Historian of science James Andrews reflects on key moments in the twentieth century in which authoritarian regimes and, at times, democratic ones, have significantly interfered in the enterprise of scientific research. Taking examples from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, Andrews examines how distortions to the process of peer review and other interventions constitute “warning signs” that portend limits to the autonomy and progress of science that may have resonance today.
In a new response to Kenneth Prewitt’s "Can Social Science Matter?," Cora Marrett traces the relationship between the autonomy and accountability of research through the history of the US National Science Foundation (NSF). Marrett, who has served several times in leadership roles at the NSF, puts current pressures for accountability in the historical context of increasing public support for research. While an emphasis on “pure” science was more pronounced in NSF’s early days, expectations for accountability that research would serve “the national interest” were also part of NSF’s origins. Marrett recommends that attention be paid to the multiple meanings and uses of accountability deployed by both scientists and government actors over time.
Richard Shweder digs deeper into Kenneth Prewitt’s call for justifying scholarly autonomy based on the USBAR principle—Unintended Social Benefits Appreciated Retroactively. Shweder compares the USBAR rationale to principles that underlie a vision of the university as a “temple for critical reasoning” which is neither directly nor indirectly in the service of broader moral, political, or practical ends.
In the latest response to “Can Social Science Matter?,” Ron Haskins argues that social science should tackle heightened demands for accountability by not overpromising on impact while also trumpeting existing work that simultaneously deepens social understanding and contributes to addressing public problems. Haskins highlights two relatively recent and influential approaches that have demonstrated the capacity to bridge the purposes of “basic” and “applied” research—the mining of large scale administrative data and the use of randomized controlled trials to test the effectiveness of a range of social programs.
In his response to Kenneth Prewitt’s “Can Social Science Matter?” Michael Feuer discusses rationales for accountability systems for social science and problems of implementing them, especially through the use of (sometimes dubious) metrics in a highly-politicized climate for science funding. Improved accountability for science requires, according to Feuer, a scientific approach to the study of accountability.
In her response to “Can Social Science Matter?,” danah boyd encourages deeper reflection among social scientists in order to address heightened expectations for the accountability of research. She argues that accountability is not simply about the quality or impact of answers to research questions, but is instead inherently tied to the choice of questions that social scientists seek to address. Asking the right questions, boyd contends, “requires being deeply embedded within the social world that we seek to understand.”
Wolfgang Rohe’s response to Prewitt’s “Can Social Science Matter?” affirms that the current moment for social science research is one in which society demands less autonomy and more accountability for knowledge production. Rohe concurs with Prewitt’s account of how this shift happened, and adds that the sheer scale of the research enterprise, and genuine concerns with research quality, are further components of new pressures on scholarship. Rohe concludes that social scientists must both maintain (and improve upon) the process for peer judgments of quality while using their tools as social scientists to develop criteria for evaluating the broader social influence and use of their research.
In her response to Kenneth Prewitt’s piece "Can Social Science Matter?,” Lisa Anderson traces the historical relationship of social science to the modern state. As the state’s role in promoting the well-being of citizens becomes increasingly challenged, to what, or to whom, social science is now accountable similarly grows ambiguous, even as calls for its accountability grow.
Thomas Schwandt takes up Kenneth Prewitt’s framework of narratives, metrics, and use for addressing accountability issues for the social sciences. Schwandt argues that accountability needs to be imagined within a “dialogical space” that joins social scientists with policymakers, funders, and the public in an exchange about the values and purposes of research, rather than a one-way flow of communication from knowledge producer to user.
Kenneth Prewitt, former SSRC president, traces the history of the debates on the accountability of American social science to those who fund and use it. As demands for accountability are currently on the rise, and as expectations for its demonstration grow, Prewitt outlines key dimensions of a strategy for maintaining the autonomy of social science research and using the insights of social science to better understand its own impact.