“The Idea of ‘Use’ Is Important”: AAPSS and the Role of the Moynihan Prize

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd interviewed AAPSS Executive Director Tom Kecskemethy about the Moynihan Prize; the following is reprinted from Social Science Space.

The American Academy of Political and Social Science started accepting nominations for its 2021 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize in Social Science and Public Policy, which since 2007 has been awarded to “social scientists, public officials, and civic leaders who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good.” The award pays tribute to the late Harvard sociologist and U.S. senator Daniel Patrick “Pat” Moynihan, whose high-profile career combined public scholarship and public policy.

Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus earned this year’s Moynihan. Past winners range from another Nobel laureate economist, Joseph Stiglitz, to sociologist William Julius Wilson and to Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the United Nations. Winners receive a $20,000 award and deliver a public lecture on a topic they choose.

Tom Kecskemethy

Social Science Space took this opportunity to ask Tom Kecskemethy, executive director of the AAPSS, about the Moynihan specifically and career awards more broadly. Kecskemethy, who has headed the 130-year-old learned society since 2011, has already been thinking deeply about these sorts of questions and what the Moynihan means right now. As he wrote in a letter to Academy members last month, “How should we think about the ways in which others regard the social scientific community when public anxieties are elevated by COVID, BLM, the general election, and any number of daily politicized dramas that are seemingly designed to pique our cognitive dissonance and provoke doubt in public service?”

Nominations for the award will be accepted until October 16 (and remain in consideration for three years). Nominations can be made through a form on the AAPSS website HERE, and questions can be directed to AAPSS staff.

Graphic calling for Moynihan nominations

Even before we talk about the prize itself, what’s the role of the career-recognizing prize? Is it to burnish the reputation of an already bright luminary, alert the public about a great body of work, enhance the gifting organization by reflected glory, or something else?

All of those to some extent, though I resist your “…burnishing the reputation…” characterization just a bit, because most awardees are typically already widely acknowledged as luminaries in at least some respect.  But it certainly varies from award to award. In the case of many academic career awards, there is a special focus on recognition among one’s peers – these are awards meant to honor scholars who have made key empirical or theoretical contributions that have fundamentally reshaped scientific inquiry in a specific discipline or academic field. Think of the Jacob Mincer Award in Labor Economics, the W.E.B. DuBois Award in sociology, or the James Madison Award in Political Science.These, along with early-career awards like the Fields Medal in Mathematics or the John Bates Clark Medal in Economics, signify the importance of discovery in terms of advancing the discipline and shaping the ways in which knowledge will advance.

Other career awards are important for other reasons: the Nobel awards, for instance, sometimes attempt to convey messages that even transcend the stated purpose of the prize, but other awards go to scholars who improve professional practice, who are great communicators, who influence policy, and so forth.  From the point of view of the organization making the award, there is certainly some “enlightened self-interest” at play; but in large measure, organizations tend to create awards so they can make a statement about something important by recognizing individuals who stand for that thing. That’s certainly true in our case.

Following on that answer, what’s the role of the Moynihan Prize, specifically?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

There is a clear intent to recognize what some might call the “value proposition” of Pat Moynihan’s professional life: that civil service is best-done when policymakers pay attention to social research and to evidence; and that social research stands to benefit when it pays attention the most important questions facing policymakers. Senator Moynihan was a remarkable figure – at various times in his career, he was a public servant who worked for both Republican and Democrat presidents, a university professor, an ambassador, and finally an elected official. He was a significant presence both in public life and in scholarship (his good friend George F. Will famously quipped that Moynihan “wrote more books than most senators have read”), and in him, we saw this extraordinary intellectual curiosity and nimble intelligence combined with the ability to gainfully apply the life of the mind to public service. He walked in the worlds research and policy as if there was little barrier between them – that’s an exceedingly rare quality, and with a prize named for him, we aim to recognize people who carry on that model in some respect.

In picking a recipient, do you favor policy roles or academic achievement more?

That’s a great question, and I’ll be kind of circumspect with my answer, because you point to a tension that’s always present in our selection process. Is it more important to recognize scholars who are influential over public policy, or public servants who value (and participate in) scholarship? One could argue that each of these characteristics have been present in varying degrees in past recipients of the prize, and we’re happy to keep our options open moving forward. Moynihan was distinctive — we don’t take it as our task to find contemporary analogs to him. Rather, we seek to honor his considerable legacy by recognizing individuals who keep it alive.

