The Value of Social Science Research

The Center for Political Studies marked its 50th anniversary with a virtual celebration on October 29, 2020. The event featured a talk by Arthur Lupia titled “Now More Than Ever: The Increasing Public Value of Social Science Research.” The event began with a brief video of alumni and faculty who shared their reflections on what the center has meant to them; click here to view the video. A recording of the full event is available below.

Lupia bagan by reviewing the enduring contributions of Warren Miller, who had a hand in founding the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) in 1962, the Center for Political Studies (CPS) in 1970, and the American National Election Study (ANES) in 1977. These contributions to electoral and political behavior have built essential infrastructure and shaped the direction of research in the field. At the same time, CPS has also been devoted to research on international relations, violence, media and politics, institutional effects on policies and individual behavior, political development, and public knowledge and public information.

Lupia acknowledged that we’re currently facing historic challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and resulting changes to education have all revealed injustices and inequalities inherent in our systems. 

At the same time, there are incredible opportunities to improve quality of life, particularly for vulnerable populations. In particular, Lupia focused on social scientists as having opportunities to solve problems and improve life for others. Social scientists produce groundbreaking research, create fundamental data and analytic infrastructure, and provide essential training. 

The effectiveness of this approach relies on several core principles. Research must be rigorous and provide an explanation of how we know what we know. Research must be ethical, coming from a genuine concern for solving real problems. Social scientists must be precise in measurement and conceptualization, because conducting science with greater precision creates outcomes that are more actionable, more useful, and more tied to quality of life. Finally, social scientists must strive to demonstrate causality. Compared to other sciences, Lupia said, social scientists are good at this and getting better. 

These principles guide social scientists to do amazing things, Lupia said, but there’s also a challenge. Many people think they already know how things work. Why should they trust social scientists? Why should they pay them? In order to maintain the relevancy of research, social scientists must adapt by becoming more transparent, communicating better, and engaging better with the communities they serve. 

Every day provides a new opportunity for social scientists to conduct credible and legitimate research that empowers people and improves quality of life, Lupia concluded. The rigorous work of social scientists is a way of serving others and providing great value to the public.