December 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 8

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The NAS Celebrates 150 Years with a Nod to the Social Sciences

Michael Kisielewski, ASA Research and Professional Development Department

Social science methods and perspectives are essential to communicating science findings to the public and for informing public policy. This theme resonated throughout a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) at its historic building in Washington, DC, October 16-18.

Chartered by Congress in 1863 as a nongovernmental elected body of “advisors to the nation” on matters of science and technology, the NAS has long been an authoritative voice on science policy, from the physical and biological sciences and engineering to medicine and the behavioral sciences and education. Historically a highly select and relatively limited group of experts, the NAS has evolved—and continues to evolve—as a multidisciplinary institution.

The event featured eight thematic panels of well-known scholars and practitioners across multiple disciplines and topic areas, who reflected on NAS accomplishments throughout its history as part of the NAS Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium Series. Session topics included global climate change, the biosciences, solar science, international security/relations, radiation hazards, demography and vital statistics, the computational sciences and information systems, and elementary science education.

This year’s Sackler Lecture was given by Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History and Adjunct Professor of Law at Yale University. Kevles reflected on the NAS from its inception through 1963, after which NAS subject matter expanded to include issues such as race and gender in the U.S. science workforce. Kevles discussed the challenges NAS has faced in maintaining objectivity and non-partisanship in its studies and chronicled how the Academy broadened its expertise in the first part of the 20th century by seeking greater participation from the nongovernmental and industrial sectors.

A Call for Greater Social Science Inclusion

A recurring theme throughout the colloquium was that biological and physical scientists would benefit from greater exposure to social scientists and social science methods. Panelists called for greater inclusion of social science perspectives within NAS studies as well as the communication of findings beyond the scientific community. For example, David Goslin, American Institutes for Research, said that it was not until the mid to late 1960s that the Academy’s operating arm developed a program unit on behavioral and social sciences, which eventually opened doors for greater participation from sociologists and economists. That program has since evolved into the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. But, as Goslin remarked, studies focused on education did not become a priority until some years after that program was established.

NAS President Ralph Cicerone also expressed a need for greater representation of social scientists and social science analyses in NAS studies rooted in the biological and physical sciences, and he emphasized that there is a larger role for social scientists to play in informing public policy. Yet, as Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California-San Diego, pointed out, there often is hesitation by physical and biological scientists to use social science techniques and methods, partly due to their lack of training in such methods. Those methods include, for example, risk analysis, decision science, quantitative and qualitative program evaluation, and the study of how scientific knowledge is adopted. Several panelists suggested that this gap needs to be overcome, beginning with inclusion of more social scientists on NAS study committees.

Where Social Science Shines

During a session on biodemography and vital statistics, panelists reflected on specific contributions made by the social sciences (within and outside of the Academy) to informing public policy. For example, under the direction of the NAS Committee on Population—established in 1983—several projects led to widely published interdisciplinary work on population and aging, including development of an international series of longitudinal studies on those topics. The panel also pointed out that a good deal of social science research in the 1970s and 1980s helped identify areas of improvement for certain federal social programs designed to meet the needs of the poor.

Supporting Science Education

The concluding panel of the colloquium reflected on NAS’s role in developing standards for science education from kindergarten through 12th grade, including discussion by Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. As with previous sessions, panelists emphasized the contribution of social science thought in guiding landmark NAS reports, such as those that present evidence-based arguments for excluding creationism from public school classroom learning.

Kenneth Prewitt, former Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, argued that there still remains uncertainty and lack of consensus as to how existing scientific knowledge informs the development of public policy. Perhaps including social scientists in a greater number of studies and on more panels as well as in developing strategies for communicating study findings to diverse audiences will result in greater understanding of NAS findings and how scientific knowledge effects policy change.

Videos from the Sackler Colloquium, The NAS at 150: Celebrating Service to the Nation, can be viewed on the Sackler Colloquia’s YouTube channel

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