Given that so much work is accomplished by a village, and not a lone genius, do single-recipient awards even present the picture accurately?

I’m guessing that what you’re driving at here is the fact that government is large and complex, people are complicated, social challenges seem entrenched, we live in a time of extreme political polarization, and that it might not be reasonable to try to find a social policy messiah each year. It’s a fair point, but we don’t aim to do so – our Academy seeks to advance the influence of social science and evidence over policy and public discourse. Moynihan was an extraordinary ambassador of that value system, and our aim is to see it continue. So recognizing individuals in contemporary America who have had that kind of impact is a worthy goal, in our view. Also, we’re open to the idea of awards to more than one recipient. Indeed, in 2016, the award was given jointly to Belle Sawhill and Ron Haskins – individuals with different politics who had very different sorts of influence over policy in D.C., but who came to be close collaborators and colleagues at Brookings and model a kind of science-guided pragmatism that’s invaluable in this day and age.

And what about the idea that the glories of the past accrued to a pretty select and often non-diverse group, and so honoring them just reinforces an ecosystem that should change?

There’s little doubt that we’re living through a time of reckoning in America – reckoning with our nation’s racism, reckoning with systemic inequity, and perhaps finding some way to reckon with a broken system of governance. One must realize, though, that our own understanding of the current challenges wouldn’t exist without the social sciences. Our language of inequity and our understanding of its dimensions comes from the social sciences, as does our knowledge base about segregation, achievement gaps, resilience and social mobility. Contemporary social science was born of the progressive era of the late-19th and early-20th centuries – a time when the world was trying to come to grips with the influence of industrialization, political polarization, corruption and a new urbanism. The problems we face today are not new – for 150 years, they have been acknowledged and foregrounded by generations of research in the social and behavioral sciences that seek to understand them.  Seeing our sciences thrive – and seeing to it that champions of our science are recognized for their contributions to the common good and to a more just society – is helpful to the current reckoning, not harmful.

The most publicly recognized awards for academic work come from the Nobel Committee. Will we, or should we, ever see a Nobel for social science apart from the one for economics? Could you see something like the Moynihan filling the role in a de facto sense, in the same way that a Templeton or a Pritzker or a Field Medal do for other fields?

Certainly, I could see it filling something like that role in a de facto sense, but remember that our prize is not one for advancement in science exclusively: rather, it exists “to recognize people who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good.” The idea of use is important, and use of social science broadly in terms of public good is unique to our award – and we’re open to nominations of scholars, policymakers, or anyone who’s had a substantial influence over use.

The Moynihan has always gone to an American, and of course ‘American’ is the first word in the name of the AAPSS. Is this a feature or a flaw?

It’s both. Moynihan was a uniquely American character, and for 133 years our Academy has — understandably, I think – been somewhat preoccupied with U.S. domestic social policy. But Moynihan was also an internationalist and an Ambassador, and someone anxious to understand U.S. concerns in terms of our nation’s place in the world. Similarly, our Academy has a robust history of publishing on international relations, and publishing research form around the globe. By no means are we averse to the idea of giving the prize to a non-American.

If you could recraft the prize, without reference to your past or any other prize regimen, what might the enterprise look like?

An interesting question that I’ll decline to answer, mostly because I’m proud to be working on the prize in its current form.  It stakes out interesting and vitally important territory, and, with it, we’ve been able to recognize a truly great group of people whose diversity only seeds more expansive thinking about who else the prize could go to. This award is still relatively young, and our pool of nominees has never been stronger. What more could an executive director wish for?

The winner gives the Moynihan lecture. Beyond that, and the events of the awarding day, what do you expect from the recipient?

Not much. Perhaps publishing a version of their lecture in a future volume of our flagship journal, The ANNALS, but beyond that, there are no other requirements. Moynihan Prize winners, by dint of receiving the prize, become Fellows of the AAPSS, so we feel free to call on them for advice and counsel in other activities of the Academy, but that’s nothing more than just being a good colleague.