NSF Seeks Social and Behavioral Proposals on Future of Work

Futuristic depictions of Big Ideas
(Image: Nicolle Rager Fuller/NSF)

In 2016, the National Science Foundation unveiled its “Big Ideas,” 10 long-term research and process ideas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering. Through the Big Ideas, NSF aimed to use convergence research to help position the United States at the cutting edge of global science and engineering leadership well into the future.

One of those 10 ideas was titled “Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier,” which the NSF describes as “understanding how constantly evolving technologies are actively shaping the lives of workers and how people in turn can shape those technologies, especially in the world of work.” On Thursday, the NSF asked researchers across the social, behavioral and economic sciences are encouraged to submit proposals to the Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: Core Research solicitation by March 23, 2021.

“Researchers in the social, behavioral and economic sciences play an essential role in understanding and anticipating a vast array of issues that impact the effective development of future workplace activities and technologies,” the announcement expanding the initial solicitation quotes NSF Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences Division Director Marc Sebrechts, “We urge our scientific community to come together with their colleagues in other disciplines to develop research proposals that focus on understanding the future of work in ways that will benefit individuals and communities across the U.S.”

It’s worth noting that the Future of Work idea was born well before the arrival of the unique coronavirus dramatically changed the ‘present’ of work for so many.

Convergence research, by its definition, addresses complex problems focusing on societal needs and It entails integrating knowledge, methods, and expertise from different disciplines, but it’s understandable why NSF would make a specific appeal to the social and behavioral community. Many of the NSF’s Big Ideas show a predilection for physical science, such as Navigating the New Arctic, Windows on the Universe, or Quantum Leap, which may have social and behavioral dimensions but which on their face address a STEM concern. Other Big Ideas, such as Harnessing the Data Revolution or the NSF’s diversity, equity and inclusion idea, NSF INCLUDES, have social and behavioral implications on their face but could also be interpreted STEM-focused, especially since proposals are submitted to the Directorate for Engineering Office of Emerging Frontiers and Multidisciplinary Activities. (To be clear, though, once received, proposals are managed by a cross-disciplinary team of NSF program directors.)

The Future of Work effort specifically takes a multidisciplinary approach by supporting research at the intersection of people, society and technology, while aiming to increase opportunities for workers and spur innovations that benefit the U.S. economy. It is a collaborative effort with NSF’s directorates for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Education and Human Resources, Engineering, and the Office of Integrative Activities.

Proposals to the new solicitation should describe multidisciplinary research investigating the evolving technological, human and societal aspects of work. Researchers from the social, behavioral and economic sciences should collaborate with researchers in computer science, engineering and learning sciences to investigate the potential impacts of technological innovations and disruptions. The solicitation invites proposals for planning grants and research grants, as well as new and larger transition-to-scale awards that can create a novel and extended knowledge base applicable to future workplaces. Proposals must also address inclusion and equity in a meaningful way, including potential inequalities in future workplaces or occupations. Proposals should include methods to mitigate those inequalities, such as new approaches to learning or technologies that support accessibility and inclusion.

For full details and guidance on award types, amounts and other questions, see Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: Core Research.

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