Prewitt: Good Science Will Always Find Its Use

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Margaret Levi, executive director of CASBS, left, and Sara Miller McCune, founder of Social Science Space’s parent SAGE, pose with Ken Prewitt after he accepted the SAGE-CASBS Award. (Photo by Nikki Richter)

Acknowledging even as he unveiled it that we really might not need another acronym, Kenneth Prewitt nonetheless offered USBAR to the academic world Thursday while accepting the SAGE-CASBS Award at Stanford University.

USBAR – ‘Unintended Social Benefits Appreciated Retroactively’ – mirrors Prewitt’s efforts to avoid the time-worn dispute between ‘applied’ and ‘basic’ research, a dispute given prominence by current U.S. congressional efforts to defenestrate funding for research in the social sciences and geosciences. Prewitt said he rejects, root and branch, the paradigm of basic vs. applied. In its place, since the concepts do have some descriptive value, he suggests ‘knowledge that is used’ and ‘knowledge that is waiting to be used.’

All good science, he implied, will fit somewhere along this spectrum – and therefore is worthy of support. He cited work in both quantum mechanics in the 1920s and on early-childhood intervention as examples of science in the wings that later took spectacular flight. “The Higgs-Boson … is not being used,” he said. “But it will be used!”

Prewitt is the third winner of the SAGE-CASBS Award, which aims to recognize achievement in the understanding and advancement of the behavioral and social sciences applied to pressing social issues – i.e. knowledge that has found its use. He was handed the award by SAGE founder and Executive Chairman Sara Miller McCune.

Prewitt, the former director of the U.S. Census of President Bill Clinton and currently the Carnegie Professor of Public Affairs at Columbia University, has evolved into an avatar of the scholarly knowledge movement. His talk came at the 2015 Behavioral and Social Science Summit, presented by the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and the Social Science Research Center. This year’s summit was titled, “Knowledge: Produce. Disseminate. Transform.”

Examining the range of speakers at the summit, from new media guru Tim O’Reilly to economic geographer AnnaLee Saxenian, from journalist John Markoff to psychologist (and MacArthur Fellow) Jennifer Eberhardt, Prewitt said those assembled were seeing the birth of a “new social science.” And while “existing social science has solved a range of challenges regarding privacy, quality, replicability and transparency, none of those are solved in the realm of data-drowned social science.

The new social science also faces some of the old problems that, while not solved, were at least quiescent. His prime example was the autonomy that the nascent National Science Foundation received after World War II, where it was revered, as a book written about the foundation’s early years put it, as A Patron for Pure Science. The scientists ran the place and made the decisions, based on their autonomously derived determinations of what was good science.

“This is not where we are now,” said Prewitt, noting that science is perceived by many as just another lobbying group, one that’s failed in its highfalutin quest for self-policing and that can’t distinguish analysis from advocacy. Meanwhile, “an infatuation with performance metrics” has made defending science that is waiting to be used that much harder.  “It all sounds so reasonable,” he admitted. “Why shouldn’t Congress ask for evidence?”

He answered in part that science waiting to be used “by definition has no space for performance metrics.” While he wouldn’t eliminate efforts to force some sort of accountability on publicly funded science research, Prewitt insisted that only scientists can judge what constitutes good science – but only the end-user can decide on how (or even if) it’s best applied. “We know how to do science,” he told the audience, “but we don’t know how to do policy.”

Accountability versus autonomy, Prewitt concluded, has often been seen as a zero-sum game: if one side gains a few concessions, the other side has lost them. “We need,” Prewitt said, “to turn it into positive sum.”

Past winners of the SAGE-CASBS Award were economist Daniel Kahneman in 2013 and education reformer Pedro Noguera last year.


A version of Prewitt’s spoken remarks will be posted on Social Science Space soon.

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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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