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Experts Tout the Benefits of Social Science Research for Government Policy


Arthur Lupia, explaining how social science research can inform government policy,
asks “which evaluations we should believe?” [AAAS/Robert Beets]

In 2007, U.S. President George W. Bush deployed more than 20,000 troops to Iraq in an effort to quell escalating violence there. Was this so-called “surge” effective? It’s an important question, as governments are rewriting their military playbooks to deal with local insurgencies and other new challenges. But, the answers have varied widely.

“Government decisions often rely on evaluations of past actions,” said Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan, at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. “Lots of people give evaluations, both in politics and on television. There are many evaluations about the main questions of our day; and so, as we think about the present and the future, the question we might ask is, which evaluations should we believe?”

“The value of social science research to government performance is that it is a source for credible and legitimate evaluations,” he said.

Lupia spoke on 3 May along with Cass Sunstein, author of the book Simpler: The Future of Government. Both speakers described a variety of social science studies that inform public policy.

Beyond the Pundits

For example, to answer the question about the effectiveness of the Iraq surge, political scientists Nils Weidmann and Idean Salehyan analyzed detailed changes in the ethnic makeup of different Baghdad neighborhoods from 2003 to 2008. The data revealed that most attacks were against nearby ethnic rivals and that attacks led to the development of ethnic enclaves as civilians searched for safety. The researchers also modeled the effects of the surge against these other trends, Lupia explained.

Publishing their study in the journal International Studies Quarterly, the authors concluded that ethnic segregation itself limits violence, but that a surge can help cap violence levels if it is timed correctly.

“The finding here is, if you want to do a surge and have our servicemen and women in minimal harm’s way and have the surge have the most effect, don’t delay. Do it as soon as you can because the longer you wait, the longer it’s going to take to kick in,” Lupia said.

The State Department, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy are all seeking out social scientists’ expertise to accomplish their missions, some in much greater extent than they ever have before, according to Lupia. At the same time, however, federal funding for social science research has come under political and economic pressure recently. “So clearly there are different points of view about the value of social science research to the American taxpayer,” he said.

For policymakers or others trying to evaluate different interpretations of past events, the methods of the social and natural sciences are especially useful because they are transparent and aim to allow others to reproduce the results. This “greater degree of honesty” in evaluation is what produces credibility and legitimacy, Lupia said.

Does that mean Congress should fund the social and behavioral sciences? Lupia proposed that the answer is yes, because these disciplines help lawmakers and the public to understand policy. This research is thus central to the government’s obligation to the American people under the Constitution, he argued.

“When people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake, it’s not enough to spin a good yarn. At these moments our nation benefits from distinguishing false stories from explanations that are consistent with precise logic and the best available evidence. This is the type of activity that [the National Science Foundation's] peer-review system, particularly in the social sciences, is exceptional at identifying and supporting,” he said.

Helping People Help Themselves

Governments and other institutions can also leverage findings from social science research to encourage members of the public make better choices themselves. Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School who was the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, described approaches, based on research of people’s behavior, that can guide the public’s health, safety and finances.

One key principle is that “complexity is harmful.” Sunstein cited a study showing that complexity in a financial aid form diminished the likelihood that a student would go to college. This negative effect could help to offset the positive effect that scholarships or other economic incentives would have, he said.



Cass Sunstein [AAAS/Robert Beets]

The second is to give “nudges” that influence choices but still let them go in the directions they see fit. Google, for example, has redesigned its cafeteria in New York, so that sweets are present but less accessible than the healthier food. The company reports that its employees now eat less candy, according to Sunstein.


Consumer choices should also be structured to anticipate the human tendencies to make errors, be overly optimistic, and have a short attention span. For example, researchers in Denmark have found that automatic enrollment in a savings plan is a more effective way to get people to save money than offering them significant tax incentives. Likewise, public health efforts to encourage vaccination are more effective when they provide individuals with a map showing where they can get vaccinated, Sunstein said.

The White House’s ongoing “Lookback” effort reveals simplification and cost-saving at work. In response to an executive order to government agencies to rethink and simplify their regulations, over two dozen agencies have released reform plans with over 500 initiatives. Sunstein cited as an example the Department of Health and Human Services, which will soon remove unnecessary requirements now imposed on hospital and other healthcare providers, saving an estimated $5 billion in the next five years.