Because Social Science Equips Us with Tools We Will Need to Face Down the Biggest Issues of Our Time, Including the Growing Global Threat of Climate Change

Our Earth is in crisis. More frequent and severe droughts, rising sea-levels, extreme weather and ecological damage are already here, with more loss and hardship on the horizon.

As a trained engineer and Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, I depend on science to inform my policy decisions. Social sciences are especially important to my work because they help reveal how climate change is impacting people and communities. This is invaluable insight for policymakers working to make decisions meant to save lives and build more resilient communities.

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Because It Requires Confronting the Assumptions We Have About Others

Social science comes in many varieties, is comprehensive in scope, and applied to an infinite number of real-world challenges, questions, and problems society faces. At its core, it concerns the human condition. While an economist, criminologist, psychologist, or sociologist may emphasize different things about being human, and often use different methods, their research is about people. But the people who we seek some understandings about, or from, have lives apart from our research. In other words, their lives overlap with what we study but are also more complex than that. Their day-to-day living involves connections with others, a history, setting, and sociopolitical / economic context, all of which can change over time. Social science is messy this way.

The social science I conduct concerns understanding the use and consequences of illegal drugs and substance use disorder (SUD). As a medical and cultural anthropologist, my research has given me an up-close perspective on these topics and how people’s lives are affected by them. The recent opioid epidemic has significantly increased the public awareness and concern about drug addiction. It has mobilized long and much-needed healthcare resources to address this challenge, moving drug policy marginally away from the war on drugs. Starting my career in the 1990s, recent actions are welcomed, but bittersweet. Drug addiction has always needed more public health attention and only realizing this now as more people are dying is frustrating.

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Because It Can Improve Government Efficiency via Evidence-Based Policy

Before explaining how social science is or could be used in policy, it is first important to think why it should be used. Why do we do social science? For most of us, our research goes beyond intellectual curiosity. We want to make an impact on the world around us—to observe and systematically report on conditions that affect society as a means for change and improvement.

Although researchers’ work tends to have meaningful implications for policy, there is no direct, linear pathway from knowledge production to its use for public benefit. This can be frustrating at times for social scientists who wonder: why aren’t policymakers using more research to inform their decisions? Although research is not always driving decision-making, key examples from the bipartisan evidence-based policy movement offer hope, such as the Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting  program, which is backed by evidence and has received bipartisan support. However, policies like this contrast with others that appear to disregard science. So the real question is not why is research disregarded, but under what circumstances is research used—and can we improve the rate it is used? 

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Because Social Science Research and Education Are Critical for National Security

Each of the social sciences contributes irreplaceable content knowledge and methodologies to our collective understanding of other political entities and the social norms underlying their intentions toward the United States. It is a rather harsh truth that as long as the United States remains a global power, the nation will have to work specifically to maintain national security—not only in order to retain power, but because both our allies and our adversaries rely on it. To a certain extent, our national security is maintained through deterrence—in the sheer fact that we possess certain capabilities and engage internationally. 

Since we cannot step away from the intelligence and analysis that underscores our international engagement, we must confront the reality that we will undertake national-security efforts with greater or lesser expertise and wisdom. The social sciences are what we use to make sense of international relations. Warfare and peacekeeping are fundamentally social, human activities, and the resources at stake in both are also essentially social: physical resources for survival, political identity, institutional prestige and influence, and shared ideation and values.

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Because It Helps Build Resilience in the Face of Disasters

We are dedicated to using social science to improve disaster recovery for those on the margins of society—in particular on the unique needs of children and older adults in times of crisis. Our past work has shed light on how age influences issues of both vulnerability and agency. Uplifting lessons learned is especially important as we continue to face more extreme weather events and a changing climate. 

Recovery needs vary based on age

Children have unique disaster needs because of their age, cognitive abilities, and dependence on adult guardians and caretakers, with older children commonly more affected. Additionally, children tend to experience magnified effects, because they must cope with disaster-related stress during a developmental phase in which their personalities and identities are forming.

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Because It’s Proliferating

Social scientists and the research we pursue with such passion are being buffeted on all fronts, a fact not unknown to frequent visitors to this space. Today social scientists confront scarcities: of funding, of career opportunities in academia, of public acceptance and respect, and of trust in the credibility and value of the work we do.

Yet, at the same time, social science seems to be everywhere—not only on our laptops and data repositories, but in government agencies, human rights organizations, media reports and, especially, in tech firms and other private companies. And social scientists, if not quite everywhere, are working at these institutions as well as in the academy—indeed, for certain types of work, the demand for social science skills is high.

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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 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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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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