Letter from the President of the SSRC

The publication of To Secure Knowledge comes at a pivotal moment for the social sciences.

In the second half of the twentieth century, universities established a vital collaboration with the federal government, and this foundation provided a dynamic environment for research innovation and knowledge production for the social sciences in the United States.

Yet today, this ecosystem is in flux. Social research is now carried out in a range of institutional settings for a variety of ends, including increasingly short-term, instrumental ones that do not contribute to an enduring and commonly pursued corpus of social knowledge. While social scientists were once based principally at colleges and universities, they increasingly now work in government, business, journalism, and the nonprofit sector, inspired by distinct incentives. What’s more, digitization has transformed the way social inquiry is conducted and disseminated, with wide-ranging implications, from the suitability of analog-age research ethics to the expansion of the audience for social science findings with related (and warranted) calls for greater accountability.

In this moment, what institutions and institutional arrangements can optimally steward long-term, foundational research that serves the public good?

In order to address this urgent question, the Social Science Research Council convened the To Secure Knowledge Task Force to examine the new research landscape and identify areas of action. In this, the Council drew on its nine-decade history of convening and collaborating with scholars to facilitate conditions to produce world-class, independent research.

Over more than eighteen months, the Task Force deliberated, consulted with partners, and developed concrete recommendations in response to the challenges it identified. The report’s most profound conclusion is its call for a new research compact—among universities, nonprofit institutions, policymakers, and the private sector—to identify a set of shared understandings and expectations that build trust in and support for social research today. Forging such a compact requires all of us to think beyond the institutional and disciplinary silos in which we typically operate. What is needed is a broader understanding about how the social sciences can continue to produce rigorous, cutting-edge research that improves our knowledge of the human condition and our capacity to ever improve it.

This report represents the culmination of inquiry and consultation among a group of dedicated colleagues and partners. In particular, I would like to thank the Task Force co-chairs, Bernadette Gray-Little and Ira Katznelson, whose guidance made this report possible. Further, the report benefited from the substantive input, advice, and leadership of committee members Lorraine Daston, Rush Holt, Gary King, Cora B. Marrett, Kenneth Prewitt, John S. Reed, and Amy Zegart. The Council wishes to express its appreciation to the Future of Scholarly Knowledge project, led by Kenneth Prewitt and funded by SAGE Publishing, for its support of the work of this Task Force. Thanks as well to the members of the Council’s Board of Directors and Visiting Committee for their support of this endeavor, and to SSRC staff, especially Ron Kassimir, Katherine Grantz, and Vina Tran, who skillfully administered the Task Force’s work.

The report’s publication marks the first step in a larger action plan for securing knowledge. It also continues the Council’s tradition of partnering with social researchers to continually set an agenda for the social sciences that both responds to contemporary challenges and seizes on opportunities for social knowledge to guide better future decision making. The Council has already committed to implementing and piloting some of the report’s findings. In the coming months, we will convene several gatherings of key players—primarily academic, government, and private-sector institutions—that wield the necessary influence to produce lasting change. And we have already launched a collaborative research initiative with academic and private-sector partners to examine the effects of social media on the democratic process, which could serve as a model for future partnerships.

To Secure Knowledge recognizes that no single actor can generate the changes we seek singlehandedly. We look forward to working together to build a future in which the social sciences continue to foster better understanding of social processes to serve the public good.

Alondra Nelson
Social Science Research Council