Social Science Research Council Turns 100: Examining Its Present-Day Impact

Mother's hand with bracelet saying '1st visit' over baby also with bvracelet on arm
Example of using bracelets to increase the immunization rate in Sierra Leone – part of an SSRC-funded study. (Photo: YouTube)

Children in Sierra Leone require five vaccinations by the age of one, but many parents—especially those who face a five to eight-mile walk to the vaccination site—do not vaccinate their children on schedule, if at all. It’s a modern problem that needs a modern solution—and a little help from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).

The SSRC today

For 100 years, the SSRC has organized policy-relevant social and behavioral science research to benefit society. Today, the council furthers this goal by providing fellowship programs and supporting a number of initiatives in four general focus areas:

  • Emergent technologies and democracy
  • Health and society
  • Inequality and inclusion
  • Global scholarship and collaboration

Fellowship programs such as the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum, which connects United Nations decision-makers with relevant research, the Arts Research with Communities of Color Program, which aims to create a more equitable arts field, and the Mercury Project (see below) strive to build bridges between the academy, the government, and the private sector. In the last 100 years, the SSRC has awarded more than 15,000 fellowships to researchers worldwide and currently supports more than 900 scholars each year.

This article is the second in a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Social Science Research Council—a New York City-based independent nonprofit dedicated to mobilizing research in the social and behavioral sciences. The first article exploring the SSRC’s past is available HERE.

Organization-wide initiatives like the College and University Fund for the Social Sciences and the Albert O. Hirschman Prize are cross-institutional collaborations meant to advance research infrastructure across the behavioral and social sciences. One initiative, An American Dilemma for the 21st Century, launched a digital platform to house the Carnegie-Myrdal archive. The collection raises the visibility of scholars who worked with Gunnar Myrdal, author of An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.

In addition to supporting scholars and social science research, the SSRC also provides pedagogical and investigative resources and tools to the public. In 2019, the council created MediaWell, a website designed to combat mis- and disinformation. Another SSRC resource, Measure of America, offers human development research and mapping tools to promote an understanding of human well-being in the United States. Data visualization and maps are available for topics such as graduation rates, women’s well-being, and healthcare spending.

COVID-19 and increasing vaccination uptake

The problem: children in Sierra Leone need their vaccinations, but few are receiving them on time, if at all. The solution? Cheap, colorful bracelets.

A 2021 study found that encouraging parents to signal their children’s vaccination status with color-coded bracelets increased vaccination completion by 14 percent—all for the price of a dollar. The study is one of many linked to the Mercury Project, an SSRC grant that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mercury Project is a research consortium that “aims to contribute to social and behavioral science on cost-effective and scalable interventions to increase vaccination demand.” And while the project was launched to increase COVID-19 vaccination demand worldwide, it also supports vaccine intervention in general, such as the Sierra Leone study.

The Mercury Project launched with over $10 million in support from the Rockefeller, Robert Wood Johnson, Craig Newmark, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations. In 2022, contributions were made by the National Science Foundation, which provided $12.5 million in co-funding support, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project’s first cohort of grantees included 12 teams of 90 researchers working to boost vaccination demand in 17 countries. One team conducted a 680,000-person megastudy to investigate low-cost interventions to increase flu vaccination rates in the United States. Another team surveyed 23 countries and found that presenting people with information about the widespread acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine helped convince those with vaccine hesitancy to seek vaccination.

“This initial cohort’s ideas exemplify the creativity and vision behind the Mercury Project,” said Bruce Gellin, chief of global public health strategy at The Rockefeller Foundation. “They go far beyond quick fixes, with the goal of identifying robust, cost-effective, and meaningful solutions that can be widely adopted and scaled.”

Through May 1, 2023, the Mercury Project is accepting proposals to increase demand for vaccinations in select countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

The next 100 years

The council recognizes that “a research area that is critical today may have been emerging just a few years ago, and the scope of the SSRC’s work reflects the ever-changing nature of human life and society.” This means that the four focus areas currently guiding the council will likely undergo many changes in the next 100 years.

“Today, new tools and methods offer new opportunities for policy-relevant and socially useful social and behavioral science,” the council’s website states. “The council is uniquely positioned to unite the research, policy, and philanthropic communities in search for interventions and policies that can better support human well-being on a global scale. As the council enters a new century, this work is more important than ever.”

Our next article will focus on the people behind the SSRC, as well as those involved in their fellowships and initiatives.

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Hannah Pearson

Hannah Pearson is an MFA creative writing candidate at the University of South Carolina. She is a corporate communications intern with Sage.

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