Look in the Mirror to Find Social Science’s Champion

Arthur Lupia
Arthur Lupia

“Why do they hate us?” is a question usually reserved for American foreign policy, as the punditocracy can’t imagine why the well-meaning behemoth can be held in such low regard in other countries and cultures despite the nation’s good intentions. In a lecture delivered at the annual American Political Science Association meeting, University of Michigan political scientists Arthur “Skip” Lupia in essence addressed the same question—this time not about Uncle Sam, but about social science.

His lecture on the public value of social science research has just been reprinted as an article in the journal PS: Political Science & Politics, where a PDF of the paper was available for free. (The article reflects facets of  the “impact of social science” debate that has been heating up across the Atlantic.)

Lupia’s answer to the question—to be clear, he never posed it that way—echoes the reasons many dislike the U.S.: bulk and budget. As social science has been under increased scrutiny, and some would say attack, in Washington, D.C., the researchers argues that this uncomfortable development is right, proper … and inevitable:

Most social scientists, however, have remained silent about these challenges. Many are hoping that other people will make political questions about federal funding of social science go away. This is not going to happen. Questions about the public value of social science and whether Congress should pay for it will continue because at least two countervailing forces fuel divergent views about how to answer these questions.

The two forces Lupia identified are “the sheer size and influence of modern social science” and its cost.

While he argues the successes of the first help justify the second, he cautions his peers not to take this on faith, nor expect anyone else to do so. “Let me propose,” Lupia writes, “that Congress is not obligated to spend a single cent on scientific research.” Tax money is invested for a public benefit, at least in theory, and that benefit needs to be made explicit.

While those in the belly of academe might find that argument–social science is important (and therefore worthy of funding)– self-evident, Lupia argues it is not at all obvious, and social scientists themselves are responsible for making the disciplines’ value apparent to both policymakers and the public. An assigned duty, of course, does not automatically result in an expected outcome; scientists can be their own worst enemies in communicating their work, assuming they even feel the need, and much of their work “does not seem to have an immediate and obvious link to critical social problems.”

When social scientists cannot make effective arguments about the public value of their work, the task for potential supporters to make the case for government funding becomes increasingly difficult, and the job for people who wish to characterize social science as folly becomes easier. This is our problem to solve. We cannot wait for others to make it go away.

Complicating the task, Lupia acknowledges, is presence of louder and generally better prepared outlets with their own messages, often predicated more on interests than accuracy. In addition, these other messages are rarely presented with the opacity and turgidness of much academic endeavor. While social scientists may not be the nimblest rhetoricians, they do have an edge—if they will only unsheathe the blade. “One attribute that distinguishes social scientific explanations from others,” he writes, “is that social science offers an increased capacity for honesty in attempts to characterize social and behavioral phenomena.” It’s not a perfect capacity to present the “precise and credible,” but it is self-correcting by design. What’s to hate in that?

***

Lupia’s remarks were delivered as the 2013 Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture after he was awarded the prize of the same name. The Ithiel de Sola Pool Award–named for the pioneering investigator into the convergence of social science and technology–debuted in 1995 and has been given out every three years since; past honorees  include Robert Putnam, Kathleen Hall Jameson and Lawrence Lessig.

Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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