Social Science Research Council Turns 100: Interview with President Anna Harvey

To celebrate the Social Science Research Council’s 100th anniversary, we interviewed SSRC president Anna Harvey. Harvey is a politics professor, affiliated professor of data and law, and director of the Public Safety Lab at New York University. In addition, she serves as co-director of the Criminal Justice Expert Panel.

Tell me about the Social Science Research Council’s mission, it’s role in the social and behavioral sciences, and your personal investment in it.

Professional headshot of Anna Harvey.
SSRC President Anna Harvey.

It’s been an immense privilege to lead the Social Science Research Council as we enter our 100th year. One reason for this is that, as I began digging into the council’s history, I realized how the work that the SSRC was doing decades ago not only parallels but also offers solutions for how we can better address the problems we find ourselves thinking about now. 

In 1923, when representatives from the social and behavioral sciences got together and looked at the problems facing societies around the globe, they realized that their disciplines might be able to help find feasible solutions to those problems, particularly if they all worked together across disciplinary boundaries. 

The more I read, the more I find that, over and over, when important issues faced the country and the world — racial discrimination, global hunger, ineffective schools, poverty — the council mobilized social and behavioral scientists to bring data and science to bear on the problem.

I came to the council in 2021 because I believed that the issues that we face today — issues like pandemics, climate change, and threats to democratic institutions — can be better navigated with behaviorally-informed and policy-relevant evidence. The council can help to create this evidence by doing what it does best: bringing funders, policymakers, and social and behavioral scientists together to use our best science to find solutions.

Since I arrived, and with the support of an amazing board of directors and advisory committee, I’ve been working to help bring new groups of funders and researchers together. I have also been working to expand and mobilize the council’s consortium of over 45 research-committed colleges and universities, supporting campus leaders in the social and behavioral sciences who are working to turn societal challenges into opportunities for building healthier, more sustainable, and more prosperous societies.

What is your main focus as SSRC president?

When I became the 15th president of the SSRC two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was having massive impacts on human lives, health, education, and the economy. Coordinated research efforts — which brought governments, funders, researchers, and industry all together with funding appropriate to the task — had brought us vaccines long before most people had expected. 

But human decision-making and behavior upended our hopes that we would be able to quickly achieve high vaccination rates. Many people delayed or declined vaccination, and vaccine misinformation spread widely. The council responded by developing the Mercury Project, a consortium of major global funders who came together to support a dedicated effort to apply social and behavioral science to the problem of vaccination demand. The Mercury Project is now funding over 90 researchers in 17 countries, working in coordination to find effective ways to combat misinformation and to boost vaccination and other pro-health behaviors.

Most recently, we’ve launched the Agenda Fund to help find other opportunities to apply social and behavioral science to urgent societal challenges: climate change mitigation, social media platforms, scientific innovation, AI, ESG investing, and diversity in STEM. We want to replicate what we’ve been able to do with vaccination demand for other urgent problems.

Are there any SSRC initiatives in the council’s history of which you are particularly proud?

I was really moved by reading about the SSRC’s work on the US social safety net in the 1930s. In 1933, during an economic crisis, The Rockefeller Foundation asked the council to develop a plan, within 48 hours, to bring the best evidence available to the Roosevelt administration to inform the development of the social security safety net being designed for the country. That turned into a seven-year effort by a team of social and behavioral scientists in DC to ensure that the programs being developed were informed by the best evidence possible. Social Security ended up being one of the most effective anti-poverty policies in our nation’s history — among the elderly alone it cut poverty by 75 percent. I think that SSRC initiative exemplifies how social and behavioral science can help guide the development of effective public policy.

In the more recent past, SSRC has helped and continues to help early career scholars with great potential but less access to resources and opportunities. Our Abe Fellowships, for example, thanks to generous support from the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, helped Japanese scholars in the social and behavioral sciences conduct research and develop US academic and policy networks. The fellowships allowed them to establish themselves as international experts in their fields. Former fellows have gone on to serve in the Japanese cabinet, in the central bank, and in prominent positions in international affairs, and we’re thrilled that they have managed to link scholarship and policymaking.

