Because Social Science Can Have an Impact on Public Policy

Why Social Science? Because social science can—and should—have a real impact on public policy at the federal, state, and local levels. More than a decade ago, while serving as President of the Southern Criminal Justice Association, I spoke with Mittie Southerland, who at the time was the Executive Director of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS). We lamented that while our members produced the best and most topical peer-reviewed and policy-relevant research in crime and justice, getting legislators, reporters, and policy-makers to take account of it seemed an almost impossible task. How to make it happen?

Today, I chair the Crime & Justice Research Alliance (CJRA), a centralized resource of authoritative experts and scholarly studies created to provide policymakers, practitioners and the public direct access to relevant research on crime and criminal justice issues. Formed in 2015, CJRA is a collaborative partnership between the nation’s two leading criminal justice associations, ACJS and the American Society of Criminology (ASC), which represent more than 5,000 criminal justice scholars, practitioners, and researchers.

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Because It Can Challenge Conventional Wisdom

Social science research provides evidence that helps us understand the drivers of social problems. A lot of times, this evidence is in contrast to the conventional wisdom and may on the face of it seem counterintuitive.  However, evidence from social science research can show why certain policies work and why other policies fail, helping us inform policy and prevent unintended consequences.

An example of this is “ban-the-box” policies, laws that forbid employers from asking whether a job applicant was ever involved with the justice system. The purpose of such policies was to improve hiring rates for individuals with criminal backgrounds and limit discrimination by employers, based on the  theory that the stigma for those involved with the criminal justice system would not be present if employers did not have information about applicants’ criminal histories. The large racial disparities in the criminal justice system lead to further racial disparities in the employment of ex-offenders. Thus, banning the box would have the added benefit of reducing racial disparities in employment. Thirty-one states plus the District of Columbia have passed ban-the-box policies, along with over 150 cities and counties.

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Because It Helps Us Identify and Combat Misinformation

To make good decisions, we need good information. Every day, people form opinions on health treatments, political policies, and consumer products. Social sciences help us understand how people can separate accurate information from misinformation—information that is false or misleading. 

Communication researchers, psychologists, and political scientists have all provided valuable research highlighting the dangers of misinformation, the difficulties in correcting it, and the most effective strategies for resisting it. Social scientists are also tackling related topics like conspiracy theories and rumors.  

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Because It Can Improve the Lives of City Residents

There’s a movement underway to integrate scientific research into the everyday workings of government at all levels. Increasingly, research professionals are being called upon to roll up their sleeves and lend their advice, expertise, and knowledge in service to government. Here in the District of Columbia, Mayor Muriel Bowser established The Lab @ DC, a team to work with a wide range of city agencies. The Lab uses scientific insights and methods to test and improve policies and provide timely, relevant, and high quality-analysis to inform DC’s most important decisions.

In building the team—which now includes over 20 employees, fellows, and regular collaborators—Mayor Bowser made the explicit decision to make social and behavioral science expertise central. We have scientists with PhDs in anthropology, sociology, economics, and psychological science who work in Washington, DC’s city hall addressing some of our biggest challenges. These social scientists work closely with other experts on the team, such as data scientists and operations experts, to ensure that solutions are theoretically sound, methodologically rigorous, and carried out efficiently and effectively. Importantly, team members are “embedded” in city government, which allows them to build relationships with other city employees as well as the citizens they serve.

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Because It Produces Essential Data for Our Democracy

The social sciences are vitally important to the institutions of democracy. Those institutions include a constellation of federal statistical agencies responsible for collecting and disseminating data. With these data, critical decisions are made such as where to build schools and fire stations, how to shape congressional districts, and the way more than $600 billion in federal funds are allocated.

Consider just one such agency, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, responsible along with the FBI, and various other federal agencies, for generating national crime statistics. With these data, law enforcement officials at the state and local levels make informed assessments of the prevalence and frequency of crimes in their areas. Social scientists, such as criminologists, sociologists and others, go a huge step further. They use the same data to discern patterns of criminal behavior thereby facilitating more effective policing and crime intervention methods. They also are best positioned to create data-supported analyses about what types of crimes are occurring, where, and in relation to other considerations such as social, political, and economic factors. They also detect when justice may not have been consistently and fairly applied.  The result is a more comprehensive and holistic approach to crime prevention and mitigation.

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Because It is an Engine for Social Progress

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is dedicated to preparing the next generation of social work practitioners, policy makers, and researchers with the competencies to address society’s needs. The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) is a catalyst for excellence in developing, implementing, and translating research that advances social work practice and social policy that improves human well-being. Together we advance society through the delivery of quality services informed by social science research. As March is Social Work Month, with this year’s theme being “Social Workers: Leaders. Advocates. Champions,” CSWE and SSWR appreciate the opportunity to share with the community what makes social work research an important part of social science as a discipline. 

