When the National Science Foundation tabbed Arthur “Skip” Lupia to head its Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (SBE), it was making a statement whether it meant to or not. Lupia, officially the Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, has been one of social science’s ablest defenders — and occasional critics. His professional research and personal avocation has been aimed at communicating to a broader public the value of social and behavioral science, while at the same time communicating to the social science community itself how to talk about itself outside of the ivory tower.
The SBE directorate supports fundamental research in behavioral, cognitive, social and economic sciences and is the smallest of the six research directorates at the foundation. SBE’s budget and very raison d’être have come under attack repeatedly by various Republican legislators over the years, making it (along with the geophysics directorate and its remit of climate change) popular targets for abuse.
Lupia has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the political science and the larger social sciences community. In addition to his professorship at Michigan, which he has held since 2006, he serves concurrently as chairman of the board for the Center for Open Science and as the chair of the National Academies Roundtable on the Communication and Use of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
At NSF, Lupia replaced Fay Lomax Cook, a public policy professor at Northwestern University, as assistant director. Assistant directors are appointed for two-year terms initially, with a possibility of an extension.
In this article, Lupia talks about his decision to come to NSF and what his first 25 days have been like. Subsequent portions of this discussion will address how social science fits into the NSF officially and informally, and how science communication is faring in the current era.
When the offer first came up to replace Fay, what was your initial thought?
You know, the quote inquiry actually came from members of the National Science Board to see if I’d be interested in considering the position. I talked to my wife about it, and she knew how much I’d been working on science communication, how much I’d been working with different organizations on the public value of what we do and how to strengthen it. And she said to me, “You can’t not do this. There’s this agency that’s doing great work but it has some important challenges. There might be a way,” she said to me, “that you can be helpful.” I was thinking about it, but to hear her throw it back at me that way was like, “Yeah, I have to do this.”
Faye was incredibly generous in talking about what was going on here and the challenges that she saw then, and really the whole leadership team at NSF. This is a very fast-paced environment, but it’s full of very rigorous and generous people, so initially I didn’t know what to make of it.
For most working academics, the bureaucracy part of their job is the thing that drives them nuts. Why would someone with eyes wide open step into, with all due respect, kind of a bureaucratic terrain?
The irony of this situation is I’ve been doing work on how knowledge generating institutions like universities, science foundations and so forth can and should adapt to the changing information environment to changing expectations about what counts as expertise and what type of information is worth paying for. I have been doing a lot of work on this, and also advising organizations about how to be more effective. On one hand I know there is bureaucracy here, but on the other hand for better or worse I felt like I had a sense of the problem, and when I talked to people here, the interview process was rigorous, I was really surprised how well they reacted to things I was saying that I thought would be controversial. That told me that maybe I could come here and be helpful.
Again, when my wife told me you can’t not do this it was in part because I’d spent the better part of the last, I don’t know, five or six years on this type of problem. The big difference is now I’m working with one organization every day, whereas up to about two months ago I was working with about 20 organizations once a month.
Do you think your tenure at NSF will inevitably make its way into some of your future research outputs?
I just don’t know. My main goal while I’m here is to be effective. That’s the bottom line. I’m trying to figure out how to bring value to this place everyday. My background is in math, so this is how I think about it. I learned during the interview process that there are 250 federal workdays in a year, and I was shocked that it’s a round number, but it’s true. So I figure if I’m here four years, which is the statutory limit, that’s 1,000 days. And I’m on my 25th day already. I’m looking at this and thinking, “I only get to do this 39 more times, so I have to get on it.” That’s my focus. I could well learn things that will affect my scholarship later on, but if I have to make the trade off between that and being effective right now, the trade off is really clear because the stakes are really high.
Part of what I learned the last couple years were just the amazing range of beneficiaries of social science, and part of why I’m here is to help them. I worked in South America, as you may know, and I saw some pretty desperate situations, but I was in a position where social science was able to have a transformative effect on the lives of millions of people, and you see things like that, then you get an opportunity like this, and I think for me my responsibility is quite clear.
What would be some of the metrics you would use to determine if you are being successful?
