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COSSA Annual Meeting Marks 20 Years of Success

On October 29, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) held its annual meeting as a substantive conference on “The Contributions of the Social and Behavioral Science.” Attended by approximately 85 representatives of COSSA members and affiliates, the meeting was marked by substance and celebration. The American Sociological Association (ASA) is a founding member of COSSA and sits on its Executive Committee and Board.

Based on an effort initiated by COSSA last winter, a cornerstone of the meeting was two panels linking social science to significant issues of public policy. The first of these panels focused on the contributions of social science in creating a safer world in international affairs, in creating a safer world through reducing crime, in improving health, and in promoting fairness. The second panel focused on the contributions and potential of social and behavioral science in increasing prosperity, educating the nation, and protecting the environment. The seriousness of the task could be seen in speakers’ willingness to address gains but also gaps in contributing knowledge. A background report (see below) was prepared by COSSA as the point of departure for these panels.

In a virtual “who’s who” in social science, leaders were in abundance at this 20th annual event. The introductory keynote talk was delivered by geographer David Ward, the newly installed President of the American Council on Education. His opening remarks set the tone for the meeting by focusing on the challenge and opportunities for significant interdisciplinary links in higher education for the new century. Ernest May, Charles Warren Professor of American History at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, gave the luncheon address on the uses of social science and particularly the use of history in the promulgation of sound policy. An advisor over the years to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council, among others, May effectively showed the rele-vance of history to strategic decision making. The contemporary power of his-tory was made vivid to meeting attendees as May discussed how to best structure the Office of Homeland Security based on lessons learned during World War II in establishing the Office of War Mobilization.

The afternoon program held the aud-ience’s attention and interest. A highlight of the meeting was a speech on “Expanding the Domain of Policy Relevant Scholarship in the Social Sciences” by sociologist William Julius Wilson of Harvard University and former Presidents of COSSA and of ASA. Wilson observed that social and behavioral science was at an important, even exciting juncture where the traditional boundaries have been weakened by the pressure for change and for addressing issues of wide social significance. In a provocative and thoughtful talk, Wilson called for a broader conceptualization of the use and application of data and an increased role for theoretical ideas, hypotheses, and concepts. While emphasizing the importance of rigorous and systematic work, he called for far more flexibility in the data used by social science. He also pressed for greater recognition of and attention to the value of theories and concepts for advancing understanding of the social aspects of life. Through examples and aspirations, Wilson used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of COSSA to frame new pathways to excellence.

The Wilson address provided just the right context for the closing session on the Future of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Social psychologist Norman Bradburn, Assistant Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences; sociologist David Featherman, Director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and Barbara Torney, Executive Director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education at the National Academies of Sciences provided the right mix to forecast internal and external challenges and opportunities for the social sciences. Each panelist addressed what would be demanded of the social sciences and the substantive, methodological, and infrastructural transformations likely to take place as these sciences seek to realize new goals. The Panel concurred that the social sciences were studying an increasingly complex world that demanded collaboration across these disciplines and with other sciences.

The COSSA annual meeting and all of the sessions unfolded in the context of the tragedy of September 11, the War on Terrorism, and other intervening events. Many questions from attendees were addressed to how this new situation could define what knowledge is needed and what the social sciences do and should do. The skill of social science as problem finder as well as problem solver was considered a genuine asset especially in these complex and challenging times.

Despite the seriousness of the event and of the times, the COSSA annual meeting was an occasion to acknowledge what had been achieved by COSSA and by the social sciences in the past two decades. President of COSSA, economist, and statistician, Janet Norwood, captured the substantive and strategic strengths of COSSA and its Executive Director Howard Silver in a “standing” toast to Silver and to the present and the future of social science. A well-attended reception capped this full day conference and anniversary event. Scientists and science policy leaders present to celebrate included microbiologist Rita Caldwell, Director of NSF.

A background report, Fostering Human Progress: Social and Behavioral Science Research Contributions to Public Policy, was published in October to celebrate the 20 years of COSSA. The report is available through COSSA at 1522 K Street, NW, Suite 836, Washington, DC 2005. A PDF file is also on COSSA’s homepage at