While the public is generally aware of social work as a profession of practitioners, it is less aware of its science. And yet, social work researchers have been integral to the science that has led to improvements in people’s lives and the amelioration of social ills for generations. Social work science played an important role in progressive social movements such as the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, child labor laws, and women, political, civil and human rights. Social work science led to many of the “Great Society” programs to address poverty and racial injustice and the development of humane care for service men and women. Social work science has facilitated culturally and contextually relevant services for people across the lifespan (from cradle to grave) and influenced consumer protection policies and programs.

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Because It Adds Value, Even When You Don’t See It

Why Social Science? was launched in 2017 as a project of the Consortium of Social Science Associations (COSSA) aimed at getting social science findings and impacts out to the general public. Our goal has been to talk about our sciences in new and interesting ways, making them feel more accessible and relevant to our everyday lives. The 22 interesting and diverse pieces published in 2017, I think, did just that. I am excited for the stories that will be told through Why Social Science? in 2018.

To kick the year off, I would like to speak directly to social science researchers and shine a light on an important, though often overlooked contribution made by the social and behavioral sciences—serving as resources to government officials. Policy makers are an important segment of the public audience we hope to reach through Why Social Science?, but working with them directly is just as—if not more—important. 

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Because Social Science Fosters Robust and Trustworthy Knowledge

As Chair of the COSSA Board, it is an honor to conclude the inaugural year of “Why Social Science?” with some reflections and aspirations. When COSSA launched this initiative in 2017, the aim was to invite persons to speak to the “Why” of social science from diverse perspectives. By design, the task was left open-ended to encourage commentators to share their stories, views, knowledge, or favorite findings through a lens that could resonate with a breadth of public audiences. 

As a social scientist who has now studied the “data,” I am struck with how compelling these 22 commentaries (typically no more than 1,000 words and written in non-technical language) are. Notably, only about half of the writers are themselves social and behavioral scientists. Also, important is that contributors were drawn from a range of occupations, roles, and work sectors—Congress, federal agencies, science advocacy groups, higher education institutions, scientific associations, and the leading academies.

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Because Language Is Essential to Human Interaction

Every day, we use language to communicate, argue, learn, negotiate, document, legislate, and celebrate. In the industrialized world, we are bombarded daily by language from radios, televisions, websites, signs, and talking devices, while in less technological societies, knowledge is transmitted orally. A better understanding of languages (individually), of language (as a collective human ability), and of their speakers helps us to better understand how society functions and how to improve it, and this is the domain of study of linguistics.

The foundations of linguistics begin with descriptions of the sounds and structures of many languages, from languages of global exchange spoken by millions, to local dialects spoken in remote corners of the world. The grammars constructed by theoretical linguists help us to see the similarities and relationships between languages, and to trace their histories. The more languages we can study, the better picture we have of the depth and breadth of the human language faculty.

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Because It Is Central in Guiding Efforts to Foster Success in STEM in Our Children and Youth

The social sciences are key to informing and supporting our national priorities. One such priority is having a strong workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). As in the era of Sputnik, we are realizing that we need to catch up in this area. Reports like Rising Above The Gathering Storm sounded an alarm, calling for investments to foster a strong science and technology workforce in order for the United States to maintain competitiveness globally. 

Developmental science, or research on how children learn and develop, is helping to grow the roots of STEM—stimulating interest and competence in STEM in children and youth from all backgrounds in our country. The full set of social science “tools” is proving important in this effort, from looking at factors that influence and predict student achievement in large longitudinal datasets, to conducting evaluation studies looking at what works best in encouraging the roots of STEM to grow, to insights from smaller focused studies diving more deeply into mastery of specific concepts. 

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Because Social Science Helps Us Enhance Diversity in the Interest of Positive Societal Outcomes

As demographics of the American population shift and global interconnectedness expands, it has become increasingly important for public policymakers, and others making consequential decisions in society, to understand the impact of diversity and inclusion. Social scientists have empirically demonstrated that diversity supports positive societal outcomes—from productive workplaces to effective educational institutions and a strong scientific enterprise.

Social science research not only helps us to understand that there is value to diversity and inclusion, but also how we can enhance diversity and inclusion. An extensive sociological literature on mentoring, for example, demonstrates empirically that the most effective interventions for under-represented racial/ethnic minority scholars are based on a combination of instrumental and psycho-social mentoring. The first type focuses on giving scholarly career advice and resources, and the second focuses on fostering emotional support and well-being. Studies also indicate that the mentoring process facilitates the growth of social networks, which are strong predictors of career success and satisfaction. Mentoring happens effectively one-on-one, but diversity and inclusion are further strengthened with communal mentoring using these networks.

