Why investing in the social sciences is essential for public health

“We got the biological science right, but we didn’t get the social science right.”

This poignant assessment of the US response to the pandemic by White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Kumar Jha at Aspen Ideas Forum captured the stark contrast between the remarkable success of rapid vaccine development and the continuing challenges of communicating health information to the American public – challenges that ultimately increased suffering.

by Carnegie Mellon Delphi Group, which pioneered the use of AI and machine learning to create real-time models of the pandemic, made essentially the same point. As the team’s lead scientist Roni Rosenfeld said, while advances in data science are facilitating more accurate tracking of outbreaks, we lack the ability to model human behavior and the impact that the lack of confidence in the government can have on the fight against a deadly pandemic. .

These observations underscore the importance of acting on recommendations from the Biden administration and bipartisan congressional leaders to more effectively integrate social science into efforts to respond effectively not only to pandemics, but also to the wide range of serious challenges. we face as a society, such as climate change and the clean energy transition it necessitates, cybersecurity, inflation and crime.

In my view, solutions to these problems require both the humanities and the social sciences, but in response to Jha’s remarks, I will focus on the latter.

Social sciences are essential for designing strategies that involve science and technology that will be effective in the real world, in part because they are essential for communicating information about science or technology to the general public. Vaccination hesitancy is a perfect example. Social scientists have learned that different social groups (determined by race, ethnicity, age and religion, not just political party) all have different initial responses to the vaccine, and that the behavior of he uptake of these groups has all evolved differently due to national or community decisions. – communication efforts at the level. One size doesn’t fit all, and understanding human behavior and decision-making is key to personalizing strategies and building trust.

Another example is the integration of advances in artificial intelligence into mainstream society. AI is fueling incredible advancements in efficiency and automation, but these advancements have the potential to improve people’s lives or put large numbers of people out of work, or both. We can’t stop the development of technology, and most of us don’t want to, but how AI plays out in our society will be determined by how we manage it – which we can’t. do without understanding the social world that technology will be. integrated inside.

Jha’s observation and the examples mentioned above speak to the urgent need for a national strategy to reinvest and reinvigorate the social sciences. This strategy should be based on three main pillars:

  • First, there must be a focused engagement to foster deeper social science engagement in K-12 education, especially in underserved communities, with the same urgency with which we appropriately work to expand the STEM pipeline.
  • Second, there must be accelerated investment at the frontier of social science research with particular emphasis on advancing interdisciplinary research that fully integrates disciplines like psychology, economics, political science, sociology, education and business with each other, but also with technology-oriented disciplines like computer science, engineering, robotics, bioengineering, chemistry and medicine.
  • Third, we need to pay special attention to data science relevant to the social sciences. As we have done in medicine, we need to fund the creation and maintenance of big data repositories that protect privacy but give social scientists the raw information they need to understand the social world. The analytics tools available to analyze social networks, social structure and social trends are light years ahead of what they were 30 years ago – the problem is good data in goods common to analyze.

Technology is advancing rapidly because industry has a great desire to use technology to advance its goals and government agencies, especially those focused on national security, are investing heavily in basic technological research. Both are good things, but we need a commensurate investment in our ability to understand the society that these technologies will be part of and influence. Many efforts are already underway. The National Science Foundation has integrated social and behavioral science programs and funding with initiatives aimed at accelerating American leadership in the development of critical technologies. We need much, much more.

Richard Scheines is Dean of the Bess Family of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University and Professor of Philosophy.

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