November-December 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 8

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Sociologists Spend Summer
Briefing, Testifying Before Congressional Audiences

Sociological, psychological, and neuroscience
panelists discuss cutting-edge science that exemplifies
the promise of the behavioral and social sciences
for national priorities

by Lee Herring, ASA Public Affairs and Public Information Office

Sociology and National Policy

Sociologist and statistician Martina Morris, University of Washington, participated in a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill in mid-July, discussing "Modeling HIV and STI [sexually transmitted infection] Transmission Dynamics: The Importance of Partnership Network Structure." Her presentation was among four given by social, brain, cognitive, and counterterrorism scientists brought to Washington, DC—by ASA, the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA), and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences—to brief an audience on Capitol Hill.

The congressional briefing sought to highlight a long-anticipated report released by the White House’s National Science and Technology Council of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Released in January 2009, the report describes the potential of the SBE (social, behavioral, and economic) sciences to contribute to ameliorating national problems within education, healthcare, crime prevention, cooperation and conflict, societal resilience and response to threats, and enhancing creativity and innovation, as well as contributing to solutions concerning energy usage, environmental quality, and human dynamics. Titled Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research in the Federal Context (see February 2009 Footnotes, Vantage Point, p. 2), the report (see emphasizes the centrality of societal challenges that have historically fueled social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) science research.


NSTC SBE Briefing July 16, 2009 (l-r) Elke Weber,
David Poeppel, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, David Lightfoot,
and Martina Morris. (Photo by Robert Stevens)

Then-science advisor John Marburger acknowledged in the report, "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 . . . ." He concluded that "it strikes a balance between scientific and policy agendas and identifies new areas of SBE science that can inform policy decisions."

Morris’ research focuses on the large, persistent disparities in HIV prevalence across the world’s population. Morris demonstrates that prevalence rate differences among diverse areas of the world, even within regions such as sub-Sahara Africa and within population subgroups in a country, do not originate from genetic and biological differences. Nor do differences in traditional risk behaviors explain the prevalence patterns. Rather, the key factor is the degree to which people are engaged in sex with concurrent partners. Multiple concurrent sexual contacts create connectivity networks that are instrumental in enhancing the transmission of HIV. Morris demonstrated through a dynamic schematic graphical image how even seemingly minor increases in the number of concurrent partners can generate radically different transmission rates in sexual networks. Within the United States, the number of concurrent sexual partners within networks could account for racial/ethnic differences in HIV incidence.

U.S. Representative Brian Baird (D-WA), Chair of the House Research and Science Education Subcommittee, and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), Chair of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee, provided congratulatory comments to the SBE community at the beginning of the briefing and expressed strong support for the behavioral and social sciences. The latter subcommittee soon will undertake reauthorization of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds much of the basic research in the social and behavioral sciences and science education. Opening remarks covering an overview of the report were provided by David Lightfoot, one of three co-authors of the report and the former Assistant Director for NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate. Lightfoot emphasized the importance of understanding human activity through examining the brain and the mind. The report, said Lightfoot, connects research to national policy needs.

The other research speakers on the panel included neuroscientist David Poeppel of New York University, who spoke about "Mapping the Mind and Brain." Psychologist Elke Weber of Columbia University made a presentation titled "Decisions Matter: Understanding How and Why We Make Decisions About the Environment." Jonathan Wilkenfeld, University of Maryland, made a presentation titled "Conflict, Terrorism and Resilience," based on work of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START), one of the Department of Homeland Security’s Centers of Excellence.

Recruiting and Retaining Girls and Women in STEM

Sociologist Sandra Hanson, Catholic University, served as a witness before the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Research and Science Education Subcommittee in a July hearing devoted to gender differences in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education and careers. The Committee on Science and Technology oversees the authorizations of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The present hearing was convened to explore research findings, best practices, and the role of the federal government in changing the demographics of U.S. STEM fields by increasing the appeal of these areas to girls in grades K-12. ASA collaborated with COSSA to identify Hanson as a witness especially relevant to the Subcommittee’s purposes.

The panel also included Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Marcia Brumit Kropt, CEO of Girl’s Incorporated; Barbara Bogue, Associate Professor Engineering Science and Mechanics and Women in Engineering at Pennsylvania State College of Engineering; and Cherryl Thomas, President of Ardmore Associates, LLC.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Daniel Lipinski’s (D-IL) opening remarks at the hearing noted that while girls and women have broken through barriers in both STEM education and the workforce over the past few decades, their participation rates in certain STEM disciplines remain disproportionately low. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee, reiterated a foundational premise in the science policy community: strengthening math and science education is essential to America’s economic competitiveness.

Among other initiatives to address gender disparities in STEM areas, NSF launched its Program for Women and Girls in 1993 in order to increase the participation of girls and women pursuing education in all fields of STEM. The expectation was that this would change the gender makeup of STEM professions downstream. This program has continued under different names, but its functions are now conducted by the Research and Gender in Science and Engineering Program (GSE). GSE has issued a series of publications to assist educators, employers, and parents to promote gender diversity in STEM. But, recent data released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals a small but continuing achievement discrepancy in math and science between boys and girls in primary and secondary school.

Sociological Research

Hanson’s testimony provided an overview of her decades of research on girls in relation to STEM education and careers, the current status of the research, and a dissemination of research findings. Hanson’s research indicates that young girls do not begin school with low STEM achievement and that young women’s increasing presence and success in STEM education is disproportionate to their presence in science occupations. In spite of increasing participation of women in STEM education and occupations, Hanson maintains that "science continues to be a white male culture that is often hostile to women and minorities."

Hanson cautioned that there is not a simple "women vs men" dichotomy in STEM, as men and women across race and social classes sustain different experiences in STEM. "Gender cultures vary tremendously across race groups," she said. Hanson’s recent research on African American women in science shows this population has a considerable interest and engagement in science, and this research extends to Asian Americans and Latinos. Perhaps surprising, her work indicates that Asian American girls do not match Asian American boys in science achievement.

Regarding structural barriers and gender-biased selection processes, Hanson reported that her research also shows that "the problem of talented young women leaving science (and of a shortage of women in science, in general) says less about the characteristics of young women and more about external social barriers and processes. These factors "directly affect STEM achievement through gender discrimination," and they indirectly transmit "gendered" socialization and unequal allocation of science resources in families, schools, and even the mass media. These processes often work to subtly, albeit subconsciously, affect the way students and teachers behave relative to STEM education, she said. logo


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