PROFILE: NSF Human and Social Dynamics Program

The National Science Foundation has launched an ambitious five-year priority area that will devote $24 million annually to exploring how humans and our institutions adapt to the constant fluctuation of changes that characterize our world.

The program is known as Human and Social Dynamics, and its mission is to “increase our collective ability to anticipate the complex consequences of change; to better understand the dynamics of human and social behavior at all levels, including that of the human mind; to better understand the cognitive and social structures that create and define change; and to help people and organizations better manage profound or rapid change.”

Projects will be larger than the average research grants in behavioral science, according to NSF staff, and the goal will be to increase basic understanding of behavior on a scale in keeping with the expansion of knowledge in other sciences in the past century. In FY 2004, HSD received $24 million in funding, and is projected to receive $23.25 million in FY 2005. All six NSF directorates have committed funding to HSD, with over $15 million coming from the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences directorate, or SBE.

The NSF expects to make 40 to 60 awards across six areas of emphasis (see Page 24), of which 16 to 20 will be research-focused, another eight to 14 will focus on education, four to six will develop associated infrastructure, and 12 to 20 will be exploratory.

The priority area will fund a “comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach across the sciences, engineering, and education [to] stimulate breakthroughs in knowledge about human action and development as well as organizational, cultural, and societal adaptation and change. Such a transformation in basic understanding would parallel the explosion of knowledge about the physical and biological worlds that characterized the twentieth century.”

The first competition was announced late in 2003 in three topics – Decision Making Under Uncertainty, associated with climate change and variability, with $5 million specified for special research centers; Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models; and Enhancing Human Performance. Those grants are expected to be announced this spring and summer.

Meanwhile, proposals were being accepted in March 2004 for the first full-year of funding in all six emphasis areas, with grant announcements likely in late September. The proposal is outlined at www.nsf.gov/home/crssprgm/hsd/summary.htm.

HSD was under development for three and a half years. Sally Kane, a microeconomist who chairs the HSD Implementation Group, said “it was decided early that [HSD] would make the greatest contribution if project size were larger than the average research award in SBE, if collaboration were strongly encouraged, and if cross-disciplinary efforts were required.”

In fact, even the name was changed to reflect that cross-disciplinary approach. Originally called the SBE priority area, the name was reconsidered soon after Norman Bradburn was recruited from the University of Chicago in March 2000 to serve as Assistant Director of SBE with the primary mission of jump-starting the initiative. “We searched for another term that would mean something to non-social scientists, and that’s Human and Social Dynamics,” Kane said.

“There had been a general acceptance that this was the time in the social sciences to have a purposeful, dedicated, long-term effort,” she said. “Norman was able to give it direction and have it implemented.” This was no small accomplishment, given the shrinking federal funds that were available and the diversion of resources to defense and internal security needs after September 11, 2001, and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During that period, an overflowing crowd attended an NSF “town meeting” about the initiative, Kane recalled, and afterward “people came up to us and said, ‘We’ve been waiting for something like this from the social sciences for a long while. Isn’t it nice that NSF is finally making this investment?’”

Planning and development of HSD involved considerable collaboration, both within NSF and with the external scientific community. That collaboration is still a work in progress. “This is still very much an open dialogue as to how it will continue over the next four years,” she said “We will be working with the external scientific community to refine it.”

Psychologists are essential members of that community, Kane said. “For example, in the area of decision-making and risk, the study of individuals’ responses to risk, their judgment in selecting options among the choices available, the perception of uncertainties facing us in today’s world, and the treatment of risk in collective and private decisions are all highly dependent on the work of cognitive, behavioral, and social psychologists.”

Steven Breckler, former NSF social psychology program director, said HSD represents a “breakthrough.” “This is the first time that a social and behavioral science priority has been given prominence,” said Breckler. “It means finally that new money can start going to social and behavioral science, in addition to standing support. So, financially it’s a big deal. But intellectually and scientifically it’s also a big deal, because it gives more prominence to the social sciences.”

“It is a big deal to get a priority area,” agreed APS Fellow Philip Rubin, the HSD Implementation Group’s first chair, now at Haskins Laboratories and Yale University. “It takes a lot of planning over a long period of years.”

