SAGE continued its celebration of its 50th anniversary on May 5th with two bouts of storytelling – one by an eminent, if fictional, surgeon/presidential candidate, and the second from eight equally eminent – and completely factual – social scientists. Both sessions occurred in Washington, D.C., with the academics appearing on Capitol Hill and the fictional surgeon – actor Alan Alda – at a reception overlooking the White House.
The day concluded with a storybook ending –SAGE founder Sara Miller McCune donated $3 million to the Social Science Research Council to foster innovation in the field of sociology.
The eight social scientists — host John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and co-founder of the Monkey Cage blog on The Washington Post website, and seven of SAGE’s top authors – spoke at an event titled, “Stories of Research to Reality: How the Social Sciences Change the World.”
With the U.S. House of Representatives set to take up debate next week on a bill that would essentially halve what the National Science Foundation can spend on basic social science research even as it raises the its total budget, the event at the Hart Senate Building was focused on explaining to lawmakers that social science isn’t a frill but a necessity for making good policy. As Sides said, “We cannot have good science without good social science.”
Then, the seven guests in turn described how research in their particular discipline has turned the dial (or could turn the dial) on policies ranging from national security to education and even artificial intelligence.
Speaking first was Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Silver professor of politics at New York University, who explained how he’s used game theory over and over to help describe possible outcomes to thorny international questions. One of his most telling anecdotes centered on the question asked eight years ago of whether Iran’s nascent nuclear program posed an immediate threat to the United States. Using the same data as the nation’s intelligence services, his study determined that Iran was not an immediate threat –a finding that contradicted his own opinion. He presented the research conclusion and not his opinion– at a national security meeting at which government analysts using the exact same data predicted Iran would have a nuclear bomb in nine months.
Ultimately, the force of de Mesquita’s game theory-based assumptions won over the federal officials, who a month later issued a revised national intelligence estimate which the academics argued essentially “tied [President Bush’s] hands” from attacking Iran. And eight years later, de Mesquita added, Iran apparently still has no nuclear bomb.
Other speakers included:
- Claire Renzetti, professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky, explaining how federal funding from the Violence Against Women Act spurred research into better ways for police to deal with domestic violence calls or how to get a truer picture of the prevalence of rape in the United States.
- John Creswell, professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, described both the growth of mixed methods research – i.e. using both numbers and stories – to present a completer picture of an area under study, and how this cutting-edge methodology ultimately reflects the non-academic ways that we routinely interpret life around us.
- Michael Reisch, Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland, used the example of the Baltimore riots over Freddie Grays fatal injury while in police custody to detail how some eternal questions, in this case the roots and effects of chronic poverty, continue to crop up in policy discussions. The need for social science to address the outmoded assumptions of today’s discussions, he added, “is great.”
- Deborah Rupp, Professor and William C. Byham Chair in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Purdue University, revealed how social science research has impacted the workplace, whether in ensuring workers feel they are being treated fairly or in explaining how corporate social responsibility plays out in practice. Rupp noted that often social scientists are too quiet about their work, especially when exploring interdisciplinary work outside their discipline. Interdisciplinary work, however, is more likely to appeal to policymakers.
- Jim Knight, research associate in the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning, discussed teaching methods but stressed that it was mistake to expect any single recipe to address the complex needs of educating children – “there is no technical solution to an adaptive problem,” he said, or “one size fits one.” This in turn requires social scientists to always be ready to examine all modalities.
- Kerric Harvey, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University’s Center for Innovative Media, spoke most directly to two of her SAGE experiences,– helping craft a policy research initiative on the internet for the next 100 years (!) in 1995 and editing the Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics for SAGE since 2014 , brought home to her exactly how heavily social science is the future in a technology-obsessed age. “Social science,” she said, “gives context and momentum to what we get from the so-called ‘hard sciences.”
It was great to hear the speakers discuss the impact social science research makes in their areas of focus and in the wider society. In Part II of this post, available Friday, we will provide a recap of Alan Alda’s speech about science communication.
Check back tomorrow for Part II!