Interdisciplinary Institute for Social Sciences to Tap New Potential of Researchers at UC Davis

The Institute for Social Sciences at UC Davis will promote interdisciplinary research in the social sciences to address challenges within in our rapidly changing society.

The institute (ISS) has a wide-ranging agenda that includes stimulating research collaborations on issues that are difficult to address within individual disciplines, training the next generation of scholars and delivering vital information to policy makers in the state and nation. The institute, launched in October, will also host a variety of events throughout the year that focus on critical societal challenges and bring international leaders to campus.

“Providing support for new collaborations will help social scientists address emerging problems that don’t have ready approaches,” said Joseph Dumit, the institute’s founding director. “The range of challenges facing our society has never been greater, and the institute will help UC Davis brings together its resources to solve these problems.”

Dumit is a professor of anthropology and science and technology studies at UC Davis. He was the founding director of the university’s Science & Technology Studies (STS) Program, which he led for nine years. He also co-founded the university’s Humanities Innovation Lab.

“ISS will enhance all aspects of the UC Davis academic mission,” said George R. Mangun, dean of the Division of Social Sciences. “It will support the campus as it delivers innovative solutions to pressing problems, be it how poverty affects child development or how to prevent bullying in schools, to questions about the economics of natural resources and how to help policy makers improve decision making.”

Social scientists are uniquely equipped to inform the work of scholars across the spectrum, from biomedical sciences to engineering, and from law to veterinary medicine, said Dumit. Part of the challenge for all fields is the explosion in new data. New sources of data include Twitter, which generates half a billion new public statements every day, and neuroscience imaging techniques that produce more information than ever on the human brain.

“Social scientists use data to learn empirically about the forces shaping our practices, our interactions, our knowledge and our decisions,” said Dumit. “We need new, interdisciplinary approaches to make the most of these types of data, since today’s concrete problems don’t respect disciplinary lines.”

Dumit’s own research examines how science and medicine change the lives of consumers, patients, doctors and scientists as the nature of facts and evidence also changes. He was on faculty in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s program in Science, Technology and Society, before joining UC Davis in 2005.

“As a long-time supporter of the social sciences at UC Davis, I am excited to see such an innovative institute take root on campus,” said Renée Child, a UC Davis alumna in psychology and German, who has been active as a member of the College of Letters & Science Deans’ Advisory Council. She and her husband Mike Child founded the Child Family Fund, which provides seed funding for new research at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain.

She added, “I have seen the impact seed funding can have on innovative new approaches to research. This institute will truly propel work on important questions about who we are as a society for today and tomorrow.”

In its first year, ISS will provide direct support to social sciences faculty and graduate students, with a focus on interdisciplinary research. These programs include research seed funding, graduate seminars, student programs and campus event co-sponsorships.

ISS will also expand the Social Science Data Service (SSDS) on campus. SSDS acquires and curates raw data on society, including tax records, international trade statistics and educational outcomes. This data is used by social scientists to understand what is and is not working in our society, and to propose actionable solutions.

A major launch conference is scheduled for April 23-24, 2015, with the subject and speakers to be announced. Smaller events to begin in October include “ISS Noon Lectures,” a series that was previously hosted by the Institute for Governmental Affairs, as well as other colloquia and lectures ISS will co-sponsor.

One of the institute’s feature events will be the Sheffrin Lecture on Public Policy, which since 2010 has brought top scholars to campus to present their work on major issues in our society. Last year’s presenter was Harvard economist and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant Sendhil Mullainathan.

As part of the ISS mission to broaden understanding of the social sciences, the institute’s website will feature UC Davis research written for general audiences, and white papers containing information from current research that is important for policy makers in Sacramento and Washington.

ISS was founded in 2014 with financial support provided by the UC Davis campus and the Division of Social Sciences to recognize the critical role of social science research to the university’s service to society.

About the Institute for Social Sciences

The Institute for Social Sciences (ISS) stimulates collaborative research projects between UC Davis social scientists campus-wide that ask new questions or work on questions that had previously been unanswerable. As an incubator of new ideas, ISS supports work that reaches across culture, class, social norms, politics, mobility, economics, values, technology, language, communication and history. ISS was founded in 2014 with financial support provided by the UC Davis campus and the Division of Social Sciences to recognize the critical role of social science research to the university’s service to society.

About UC Davis

UC Davis is a global community of individuals united to better humanity and our natural world while seeking solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. Located near the California state capital, UC Davis has more than 34,000 students, and the full-time equivalent of 4,100 faculty and other academics and 17,400 staff. The campus has an annual research budget of over $750 million, a comprehensive health system and about two dozen specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and 99 undergraduate majors in four colleges and six professional schools.