February 2009 Issue Volume 37 Issue 2

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From the Executive Officer

Social Science’s Role in Building Bridges to an American Recovery

sally hillsman
Sally T. Hillsman,
ASA Executive

The historic presidential inauguration of 2009 has passed. As of this writing, President Barack Obama is engaged in "selling" his far-reaching recovery program, and the new 111th Congress is organizing other major legislation focused on our national (and international) economic crisis. Obama is seeking congressional approval of an $820-billion economic stimulus plan that includes $9.9 billion for research. It is intended not only to reverse declining economic conditions, but also to invest in the nation’s most important bridge-to-the-future priorities: energy, education, health care, and a competitive 21st century infrastructure.

These four broad priorities parallel the six areas delineated just last month in a report released by President Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, in one of his last actions before leaving his position as director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The report, Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research in the Federal Context, emphasizes the centrality of societal challenges that are at the heart of knowledge and research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (SBE). The 28-page report describes the potential of the SBE sciences to devise solutions within education, healthcare, crime prevention, cooperation and conflict, societal resilience and response to threats, creativity and innovation, as well as energy, environment, and human dynamics. The report was a product of the President’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and was released on January 13 (see www.ostp.gov/cs/nstc/documents_reports).

In the report, written by behavioral and social scientists on the NSTC’s Subcommittee on Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, Marburger acknowledges in his forward: "Research information provided by the SBE sciences can provide policy-makers with evidence and information that may help address many current challenge areas in society, including education, healthcare, the mitigation of terrorism, the prevention of crime, the response to natural disasters, and the a better understanding of our rapidly changing global economy." Stressing that the "report is a distillation of the most pressing scientific challenges in the SBE sciences, and their policy implications for federal agencies," he concludes that "it strikes a balance between scientific and policy agendas and identifies new areas of SBE science that can inform policy decisions."

Converging Ideas

The priority areas in President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the words of the outgoing Bush appointee emerged in very different contexts—one is in a far-reaching nearly trillion-dollar spending/tax reduction request (647 pages in the House version) and one is in a brief report on promising social science by a lame duck science advisor. Yet both delineate broad areas vital to the present and future—the short- and long-term economic resuscitation, in the case of Obama, and long-term solutions to recalcitrant policy challenges, in the case of the Bush science officer. Both sets of priorities aim to establish long-lasting bridges to solid policy development and recognize that these areas are central to the knowledge base and research agendas of the social sciences. That social science research repeatedly surfaces as an essential structural element to help the country establish a predictable and livable future indicates that sociology should be a "full-employment" discipline even if too many find un- or under-employment in the near future.

Bridge to the Future

vp_logoWe can only hope that sociology (and social science, generally) receives a "place at the table" as the nation’s policymakers struggle to find empirically derived answers to policy questions and research-informed guidance on improving the underlying social infrastructure in health care, education, crime and terrorism prevention, disaster resilience, and a rapidly evolving economic ecology. The institutionalization of Marburger’s call for a "social science of science policy formation" in the National Science Foundation’s new Science of Science & Innovation Policy program (see January 2009 Footnotes, p. 2) may help bring a national spotlight to the centrality of social science in crafting and implementing research-based foundations for key national policies. Building a resilient foundation for America’s, and the world’s, prosperous future requires serious attention during our current crisis. This presents a window of opportunity to structure solutions by tapping knowledge from the science of human society.

Policymakers regularly bump up against the very issues that sociologists have put at the heart of the discipline for over a hundred years because of their dedication to the well-being and prosperity of human society. When the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) produced Fostering Human Progress in 2001, it delineated six policy-relevant areas in which SBE research had made major contributions: Creating a Safer World; Increasing Prosperity; Improving Health; Educating the Nation; Promoting Fairness; and Protecting the Environment.

As citizens and scientists, sociologists will be listening closely, to the president’s upcoming State of the Union (SOTU)address. In addition to addressing the current and future plans for reviving the U.S. economy, we expect he will talk about the direction his administration will take on other domestic issues such as immigration, homeland security, health care, alternative energy exploration, and education, among others, as well as plans for U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The SOTU serves as a blueprint for the new president’s policy priorities for the coming year, and we should be listening carefully for where social scientists fit into structuring promising solutions. logo_small

Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at executive.office@asanet.org.


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