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.
Peter Taylor reflects on the directions in which social science has moved in the twenty years since the issuing of the Gulbenkian Commission’s report, Open the Social Sciences. While a strong case was made for interdisciplinarity in that report, Taylor, a member of the commission, highlights a different trend: the development of “corporate” social science. While not opposed to interdisciplinary work, this form of social science, argues Taylor, has established a well-resourced world of institutions and processes for the validation and dissemination of social knowledge parallel to universities and shapes social science in ways that serve private agendas rather than public goals or critical perspectives.
The relaunch of Items generates reflection. It arrives at a time of anxiety and intolerance, demagoguery and fear. How, we might ask, should heightened uncertainty shape and orient our craft?
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.