Social and Behavioral Science at Scale
Societies around the globe face pressing challenges at scale: pandemics, hunger, climate change, growing economic inequality, threats to democratic institutions. In order to discover cost-effective solutions to these and other challenges, we need to conduct social and behavioral science at a scale proportionate to the threats we confront.
This convening brought together leaders of universities, philanthropic foundations, and public funders of science to share ideas about practices that can more fully mobilize the social and behavioral science research community to develop and test bold solutions to societies’ most urgent challenges.
Our first panel of distinguished social and behavioral scientists discussed their approaches to pursuing policy-relevant and solutions-oriented research.
John List, Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and author of The Voltage Effect, spoke about his research on how to find interventions and policies that can cost-effectively improve outcomes at scale. After showing illustrative examples of programs that did or didn’t scale well, he explained how to rethink the research process to increase the likelihood of finding scalable interventions.
Neil Lewis, Jr., Assistant Professor of Communication and Social Behavior at Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medicine, spoke about his work to move beyond the small and unrepresentative samples that have dominated behavioral science to pursue more replicable, representative, and policy-relevant research. The Action Research Collaborative at Cornell forms partnerships between researchers, policymakers, and community members to find actionable and equitable solutions to urgent societal challenges.
Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Endowed Professor of Operations, Information, and Decisions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Codirector of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative. She explained how very large-scale behavioral science collaborations allow multiple interventions to be tested simultaneously with a large sample, enabling the evaluation of comparative cost-effectiveness across interventions. One example from Professor Milkman’s work involves comparing which of 19 kinds of text messages best increase flu vaccination takeup.
Professors List, Lewis & Milkman are also SSRC Mercury Project grantees and are collaborating on a project to find interventions that increase demand for Covid-19 vaccine boosters in the United States. Professor Lewis wrote recently about his experience with the Mercury Project, its approach to collaborative large-scale social and behavioral science, and its potential as a model for impactful research.
Josh Tucker, Professor of Politics and Codirector of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP) at New York University, spoke about what it takes to fund and run a successful multidisciplinary collaborative lab that is equipped to study social media at real-world scale. Professor Tucker’s recent edited volume with Nate Persily, Social Media and Democracy, is part of the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy Book Series, and is available open access.
The second panel addressed the current landscape of federal funding opportunities for cross-disciplinary, policy-relevant, and solutions-oriented social and behavioral science at scale.
Alan Tomkins, Deputy Director of the Division of Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, spoke about how studies can build scientific knowledge while also providing reliable guidance to policymakers. The NSF is also collaborating with the SSRC and private funders on the Mercury Project to increase trust in and uptake of vaccines.
Christine Hunter, Acting Director of the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health, spoke about increased opportunities for behavioral science funding at the NIH. OBSSR’s recent Request for Information sought guidance on topics including how to “enhance the adoption, scalability, and sustainability of evidence-based behavioral and social interventions,” suggesting new priorities for the office. NIH areas like climate change and health offer funding opportunities for the social and behavioral sciences. Dr. Hunter blogs here.
Daniel Goroff is currently Vice President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and formerly Division Director for Social and Economic Sciences at the National Science Foundation. He gave several suggestions on how behavioral scientists could increase their role in federal funding, including learning more by rotating there.
Adam Russell, former Acting Deputy Director of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) at the NIH, shared how ARPA-H is trying to galvanize socially useful health research by first defining the problems most in need of solutions.
Leaders of some of the country’s most prominent philanthropic foundations shared how social and behavioral science can support their organizations’ priorities.
Alonzo Plough is Vice President for Research and Evaluation and Chief Science Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. His current work as a funder is informed by his past as a public health practitioner in Boston, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and he discussed the practical implications of social & behavioral science research from funders’ perspective.
Cecilia Conrad is CEO of Lever for Change as well as Senior Advisor for Collaborative Philanthropy and the MacArthur Fellows program at the MacArthur Foundation. Lever for Change emerged from MacArthur’s 100&Change $100 million challenge to find bold solutions to pressing societal problems, and builds on that model, matching philanthropic funders with solutions-oriented contests. Dr. Conrad spoke about how researchers can partner with other kinds of organizations in action-oriented collaborations.
