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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine


by ~ November 17, 2008.
Permalink | Filed under: 21st Century Risk, Collaboration and Sensemaking, Hybrid Vigor, Policy and Decisions.

My next column in Strategy+Business (coming out in Winter 2009) will be about the need to rewrite our innovation policies from scratch. I strongly believe that we need to move beyond simplistic “greasing of the wheels” for corporations via tax credits and patent reform, and look more closely at how to create a whole new ecosystem in which innovation — and particularly, scientific and technological innovation — can flourish to everyone’s benefit.

In that regard, Barack Obama’s call for a return to scientific integrity is cause for tremendous hope for those who have spent eight long years battling the anti-science, anti-innovation era of the outgoing administration.

The very first item on the Obama campaign’s science fact sheet, which was published in September 2008, states that Obama’s science-friendly science policy will ensure that “decisions that can be informed by science are made on the basis of the strongest possible evidence.”

It goes on to say that the Obama administration will (among many other things):

  • Appoint individuals with strong science and technology backgrounds to key positions;
  • Take advantage of the work of the National Academies to identify the federal government positions that require a strong science and technology background;
  • Ensure independent, non-ideological, expert science and technology advisory committees; and (last but certainly not least from Hybrid Vigor’s perspective);
  • Actively encourage multidisciplinary research and education, noting that “innovation often arises from combining the tools, techniques, and insights from researchers in different fields.”

Yes! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! That last one even takes a page straight out of Hybrid Vigor’s mission statement.

But … I’m concerned that social scientists are not specifically mentioned anywhere in the policy fact sheet, either in spirit or in fact, not even in the last item. This is a serious omission as well as risky one, and unfortunately it is all too common in discussions of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or cross-disciplinary research.

Social scientists can — and should — provide a critical bridge between innovation and the people that the products of innovation purport to serve. They can help policy makers think about the social and cultural context for research priorities and decisions in a way that technologists cannot, making sure that the “strongest possible evidence” that scientists provide is also the evidence that is most relevant to the decision at hand.

As consumers become more concerned about the contemporary, industrialized food chain, for example, some economists have made the case that social scientists need to be intimately involved with both technological development and technology policy. That way, they will be able to help both companies and governments understand what consumers will require from a sustainable food chain, both in terms of both transparency about the basic science behind food innovations and the choices that they will demand.

Similarly, social science also informs decision makers how to communicate most effectively during pandemics, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.  As one group said during Congressional testimony, “While new tools and technologies have improved the prediction of many natural hazards, complete preparedness and response also requires an understanding of human behavior, particularly in emergency situations. This is the domain of the social sciences.”

Not doing so has, at least on one notable occasion (I’m sure there are many others), led to unnecessary disaster. It was social science researchers that explained, in forensic analyses after the Three Mile Island meltdown, why nuclear power plant engineers needed to include human factors in both their designs and their risk analyses — something which the engineers failed to do until it was too late.

But this position has been rejected by biologists, physicists, engineers and the like — practitioners of the “hard” sciences of the laboratory and the work bench. They see the research and the data of social scientists as inferior and, as a result, the two camps of science have long since been at war.

Some scholars believe that the schism is artificial, and their arguments make a lot of sense to me. One of them, Bent Vlyvbjerg at Aalborg University, has developed a concept of social science based on Aristotle’s concept of phronesis. In an excerpt from his book “Making Social Science Matter,” Flyvbjerg writes,

In Aristotle’s words, phronesis … goes beyond both analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) and technical knowledge or know-how (techne) and involves judgments and decisions made in the manner of a virtuoso social and political actor. … [In this role], the social sciences are strongest where the natural sciences are weakest: Just as the social sciences have not contributed much to explanatory and predictive theory, neither have the natural sciences contributed to the reflexive analysis and discussion of values and interests, which is the prerequisite for an enlightened political, economic, and cultural development in any society.

I don’t entirely agree; I think social science has contributed quite a lot to explanatory and predictive theory — maybe not about the workings of matter, but certainly about how groups (including scientists) think and how they will act, and how those behaviors affect outcomes (including scientific outcomes). Nevertheless, I think he is on the right track.

From what I’ve heard so far, I can’t imagine that the Obama administration is striving for anything less than “enlightened political, economic and cultural development” in these difficult times. So I hope that President Obama and his new team, whoever they are, won’t let old, outmoded and short-sighted prejudices stop them from doing what promises the best results — for innovation, for industry, for the country, and for the rest of the world …

Bring on the social scientists!


  1. The Hybrid Vigor Institute | hybridvigor.net

    […] But in the aftermath of market disaster lies an opportunity to develop a more appropriate model for the market for the next century. This new market system won’t be a production of the actuarial-economist mind as much as of the social-scientific community. But before we build anew, let’s take a moment to reflect on some of problems last year’s reasoning. […]

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