Social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) research has had important applications for many fields of business and industry. Social science methods, such as polling, focus groups, forecasting, and statistical modeling, are routinely and widely used to inform consequential business decisions. These decisions relate to all aspects of business, including marketing, customer relations, product development, and strategic planning. Similarly, SBE theories of economic, human, and organizational behavior, including some funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), have led to the understanding of the Internet as an economic system124,125,126,127 and influenced business practices across many industries for example, by revolutionizing the pricing of airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and even cloud computing.128,129,130,131,132,133,134
In some cases, basic research has paved the way for new developments, such as Internet search engines. In other cases, theories, principles, and tools from the SBE sciences have been applied to improve operations, reduce accidents, and realize efficiencies in a variety of industries. The first two examples below illustrate some of the complicated ways in which basic research can come to have social and economic value. The third example describes some surprising applications of foundational research on world populations to seemingly unrelated topics.
With a market capitalization of more than $570 billion, Google is the world’s second-most valuable company. Google’s economic value rests on two pillars: its search engine, which processes over 3.5 billion search queries every day,135 and its advertising network, which features nearly 30 billion ads per day.136 Both these capabilities are based on developments in the SBE sciences. Research cited in the Google patent was supported by four different federal science agencies, including an $81,800 grant in 1984 from the sociology program at NSF to study networks of corporate board members.137,138,139
The original version of the search engine resulted from a formula developed with NSF funding in the late 1990s by two graduate students. Even in the early days of the Internet, people saw the need for better ways to interact with growing data collections, and early search engines that created indexes of Websites.140 (Some of these search engines, such as Inktomi and Lycos, also were supported with funding from the Digital Libraries Initiative.) The early researchers recognized that the decision to link pages to each other required conscious effort and the need to reflect human judgment about the significance of the link’s destination. This realization led researchers to treat the collection of links as
a network, where the “centrality” of a page in the network indicated the page’s importance. Using leveraged earlier research by network analysts in mathematics and sociology, researchers created the page rank method, which was the main differentiating feature of the early Google search engine.141
The other major breakthrough in Google’s development was its use of auctions142 to set prices for the ads it displays. This advertising model depends heavily on the theory of auctions (discussed above). In 2002, Google used this theory to develop an innovative system that replaced its entire ad sales business with an auction-based platform. Radical at the time, this move formed the foundation of what became Google’s profit engine.
Airline accidents have decreased dramatically over the past 30 years. This reduction is partly due to improved aircraft crew training that is based on fundamental SBE research on team dynamics, leadership, and interpersonal communications. The airline industry used this basic research, in combination with applied research conducted in cockpit simulators and analyses of actual cockpit flight recordings, to develop a training program called crew resource management or cockpit resource management (CRM). CRM is designed so that crew members can communicate effectively and consistently, form an instant team, and adopt well-understood and agreed-upon roles and behaviors.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded some of the early research on CRM, and the National Transportation Safety Board first used the CRM concept in an accident investigation in the late 1970s. United Airlines was the first airline to endorse CRM training, and by the 1990s this approach became a worldwide standard supported by the Federal Aviation Administration and international aviation organizations.143 Even airlines flying in very different national cultures have incorporated CRM training: South Korea adopted CRM (with the assistance of Boeing trainers) after an airline crash. Many carriers have adapted the CRM training to be consistent with their own cultures. The required behaviors remain the same, but cultural adaptations help those behaviors fit better with patterns of thinking and acting in a given culture, such as when a crew member must speak up to an authority in a culture in which this behavior is generally not accepted.144,145
Other industries have copied and tailored CRM techniques. For example, medical schools and hospitals in the United States and around the world now teach and use anesthesia crisis resource management,146 which draws on the principles of team training. Firefighting crews and emergency responders have also applied CRM principles and training.147
More generally, many industries have improved their safety by adopting practices based on SBE research. These practices include work-rest scheduling principles to reduce the fatigue of long-distance truckers in the commercial vehicle industry148 and the cultivation and assessment of a safety culture in the nuclear power, oil and gas, health care, and other industries.149 The use of checklists based on CRM principles have spread from airline cockpits to numerous health care settings.150,151
Data gathered by SBE scientists as part of an NSF-funded effort to understand the distribution of the world’s population by altitude generated unexpected interest from businesses in areas as diverse as food production and packaging, semiconductor manufacturing, and biomedical research and development.152 In 1998, researchers developed an entirely new mapping technique that divided the earth into grids that were indexed by population size and by altitude.153 This map revealed that more than one-third of the world’s populations lives within 300 feet of sea level and that those populations are distributed in low-density areas, such as agricultural regions.
Many private firms became interested in the findings of this research because of the implications of altitude on several types of products. For instance, Frito-Lay used the data to understand the market for its products at different altitudes because air pressure in packaging needs to be different at different altitudes. Procter & Gamble also had an interest in the altitude distribution because soap and bubbles form differently at various altitudes. Intel was similarly interested because its computer chips cool differently at various altitudes. These applications of the findings of research on the effects of altitudes led to increases in the efficiency or effectiveness of many products.
CONCLUSION 3 The social, behavioral, and economic sciences have provided advances in understanding and tools and methods that have been applicable to business and industry and that enhanced the U.S. economy.