Social Science Revolution at the White House

Generally the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is not the focus of much public attention. If you are in science world, of course it is pretty important (full disclosure, in my day job I get to interact with them, very occasionally), but much of what they do (even during COVID) is out of the public eye. But big stuff is happening!

The administration’s first big personnel scandal was – surprisingly – the resignation of OSTP head Eric Lander who was a bully and maybe up to some stuff financially. Generally the OSTP is about the last place one would look for a White House scandal, but there’s a first time for everything. But the exciting part is who is stepping in to fill his shoes. The White House is splitting the position. Recently retired NIH director Francis Collins (Anthony Fauci’s boss!) will serve as top science advisor. A sound decision in the midst of a pandemic that refuses to end. But the OSTP director position will be taken by Lander’s deputy, Alondra Nelson. This is big… huge!

Professor Nelson is a bunch of firsts in her position. She is an African-American, and while she won’t be the first woman in the position, she will be the first African-American. But just as important, she will be the first social scientist. The general preference at OSTP has been for physicists, physics has been seen as the building block of the sciences. Many of the key issues on which presidents historically wanted scientific advice (space program, atomic weapons and energy) were best served by physicists.

Social science is generally not held in the same regards as the physical or life sciences. We are surrounded by things that technologists have built that we don’t understand, so we know they are brilliant. Social science can be just as difficult to understand, but are people and think we have a pretty good handle on them (we don’t, but we think we do.) Physics is often called a hard science, but in fact social sciences are often the harder sciences in the sense that obtaining valid, replicable results from studying human behavior can be extremely difficult. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done of course, because it can be extremely valuable.

Professor Arthur Lupia has been a champion of funding social science (and of encouraging social scientists to better engage the public and policy-makers.) He was recently head of social science at NSF. Back in 2014 Lupia delivered an important address on the topic and one of the examples he used was vaccine distribution. Developing a vaccine is one kind of problem – in the realm of life sciences. Distributing the vaccine and maximizing the number of people who will take it is a social science problem. Over the past few years we have seen the costs of not systematically studying and addressing the human side of the problem.

In my own corner of the scientific research enterprise I also wave the flag for this issue. There is now a focus on artificial intelligence for national security and prosperity. But the “best” AI may not be the best system to meet our needs. AI can be brittle. Developing AI that meets the needs of users, integrates effectively with organizations, and operates in accord with human rights and dignity will be better for security and prosperity than AI optimized on narrow values and returns. This will require social science, this will require understanding people. Whether it is developing decision-support for operators that isn’t just a face magnet or automating services in a way that doesn’t discriminate and empowers users – getting this right will give us better technology and make our nation stronger in every dimension.

With all that said, the hope is that social scientist at the head of OSTP can help to integrate the different fields and ensure that the study of human behavior is integral to scientific development and to policy-making.

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