By SSRC President Craig Calhoun
I want to suggest four crucial ingredients of a more public social science that are not always stressed in such discussions.
1. Engagement with public constituencies must move beyond a dissemination model. It is not enough to say that first scientists will do whatever “pure” research moves them and then, eventually, there will be a process of dissemination, application, and implementation. Writing more clearly is good, but not the whole answer. For one thing, we should be cautious about assuming that social scientists should always write directly for broad publics; this may be more the task of some than others, and raising the standards for how journalists draw on social science may be equally important. As the crises of libraries and university presses reminds us, we have also failed to ask enough questions about what publications deserve public subsidies and which should proceed on market bases. In the process, we have made it hard for both ourselves and especially our nonspecialist readers to identify what is really worthwhile. We also need to bring non-scientific constituencies for scientific knowledge into the conversation earlier. Those who potentially use the results of social science in practical action, and those who mediate between scientists and broader publics, should be engaged as social science agendas are developed. Neither broader dissemination nor better “translation” of social science will be adequate without a range of relationships to other constituencies that build an interest in and readiness to use the products of research.
2. Public social science does not equal applied social science. More “applied” research may be helpful, but the opposition of applied to pure is itself part of the problem. It distracts attention from the fundamental issues of quality and originality and misguides as to how both usefulness and scientific advances are achieved. Sometimes work undertaken mainly out of intellectual curiosity or to solve a theoretical problem may prove practically useful. At least as often, research taking up a practical problem or public issue tests the adequacy of scientific knowledge, challenges commonplace generalizations, and pushes forward the creation of new, fundamental knowledge. Moreover, work engaging important public issues-democracy and the media, a ids and other infectious diseases, immigration and ethnicity- is not necessarily short-term or limited to informing immediate policy decisions. While putting social science to work in “real time” practice is vital, it is also crucial to recognize that none of these issues will go away soon. We won’t learn how to deal with them better in coming decades if we don’t commit ourselves now to both long-term pursuit of deeper knowledge and also systematic efforts to assess and learn from the practical interventions made in the meantime.
3. Problem choice is fundamental. What scientists work on and how they formulate their questions shape the likelihood that they will make significant public-or scientific-contributions. Of course there are and must be research projects driven by intellectual curiosity and by attempts to solve theoretical problems-and these may produce useful, even necessary knowledge for a range of public projects. But it is also true that many academic projects are driven by neither deep intellectual curiosity nor pressing public agendas, but simply by the internal arguments of academic subfields or theoretically aimless attempts at cumulative knowledge that mostly accumulate lines on CVs. To justify these by an ideology of pure science is disingenuous. To let these displace the attention of researchers from major public issues is to act with contempt towards the public that pays the bills. Making the sorts of social science we already produce more accessible is not sufficient; we have to produce better social science. This means more work addressing public issues-and being tested and pushed forward by how well we handle them-and high standards for the originality and importance of projects not tied directly to public issues.
4. A more public social science needs to ask serious questions about the idea of “public” itself. What is “the public?” How are its needs or wants or interests known? How are they formed, and can the processes by which they are formed be improved, made more democratic, more rational, or more creative? Are there in fact a multitude of publics? How do they relate to each other and what does this plurality mean for ideas of the public good? How is public decision-making saved from “tyranny of the majority?” When are markets the best way to achieve broad public access, and when are governmental or philanthropic alternatives most helpful? Can ideas of the public be reclaimed from trivialization by those who see all social issues in terms of an aggregation of private interests? What are the social conditions of a vital, effective public sphere and thus of an important role for social science in informing public culture, debate, and decision-making? Indeed, science itself must be public- findings published and debated, theories criticized. This is how it corrects and improves itself. And social science informs public debate, not only the making of policies behind closed doors. Good science raises the quality of debate, clarifying its factual bases and theoretical terms; it doesn’t just support one side or another.