US scholars expect people-oriented research focus under Biden

New position of White House social sciences adviser may raise priority of social response to coronavirus and consideration of race-related factors

January 26, 2021
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Joe Biden’s creation of a new White House advisory position on the social sciences is raising expectations that academic researchers will be pushed to become far more inclusive and outcomes-oriented in their work.

Mr Biden created the position of deputy director for science and society, inside his Office of Science and Technology Policy, and chose Alondra Nelson, an accomplished expert on social inequities, to fill it.

Professor Nelson, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and president of the Social Science Research Council, gave only hints of her ambitions for the position at an introductory briefing alongside Mr Biden.

She spoke of finding more holistic ways to tackle major social problems such as the coronavirus pandemic, and of the need to better assess the social impacts of technologies such as artificial intelligence and human genome editing.

Several experts familiar with Professor Nelson and her work said the new position reflected a long-overdue recognition that people, their views and their behaviours are too frequently sidelined in public policymaking considerations.

With the coronavirus pandemic, said Gil Eyal, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, experts have developed several vaccines but have often struggled to get the public to wear face masks, to overcome vaccine distribution barriers, and to encourage people to get the shot. “We have the virus genomically figured out, but we don’t have figured out the people who carry viruses,” he said.

Such deadly blunders do not need to keep happening, said Cecilia Menjívar, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles and president-elect of the American Sociological Association.

As one example, Professor Menjívar said, there is sociological research “that speaks precisely to these [questions of] why…certain people are reluctant to take vaccines”. Another expert, Catherine Sanderson, a professor of psychology at Amherst College, has published studies that could help policymakers understand why some people resist wearing masks.

Some shifts in academic research funding during the Biden administration might have been expected regardless of Professor Nelson’s appointment, Professor Sanderson said. Those include the likely expansion of research into gun safety, comprehensive sex education and other topics that often raise concern among conservatives, she said.

But the idea of Professor Nelson shepherding a much broader use of academic insights into real-world improvements was “tremendously encouraging”, Professor Sanderson said.

Given Professor Nelson’s research expertise, said Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern University, she should bring particular perspective to the racial dimensions of many policy failures.

Professor Morris, the current president of the American Sociological Association, said deeply damaging race-based and wealth-based disparities have been allowed to persist largely because policymakers – and the scientific analyses they consult – rarely took seriously the need to fully understand them.

That, he said, points to a likely change in how academic scientists go about their work – if Professor Nelson proves successful in getting the Biden administration to truly embrace the lessons she is ready to pass on.

“I would expect we could see scientists go into these marginalised communities and have people who are victims speak directly to what the experiences are, and what they think might be the solutions,” Professor Morris said.

“Where you start,” he said, “is by asking different sets of questions – to have scientists ask different sets of questions, that aren’t usually put on the scientific table.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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