Q & A with Arthur Lupia, NSF Assistant Director, on Challenges and Directions for SBE

October 30, 2018

Just after Labor Day, Arthur (Skip) Lupia, joined the National Science Foundation (NSF) as an Assistant Director and Director for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences Directorate. We asked him about the challenges the Directorate has faced and his vision for SBE.

  1. What are your priorities for the SBE Directorate in the upcoming year? 

Thank you for asking. In many ways, it has never been a better time to be a social and behavioral scientist. When you consider the range of data that we are collecting, the increasing diversity of our scholars and methods, and the increasing influence of our work in so many facets of life, the public value is incredible. At the same time, we live in an era where the validity and value of science and other forms of expertise are increasingly questioned.

With this moment in mind, our priority is to find every opportunity to increase the public value of basic research in the SBE sciences. These opportunities include communicating existing findings more effectively. They also include using and developing research methods that are best suited to producing transformative findings.

Moreover, since NSF’s mission is “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense; and for other purposes,” we have an obligation to engage societal stakeholders to make sure that our work rigorously and effectively aligns with this mission.

  1. In your opinion, what are the main challenges in communicating the value of SBE-supported research to federal policymakers?

The main challenge is that very few of us were trained to communicate effectively. Instead, we were trained in academic advancement ecosystems where publishing in academic journals and obtaining external grant support are high value goals. Achieving these goals requires a particular skill set. When it comes to communication, one particularly valuable skill is learning the technical language that allows us to learn from and produce precise, innovative, and groundbreaking work. Very few of us were taught or encouraged to communicate with broader audiences. In some disciplines, moreover, seeking broader audiences was looked down upon or labelled as “selling out.” So, until recently, there were few incentives for scientists to communicate effectively with non-specialists.

For scientists who want to communicate more broadly, the next challenge is to think about the kinds of information that your audiences can hear. Even in the most favorable communicative circumstances, attention is hard to get.

Policymakers have special needs. Nearly all of the policymakers I have met are incredibly hardworking people who are seeking to improve quality of life for others. They are very busy. So, the key to communicating effectively is to think about the kinds of information that will help them with their jobs. If you offer information that they can use quickly and share with others, they are more likely to want more content and contact.

  1. What, if any, steps can scientists take to help increase understanding of the value of federal funding for SBE and NSF?

It is critically important for us to tell the story of federal funding in ways that connect with the core concerns of the audience in front of us. So, while NSF funds basic research, the communicative bridges that we need to build start somewhere else — often with iconic humanscale narratives about basic research that produces transformative innovations. We need this strategy because many people are not inherently interested in basic research. When we convey memorable stories about how this research has improved their quality of life, previously uninterested audiences have new bases for building new memories that will help them remember our value.

This is not to say that all scientists need to do this. We desperately need the specialists, the precision, the abstractions, the complexity, and the very large intellectual risks that are the hallmarks of transformative science. At the same time, if none of us tell our story well, then someone else in the pop culture/breaking news universe will tell it for us – and we are probably not going to like their version of our story quite so much.

  1. What are some emerging trends and/or priorities at NSF that you see as an opportunity for SBE-supported sciences to play an important role in?

At NSF, we are always looking for new ways to advance the mission. Right now, a big focus is NSF’s “Ten Big Ideas.” The Big Ideas reveal strategic focuses that can help science improve human health, security, prosperity, and understanding. Many of the big ideas are interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary. SBE scientists might be particularly interested in Big Ideas such as “Future of Work” and “Harnessing the Data Revolution.” People who are interested in creating novel interdisciplinary approaches to important problems can participate in “Growing Convergent Research” and SBE scholars interested in broadening participation can participate in “NSF Includes.”

I believe that SBE research is of great value to the nation. I also believe that the best is yet to come. We can only fund great research proposals if we receive them. If you know scholars who are unsure about how to approach NSF, have them contact one of our Program Officers. These folks are really dedicated and can offer valuable advice that can help scholars turn potentially interesting ideas into transformative discoveries.

FABBS, thank you for asking me these questions, and thank you for all that you do for science.

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