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Watch "Social Science Solutions for Health, Public Safety, Computing, and Other National Priorities"

On Wednesday, October 4, 2017, COSSA and SAGE Publishing hosted a Congressional briefing on Social Science Solutions for Health, Public Safety, Computing, and Other National Priorities. The event featured authors of past Why Social Science? blog posts, including Representative Daniel Lipinski (D-IL)Peter Harsha of the Computing Research AssociationNancy La Vigne of The Urban Institute, and William Riley of the National Institutes of Health. Panelists discussed the importance of social science applications to preventing cyberattacks, how social science can help identify the causes of health disparities, and how behavioral reinforcement or “nudges” can be incorporated into federal policy. More information about the the event is available on COSSA’s website.

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Because Social Science Is the Fundamental Bedrock of Just Societies

I am writing this blog informed by multiple perspectives—as a publisher of social science for over 50 years; as a social activist for over 60 years; and as a philanthropist for nearly 30 years.                

In all of these aspects of my life, I have grown to believe in what I call “The Four Justices”—in alphabetical order: Economic Justice, Educational Justice, Environmental Justice, and Social Justice. They are all intertwined and my understanding of how we are to achieve justice in these arenas is deeply informed by the work of social scientists.

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Because Social and Behavioral Research Improves Health and Quality of Life

Medical research empowers the development of new interventions to prevent, diagnose and treat—even cure—disease, but it is not the only scientific discipline crucial to advancing health. By fostering a better understanding of human behavior, preferences, and motivations, social and behavioral research reveals new strategies for achieving optimal health outcomes. Social and behavioral research provides the real-world context needed to ensure the products of medical research—prescription drugs, medical devices, surgical procedures, and more—benefit patients efficiently and effectively. And social and behavioral research is nothing less than crucial to achieving more progress in prevention. Underinvesting in this research squanders countless opportunities to improve the health of our nation.

Social and behavioral research, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and other federal agencies, as well as various foundations, enables us to understand patterns among groups and individuals to help address a wide range of medical and public health threats including seemingly intractable challenges such as injury and violence. For example, NIH and CDC have funded researchers at the University of Chicago to study the root causes of violent crime in Chicago, reviewing medical-examiner records of city homicides and finding that many violent confrontations begin over something minor, such as an insult. This information led them to explore interventions that could help people avoid costly decision-making mistakes in situations they commonly face. A cognitive behavioral program in Chicago helped teenage boys think before they act, dramatically reducing arrest rates among teens. Research like this is broadly supported by a majority of Americans (60%) who say there is value in better understanding and preventing injury and violence caused by preventable accidents, deliberate acts or neglect, according to a national public opinion survey commissioned by Research!America.

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Because It Makes Computing Work for People

Two years ago, the leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee looked to our organization, the Computing Research Association, to endorse an approach to reauthorize funding at a number of key Federal science agencies. The proposed legislation would provide increases for computing research funding at the National Science Foundation while keeping the overall agency budget essentially flat by bolstering computing — along with mathematics, physics, biology, and engineering — at the expense of the social, behavioral, and economic sciences (and the geosciences). The committee Chair hoped that CRA, which represents nearly 200 academic computing departments and industrial research labs — including computing research labs at IBM, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft — would support the approach, given the direct and indirect benefits increased investment in computing research at NSF would have to our member institutions.

The science advocacy community in Washington, DC, is comprised of many organizations like CRA, each representing some typically discipline-specific slice of the academic and research community, but bound by the shared goal of ensuring that policymakers understand the importance of the Federal investment in research and the value of peer and merit review in setting priorities. As such, we are typically averse to efforts that pit the disciplines against each other, like the one proposed. But that wasn’t the only important reason for us to oppose the proposal. What primarily motivated our opposition was our strong belief that cutting social, behavioral, and economic science investments would also do great damage to computing research.

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Because Social Science Informs Effective, Efficient, and Equitable Education Policies

Everybody has a connection to education: we may have taught in the classroom or be related to someone who teaches—and of course, we were all students ourselves once. This personal exposure is all too often mistaken for substantive knowledge about what constitutes effective teaching and learning. Education science—drawing from a broad range of diverse social science disciplines, including economics, psychology, sociology, and statistics—not only challenges what many policy makers, practitioners, and individuals believe about certain education practices and policies, but sometimes flat-out contradicts it. Time and again, education research has taught us how to better serve our students in and out of the classroom while more effectively targeting our limited resources.

