President’s Corner: The Science Policy Landscape

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In AAPSS, News

Robert Merton, in 1949, noted that social scientists “have largely neglected the study of their own situation, problems, and behavior …  monographs document the problems and performances of the professional thief and beggar but not the problems and performance of the professional social scientist.” With good reason, he urged such self-study. His advice was ignored.

In recent years, social scientists have been busy building a robust science of science communication, but the focus of this line of work has been on the communication of STEM, largely ignoring how social scientists themselves should communicate their own impressive research advances. NORC’s General Social Survey has since the early 1970s steadily reported high levels of public trust in science, but why have we not yet gotten around to measuring trust in the social sciences? We know much more about how research on the natural and biological sciences contributes to society than how equally important social science does.

I pause on this last observation, turning again to Merton.  He explained how the original authors of scientific break-throughs fade from the record as their work is widely adopted by the relevant scientific disciplines, becoming common knowledge. Obliteration by incorporation, he called it. Taking liberties with his insight, social science findings are not only obliterated as they slip into common knowledge but, even more, because they quickly become common sense. Consider: social capital, unintended consequences, the invisible hand, networks, institutional racism, moral hazard, early childhood intervention, deterrence theory, zero-sum, implicit bias, cost-benefit—all concepts generated by social science research. It is a significant accomplishment to give to society the vocabulary that describes and explains “the social.” But when we fail to get credit our story no longer belongs to us.

This is a problem as we face a contemporary science landscape that is decidedly utilitarian—littered with such phrases as mission-oriented research, implementation, translational science, co-production, stakeholder science, partnerships, grand challenges, impact, and performance metrics.  This terminology pushes us into a space that substantially differs from the twentieth-century story-line (e.g., speak truth to power, the usefulness of useless knowledge, autonomy more than accountability, etc.). The older story-line largely relied on what we scientists asserted as our contribution to the nation; but the twenty-first-century version is attuned to what the receivers of science expect our contributions to be. As utilitarian rationales gain ground, they put curiosity research at risk. This shift in science policy can be navigated, but it will require taking seriously Merton’s 1949 advice to examine, deeply, what the purpose of social science is, how to execute it, and of course how to persuasively explain it beyond our borders.

Kenneth Prewitt
AAPSS President