key Congressional committees, at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and in the Office on Management and Budget), over 70 representatives of social science societies and academic institutions gathered for this day-long event. Not to be stymied by political unknowns, those assembled focused on key issues for the social sciences and how to effectively advance an important agenda of work. The Annual Meeting followed the COSSA Board meeting held on December 3.

Sociologists were well represented at the Annual Meeting including ASA President Douglas Massey, ASA Secretary Florence Bonner, and Executive Officer Felice Levine (stepping down as chair of the COSSA Executive Committee after two two-year terms). Among the other sociologists in attendance were John Kasarda (COSSA Board member), David Featherman (representative to COSSA for the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan), Kitty Calavita (COSSA Board Member and President, Law and Society Association), and Margaret Zahn (COSSA Board Member representing the American Society of Criminology).

The Annual Meeting focused on major science policy and funding issues currently before the social and behavioral sciences. The meeting started with a lively briefing on “What Happened in the 2000 Elections and Why?” from political scientist Kathleen Frankovic (COSSA Board Member) who is Director of Surveys and Producer for CBS News. Also, two experienced Congressional staffers—David Goldston from the Office of Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Mark Harkins from the Office of Representative David Price (D-NC)—addressed prospects for the social sciences in the 107th Congress. COSSA representatives then turned their attention to the substantive challenges and opportunities ahead for the social sciences. Key issues included plans for a major new initiative at NSF in 2003 grounded in the social and behavioral sciences, the current climate for major reform of the regulatory system with respect to the protection of human participants, and learning from and looking beyond Census 2000. Featured speakers included Rita Colwell, NSF Director; Greg Koski, Director of the Office of Human Research Protection in the Department of Health and Human Services; Jonathan Knight, Associate Secretary for the American Association of University Professor; and Kenneth Prewitt, Director of the Census Bureau.

Colwell of NSF was the keynote luncheon speaker. Pleased by the recent 14 percent budget increase for NSF, she was strong in her advocacy for continued enhanced support—emphasizing the costs to the nation of having insufficient funds to support a large number of what she called “gems” in the competitive funding group. She was equally strong in her support of launching a social science-led initiative in 2003. Speaking boldly about the social sciences, she said there was “no question” that these sciences were “part of NSF’s vision of research at the frontiers of discovery.”

Colwell specifically addressed what she saw to be important “focal points” for an initiative in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. She saw the 2003 initiative as advancing understanding about the processes of innovation; fostering knowledge about responses and adaptations to technological change; illuminating the social, economic, and environmental effects of new technologies; increasing the benefits of technology through research on learning and cognition; and developing improved methodologies throughout the social sciences. She urged all in attendance to help in the development of the initiative and to work to explain the importance of fundamental research to those outside of science.

Protection of human research participants was another priority issue addressed at the COSSA Annual Meeting. As discussed elsewhere in Footnotes (page 2), the issue of protecting human subjects and the role of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) has surfaced again as a topic of serious concern. Koski outlined how the present system works and what some reform strategies might be. In particular, he discussed current efforts to certify individuals on IRBs and potentially to accredit IRBs themselves through non-governmental bodies. Knight addressed the actual operations of IRBs and questioned whether they show sufficient knowledge and expertise about ethical issues as they pertain to social and behavioral science research. The briefing led to an engaging discussion by attendees—a conversation likely to continue and increase in colleges, universities, and research institutes throughout the nation.

The Annual Meeting concluded with Census Bureau Director Prewitt discussing the Census 2000 and efforts to ensure an accurate count. Prewitt praised also the role of COSSA for its important work on the Census and many other issues over its almost 20 year history. He spoke of the stature of COSSA and its credibility in Washington circles and reminded attendees how much had been accomplished since the creation of COSSA in 1981 when the social sciences and their continued federal funding were under attack. His remarks reminded all present of the progress made and the advancements yet to come.

Prewitt addressed issues and raised questions well beyond the Census 2000 and federal statistics. These issues no doubt will animate future COSSA Annual Meetings and what COSSA does daily throughout the year.