Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Pressing Issues in the Social Sciences

Last April, Harvard held a conference on that issue with contributions from economists, political scientists, philosophers, and sociologists. You can view videos of all the sessions here, and a summary of the conference results here.

That conference was followed in August by an ambitious, but not yet completed, National Science Foundation (NSF) project to assess  the most important research questions in the social, behavioral and economic sciences over the next decade (see here). The Nature article, discussed below, indicates that the NSF issued a final report on its agenda-setting project last week, but I am unable to find it on the NSF website or from any other source.

The February 2, 2011 issue of Nature includes an article on biggest challenges in the social sciences, with a list of the top-ten problems here. Those problems, in order, are:
1. How can we induce people to look after their health?
2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?
3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?
4. How do we reduce the ‘skill gap’ between black and white people in America?
5. How can we aggregate information possessed by individuals to make the best decisions?
6. How can we understand the human capacity to create and articulate knowledge?
7. Why do so many female workers still earn less than male workers?
8. How and why does the ‘social’ become ‘biological’?
9. How can we be robust against ‘black swans’ — rare events that have extreme consequences?
10. Why do social processes, in particular civil violence, either persist over time or suddenly change?
What strikes me about all this, as a legal scholar, are the myriad legal aspects and implications of many of the research questions. It is about time that (a) legal scholars recognized that they are social scientists (whether they like it or not), and (b) other social scientists recognized that legal scholars have special expertise that bears on several of the issues that are greatest interest to them.

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