In response to the question of priorities and elements that the National Science Foundation (NSF) should consider in its strategic plan, the committee recommends attention to four areas that we elaborate below: (1) a systematic and transparent planning process, (2) attention to trends that are occurring in all of science, (3) support for training of researchers and graduate students, and (4) communication of social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research that NSF supports and how NSF grants advance NSF’s mission.
RECOMMENDATION 1 The National Science Foundation (NSF) should undertake a systematic and fully transparent strategic planning process to provide a clear articulation of the most important scientific questions in the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences that is consistent with NSF’s mission. In addition, NSF’s strategic plan should specify the resources and methods required to advance the progress of SBE fields. The plan should reflect broad input from a wide array of stakeholders and put forth priorities for NSF support, while recognizing the need to have a broad and diverse portfolio of innovative projects whose applications may not be immediately apparent but advance the progress of science.
NSF has engaged in extensive and diverse activities to gather input and produce a description of needs and opportunities for research in the SBE sciences in Rebuilding the Mosaic.154 In addition, NSF collects input from internal advisory panels, external advisory panels, and internally managed processes, such as a call for inputs from academic scientists. The committee applauds the fact that NSF consults so widely in forming its priorities. However, the committee found it difficult to determine how these inputs are integrated with one another and how they have influenced the investment portfolio in the absence of a well-articulated strategic plan. Although the process described in Rebuilding the Mosaic has identified some important areas for future research, it is not detailed enough to be a strategic plan nor is it described as one.
The committee encourages NSF to go beyond Rebuilding the Mosaic to have a clear and publicly available strategic plan that defines SBE priorities, tells how those priorities will be funded, and explains how success in addressing SBE priorities will be evaluated over time. In this process, NSF and the scientific community should articulate the most important scientific questions that will be a priority for investment. It also would be useful for NSF to make available a description of the process by which it incorporates all the input it gathers into the strategic plan. A transparent and inclusive
planning process will be needed to explain how broadly or narrowly to define those priorities, weighing national needs and the states of the various SBE sciences.
The strategic planning process should address the unique contributions that the SBE sciences can make to national priorities. Particular attention should be paid to opportunities for SBE research to be integrated with other fields in ways that further understanding of interdisciplinary topics and that address complex societal issues. The planning process should include engagement with other federal agencies that fund SBE research so that all agencies can better specify their unique roles and contributions.
While SBE research has benefited mission-focused agencies, the production of a strategic plan would improve NSF’s ability to collaborate with other agencies to ensure that the findings that emerge from the agency’s basic research are applied by those agencies and have the maximum impact on improving the lives of Americans. The plan would be highly informative to the SBE scientific communities in planning their own work and research proposals. It would also aid in communicating the findings and implications of the research to the broader scientific community and to the public.
The committee is pleased that Rebuilding the Mosaic demonstrates the usefulness of articulating a problem-focused approach to describing the SBE sciences and that this approach illustrates what might be an important direction for NSF for the future. Often, the line between basic and applied research is not clear, and when distinctions can be drawn, each type of research often benefits the other. NSF should consider how progress in basic science may be advanced through research focused on priority scientific questions that have a clear and useful connection to NSF’s priority mission areas. (Details of the NSF grant-making process are beyond the committee’s charge.)
RECOMMENDATION 2 The National Science Foundation (NSF) should continue to support the development of tools, methods, and research teams that can be used to advance the social, behavioral, and economic sciences; facilitate their interactions with other science fields; and help NSF and other agencies and organizations more effectively address important national needs.
Some trends in science and society—such as the increasing availability and use of extremely large datasets, the rise of collaborative and interdisciplinary research to address complex problems, and the exponential growth of technology—have implications for future directions of SBE research. Three especially promising directions in Rebuilding the Mosaic, along with topics identified in National Research Council and National Academies reports and other sources, are highlighted below for consideration because of their prevalence and importance.
Research Infrastructure, Data Management, Methods, and Measures
The 2017-2021 strategic plan of the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in priority #2,155 states that it is necessary to “enhance and promote the research infrastructure, methods, and measures needed to support a more cumulative and integrated approach to behavioral and social sciences research” and to achieve the following goals:
- A robust and open research infrastructure, including common data elements and consensus measurement metrics.
- Improved precision, accuracy, and efficiency of measures of behavioral and social phenomena and their contexts.
- New methods and analytics to answer increasingly complex research questions relevant to addressing society’s most pressing problems.
The committee encourages NSF to adopt the same goals, adjusting them to fit more closely with NSF’s mission.
To date, much of the knowledge gained from the social, behavioral, and economic sciences has advanced with data collected and analyzed on a relatively small scale. The committee acknowledges the ongoing importance of small-scale data collection for theory development, but the committee also concurs with previous reports of NSF and NIH that advances in many areas of research increasingly depend on integrating and interpreting data being generated on a much larger scale.
