NAS Outlines Successes of Societal Experts Action Network

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a handful of people in Washington, D.C. at the nexus of social science and serving policymakers recognized both the huge social and behavioral component of the fight against the coronavirus and the need to deploy academic insights from those sciences immediately.

By June of 2020, those people – drawn from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS), with support from the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – stood up the Societal Experts Action Network, or SEAN. As its name suggests, the network taps scientists in the social, behavioral and economic sciences to provide actionable and evidence-based recommendations to support local, state, and national responses and policies quickly. Think of it as a sort of social science SWAT team.

They hit the ground running, with a COVID-19 data guide for decision-makers, summarizing the benefits and drawbacks of seven specific COVID-19 measurements, released that June. As the network itself requires, “SEAN’s products are short, rapid, and evidence-based, translating technical concepts into actionable guidance for decision makers.”

In the months since its debut, according to a two-page assessment prepared by the NAS, SEAN has produced 12 rapid expert consultations (on topics ranging from “Strategies for Disaster Response During COVID-19” to “Student Behavior and College COVID-19 Testing”), 12 webinars, and contributed to two feature stories and one consensus study report by NAS.

That document notes SEAN has conducted 14 briefings to date. A breakdown of those briefings offers a good picture of the breadth of SEAN’s scope and reach. Several of the briefings addressed COVID-19 vaccines: Three to the Public Health Division of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council of Boston on communications strategies, contact tracing, and vaccine hesitancy;  three with the National League of Cities on racial equity in COVID-19 data, the importance of communications strategies for COVID-19 prevention, and building confidence in vaccines; and one before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on building confidence in vaccines.

“As people’s closest and most trusted level of government,” The Kitty Dana, a senior health policy adviser with the National League of Cities, wrote to the network, “cities, towns and villages benefit from SEAN’s rapid expert consultations on effective communications strategies to increase and sustain safe practices among city residents. In a polarized environment, SEAN’s guidance based on social and behavioral sciences are vital to city officials to realize the goal of city and institutional policies(e.g., mask ordinances, rules on college student gatherings).”

Four briefings addressed the ways to reduce the spread of COVID within the prison system: three briefings with Congressional staff on the consensus study report, Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19and onewith the National Governors Association.

The other three briefings included one with the National Association of Counties on safety and justice; one with the federal Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs on COVID-19 messaging for young adults; and one with the National Science Foundation’s Social and Behavioral Science Interagency Working Group.

The NAS assessment also offers other quantitative measures of SEAN’s activity, including seeing the network referenced in 22 news articles in national media ranging from the New York Times to the Journal of the American Medical Association Meanwhile, more than 6,000people have attended webinars produced by SEAN webinars.

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