Collaboration Imbues SSRC’s ‘To Secure Knowledge’ Report

September 19, 2018 1260

In launching its first-ever task force report on Monday, the 95-year-old Social Science Research Council made clear it gets by with a little help from its friends. Collaboration, said sociologist Alondra Nelson Nelson, the president of the SSRC, is the byword of the report, To Secure Knowledge: Social Science Partnerships for the Common Good. And there it was in the title, ‘partnerships.’

The 39-page report examines the state of social science learning and research in the modern era, offering a suite of recommendations to ensure its continued vitality and relevance into the future.

“We argue that a new research compact between science, government, the private sector, and the public must be crafted,” wrote the report’s authors, Bernadette Gray-Little and Ira Katznelson, “one that encourages risk taking as well as risk management, collaboration, and independent, long-term inquiry.” Gray-Little is chancellor emerita of University of Kansas, while Katznelson, a former SSRC president, is Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History at Columbia University.

In detailing that compact, the report breaks down its suite of recommendations into five general areas – funding, data, ethics, research quality, and training. Those recommendations (see box for specific recommendations) tended to present various facets of collaboration, such as creating funding partnerships connecting higher education, government and philanthropy with the newish partner, private industry. “A consistent theme,” write the authors, “is that none of the measures, if taken unilaterally, can generate optimal outcomes.”

Our core finding focuses on the urgent need for new partnerships and collaborations among several key players: the federal government, academic institutions, donor organizations, and the private sector. Several decades ago, these institutions had clear zones of responsibility in producing social knowledge, with the federal government constituting the largest portion of funding for basic research. Today, private companies represent an increasingly large share not just of research and funding, but also the production of data that informs the social sciences, from smart phone usage to social media patterns.

The report also calls for a different kind of partnership via experiments with data-sharing. The SSRC has already made a large step in fostering that second goal with the Social Data Initiative in which it’s partnering with Social Science One and Facebook. But that’s just a step, not a destination, according to the report’s authors:

Task Force endorses the creation of a data commons, hosted by a third-party institution, to link public and private data. The proposal, outlined by scholars Robert Groves and Adam Neufeld, would make data available temporarily through an intermediary institution, rather than create a permanent data depository. The initiative would require strict privacy guidelines that would still allow independent researchers, as well as industry and the public sector, to access critical data on particular public issues.

At a Monday event to unveil the report, Marie Lynn Miranda, the provost of Rice University, joined four other outside observers to weigh in on the report. She stressed the need for “taking up the big questions” through major collaborations across disciplines on basic questions, and called for changing the incentive structure within the academy to both give greater credit for work done collaboratively or work done in non-traditional formats, such as creating databases or publishing outside of journals. She also echoed the report’s focus on computational social science, saying social science curricula need to infuse more directly with data science.

Amplifying that last point, fellow panelist Duncan Watts, principal researcher for Microsoft Research, noted both the migration of social science to computational  ideals in the last decade even as he bemoaned “how long” it’s taken for academic-outside partnerships to arrive (a problem even more pronounced, he noted, of sharing between companies). The report notes the price of not making these connections, citing a “skills mismatch” in which “employers seek new skills for changing work environments, [while] academia’s models for preparing researchers have remained relatively static.”

While social scientists were once based principally at colleges and universities, they increasingly now work in government, business, journalism, and the nonprofit sector, inspired by distinct incentives. What’s more, digitization has transformed the way social inquiry is conducted and disseminated, with wide-ranging implications, from the suitability of analog-age research ethics to the expansion of the audience for social science findings with related (and warranted) calls for greater accountability.

Watts also alluded to the current “political moment” of viewing technology companies with skepticism, suggesting that working with academe to solve societal problems gives private industry some political cover. Using a metaphor that panelist Louis Menand had used earlier, Watts explained what private industry brought to the partnership apart from its reams of data – “it can build a car.” Menand, a Harvard English professor and staff writer for The New Yorker, had argued that “sclerosis is built into institutional DNA” and that between that and hyper-specialization, while “at the end of an automobile assembly line there is a car,” in the academic social sciences there is no car but a collection of finely machined pieces.

Both Watts and panelist Adam Gamoran praised the ability of private industry to apply scholarship in pursuit of a goal, as opposed to solely generating scholarship. Academe, said Gamoran, president of the William T. Grant Foundation, could take a page from private industry by focusing on solving problems as opposed to only understanding them.

The task force behind the report worked for 18 months, spurred, said Katznelson, by the “conversations on roles as guardians of scholarship” that followed the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The focus was less on addressing day-to-day “provocations” and more toward ensuring the social science community was still focusing on its key values after a quarter century of rapid and unrelenting change. The use of the word “secure,” he said, reflected both senses of the word, i.e. both keeping and protecting.

In addition to Nelson, Katznelson and Gray-Little, members of the task force were:

  • Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  • Rush Holt, former U.S. representative and current chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University
  • Cora Marrett, professor emerita of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and former deputy director of the National Science Foundation
  • Kenneth Prewitt, Carnegie professor of public affairs and adviser to the president at Columbia University and former director of the United States Census Bureau
  • John S. Reed, former chief executive officer of Citibank
  • Amy Zegart, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies 

To Secure Knowledge Recommendations


  • Promote and deepen efforts to advocate for social science support by such organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Consortium of Social Science Associations, and, primarily focused on the United Kingdom, the Campaign for Social Science, a partnership led by SAGE Publishing.
  • Design and implement new models for public-private research funding partnerships that include government, the private sector, the academy, and philanthropy. A start will be made at an SSRC-sponsored convening of research stakeholders in the spring of 2019.


  • Encourage the expansion of new experiments in data sharing, such as the Sloan Foundation’s data facilities network and the SSRC’s Social Data Initiative.
  • Ensure cumulative learning from experimental private-public collaborations by conducting and sharing evaluations of pilot projects such as those of the ADRFs and the SSRC.
  • Draw on “data philanthropy” and similar frameworks to develop best practices for access to privately held data, similar to corporate social responsibility commitments.
  • Promote the development of a data commons, both in terms of creating a national data service for government-held data and a multisource platform linking private sector data.


  • Construct cross-sectoral partnerships to address threats to data integrity and to explore the use of data credibility forensics.
  • Convene social researchers, ethicists, and other constituencies to develop best practices in research ethics.
  • Ensure cumulative learning of experiments in understanding and designing new ethical codes and practices, building on the SSRC’s work with PERVADE as well as other collaborations.


  • Increase systematic understanding of the current peer-review process by developing quantitative and qualitative studies of evaluation strategies for books and journals.
  • Convene academic publishers and scholarly societies to rethink peer review, with a special focus on issues related to publication timelines and criteria.
  • Encourage the adoption of more pre-publication outlets to facilitate learning and sharing of ideas.


  • Convene academic and private-sector leaders to design mechanisms for incorporating digital literacy, collaboration, and other skills into research training at the doctoral level, building on a range of current efforts.
  • Conduct additional research into the professional locations of PhDs in the social sciences, using the recent American Historical Association study as a model.
  • Mobilize disciplinary associations to develop innovative ways to encourage social scientists working outside of the academy to remain engaged in professional research communities.

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