“We are living in a rapidly changing world,” Rubin said. “You have to have buy-in across the sciences.” He cited advances not just in genetics and space travel and other headline-grabbing arenas of science, but also in bioinformatics and mathematical modeling; in nanotechnology, which is now developing microscopic robots to travel through our blood streams; in global positioning systems and geographic information systems that can build data-sets not previously available; in communications, where cell phones and e-mail are now commonplace and changing social dynamics, and a host of other areas.

“We can sit and gripe about it, but that’s not the job of the scientist,” Rubin said. “The job of the scientist is to understand our world, in which behavior and science and technology are now so interrelated that you shouldn’t try to separate them. The problems that we face require teams of people and a scale of funding that ordinary programs were unable to do.”

Creation of HSD, Rubin said, was driven by a confluence of forces: the changing nature of science, in which teamwork is increasingly required; the converging of sciences and technologies; the need for large-scale funding not normally available; and recognition of how fundamental the behavioral and social sciences are to other scientific enterprises.

“Most of psychology is concerned with how it is that living beings adapt to their environment and adapt to one another,” explained Breckler. “Psychologists who study learning are really studying change phenomena. Those who study memory, aging, development – they are all looking at change phenomena. At some level, most psychology is about understanding how this organism we walk around with is capable of changing.

“It’s not that NSF is getting into a new area of funding. NSF still wants to fund the good basic research that it has always funded. What it has done is try to package together in a coherent way a common thread that runs through the social and behavioral sciences, the kind of thread that does not stand out there alone but connects to all the other fields of science supported by NSF.”

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks underscored the need for HSD. “We are trying to get at the underlying social issues,” Breckler explained. “What we try to understand is how the social, political and economic structure of the world is changing and whether we can understand the origins of things like 9/11 in those changes. What we want to do is understand what underlies the changes in the first place. That’s the kind of questions that psychologists love to ask: why do some people put themselves in an airplane and fly that airplane into a building?

“There are all kinds of questions about how people adapt to the changing world and changing cultures, how and why they adapt the way they do. These are really big questions. What’s interesting is that you find the same question repeated in almost every field of social and behavioral science. That’s the motivation for developing a priority area, when you can put your finger on something that is so basic” that it transcends disciplinary boundaries.

Another impetus behind HSD is the emerging recognition that the conductors of adaptation need to get back on the moving train of invention. A common lament, Breckler said, is that technologies have been developed without much thought to how they’ll affect people. “It’s always left to the social and behavioral scientist to come in afterwards and mop up,” he said.

“You see this a lot in information technology research,” he said. Many now consider computers and related information technology as socially disruptive, he said. “They affect how people react in day-to-day behavior. That sparked a lot of interest in this area. The technologists realized they had created all this technology without much anticipation of what it would do to human beings. People come in after the fact – after e-mail is here, for example – and ask what effect this is going to have, rather than ask beforehand. That is the old school approach.

“Now, for the first time, they are beginning to build in at the outset a concern about the human dimension – of nanotechnology, for example – and allocating money to it. That is an example of fostering technological change and building the attempt to understand the effects at the outset. And that’s what NSF is trying to gear the scientific community towards.”

Is that community responding? Thomas Baerwald, NSF Interim Director of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, said that overall, “we were impressed with the quality of proposals” received in the 2003 competition and “intrigued” by ideas that investigators have shared while preparing proposals for 2004.

“It’s quite clear that many investigators already have been working together in multidisciplinary teams,” Baerwald said, “and HSD is providing a new vehicle that they can explore in hopes of funding interdisciplinary work. Other investigators previously had tended to operate independently, or largely within the constructs of their own disciplinary homes. Although it may take time for them to learn to work together and become competitive, HSD is providing an incentive to encourage them to start the process now.”

“We received a tremendous number of letters of intent” to submit grant proposals in 2004, said Kane. “I would say we have several hundred beyond what we thought we’d get.”

“A lot of people are coming in with very interesting proposals,” agreed Breckler. “Things at the abstract level that we were hoping to stimulate. Once we get the first cohort of funded projects out there, people begin to see it and understand what we have in mind. The bottom line is that APS members in particular really should pay attention to what this initiative is about and should recognize that this is an opportunity to tap into new money. In the long run it should increase the size of the pot for social and behavioral sciences.”

Observer Vol.17, No.4 April, 2004

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