Dr. Erwin Gianchandani, head of the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships
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Social and Behavioral Science as R&D

Social and Behavioral Science as R&D

December 1, 2023

As a capstone to the Council’s Centennial year, this convening of the member institutions in the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences brought together leaders of universities, philanthropic foundations, and public funders of science to celebrate the achievements of 100 years of socially valuable social and behavioral science, and to explore new opportunities for social and behavioral science R&D to find cost-effective and scalable solutions to our most pressing societal challenges. A full summary of the event is below.

For more information about the conference or about the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences, please contact Lisa Marshall, Director of Strategic Partnerships, at marshall@ssrc.org.

Conference Program

11:00 am - 11:15 am
Welcome and Opening Remarks

SSRC President Anna Harvey opened the day with an overview of the importance of measuring universities’ contributions to producing economically important innovation, and to broadening opportunity in the disciplines training the next generation of innovators. Better measurement of the social and economic benefits from university-based research can help bolster the case for increased public investment in research-intensive colleges and universities. New initiatives in social and behavioral science to use linked university and workforce data to measure the production and diffusion of innovation, and to evaluate interventions to increase opportunity in scientific disciplines, can help stakeholders make decisions informed by rigorous evidence.

11:15 am - 12:45 pm
Universities, Innovation, and Economic Impact
University-based research is a critical driver of innovation, and innovation drives economic growth. What can the social and behavioral sciences contribute to understanding how research funders, universities, and industry partners might more effectively produce innovation-led and inclusive economic growth?

The first panel addressed how universities, federal research funders, and state governments can work together to mobilize innovation-led regional economic growth.

Ronnie Chatterji, Distinguished Professor of Economics at Duke and former Commerce Department Chief Economist and White House CHIPS coordinator, gave his perspective as a researcher who has been deeply involved with developing and implementing industrial policy. He pointed out that it is critical to the success of industrial policy to understand the contributions of federal research investments to fostering inclusive economic growth. He also underscored the importance of broadening the innovation pipeline to include women, minorities, and students from regions that have been underserved by the emerging technology economy.

Erwin Gianchandani, who leads the National Science Foundation’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), reported on TIP’s work to spur locally-led innovation, including funding close to 1,400 projects teaming university-based researchers with community and industry partners to leverage local comparative advantages in innovation. He also noted the importance of social and behavioral science to the development of valid measurement strategies enabling TIP to report to Congress on the impacts of its activities, and to craft more effective funding programs going forward.

Vanderbilt University Provost C. Cybele Raver spoke about Vanderbilt’s efforts to build research partnerships with government, industry, and community organizations, including through the Discovery Vanderbilt initiative. These locally-led research partnerships include a collaboration with the regional transportation authority to evaluate the contributions of autonomous vehicles to reducing emissions and traffic accidents, working with Nashville leaders to reenvision the city’s data infrastructure, and working with industry partners to scale a new reading curriculum developed by Vanderbilt education researchers. 

SSRC President Harvey reviewed what we know from the social and behavioral science literature on the impacts of research investments, and what questions remain unanswered. For example, we know that federal research funding during WWII jumpstarted innovation clusters near grantee universities (Gross and Sampat 2023), that NASA’s “Moonshot” R&D funding for private contractors during the 1960s did not have the same kind of innovation multiplier effect (Kantor and Whalley 2023), and that public research funding produces more socially valuable outcomes than industry research funding (Babina et al 2023). However, existing work generally uses papers and/or patents as measures of innovation, which may underestimate (or overestimate) the contributions of research to innovation; we know little about the mechanisms by which funded research leads to innovation-led growth, including whether those mechanisms include the students taught by grant-funded researchers (Biasi and Ma 2023); and we don’t know if prior patterns will hold for new research on emerging technologies.

The University of Michigan’s Jason Owen-Smith presented early data from Industries of Ideas, the new NSF TIP-funded project with SSRC and Ohio State University to pilot people-centric measures of the economic impacts of federal research investments in emerging technologies. The project links university grant data with state employment records to track the movement of grant-funded individuals into the workforce, initially for the research areas of AI and electric vehicles in the state of Ohio. Early data from the project indicate that the NSF has made over 35,000 grants totalling over $21 billion in the emerging field of AI, and that industries hosting AI researchers employ approximately 36 million workers with a combined payroll of $3.7 trillion. These early data suggest that university-based AI research likely has enormous economic impact. Early in 2024, the SSRC will be inviting members of the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences to join an advisory committee to help shape the Industries of Ideas initiative.

