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Social Science Consortium Hosts U.S. Science Advisor, NSF, and NIH Social Science Leadership*

This past fall, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), of which ASA is a founding member, held another well-attended annual meeting in Washington, DC, hosting four notable national science policy leaders. Among the leaders presenting to the 70-plus audience of COSSA societies’ representatives were John Marburger, the President’s science advisor (a.k.a. Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)); David Lightfoot, the director of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBES); David Abrams, the Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).

These science policy leaders made presentations on the role of the behavioral and social sciences in helping advance the nation’s science and technology enterprises. DeLauro anchored a concluding panel, which included sociologist William D’Antonio, examining political influence of religion in America.

Marburger on the Social Sciences

This was Marburger’s second presentation at a COSSA annual meeting, and he used the opportunity to review progress (since his 2002 COSSA speech) relative to the social sciences. Marburger reiterated the “value of the social sciences” and lamented that the U.S. goverenment does not sufficiently utilize social science research approaches or findings. He also indicated that solutions to today’s challenges could more effectively arise if policymakers were to better “use the knowledge and techniques developed in these fields.”

Marburger pointed out that the social sciences are participating in a broad transformation that is affecting all sciences and that this is “changing the tools, methods, and sociology of every field.” He attributed this transformation to “extraordinary enhancements” in our ability to gather, store, analyze, characterize, and communicate massive amounts of data. Because of such information technology advances, the social sciences, like other disciplines, are able to more effectively participate in revolutionary discovery.

Marburger revisited his April 2005 plea—originally delivered to the general science community at the annual Policy Forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)— for the development of a new “social science of science policy.” (See ASA Executive Officer’s column in the December 2005 Footnotes, p. 2.) His hope is that such a science, based partly on econometrics and partly on other social sciences, would help national policymakers ascertain the effectiveness of federal as well as private-sector investments in science, especially basic research. He stated that NSF has made some inroads in addressing his plea, as SBES already is in the process of identifying possible metrics and exploring other tasks (e.g., a proposed revision of the three-decades-old data taxonomy that is used by NSF to compile its biannual Science & Engineering Indicators assessment).

OSTP has developed initiatives having behavioral and social science themes, Marburger stated, including examining potential societal significance of nanotechnology and vaious activities associated with enhancing homeland security and disaster preparedness and reduction. Marburger also mentioned the work of a subcommittee of the White House National Science and Technology Council. This group is developing a strategic plan to undergird the utility of the behavioral and social sciences for national policy. Comprised of scientists from a range of federal research agencies, this working group has identified a number of “grand challenges” and will issue its Understanding Human Beings: The Grandest Challenge report this year.

Sociologists Respond

Sociologist and COSSA Board member Cora Marrett, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs for the University of Wisconsin System, responded eloquently and supportively at the conclusion of Marburger’s speech. Marrett emphasized the increasing public scrutiny of the nation’s investment in science and engineering research and acknowledged the unique importance of the social and behavioral sciences in any legitimate federally supported science program.

Sociologist and COSSA Board member James S. Jackson, Director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, reminded Marburger and the audience that a primary obstacle to incorporating the behavioral and social sciences in such grand public plans is that their findings are often inherently “disquieting.” Jackson also noted a number of challenges to science and higher education, including internationalization, inequitable access to education and financial resources. He also reminded the audience of the recent threats to the integrity of the peer review process generally, and the need to defend it from congressional and other political interference.

David Lightfoot on NSF

NSF’s David Lightfoot was the leadoff speaker at the COSSA meeting and he noted that during his initial five months at NSF, he has learned of this agency’s uniquely and universally revered status across the globe for upholding a “gold standard” level of interdisciplinary research. Lightfoot’s primary take-home message was focused on the tight budgetary constraints that he believes demand a strategic creation of alliances with other sciences, both inside and outside NSF, to continue “increasing the budget by stealth” and cooperating where these sciences overlap (i.e., in terms of research).

Three initiatives hold promise for budgetary increases, Lightfoot maintained. First, NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics program, which fosters interdisciplinary research, has been the conduit for SGER grants [Small Grants for Exploratory Research], which provide short-term support for finely focused research on unique, timesensitive topics such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the recent tsunami in South Asia. Second, Lightfoot supported Marburger’s call for a “social science of science policy.” Lightfoot said that the White House Office of Management and Budget has expressed support for this area. Third, Lightfoot commented on NSF’s cyberinfrastructure program, which would be advanced in the FY 2007 budget, and that he says is relevant to human dimensions of technology. In fact, SBES recently issued grants for developing the next generation of cybertools for social and behavioral science research.

David Abrams on NIH

OBSSR’s David Abrams, like NSF”s Lightfoot, is a relative newcomer to the national policy scene, but he has caught on rapidly and also is focused on the “stark reality” of tight research budgets. Abrams remains optimistic about the future of OBSSR and funding for its initiatives and noted that NIH supports behavioral, social, or economic research to the tune of about $3 billion annually.

Abrams described the newly created NIH Office of Portfolio Analysis and Strategic Initiatives, which is intended to serve the Director’s NIH Roadmap initiative to encourage novel ideas and riskier research by identifying and coordinating cross-disciplinary scientific opportunities that fall between the traditional disciplinary “silos” of NIH’s 27 separate institutes.

Abrams also provided an update on the Working Group of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director on Research Opportunities in the Basic Behavioral and Social Sciences, stating that NIH director Elias Zerhouni wants a “corporate response” to the group’s report. Abrams, along with the National Institute for General Medical Sciences director Jeremy Berg and several other institute directors, are collaborating together to forge just such an institutional response. It is to be modeled on the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research Neuroscience Initiatives.

The behavioral and social sciences are integral to NIH’s mission, Abrams said, and an understanding of the health relevance of research advances in genetics, neural circuitry, disease biomarkers, and neurotransmitters requires increasingly sophisticated behavioral and social science knowledge. Abrams concurred with Lightfoot’s assessment of the need for integrated, alliance-based approaches to science in order to enhance funding levels. Of direct relevance is OBSSR’s intense emphasis on transdisciplinary research in order to address: (1) the high level of complexity of illness/disease and health; (2) the multiple and interacting determinants of illness and health; (3) the need for multiple perspectives. Transdiciplinary research is also important for taking advantage of advances in measuring tools, statistical analytical methods, and sampling time frames, according to Abrams.

* Adapted from the November 7, 2005, COSSA Washington Update.