In the President's Desk series, Social Science Research Council President Anna Harvey reflects on the potential for social and behavioral science to innovate and evaluate workable policy solutions to pressing societal challenges.
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Research to Solve Problems

The 2023 SSRC Centennial Lectures showcased a shared focus on not only describing problems, but also finding solutions to those problems. SSRC President Anna Harvey reflects on what it means to pursue research designed to solve problems, and how the SSRC can most effectively support problem-solving research.

During 2023, the Centennial year for the Social Science Research Council, we hosted ten Centennial lectures showcasing recent social and behavioral science on ten social problems central to the Council’s 100-year history of work: immigration, social insurance, racial discrimination, economic development, the green revolution, education, persistent poverty, climate change, democracy, and pandemic response (the recorded lectures are all available here). A striking feature of these lectures was a shared focus on not only describing problems, but also finding solutions to those problems.

What does it mean to solve problems using social and behavioral science? In the first instance, the researchers who gave our Centennial lectures had all identified patterns of human decision making on questions such as migration, health, or employment that presented problems, in the sense that there plausibly existed decisions that could produce better outcomes for more people: e.g., higher incomes, less disease, less conflict. Further, these problems of decision making were all potentially responsive to the resources generally available to large organizations: e.g., money, information, attention, status. Alternative allocations of these resources could potentially shift decision making in ways that produced more societally beneficial outcomes. The researchers who gave our Centennial lectures were all looking for interventions that, by leveraging alternative allocations of available resources, could induce more societally beneficial decisions and actions.

But our Centennial lecturers weren’t seeking just any interventions that would work in this way. They were looking for effective interventions with a decent chance of being implemented into policy and practice at scale. From the very beginning of their research projects, they had looked down the path from identifying a problem of decision making, to developing a potential solution, to evaluating that solution, to implementation at scale by large-footprint organizations–governments, firms, large NGOs–and had designed their projects so as to maximize their chances of success at the end of that path. 

The interventions that were likely to be both effective and adopted at scale shared similar features, features that have also been identified in the implementation science literature: they were likely to be low cost, and not increasing in cost as they were scaled to larger populations (Kremer et al 2021, List 2022). They were likely to have been developed by or in partnership with a client organization, and designed to be integrated into the organization’s existing workflow (Kremer et al 2021, DellaVigna et al 2022, Bonargent 2023). Their effectiveness was likely to have been evaluated using rigorous methods, including in some cases multiple small-scale evaluations, to guard against single-trial false positives at the pilot stage (Kremer et al 2021, List 2022).

Designing problem-solving research with implementation in mind at inception has clear benefits in a world of scarce research funds for social and behavioral science. Spending valuable research funds on evaluating potential solutions that have little chance of being implemented at scale, even if effective in small samples (e.g., because of increasing marginal costs), is not an efficient use of the research community’s limited resources. Building feasible implementation into research designs at inception is a potentially more cost-effective way to spend our scarce funding resources.

As we enter the Social Science Research Council’s second century of work, we have been reflecting on how the Council can best support social and behavioral science aimed at solving important problems. We have been reading the research on the research-to-policy pipeline, and have found much there that can guide our work. Our new website features the research undergirding our programs to support problem-solving social and behavioral science:

  • we support fellowships giving researchers the time and freedom to pursue novel ideas, because unrestricted research funds are more likely to result in innovative policy solutions;
  • we administer research grants underwriting the evaluation of new policy solutions, because rigorous evaluation increases the likelihood that effective solutions will be implemented at scale; 
  • we host in-person convenings to share research-backed policy solutions with stakeholders and to incubate new research agendas, because such events lead to increased evidence uptake and to more productive collaborations; 
  • we offer mentoring programs to researchers underrepresented in their disciplines, because mentoring is a proven strategy to broaden problem-solving research opportunities.

As we launch the Council’s second century, we also look forward to engaging with new research on problem solving. This year’s College and University Fund Lecture Series will showcase new research illuminating practices increasing the likelihood that research-backed solutions will be implemented at scale; we look forward to sharing more information about this lecture series.

And finally, in 2024 we will be exploring new strategies to deploy the SSRC’s Agenda Fund to provide opportunities for researchers to use social and behavioral science to innovate new solutions to our most pressing social problems. Stay tuned for announcements of these upcoming opportunities.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and productive New Year!