National Research Council Highlights Behavioral and Social Sciences in Action

September 28, 2012

by Chris Cameron

The National Research Council’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE) of The National Academies held a symposium, Social and Behavioral Sciences in Action, on September 24, 2012, with a focus on national security, medicine, and engineering.

The Presidents of The National Academies, Ralph J. Cicerone (President of the National Academy of Sciences and Chair of the National Research Council), Harvey V. Fineberg (President of the Institute of Medicine), and Charles M. Vest (President of the National Academy of Engineering) addressed attendees and added their support to this new DBASSE initiative. 

Dr. Rita Colwell, former Director of the National Science Foundation and an active researcher, delivered the keynote address. Colwell illustrated the value of social and behavioral scientists in the battle against cholera in Bangladesh. Colwell stated that because cholera cannot be eradicated in the environment, the answer to preventing its devastation rests in water filtration and changing human behavior. 

Armed with the laboratory science results showing that adequate filtration can decrease and prevent the spread of cholera, the research team evaluated, in the real world, the effectiveness of a commonly available "filter," a multi-folded sari cloth. Social and behavioral scientists provided everything from the cultural understanding necessary to design and implement the intervention to the methodology of collecting survey data, said Colwell. 

The team found that by using local women as extension agents to teach others about filtering water with sari cloth, the incidence of cholera decreased significantly; the behavior was sustainable 5 years later; and the practice had spread beyond the study participants to other villages. 

In another session, Dr. Lucian Leape of Harvard University’s Department of Health Policy and Management, spoke of the multiple challenges of access, cost and quality in the medical system, stating that while the last great advance in medicine was to make medicine effective, the next advance should make medicine more humane. 

In Leape’s view, the solutions to the problems of the modern medical system lie largely in the hands of social and behavioral scientists: How do we shift from a culture of individuality to a culture of team performance, which has been shown to reduce infection? How do we improve relationships between medical professionals and patients and among medical professionals within organizations? How do we create institutions that teach and foster the culture of respect and collaboration that improves outcomes? These are not medical, but social and behavioral questions, he added. 

Dr. Robert A. Fein with The Metis Group and Harvard University’s Department of Psychiatry described the value of social and behavioral science in national security with a focus on assassination, interrogation, and school shootings. Though unable to find "profiles" of assassins or school shooters, scientists have discovered that school shooters were rarely sudden and impulsive, told other kids of their plans (but the other kids didn't tell adults), did not threaten their targets, felt bullied or humiliated themselves, had come to adult attention for other problems, and had access to weapons. 

Dr. Mary Cummings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and moderator for the session told the audience that bystanders/witnesses are key to improving safety in medical settings and preventing military accidents. Social and behavioral scientists face the challenge of empowering bystanders and developing non-punitive institutional responses that encourage reporting. 

Dr. John D. Lee of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed distracted driving and the evolving human/technology relationship, noting that traffic deaths and polio were declared epidemic at nearly the same time, yet polio has been eradicated, while traffic safety continues to be a challenge.  This technology/human interaction conundrum belongs largely to social and behavioral scientists because neither passive safety devices nor education alone are enough.

A number of themes from the symposium emerged. First, much fundamental research relies on social and behavioral science for effective translation and implementation. Second, because our external environment is developing so rapidly, social and behavioral scientists are critical to understanding and navigating the relationship between people and technologies. Third, systemic changes in organizations like hospitals and schools that result in safer, healthier environments will likely occur due to the interventions of social and behavioral scientists. Finally, science cannot be divided into silos; interdisciplinary projects have better outcomes when the necessary expertise drawn from multiple fields is fully integrated. Social and behavioral sciences are, and will continue to be, an integral part of the greater scientific community and our understanding of people and the world.

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