December 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 9

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Challenges Ahead for Social and Behavioral Sciences and Public Policy

At the “Broadening Participation in Science in a Diverse America” panel. From left Dorit Zuk, Joan Reede, Kellina Craig-Henderson, and Sally Hillsman

At the “Broadening Participation in Science in a Diverse America” panel. From left Dorit Zuk, Joan Reede, Kellina Craig-Henderson, and Sally Hillsman

On November 29 and 30, COSSA held its annual meeting, titled “Colloquium on Social and Behavioral Sciences and Public Policy.” The more than 125 attendees experienced a series of presentations focusing on the current political situation, how to broaden participation in science, the opportunities and challenges for social/behavioral science research, and how that research is used and not used by policymakers.

Below is a summary of three sessions at the colloquium. Additional summaries and power point presentations are available on the COSSA website at

Obama’s Election Results

During the event’s introduction, Ken Prewitt, Columbia University Professor and COSSA President, spoke about the 2012 national elections. Prewitt suggested that some pundits analyzing the election results were overplaying our nation’s demographic shifts when arguing that it will be increasingly difficult for the Republicans to win. He advised that there were many aspects to the demographic changes, and they did not necessarily all point in one political direction. Incoming COSSA President James Jackson, Director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, agreed with Prewitt, asserting that once again there are “simplistic notions” in our discussion of race in America. In addition, John Mark Hansen of the University of Chicago suggested that the political polarization evident in Washington reflected a polarized nation.

The first scheduled speaker was Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute, who provided an assessment of the 2012 election results, suggesting that Republicans were still in shock over losing a presidential race they believed they were going to win. Ornstein commented that Republican pollsters had assured the Romney campaign that the election was theirs. However, Ornstein noted, their polls were based on erroneous predictions. With this unexpected outcome, he asserted, there is now a battle within the GOP. One side, believes Romney was not conservative enough and that continuing the very conservative direction of the party is necessary for future success. Others, believing that achieving more success among Hispanic voters is the key, support passing some version of the Dream Act to make these voters happy, while remaining true to other conservative policies. Another, dubbed the “pragmatists” by Ornstein, understands that much needs to be done, including redefining the GOP message, since the 2012 problem was not only with the Hispanic vote, but also the disastrous outcome among Asian American voters.

Even with the election over, Ornstein stated that the “fiscal cliff” negotiations were moving very slowly. He worried about the continuing pressure on the discretionary spending side of the budget that would produce a “destructive zero-sum game” among health, transportation, science, education, justice, and agriculture spending. He advised the audience that it remained important to express to policy makers the “immense value to society and the global economy” of social and behavioral science research.

Congressional Panel

The colloquium attendees next heard from a panel of congressional staffers.

Barbara Pryor, Senior Legislative Assistant for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), spoke about the importance of the American Community Survey (ACS), which the House voted to eliminate. Eliminating the ACS or making it voluntary (as advocated by some lawmakers) would hurt the data, she argued. The loss would be felt within a year, but Pryor said, by five years, it would be a “disaster.” She argued that protecting the ACS is important enough for those in the social science community to become vocal activists.

Dahlia Sokolov, Democratic Staff Director of the House Research and Science Education Subcommittee, recommended ways the social and behavioral science community could become more active in its interaction with Congress. She noted that members of Congress tend to focus single-mindedly on the concept of STEM education and that they need help understanding the value of social science. She called on the social science community to reach out to her colleagues on the Committee. Sokolov urged social scientists to “sell” their work to Congress, rather than hoping it would speak for itself. She suggested social scientists use narratives to show how their work helps Americans and to point to tangible applications of their research.

Wendell Primus, Senior Policy Adviser to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), discussed the impending fiscal cliff and the prospects for a comprehensive debt deal. He stated, “Your funding is tied to the fiscal cliff,” and that the impact will be felt in both the long and short term. Primus predicted that a debt deal is likely to consist of two parts: an initial “down-payment” agreement about revenues followed by a more comprehensive agreement next year covering entitlements and tax reform. He noted that of the $2.9 trillion in program cuts recommended by the Bowles-Simpson plan, $1.6 trillion has already been enacted (while none of the recommended $2.6 trillion in revenue increases has). Meanwhile, between 1979 and 2007, tax rates for the wealthiest one percent of Americans fell by more than seven percent, compared to a 3.7 percent drop for those in the 21st to 80th percentiles. Primus argued that we now face a choice between cutting taxes for the wealthy and breaking the promises we made to the elderly, disabled, and disadvantaged.

Broadening Participation in Science

The first day of the Colloquium concluded with a robust discussion regarding “Broadening Participation in Science in a Diverse America.” The panel consisted of Dorit Zuk, National Institutes of Health (NIH); Kellina Craig-Henderson, National Science Foundation (NSF); and Joan Y. Reede, Harvard Medical School. The panel was moderated by our own Sally Hillsman.

Hillsman began the discussion with a brief report on the Collaborative for Enhancing Diversity in Science (CEDS) May 24, 2012, workshop, “Enhancing Diversity: Working Together to Develop Common Data, Measures and Standards.” The workshop was designed to develop comprehensive and cohesive metrics to track the efforts of governments, universities, private foundations, and associations to enhance minority participation in the sciences. For more information on the workshop see

The first panelist, Zuk reviewed the product of two working groups of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director. One, the “Biomedical Research Workforce,” determined that NIH’s efforts to support training for graduate students and post-docs was inadequate. Zuk then discussed NIH’s responses to charges made by Ginther, et. al. in Science that the Institutes need greater diversity in the research workforce. Another working group also made recommendations in this area including: enhancing data collection and evaluation; strengthening mentoring, career preparation, and retention; increasing institutional support at universities, academic health centers, and at the NIH; and conducting research on possible unconscious bias.

Craig-Henderson began by citing the September 2012 National Academies of Science report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation, which noted the urgent need to expand participation in STEM fields, currently at about nine percent, because the United States now relies on non-U.S. citizens and international students for large number of STEM doctorates and employees.  She also reviewed research findings across the social science fields that describe implicit bias, stereotype threat, and other phenomena that grantees experience. The NSF, Craig-Henderson said, was beginning a significant effort to stimulate the Science of Broadening Participation (SBP). Craig-Henderson sees SBP as “potentially transforming,” since “ultimately this kind of work can disrupt our existing paradigms.” Employing empirical approaches, she said, can yield interesting and counterintuitive results, citing research that finds assertiveness training does not improve women’s ability to negotiate and that “diversity training does not lead to greater diversity in senior management.”

Reede described her experiences and lessons learned from her years as director of the Harvard Medical School (HMS) Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership. There is a rich literature, Reede explained, regarding the barriers to achieving diversity: inadequate opportunity, lack of preparation, lack of awareness, insufficient resources, inadequate relationships with mentors, networks, and supports, as well as institutional barriers (culture, policies and practices). So the first lesson, she stressed, is that broadening participation must be central to the mission of your organization, otherwise it is not taken seriously.

COSSA Staff assisted in writing this article

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