Options for Fostering Interdisciplinary
Research and Improving Access to Results
Use of information technology within the workplace, the home, and community and other organizations continues to evolve at a rapid pace. Mainframe computers, desktop personal computers, and, more recently, computers linked by both corporate networks and the Internet all have changed the nature of communication. At least in some segments of society, use of computing and communications technology is rapidly becoming a mass phenomenon. The implications are now topics for consideration in a variety of contexts.
Advances in identification and application of social and economic principles basic to understanding interrelationships between information technology and society are important to those who make public policy as well as to those who design, deploy, and use the technology. Yet to help guide such efforts, there is today relatively little interdisciplinary research, as well as insufficient dialog between the technology and social science communities and insufficient contact between the research and public policy communities. Sociologists collaborate relatively infrequently with economists, much less with computer scientists. As interactions at the June 1997 workshop suggested, however, a collaborative approach to problem solving can lead to a clearer understanding of where technology is moving and what the social impacts may be. Few social scientists, for example, possess the detailed technical knowledge required to build useful data sets from the new kinds of data available from the Internet. But social scientists and computer scientists working collaboratively could develop tools and techniques that would make such data logs available to a wider community of social scientists for use in their research.
Based on discussions at the June 1997 workshop and points in the position papers submitted by its participants, the workshop steering committee identified several options for fostering interdisciplinary research and making the results of such research more accessible to the public and policy makers.
4.1 Encouraging Interdisciplinary
Discussion at the June 1997 workshop indicated that there is a great deal of interest in and value to be gained from pursuing interdisciplinary work. Although some regularly held conferences such as the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference or the Aspen Institute Telecommunications Roundtable are essentially interdisciplinary, workshop participants observed that established means of facilitating working relationships among social and computer scientists are currently lacking. Approaches suggested for encouraging fruitful interactions included interdisciplinary workshops, curricula, and fellowships.
•Interdisciplinary workshops. Participants in the June 1997 workshop remarked on the value of convening researchers from various relevant field to explore interdisciplinary approaches to studying the impacts of computing and communications. Workshops and summer programs in a number of interdisciplinary areas would be useful in fostering increased collaborative work. At a minimum, workshops bringing together investigators previously funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do joint technology/social science work might be convened. Expanding the focus of such workshops to include people from industry who could comment on non-NSF-funded collaborative research could also prove useful. In addition, it is important for funding agencies to be able to recognize good interdisciplinary work and for industry managers and academic principal investigators to be able to understand some of the management challenges involvedopportunities for cross-communication that interdisciplinary workshops can facilitate.
•Interdisciplinary curricula. Workshop participants suggested that serious interdisciplinary work might also be promoted by preparing students directly to engage in it. For example, although computer science curricula already include courses in performance analysis, the systems analyzed are not typically embedded in large-scale social systems, and so joint course development for analysis of the performance of complex systems could produce useful results. This step might be taken initially in the context of postdoctoral training and master's degree programs, given that currently not enough is known to be codified at the textbook level. It was observed that development of interdisciplinary curricula would help to strengthen the interdisciplinary research community as well as raise awareness of interdisciplinary issues in computer science and engineering and social science fields.
•Interdisciplinary fellowships.Also noted by workshop participants was the potential value of having graduate or postgraduate fellowships for social scientists interested in becoming familiar with social and economic aspects of information technology and for computer scientists interested in exploring social issues arising from the use of information technology. Such fellowships would encourage the intellectual cross-fertilization and professional networking crucial to fostering productive research relationships.
4.2 Funding To Strengthen
Arising from the June 1997 workshop activities were a number of suggestions for leveraging funding so as to strengthen cross-disciplinary work in computer and social sciences.
•Evaluation of large technology system research proposals that recognize the value of including an interdisciplinary component. Some workshop participants expressed the view that behavioral, social, legal, and economic implications of the design and deployment of technology should be considered in evaluating proposals for research on large technology systems. Interdisciplinary research has for some time been a significant component of a number of NSF-sponsored computer science research programs, such as the national supercomputing centers. Increasingly, support for interdisciplinary research has come to include a social science component. For example, the second phase of the multiagency-supported Digital Libraries Initiative1 includes a ''human-centered" research component to investigate both the impacts of digital libraries and ways of enhancing the potential uses of such libraries. Part of this component covers research on the long-term social, behavioral, and economic implications and effects of new digital library capabilities.