There are a couple … there are some that are easy and some that are hard. The easy ones are, are we soliciting and supporting transformative research? Our mission is about basic research, fundamental research. A lot of my friends do applied research. That’s not our game. Our game is basic research where you’re trying to take situations and ideas where people don’t quite understand what happens when you put them together and to conduct research that can not only break that light open, but when people see the new thing you’re doing it can be applied in lots of different places.
The hallmark of success, are we doing our job of getting out in the communities and networking and conveying to people with potentially great ideas to come here, to work with our program officers, to let us help you develop your ideas in ways that are consistent with the mission of this organization. Then what I want to do is put us in a position to support as many of those as possible. The front end is the work we’re actually doing.
Now behind the scenes, there’s generating opportunities for that, and part of that’s money. I will go in a room with anyone who has the best interest of the American public at heart and listen to their values and listen to how they think science can operate. I have friends on both sides of the aisle, very dear friends, and I’m happy to build coalitions with anyone who understands our mission and is really dedicated to serving people. Part of what success is is going to be: can I generate circumstances, whether it’s through money or partnerships or other things, for the great scholars in this country who have transformative ideas? And that’s on me. Their job is to do the work, my job is to clear a path. So I’m trying to clear a wider path and a longer path so that they can do that. That’s how I want to be measured.
When you had that conversation with Faye, was there any tip or was there any key takeaway that you got that you’re willing to share that she had?
Well the great thing about Faye is we didn’t have one conversation, we had about 20. I’ll tell you the honest truth, it wasn’t anything that Faye said, it was how she carried herself. Faye has this amazing mix of strength and empathy, and it wasn’t so much what Faye said to me, it was kind of what she did. So that left a real impact on me. Through Faye I got a sense of this building and how collaborative it is and how dynamic it is, and what the challenges and opportunities are. If you want to know what’s been coded in my memory, it’s kind of how she did it. What she said to me, in a sense, I almost don’t remember.
You said before you came into NSF you had some ideas you thought were going to be controversial but in fact they didn’t turn out to be. I’m wondering, what sort of things did you think were going to roil the waters that didn’t?
The mission of this organization is to fund basic research, transformative research. And yet we live in an era where — and it’s nobody’s fault — because of the explosion of information available through technology, all kinds of people now claim to be experts on all kinds of subjects. So as a result, as a society we’re asking questions about what information should we really believe? What’s legitimate? What’s not? What’s fake? What’s real? So my belief is I you are completely committed to the pursuit of basic science, we have to talk about the value of basic science now differently than we did a generation ago.
A generation ago, or even more specifically on May 10, 1950, the day the National Science Foundation was founded, most people who received a scientific study on a topic, they were so thrilled to have it because chances are it was the first study on that topic that they’d ever seen. They were like, “I’ve never seen science in this domain before, thank you very much.” Today, all kinds of people claim to be experts and now we deliver science in that context.
One of the things that I say to people, and I can say it over my history, the response hasn’t always been great, which is if we care about basic research, we cannot communicate it the way we did a generation ago. We cannot assume that people are inherently interested in it, we cannot assume that it is inherently valuable. What we have to do is try to identify the core concerns of our stakeholders, and if we want them to walk away understanding the value of basic research, it’s incumbent on us to link the content of our corpus to the core strengths that they have. Because today if they don’t, most of the people that we communicate with are one click away on their phone or tablet or whatever from a soccer match, a cat video, or a flashy graphic that looks like it’s made by experts but really isn’t. And if we don’t communicate effectively, we’re gonna lose the battle for attention, and even if we might have better research, if we lose the battle for attention, if we can’t even get in the conversation then our value proposition is really disintegrated.
Sometimes people think that when you’re talking about communication, you’re talking about dumbing things down or you’re talking about applied research, and my argument and I think what I can demonstrate is that’s not true at all. My argument is that, and it’s not just me, it’s a lot of people. If you care about basic research and you want public support for it or private sector support for it, you really do have to make the value proposition clear.
So here we are in the high church of basic research, NSF. I’m just thinking if there was a place where I was gonna get push back on that, it might be here. But we’ve had very rigorous conversations about it and people have been very supportive. I’m pleasantly surprised by that outcome, I didn’t take it for granted.