Large-scale datasets are already transforming the questions and methods used in the SBE sciences. These data are being applied to several sectors of society to understand, for example, how people rise out of poverty;156 improve decision making, performance, and efficiency in health care and many areas of business;157 understand and prevent cyberattacks;158 and understand terrorist behaviors.159,160 However, more progress is needed to advance the use of large datasets in government and across the private sector. For example, survey methodologies that use social media and digital technologies could be developed for real-time measurements that are available instantly and draw on millions of responses to track daily fluctuations in behavior.
Such methods, if well-designed and with careful attention to privacy concerns, could provide a less expensive alternative to household surveys161 and avoid their limitations in yielding reliable information. Rebuilding the Mosaic highlighted a number of data-oriented initiatives for which the SBE sciences community members expressed enthusiasm. Some examples that appear to be worthwhile for enabling and accelerating scientific advances include the following:
- improving access to and making usable existing data for answering scientific questions, such as administrative data collected by federal and state agencies, commercial data, and data that people generate every day as they use social media or electronic devices;
- better integrating the SBE sciences with international data collection efforts and data in other sciences;
- embedding data from social, behavioral, and economic research into geographic information systems and expanding existing geographic information systems to include historical data; and
- transforming analog data (e.g., linguistic and cultural heritage data) to digital form, preferably with geocoding.
Although there is broad enthusiasm for better data infrastructure among the SBE scientific community, the committee notes that the need for such infrastructure is not as clear to many outside that community. The committee therefore suggests that NSF more clearly articulate the important scientific questions—both basic research and applied problems—that depend on the recommended data infrastructure.
As in other areas of research, attention is needed in SBE research to strengthening the evidence base through the replication of research results and to more systematic and transparent documentation and reporting of the circumstances and populations to which the research findings apply.
Fostering Collaborative and Interdisciplinary Research
The committee endorses the conclusion from both Rebuilding the Mosaic and the NIH strategic plan noted above that interdisciplinary, team-based research is both closely tied to the development of large-scale data infrastructure and essential for continued progress both in science and when dealing with societal issues related to national priorities. For example, the Mosaic report (p. 19) states, “The notion of collaborative research teams is one way that data-intensive SBE research implies a shift away from the independent, single investigator/small team model of scientific research . . . ideas about collaboration, data, technology, and infrastructure are closely intertwined.”162
NSF should encourage collaborative research at the scale most appropriate for scientific progress, and with attention to what has been learned about the features that create challenges for “team science” and the components of effective approaches.163 For example, because interdisciplinary work and research teams can be more expensive, take more time, and confront more methodological and organizational hurdles than disciplinary work, incentives are needed to promote such work.
Although funding provides one such incentive, infrastructure support is also important and would increase the impact of grantee funding. Potential examples include coaching or tools to bridge disciplinary boundaries, establish team process, and enhance team functioning; building research networks or consortia; and conferences and other opportunities for researchers to have exposure to such efforts. Scientific progress, however, also depends on simultaneous advances in each of the contributing sciences; thus, increased emphasis on interdisciplinary research should not come at the expense of the core sciences.
As the examples in this report make clear, the most important problems facing society are complex and interdisciplinary. Their solution depends not only on technological developments but also on understanding their social, behavioral, and economic dimensions. A growing recognition of this complexity, combined with the continuing exponential growth of technology, is leading to a convergence of originally distinct sciences in order to develop new solutions to vexing problems and improvements in people’s quality of life. For example, the convergence of engineering and the natural sciences over the past 30 years has contributed to major breakthroughs in multiple areas, far beyond those originally intended. One such area is satellite-based Global Positioning Systems originally developed for military applications that are now part of daily life for many people, ubiquitous in vehicle navigation systems, mobile telephone and tablet computers; as well as in wearables for personalized health monitoring.164
The most important problems facing society are complex and interdisciplinary. Their solution depends not only on technological developments but also on understanding their social, behavioral, and economic dimensions.
In similar ways, SBE research is becoming an increasingly important component of this convergence for solving important problems with global impact.165,166,167 A 2017 National Academies’ report specifically calls for the involvement of social scientists in the conduct of center-based engineering research and the conduct of team science.168 In addition, the need to understand and address the potentially life-changing effects and unintended consequences of the rapid advance of technology, such as changes in the nature of work as a result of automation, requires the assessment and research of the SBE sciences.169
The integration of biology and genetics with SBE research is another example of convergence. SBE research leads to a better understanding of the complex interaction between genes and environments and its effects on health and behavioral outcomes. This understanding combined with technological advances, such as the large-scale collection of DNA and other biomarkers of health risk, has made it possible to predict which groups of people are most at risk for certain physical and mental health problems. It has also led to understanding more about the pathways through which social factors
affect neural and biological processes so that prevention efforts can be more effectively targeted. An example is the Add Health project, a basic science study funded by NIH and 23 other federal agencies, including NSF, to understand how the social environments of young people’s lives influence their health and health behavior from adolescence into adulthood. Add Health contains extensive longitudinal information on such health-related behavior as risk taking combined with biological indicators of health, such as obesity, blood pressure, pulse, heart rate, and biomarkers, including DNA.170
Another important area in which convergence is advancing understanding is the process of innovation and the growth of innovation ecosystems, a key component of economic development, and the impacts of these ecosystems on individuals and society. That impact is influenced by SBE factors in addition to technical advances. The SBE sciences offer the analysis of ways to accelerate innovation by studying such social dynamics as entrepreneurship, corporate innovation, impact investing, and decision making under uncertainty, as well as public policy. Important SBE topics include the study of the development of regional industrial clusters through entrepreneurship171 and research on links between patent activities and firm value, identified as a priority research topic by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.172 Studies using both traditional and new methodologies are recognized as a high priority by many organizations, including the National Bureau of Economic Research.173
Practically all emerging technologies, from driverless cars to drones, and the new economic opportunities and other advances they spur, can benefit from the understanding that the SBE sciences can provide about how people desire, experience, and use these technologies, as well as their ultimate effect on people and the larger society.
