Supporting social sciences research

June 20, 2012

In the spring, Indiana University Bloomington welcomed Myron Gutmann, assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate in Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Gutmann was on campus to discuss Rebuilding the Mosaic, an NSF report that encourages scholars in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences to engage in broadly interdisciplinary and collaborative research. As Gutmann put it during his visit, the directorate is focused on supporting the “omnivorous interests of scientists.”

There are some who do not consider the social sciences (e.g. anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology) as science, citing lack of controlled experiments and limited reliability of results (see, for example, “How Reliable Are the Social Sciences?” by Gary Gutting, New York Times, May 17, 2012). As a scientist, I’m certainly mindful of the predictive power of experiments, and of course, it is prudent to look closely at the conclusions of any type of research. We should not, however, dismiss the social sciences for lack of hard predictive data.

Indeed, the NSF supports investigations that regularly increase our fundamental understanding of nothing less than why we humans act the way we do, from the food we choose (and choose too much of, leading to obesity) to the political parties we join to our investments in the stock market and the people we select as our mates.

Some critics say the social sciences should not be funded by the National Science Foundation, and that such funding undermines the agency’s core mission “through mismanagement and misplaced priorities.” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) issued the report The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope, which questions the significance of unusual social-science research projects from universities around the country, including IU. But project titles don’t reflect the reality of research. Given more than a cursory glance, such research projects reveal that social-science faculty at IU and elsewhere are using their “omnivorous” intellects to address major questions of our day.

For example, a 2010 study by Johan Bollen and colleagues from the IU School of Informatics examined how Twitter can be predictive of the stock market. Among the findings of the study, which continues to draw national attention, was that daily variations in public mood, assessed via Twitter, show statistically significant correlation to daily changes in Dow Jones Industrial Average closing values.

So what? Bollen’s work is part of a field called behavioral economics, which explores the social, cognitive, and emotional factors that affect individual behavior and decision making. These factors may also apply to societies at large, that is, societies may experience mood states that affect collective decision making. There is room for debate about how influential this effect is, but think for a moment of the economic debacle of 2008 and its fall-out, and then suggest that it’s wasting resources to conduct research that reveals the mechanisms of economic decision making.

In and around Bloomington, the development of children who struggle with weight issues is being served by a dynamic community collaboration incorporating the social sciences. After the first year of a free 24-week program called G.O.A.L. (Get Onboard Active Living), 72.5 percent of the children (ages 6-18) had a decreased BMI, and 75.7 percent lost inches from their waists. The key to the program’s success, according to Catherine Sherwood-Laughlin, a clinical associate professor in the IU School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, is that the project partners realize maintaining a healthy weight involves much more than simply calculating calories, diet, and exercise. The G.O.A.L. program takes a multifaceted approach, addressing the children’s issues of self-esteem and experiences of bullying and discrimination. In short, the program is a fine example of the important community impact that collaborative social science projects can have.

In the months following Myron Gutmann’s energizing visit from the NSF, my administrative colleagues in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and I have held meetings with teams of social-science faculty across the campus to develop our own roadmap for research. Our commitment to furthering this research—with all its unusual questions—is firm. Research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences simply must be supported. Nothing less than our understanding ourselves—how we learn, work, marry, make choices, and grow old—is at stake.

–Sarita Soni, vice provost for research at IU Bloomington and professor at the IU School of Optometry

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