Bruce Gellin, Senior Vice President and Chief of Global Public Health Strategy at the The Rockefeller Foundation, came to philanthropy after many years as a practitioner. Dr. Gellin spoke about the potential of solutions-oriented and policy-relevant social and behavioral science to contribute to The Rockefeller Foundation’s work in areas like global vaccine equity, precision data for public health, climate change, and food security, citing the SSRC’s Mercury Project as a leading exemplar.
Larry Kramer, President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, talked about the Hewlett Foundation’s work to seed new kinds of academic spaces for thinking about urgent societal problems. Once established, these programs can serve as models for others to follow. One example is the Hewlett Foundation’s support of the SSRC’s Digital Platforms Initiative, enabling cross-disciplinary social and behavioral science designed to find interventions that can reduce the spread of misinformation and decrease polarization on digital platforms.
Adam Falk, President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is a physicist and former president of Williams College. He spoke about the Sloan Foundation’s mission to fund policy-relevant science that supports increased well-being in the United States, and about how philanthropic foundations can help connect the research and policy worlds, particularly in key areas where social and behavioral science is needed to tackle big challenges. He noted as an example the Sloan Foundation’s recent grant to the SSRC to fund a research consortium designed to find interventions that increase the numbers and persistence of women in economics.
The final panel of the day focused on how realizing the potential of solutions-oriented and policy-relevant social and behavioral science will require new kinds of data infrastructure and academic practices.
Michael Mueller-Smith, Assistant Professor of Economics and Director of the Criminal Justice Administrative Records System (CJARS) at the University of Michigan, talked about his work to create a data infrastructure that links criminal justice records from across the country to data from other state and federal agencies, including the US Census. With billions of data points available, CJARS is revolutionizing researchers’ capacity to understand the impacts of the criminal justice system.
Julia Lane, Professor at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and NYU Provostial Fellow for Innovation Analytics, is the founder of the Coleridge Initiative. The Initiative seeks to democratize administrative data access while securing privacy and confidentiality, and has worked with over 250 federal, state, and local agencies to help policymakers make evidence-informed decisions. Professor Lane made the case for university-supported regional data centers based on the agricultural extension model, as outlined in her book, Democratizing Our Data.
Robert Groves, Chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on National Statistics, is the Gerard J. Campbell, S.J. Professor in the Math and Statistics and Sociology departments as well as Provost at Georgetown University. He spoke about an emerging vision for how a large-scale connected federal data infrastructure could support policy-relevant social and behavioral science, a vision that can be found in the NAS Committee’s report, Toward a 21st Century National Data Infrastructure: Mobilizing Information for the Common Good.
Jeremy Weinstein is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, Codirector of the Immigration Policy Lab, and founder of Stanford Impact Labs. He spoke about how the Impact Labs’ R&D model for the social and behavioral sciences brings researchers together with a network of partners from the private, nonprofit, and governmental sectors to work collaboratively on solving social problems. The Impact Labs’ R&D pipeline enables collaborative testing and iterating around solutions, addressing some of the challenges to policy-relevant social and behavioral science.
Frances Haugen, who rose to national attention as a whistleblower around data practices at Facebook, is Cofounder of Beyond the Screen. She spoke about the need to include the social and behavioral sciences in data science and computer science degree programs, so that the engineers who build and maintain digital platforms have an understanding of human behavior on the platforms and the societal impacts of those behaviors.
Takeaways and Next Steps
The day wrapped up with an open conversation about how to expand the research and funding ecosystem for policy-relevant and solutions-oriented social and behavioral science. For example, higher education institutions can join the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Innovation in Science (IRIS), cofounded by panelist Julia Lane, which collects and shares data on the economic impacts of universities’ research and innovation efforts to help make the case to lawmakers for increased research investment. Other ideas included providing seed funding, time, and social impact incubator space on university campuses to support social and behavioral science R&D.
We are currently developing several new initiatives that follow directly from these recommendations, and we look forward to continuing all these conversations with CUF member institutions. Our next in-person convening will be held on December 1, 2023 in New York City.
Contact the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences
For information about the 2022 Conference, to learn more about how to become a member institution, or if you have other general inquiries about the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences, please email:
Lisa Marshall, Director of Strategic Partnerships