For decades, the social sciences have generated knowledge vital to guiding public policy, informing business, and understanding and improving the human condition. But today, the social sciences face serious threats. From dwindling federal funding to public mistrust in institutions to widespread skepticism about data, the infrastructure supporting the social sciences is shifting in ways that threaten to undercut research and knowledge production.
How can we secure social knowledge for future generations?
This question has guided the Social Science Research Council’s Task Force. Following eighteen months of consultation with key players as well as internal deliberation, we have identified both long-term developments and present threats that have created challenges for the social sciences, but also created unique opportunities. And we have generated recommendations to address these issues.
Our core finding focuses on the urgent need for new partnerships and collaborations among several key players: the federal government, academic institutions, donor organizations, and the private sector. Several decades ago, these institutions had clear zones of responsibility in producing social knowledge, with the federal government constituting the largest portion of funding for basic research. Today, private companies represent an increasingly large share not just of research and funding, but also the production of data that informs the social sciences, from smart phone usage to social media patterns.
In addition, today’s social scientists face unprecedented demands for accountability, speedy publication, and generation of novel results. These pressures have emerged from the fragmented institutional foundation that undergirds research. That foundation needs a redesign in order for the social sciences to continue helping our communities address problems ranging from income inequality to education reform.
To build a better future, we identify five areas of action: Funding, Data, Ethics, Research Quality and Research Training. In each area, our recommendations range from enlarging corporate-academic pilot programs to improving social science training in digital literacy.
A consistent theme is that none of the measures, if taken unilaterally, can generate optimal outcomes. Instead, we have issued a call to forge a new research compact to harness the potential of the social sciences for improving human lives. That compact depends on partnerships, and we urge the key players in the construction of social science knowledge—including universities, government, foundations, and corporations—to act swiftly. With the right realignments, the security of social knowledge lies within our reach.