•Synergistic use of major research programs that build or deploy prototypes of computing and communications systems for use by individuals or organizations. As workshop participants suggested, research programs that field new information technology offer important opportunities to improve understanding of the technology's impacts and to enhance the organizational or social outcomes of the research. Funding that targets investigating the social impact of new technologies has a precedent in the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health set-asides of about 3 to 5 percent of the total research budget of the Human Genome Project to fund research and public education on ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) related to the project. Although computing and communications research is not centered in a single very large research effort like the Human Genome Project, overall advances in computing and communications are, as workshop participants noted, posing societal challenges of a similar magnitude.
•Collaboration with private foundations. In considering ways to strengthen interdisciplinary research, workshop participants observed that government agencies are not the only source of research funding. Private foundations, such as the Kellogg, Markle, Mellon, and Sloan foundations, have become interested in the economic and social impacts of using information technology and have funded some related initiatives. Moreover, important opportunities for collaboration lie at the intersection of basic research questions, which are often addressed by government investment in the development of new scientific and engineering knowledge, and pressing social needs, which the grants and programs of foundations often are designed to address.
•Collaboration with industry. Another suggestion arising from the workshop was that researchers increase their collaboration with industry. Industry research covers such social science-related topics as consumer behaviorincluding who uses computers, how they are used, and related human factors in computer use. Researchers at several major computer companies were asked to estimate the fraction of total research and development spending devoted by their companies to social science research. One researcher separated out social science from other research and development by identifying which units in the research laboratory conducted social science investigations, an approach indicating that about 1 percent of the company's research and development spending was used for social science research. Taking a different approachconducting a rough assessment of social science content across the research and development portfolioresearch managers in two companies estimated spending on social science research there at about 10 percent of the companies' total research budget.
The private sector has funded a number of useful surveys and applied research projects. Several such research programs mentioned in this report are the result of cooperation between private industry and academic researchers. A current example of a major investment in social and economic research, the IBM Institute for Advanced Commerce, was announced in December 1997 and is intended as a research partnership between academia and industry to study electronic commerce and the changing nature of technology, work, and industry structure. The planned partnership, with initial funding of $10 million, stems from IBM's need for more academic research on the Internet's impact on electronic commerce, an area in which IBM is expanding its business (Narisetti, 1997).
As several participants in the workshop indicated, collaboration between industry and academia could benefit both social science researchers and the private sector. For example, industry consortia funding for independent gathering and publishing of basic information and analysis by independent scientists could foster significant advances and ensure fair reporting of results. Pooling of funding through consortia would allow for larger investments than any one corporation might be willing to make on its own. In collaborative projects for development
of technology prototypes, both industry and social scientists might benefit from routine inclusion of performance assessment or evaluation up front.
4.3 Making The Results Of
Research More Accessible
Workshop participants expressed a belief in the need for more effective communication of the results of interdisciplinary social science research on computing and communications issues to both the public and policy makers.
•Availability of an online guide to current, relevant research. It was noted that a perceived disconnect between research results and critical legal and policy decision making is perhaps due in part to the dispersed nature of relevant interdisciplinary research. One suggested approach to improving access to pertinent results was to have an online resource (e.g., a Web page) containing headlines and abstracts of policy-relevant social science research, along with pointers to the print and/or online published results. Such a site could also contain regularly updated literature reviews summarizing the state of the art in various areas, as well as directories of specialists in particular areas. With some effort, such a resource could serve as a medium for communication not only among researchers but also with individuals in the policy and business worlds. The bibliography prepared as part of this report could become part of such a resource. An electronic newsletter providing regular updates on research findings would also be useful.
•Supplemental ways of disseminating research results. Some at the workshop also pointed out that research results need to be presented in ways that are most useful to policy makersin some cases written materials alone may not suffice. Interdisciplinary researchers might seek out and take advantage of opportunities to provide testimony at hearings; professional societies might organize specialized briefings for policy makers.
1. A research program jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Library of Medicine, Library of Congress, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Endowment for the Humanities.