Why investments in the social sciences are critical for public health

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

This poignant assessment of the U.S. response to the pandemic by White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Kumar Jha at the Aspen Ideas Forum captured the stark contrast between the remarkable success in rapidly developing vaccines and the ongoing challenges of communicating health information to the American public — challenges that ultimately increased suffering.

Carnegie Mellon’s Delphi Group, which pioneered the use of AI and machine learning to build real-time models of the pandemic, made essentially the same point. As the team’s lead scientist, Ronnie Rosenfeld, said, while advances in data science make it easier to more accurately track disease outbreaks, we lack the capacity to model human behavior and the impact that a lack of trust in government can have on successfully fighting a deadly disease. pandemic.

These observations underscore the importance of acting on the recommendations of both the Biden administration and bipartisan leadership in Congress to more effectively integrate the social sciences into efforts to effectively respond not only to pandemics but to a wide range of serious challenges. , which we face as a society, such as climate change and the necessary transition to clean energy, cyber security, 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.

The social sciences are essential to developing strategies that incorporate science and technology that will be effective in the real world, in part because they are critical to communicating information about science or technology to the general public. The vaccine hesitancy is a perfect example. Social scientists have learned that different social groups (defined by race, ethnicity, age, and religion, not just political party) had different initial responses to the vaccine, and the adoption behavior of these groups evolved differently as a result of national or community-level communication efforts. One size does not fit all and understanding human behavior and decision making is key to customizing strategies and building trust.

Another example is the integration of advances in artificial intelligence into society at large. AI is fueling incredible advances in efficiency and automation, but these advances have the potential to either improve people’s lives or put huge numbers of people out of work, or both. We can’t stop the 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 the technology will be embedded within.

What Jha’s observation and the examples noted above speak to is the urgent need for a national strategy to reinvest and revitalize the social sciences. This strategy should have three key pillars:

  • First, there must be a focused commitment to fostering deeper engagement of the social sciences in K-12 education, especially in underserved communities, with the same urgency with which we work to appropriately expand the STEM stream.
  • Second, there must be accelerated investment in social science research with a special focus on advancing interdisciplinary research that fully integrates disciplines such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, education and business with each other, but also and with technology-oriented disciplines such as computer science, engineering, robotics, bioengineering, chemistry and medicine.
  • Third, we need to pay special attention to data science related to the social sciences. As in medicine, we need to fund the creation and maintenance of large data repositories that protect privacy but give social scientists the raw information they need to understand the social world. The analytical 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 the commons for analysis.

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

Richard Shines is Bess Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of Philosophy.

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