Finally, many additional issues facing American society could benefit from the advances in understanding that the SBE sciences can provide. Practically all emerging
technologies, from driverless cars to drones, and the new economic opportunities and other advances they spur, can benefit from the understanding that the SBE sciences can provide about how people desire, experience, and use these technologies, as well as their ultimate effect on people and the larger society. Other such challenges include reducing the effects of people’s lifestyles on the incidence and progression of diverse diseases; strengthening computer security practices; and managing the economic and labor force impacts that are anticipated with the retirement and aging of the baby boomer generation.
RECOMMENDATION 3 The National Science Foundation should support training consistent with the ways science is evolving across all scientific fields. Training should prepare the next generation of scientists to be more data-intensive, interdisciplinary, and team oriented.
In addition to supporting training in each of the SBE sciences, NSF should support students and researchers in developing the knowledge, skills, and collaborations needed to implement the above recommendations (e.g., for interdisciplinary research, convergence research, team science). Such training has not been central or attended to as yet in a systematic way, as evidenced in a review of the abstracts of the work related to the SBE sciences that the NSF supports, although the need to build such capacity is noted in Rebuilding the Mosaic. Consideration needs to be given to the focus of this training, such as whether it should be part of larger efforts to organize and synthesize research or tied to learning specific techniques, such as the skills used in genetics, statistics, or modern neuroscience. NSF has programs to assist undergraduate students, graduate students, and young faculty that could be focused on these recommendations in order to enhance higher education training. The program can also enable midcareer scientists to expand their skills and collaborations with scientists in both other SBE sciences and non-SBE sciences. Training considerations should be part of the strategic planning process in Recommendation 1.
RECOMMENDATION 4 The National Science Foundation (NSF) should undertake more intensive and systematic efforts to communicate the results and value of the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research it supports and how its grants advance NSF’s mission. NSF should encourage the broader SBE sciences community to increase its efforts to communicate the results and societal relevance of SBE research.
All NSF research grant proposals are evaluated through peer review that applies two criteria: (1) the scientific merit of the work and (2) its broader societal impacts. The second criterion needs to include communication about the proposed scientific work beyond the scientific community. Such communication should be a high-priority activity that NSF-funded researchers pursue. Describing their work’s significance clearly should be expected for the use of all federal funds. To do this well, however, the community of SBE scientists needs to develop or have access to communication expertise to be able to convey the innovations and applications of their research and its value to national priorities. In fact, there is a general need for scientists in all fields to develop sufficient expertise in communication to effectively convey research findings and their impact for the public.
As highlighted throughout this report, the social, behavioral, and economic sciences are important to understanding and intervening to improve virtually every aspect of modern life. Although the value of this research is real and evident to many, it is not as widely understood as it should be. The committee believes that NSF should continue to develop and advance its approaches to communication, including how the research it supports contributes to knowledge on topics of interest and concern to policy makers, federal agencies, journalists, researchers in fields outside the SBE sciences, and the public. Objectives to consider in the communication of the SBE sciences include fostering awareness, understanding, and engagement of diverse stakeholders and enabling the use of SBE research. For example, the use of NSF-funded research to advance health, national defense, and prosperity and welfare relies on the systematic communication of findings to the agencies that can use the results of that research in the design of further research targeted toward each agency’s particular mission.
The committee believes that NSF should continue to develop and advance its approaches to communication, including how the research it supports contributes to knowledge on topics of interest and concern to policy makers, federal agencies, journalists, researchers in fields outside the SBE sciences, and the public.
NSF could play a vital role in providing the resources, training, and tools that scientists need to develop their skills and access the expertise needed to engage in this type of communication. Scientists and scientific institutions also benefit from broad dissemination about new findings, as communication itself promotes scientific progress, spurring others to ask questions that build on that research. Communication approaches should to the greatest extent possible be research informed and assessed for effectiveness in meeting communication goals.
Those approaches need to go beyond the one-way communication of research findings to enhance methods of dialogue with all stakeholders through various forms of public engagement. How best to communicate findings from SBE research and all sciences is itself an important topic for social and behavioral research.