I would also highlight two programs generously funded by the Carnegie Corporation supporting scholars in Africa. Anybody who’s written a doctoral dissertation knows how difficult that can be under ideal circumstances, and even more so in under-resourced contexts. The Next Generation of Social Sciences in Africa program offers fellowships to help early career scholars in Africa finish their PhDs and publish their dissertations. The funds aren’t earmarked, allowing recipients maximum flexibility in their work. The African Peacebuilding Network is designed to boost scholarship around peacebuilding within the African research and practitioner communities, create links between scholars and policymakers on the continent, and increase their visibility in the global research community. Watching early career scholars grow and connect their work to policies concretely improving lives is really inspiring.

What about current initiatives?

Our hope for The Agenda Fund is that we can find and launch new opportunities for social and behavioral scientists to contribute to the work of developing and testing solutions to some of our most pressing problems, including by working through our College and University Fund for the Social Sciences, which brings together research institutions that want to collaborate to advance the social and behavioral sciences. 

One of our Agenda Fund focus areas, advancing diversity in STEM, shows the potential for building on the council’s prior successes. We know that women and minorities have been chronically underrepresented in STEM fields, which means that society is missing out on the untapped talent in these groups. With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the council has been running the Sloan Scholars Mentoring Network (SSNM) for a number of years. The network provides over 1,300 Black, Indigenous, and Latinx STEM scholars with professional development opportunities, networking, and mentorship to help them build and strengthen their careers. A thematically related new program, supported by the Sloan and Henry Luce Foundations, is using social and behavioral science to understand what kinds of interventions can improve the representation of women in the economics and mathematics disciplines. The Agenda Fund’s initiative is designed to build on what we already know about supporting minorities in STEM fields, and to produce the rigorous evidence that can lead to the attraction and retention of scientists from underrepresented backgrounds throughout STEM disciplines. 

How would you characterize the SSRC team and the kind of scholars it supports?

It was inspiring to read through the SSRC’s history and find out how many luminaries in the social and behavioral sciences got support — often early on in their careers — from the SSRC, or were otherwise involved in our work. For example, the council supported the research of Ralph Bunche, Gunnar Myrdal, and Simon Kuznets. Myrdal and Kuznets would later win the Nobel Prize for Economics, and Bunche would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Clifton Wharton Jr., an SSRC fellow who worked on supporting the uptake of agricultural innovation around the world, went on to a distinguished career in diplomacy, philanthropy, and finance, and served as the president of Michigan State University. Since its inception, the council has funded thousands of scholars, many of whom laid the foundations for new research areas in their disciplines.

But equally important are the staff at the council who, over the years, have helped forge the paths to building knowledge in so many fields, both at the council and later in their careers. A great example is Lloyd Morrisett, the co-creator of Sesame Street, who recently passed away. Before his pioneering work using television to support children’s educational development, he worked with SSRC’s education research programs, both on staff at the council and later with the Carnegie Corporation. It’s really a privilege to be able to support the efforts of so many scholars who have played important roles in the social and behavioral sciences.

Anything you’d like to say to our readers?

I think an important message is that the social and behavioral sciences can drive policy change. Decision-makers tend to be risk averse: they are often reluctant to change the status quo policy because the effects of change are uncertain. Social and behavioral science can “de-risk” policy change by providing reliable evidence of the likely effects of that change.

For example, at our first Agenda Fund convening on June 9, on the theme of climate change mitigation, the conversation surfaced several instances where rigorous evidence of successful pro-climate interventions led to adoption and scaling of those interventions by governments and firms. It’s encouraging to see that the work that we do can be an important driver of the policy change that we need.

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Hannah Pearson

Hannah Pearson is a recent MFA creative writing graduate from the University of South Carolina. She is a corporate communications intern with Sage.

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