How Biden Can Make America More Scientific

The case for a presidential social science council.

Executive decision making is more rational, effective, and caring when informed by social science. Unfortunately, we have had to endure four years of an administration that challenges the validity of science, and the result is a country with the world’s highest COVID-19 infection rate, rising concerns about systemic racism, and widespread fears of facing a new year without a job or a safety net.

Luckily, the Biden-Harris administration has signaled that it wants to make America scientific again. President Joe Biden recently appointed Eric Lander, a principal of the Human Genome Project, to the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Better yet, he has elevated the post to Cabinet level. Having a scientist in the Cabinet shows that the new administration is serious about evidence-based policy. That’s great news, but now is the time for bold action. To make science matter again, the president should create a new Council of Social Science Advisors to institutionalize the insights of broad, policy-based social science at the highest level of the executive branch.

We need empirical research in debates about how to solve today’s most pressing challenges, from pandemic-related public health challenges to the economic crises that will persist long after we are vaccinated. Evidence-based research is also necessary to make progress on immigration reform, reduce food insecurity, curtail police violence, and address systemic racism. And we need solid research-based policy solutions for the gender-based inequities caused by homeschooling, remote work, and unemployment.

President Biden has emphasized the importance of using social science to craft effective policy and has nominated highly respected economists to the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA). Created by Congress in 1946 in response to post-war fears that the Great Depression could return, the CEA has long been an essential mechanism for incorporating objective scientific advice on decisions at the highest level. The council institutionalized economic data gathering and analysis to mute ideology in decisions about the welfare of Americans. This made economic research and theory a permanent part of the economic policy discussion.

In the middle of the 20th Century, social science held a similar position in our government. The political scientist Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962) was hailed as a seminal work that called attention to those who had not benefited from the growth in the economy in post-war America. He particularly described the plight of African Americans and convincingly used evidence to show their disadvantage was due to discrimination. Harrington’s research is credited with influencing President Lyndon Johnson to move forward with the War on Poverty. Another social scientist, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is credited for implementing these policies.

But since the mid-twentieth Century, the influence of general social science has withered. It is time to reverse that trend. The Biden-Harris administration needs to bring diverse social science perspectives, insights, and evidence-based conclusions to the table.

The appointment of Dr. Alondra Nelson, a sociologist, as deputy director for science and society indicates that the new administration will value social sciences beyond economics. But a new Council of Social Science Advisors could take this one step further, advising our leaders and, when appropriate, producing science-based analyses that help make informed policy decisions.

While economists provide expertise on markets, America cannot rely exclusively on the market to remedy every problem. Solving social problems also requires expertise in civil society, social networks, demographic inequalities, gender inequality, and cultural patterns.

President Biden has made it clear that racial equity will be one of the primary focuses of his administration, and social scientific analyses are vital for providing the evidence to introduce effective social policy in this realm. Take, for example, the 2018 ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court to abolish the death penalty in the state. This major policy decision can be traced directly to the research of Professor Katherine Beckett at the University of Washington. Dr. Beckett co-authored a report with sociologist Heather Evans that conclusively showed how juries imposed the death sentence four times more often if the defendant was Black. The state court then declared the death penalty unconstitutional because it was racially biased, citing the social science evidence as a key reason for their decision. It seems time for our leaders in Washington to also take note of the social science evidence that executions are racially biased and abolish the death penalty once and for all.

President Biden faces an intense crisis. Solving these societal problems requires an understanding of the many dimensions of people’s lives, in addition to the financial ones. Many of our social problems are not merely economic but involve racial discrimination in workplaces, neighborhoods, and the criminal justice system. Policymakers also need research on how to best encourage people to follow public health recommendations and how to reduce violence in our cities among many other issues.

It is foolish to ignore scientific expertise and rely primarily on partisan strategists’ views and vested interests. Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, historians, criminologists, and political scientists can help us build strong communities and neighborhoods.

Many other advanced industrial economies do a better job of including diverse social-scientific expertise in policymaking. The European Union, for example, has included social sciences in the European Research Council (ERC) since the beginning of this century. The United States produces some of the best social scientists in the world. It is time, and our responsibility, to bring that expertise to the policy table.

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Barbara J. Risman

Barbara J. Risman is a College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is Editor of the journal Gender & Society and Co-Chair of the Chicagoland chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network.