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Because Social Science Makes Sense of the Institutions That Shape Our Lives

Throughout my career as a professor of public policy, public administration, and political science, I have been convinced of the value of social science, especially political science. For more than three decades my research has focused on the role nonprofit organizations play in public policy. This research is grounded in expanding our understanding of the relationship between government and nonprofits, including developing effective strategies for collaboration and partnership in support of innovation and social impact.

Since my appointment as Executive Director of the American Political Science Association in August 2013, I have been committed to broadening and deepening the impact of political science research in the advancement of knowledge. Indeed, social science research is fundamental to understanding—and making the best of—the world around us. As I work with our political scientist members, I have been impressed with the tremendous diversity of important research projects now underway, including why people vote, why states go to war (proven prevention techniques), effective strategies to teach citizenship in local communities, and improving the provision of public services. Overall, it is impossible to ignore the myriad ways in which social science helps us understand, create, and engage with the institutions that shape our lives.

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Because Nearly Every Challenge We Face Requires Understanding the Causes and Consequences of Human Behavior

This week, we’re highlighting the recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The Value of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences to National Priorities. Produced at the request of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the report assesses the contributions of the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences to issues of national importance. Passages from the section “Why Support Research in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences?” are excerpted below. We encourage you to read the report in its entirety, which is available for free on the National Academies website.

Every month the Gallup Poll asks a representative sample of Americans “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” The main problems identified include jobs, unemployment, the economy, health care, and race relations. Issues such as these have clear social, behavioral, and economic aspects that need to be better understood, and SBE research can contribute to understanding and addressing them. Moreover, many other problems that at first glance appear to be issues only of medicine or engineering or computer science have social and behavioral components, such as patients’ understanding of medical information and community responses to proposed highway development…

Consider, for example, the challenge of immunizing the population against infectious diseases, such as measles and influenza. Medical science has developed many effective vaccines, and when they are administered to the appropriate numbers of people they control the spread of the disease. Recent outbreaks of measles, such as those in California and Minneapolis, occurred because not enough parents had their children vaccinated for measles because they did not believe or did not accept the value of vaccination. These outbreaks show that individual beliefs and social influences can disrupt vaccination programs and place communities at risk. They also demonstrate that there is a role for SBE science in helping to understand the social and behavioral dynamics of vaccination decisions and using that understanding to develop more effective public health and public information strategies. That is, in addition to the biology of a disease, vaccination efforts require dealing with individuals’ and groups’ beliefs and decisions about vaccination.

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Podcasts Highlight the Impact of Congressional Wastebooks on Researchers

A recent episode of the new PRI podcast Undiscovered (from the team behind Science Friday) focuses on how the publication of Congressional “wastebooks” affects the researchers whose grants are ridiculed. The episode, entitled “The Wastebook,” features the 2016 event, “Wasteful” Research? Looking Beyond the Abstract, during which researchers whose grants were singled out by wastebooks had the opportunity to more fully explain their researcher to Members of Congress and their staff. The event was hosted by the Coalition to Promote Research (which COSSA co-leads) and the Coalition for National Science Funding (more information is available here). The podcast episode highlights Duke University biologist Sheila Patek, whose National Science Foundation grant was featured in a 2015 wastebook published by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). During the “’Wasteful’ Research” event, Patek had the opportunity to explain the value of her research to Sen. Flake himself, and the podcast describes how that meeting went. The episode was also adapted into an episode of the NPR podcast Planet Money.


This article was originally published in the June 27, 2017 issue of the COSSA Washington Update. Click here to subscribe and receive this newsletter every two weeks.

Because Social Science Drives Smart Investments in Public Safety

When I make a new acquaintance and am asked the inevitable question, “What do you do for a living?,” I’m often tempted to fib and reply that I’m a middle school teacher, a real estate agent, or an accountant – professions that most every member of the public knows and understands with little need for additional explanation. Not so when I answer honestly that I’m a criminologist. That response is often met with, “Oh, so you’re a lawyer?” or “You mean like on CSI?” My reply depends on how much time I have – usually not nearly enough!

The short answer is that criminologists are social scientists. The actors on CSI who collect crime scene evidence are playing the role of criminalists, also known as forensic scientists. They answer questions like, “What evidence exists about who was at the crime scene and what transpired there?” Criminologists answer questions like, “How does the collection of DNA at property crime scenes support investigations and case clearance rates?” (The answer might interest you: DNA evidence collection doubles the rate of suspect identification compared to traditional methods.)

Criminology is a social science offshoot of sociology, but it draws its ranks from a diverse array of social science disciplines, from demography to psychology and geography. Yes, there are a few lawyers in our ranks, but while traditional lawyers answer questions like, “What are the elements of the criminal code, and how are they applied at sentencing?” Criminologists answer questions like, “What types of community supervision are effective alternatives to incarceration, and for whom?”

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