1:45 pm - 3:15pm
Widening the Innovation Pipeline
Women and minorities are substantially underrepresented in the STEM fields that are central to the production and translation of innovation, depriving those fields of critical talent. What can the social and behavioral sciences contribute to identifying cost-effective and scalable interventions that can increase the shares of women and minorities receiving STEM degrees?

The second panel focused on using the tools of social and behavioral science to broaden opportunity in STEM disciplines, featuring ongoing research from the SSRC and the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) to evaluate interventions designed to increase the persistence of women in economics and mathematics.

Moderator Maggie Levenstein of the University of Michigan and CSWEP reviewed the history of women’s presence in the discipline of economics, which increased in the 1970s but has remained largely unchanged for the last twenty years. Women today account for 50% of new degrees in some STEM fields, but only 35% of new degrees in economics. In the last 20 years, the share of women entering math and computer science has actually decreased.

Patricia Cortés of Boston University presented her research team’s intervention, aimed at combating demographic homophily in economics co-authorship networks (a preference for co-authoring with those with demographic characteristics similar to your own) by increasing researchers’ self-awareness of their co-authorship patterns. 

Jimena González-Ramírez of Manhattan College described her team’s intervention, using professionally-produced videos for introductory economics classes featuring researchers from diverse backgrounds, which may increase the persistence of women and minority students in economics.

Melissa Knox of the University of Washington reported on her team’s evaluation of the introduction into introductory economics classes of new materials featuring research on topics including labor market discrimination and the household division of labor, which may increase the persistence of women in economics and mathematics.

Jonathan Meer of Texas A&M described his team’s work to bring high school guidance counselors to campus to learn how economists are working on socially relevant issues, presenting early results showing that this intervention appears to substantially increase the numbers of high-scoring women and minority students applying to Texas A&M in economics.

3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
100 Years of Social and Behavioral Science
In the 100 years since the Social Science Research Council was created, its seven founding disciplines have substantially advanced their capacities to produce policy-relevant and socially useful knowledge. What have been some of the most important of these advances? What are the most promising frontiers for further progress? What do we still have to learn from each other?

Our final panel served as a capstone to the Council’s Centennial year: an exchange among leading researchers from the Council’s seven founding disciplines, discussing 100 years of socially impactful work in the social and behavioral sciences. The conversation was wide-ranging and challenging but ultimately optimistic about the potential to improve both the scientific rigor and the social value of social and behavioral science. Recommendations included a renewed focus on research that aims to solve societally important problems, in partnership with governments, firms, and other stakeholders.

Maggie Levenstein, SSRC Board Member and Director of ICPSR at the University of Michigan, closed the event with the observation that the conference had showcased the value of the College and University Fund, having provided an opportunity for faculty and institutional leaders to have productive cross-disciplinary conversations about the future of societally valuable social and behavioral science. We look forward to future convenings!

Conference Speakers

Jason Owen-Smith
Professor of Sociology, Research Professor in the Institute for Social Research Survey Research Center, and co-founder and Executive Director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS), University of Michigan
Aaron Chatterji
Mark Burgess & Lisa Benson-Burgess Distinguished Professor, Duke University; Former White House CHIPS Coordinator and Acting Deputy Director of the National Economic Council
Erwin Gianchandani
Assistant Director of the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, National Science Foundation
C. Cybele Raver
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Vanderbilt University
Patricia Cortés
Associate Professor of Markets, Public Policy, and Law, Boston University
Melissa Knox
Associate Teaching Professor, Department of Economics, University of Washington
Margaret Levenstein
Director, ICPSR, University of Michigan
Jonathan Meer
Mary Julia and George R. Jordan, Jr. Professor of Public Policy in the Department of Economics, Texas A&M University
M. Jimena González Ramírez
Associate Professor of Economics, O’Malley School of Business, Manhattan College
Raka Ray
Professor of Sociology and Dean, Division of Social Sciences, University of California, Berkeley
Betsy Levy Paluck
Professor of Psychology and Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Helen Milner
B.C. Forbes Professor of Politics and International Affairs, Princeton University
Naomi Lamoreaux
Stanley B. Resor Professor Emeritus of Economics and History, Yale University
Miguel Urquiola
Dean of Social Science and Professor of Economics and International Affairs, Columbia University
Brooke Scelza
Professor of Anthropology and Vice Chair of Graduate Studies, University of California, Los Angeles
Andrew Gelman
Higgins Professor of Statistics, Professor of Political Science, and director of the Applied Statistics Center, Columbia University