Applying the Social and Behavioral Sciences to Policy and Practice: In Areas Ranging from Health Care to National Security, Understanding the Human Dimension Is Essential to Achieving National Goals

By Prewitt, Kenneth; Hauser, Robert | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Applying the Social and Behavioral Sciences to Policy and Practice: In Areas Ranging from Health Care to National Security, Understanding the Human Dimension Is Essential to Achieving National Goals


Prewitt, Kenneth, Hauser, Robert, Issues in Science and Technology


Smart electric meters and the smart grid are innovations in the delivery of electrical services to homes and businesses that can, in principle, permit both consumers and suppliers to save energy, exercise greater control over the uses of energy, and in some cases feed locally generated electricity back into the grid. Europe is adopting this technology, which can play a vital role in achieving environmental goals. In the United States, however, there is resistance prompted by understandable concerns about data privacy and physical security as well as fears about health effects of wireless telecommunication. Behavioral research has helped overcome this resistance through new methods of data collection and distribution that protect individual privacy while preserving the energy-saving and informational value of smart metering.

Helping people and their technologies work well together is only one of many ways in which behavioral and social sciences contribute to national well-being. Researchers in these sciences have contributed to public policies in areas ranging from defense and national security to health care and education. However, these contributions are not always apparent to the broader science community and the public or in policy settings.

This lack of visibility risks underutilizing the nation's scientific capabilities as new challenges emerge. For example, as the elderly grow in their proportion of the population--a demographic trajectory we can foresee from surveys designed by social scientists--there will be demand for changes in work arrangements, retirement systems, and health care services, as well as in the design of transportation systems, homes, and neighborhoods. Effective, efficient, and satisfying accommodations to these changes can benefit from the application of the tools of social and behavioral science.

There are also many examples of contributions where the social and behavioral sciences intersect with the physical sciences and engineering. When there is a bridge to be built, we turn to engineers; when there is a vaccine needed, we turn to biochemists. But in determining the relative efficiency of paying for the bridge with a toll or a tax, we turn to economists; and in understanding public acceptance of the vaccine, we turn to social psychologists and public health experts. Society has many challenges that require attention by engineering and the physical and biological sciences, a large number of which also have a human and social dimension.

In recognition of the role of sciences that investigate these dimensions, the National Research Council has launched a new initiative, Social and Behavioral Sciences in Action (SBSIA). This initiative presents key contributions that the social and behavioral sciences have made to policy and society; it will also highlight emerging areas requiring fresh attention. This article, which draws from presentations at the first SBSIA symposium in September 2012, provides details about past successes and future challenges.

Better health care

One of the most socially beneficial but often unnoticed roles the social and behavioral sciences play is facilitating health care research and practice. For example, demographers and other social scientists were instrumental in developing and introducing modern family planning methods and practices around the globe; for example, by illuminating the key role social networks play in people's decisions to use contraception. Dartmouth's Atlas of Health Care has collected, analyzed, and publicized geographic variations in health care expenditures in the United States. Atlas researchers found that the rate of hip replacements was four times higher in some U.S. regions than in others and that the rate of shoulder replacements was 10 times higher in some regions. Such data helped policymakers and health care leaders identify opportunities to reduce health care spending while improving the quality of care. …

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