National Science Foundation considers future needs of social and behavioral sciences

NSF advisors seek to broaden training of scientists, strengthen research infrastructure, and enhance understanding and use of scientific findings.

The Advisory Committee for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE) Directorate of the National Science Foundation met on November 2-3, 2017, at the new NSF headquarters in Alexandria, VA. The Advisory Committee meets twice yearly to provide advice, recommendations, and oversight to the SBE Directorate. The committee discussed a broad range of topics relating to science across academia, government, and private organizations.

Although budget details for FY2018 remain in flux, NSF looks like to be on stable, albeit stagnant, financial footing moving forward. Appropriations committees in the House and Senate both rejected the draconian cuts requested by the administration. Report language for each chamber’s bill also reiterated support for historically Black colleges and universities as well as Hispanic-serving institutions. Importantly, these bills also fail to specify directorate-level funding levels, leaving greater authority in funding allocations to NSF leadership. In previous years, the SBE Directorate has been targeted for reduced funding levels (e.g., a 42% proposed, but not enacted, cut to funding authorization in H.R. 4186 introduced in the House in 2014).

Addressing gaps in graduate education in the social and behavioral sciences emerged as one of the themes at the meeting. As observed by advisory committee members, many faculty emulate their own graduate training and career experiences, even as the job market for social and behavioral scientists has shifted and broadened considerably. There remains an unmet need for training to prepare graduates for more interdisciplinary environments and non-academic opportunities. Accordingly, committee members discussed the need for further examinations of what has worked in terms of interdisciplinary training, diversity initiatives, and other training issues.

Advisory Committee members also expressed support for recent legislation, H.R. 4174, resulting from the final report from the Commission on Evidence-Based Policy. The report focused primarily on strengthening privacy protections, improving access to data, and enhancing the government’s evidence-building capacity, with the bill adopting many of the report’s recommendations. The bill represents a tangible outcome of the Commission,  established by the bipartisan Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-140) and tasked with increasing the availability and use of data with the goal of building evidence about government programs.

Improving coordination and management of data for social surveys, including the American National Election Studies (ANES), General Social Survey (GSS), and Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), represents an ongoing concern at NSF, as these are important sources of data for addressing social and behavioral science questions. In particular, committee members advocated for NSF to continue development and implementation of data standards, including those for data linking, big data, and the use of social media data with a specific focus on integrating “organic” and administrative data with more traditional survey data.

NSF’s SBE Directorate and the advisory committee are also asking important questions regarding the state of the science and its relationship to the public. For example, committee members discussed topics addressed by the National Academies’ Roundtable on the Communication and Use of Social and Behavioral Sciences, such as why decision makers struggle to use the social and behavioral sciences, how to communicate SBE science responsibly, improving SBE education at the K-12 levels, and how the public views and understands science, in general. In line with the focus on public recognition of the value of social and behavioral science, they pointed to a number of notable scientists who have recently received recognition for their work, including the Yidan Prize for Carol Dweck.

NSF is also considering a number of “grand ideas” to focus on moving science forward in coordination with ongoing strategic plan development at the SBE Directorate. Among these grand ideas are initiatives on further understanding the impact of diversity on work, innovation, and creativity; addressing shortcomings in the information ecosystem to better serve democracy; and furthering our knowledge of the growing interplay among artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and society.

Finally, NSF is currently looking to fill a number of positions of interest to psychologists and other social and behavioral scientists, including Assistant Director for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate, Division Director for the Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, and Division Director of the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

For further information, please contact Steve Newell, of APA’s Science Government Relations Office.