To Secure Knowledge: A Task Force of the Social Science Research Council

The Social Science Research Council is launching “To Secure Knowledge,” a task force that is born from the organization’s essential obligations to scholarship, the infrastructure of social research, standards of inquiry and evidence, and the role rigorous understanding plays in public affairs.

The task force’s membership includes Lorraine Daston (director, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and recurring Visiting Professor of Social Thought and History at the University of Chicago), Bernadette Gray-Little (chancellor, University of Kansas), Rush Holt (former member of Congress who is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), Gary King (a Harvard University political scientist who directs that university’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science), Cora Marrett (a University of Wisconsin sociologist who has been deputy director at NSF), Kenneth Prewitt (a former SSRC president who headed the US Census Bureau at the close of the Clinton administration and presently is a professor of public policy at Columbia University), John Reed (the former CEO at Citibank, a recent member of the SSRC board, and a former chair of the boards of the Russell Sage Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. and MIT), and Amy Zegart (co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution). The current SSRC president, Ira Katznelson, and the incoming president, Alondra Nelson (currently dean of social science at Columbia University), serve ex officio.

“To Secure Knowledge” builds on the SSRC’s history of utilizing the instrument of a task force from time to time to address particularly pressing concerns. The most recent was a Katrina Task Force that investigated the social dimensions of the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as lessons that could be applied to similar disasters in future.

In this spirit, “To Secure Knowledge” will address five concerns that are tightly bound together:

First is the scope, integrity, and accessibility of the federal statistical system. Vital data is presently generated by more than one-hundred federal agencies, but especially by thirteen whose primary mission is that of generating official statistics—Bureau of Economic Analysis; Bureau of Justice Statistics; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Transportation Statistics; Census Bureau; Economic Research Service; Energy Information Administration; National Agricultural Statistics Service; National Center for Education Statistics; National Center for Health Statistics; National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics; Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics (SSA); and Statistics of Income (IRS)—as well as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Various challenges, including potentially severe budgetary constraints, are putting pressure on this essential basis of scholarly and policy knowledge.

Second is a set of concerns about the organizational arrangements for social research and policy knowledge. There is a wide range of essential institutions in both public and civil life that undergird the quest, across subjects and methods, for systematic understanding of human phenomena. These include our uncommonly robust network of colleges and universities, national endowments for the arts and humanities, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, among many others. Without simply embracing the status quo, the task force will seek to understand how best to secure the institutional conditions for the creation, dissemination, and utilization of social knowledge.

Third is the networks, patterns of interaction, and mobility of scholars. A great strength of the knowledge system of the United States has been its confident openness; characterized not only by a transparency of information and procedures, but by a global orientation that understands how the search for knowledge cannot be contained within any single country. For many decades, this approach has valued human exchanges, including the secure personal movement of scholars, and a quest for unimpeded collaboration. How can these valued practices be secured?

Fourth is the set of norms, conventions, and patterns of behavior that long have characterized the ways in which the knowledge community has fashioned and governed its criteria for assessing careers and scholarly contributions, including systems of peer review. In a world increasingly characterized by liquid, instant, and uncurated information, largely autonomous, time-consuming, and demanding standard setting criteria and institutions within the scholarly world face growing skepticism. Which principles and which activities are most fundamental, and how, while open to adjustment, should they best be guarded, even as they are made more transparent?

Fifth is changes to national policy that stress increased accountability for public funding, often linked to near term contributions of knowledge to national security and economic growth. This pressure affects the social sciences in ways that differ from the physical and health sciences, and thus requires careful attention to how responsibility is framed, the criteria by which various types of inquiry are judged, and how a balance between autonomy and accountability is to be achieved.

“To Secure Knowledge: A Task Force of the Social Science Research Council” will begin its work presently and conclude by the start of 2018.

April 20, 2017