NSF announces $21.7 million for 37 projects to study human and social dynamics

09/30/04

Arlington, Va.--The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded grants totaling $21.7 million to address complex, interdisciplinary issues in the foundation's newest priority area, human and social dynamics. Studies will cover a wide range of topics, for example, using neural data to understand why different people make different strategic choices, deciphering the relationships between genetic and cultural change, exploring the causes and consequences of urban expansion and the effects of local policies on expansion, and identifying how people develop ways to manage common resources.

"These awards are highly interdisciplinary, taking an integrated view that will build fundamental knowledge about human behavior," commented Rachelle Hollander, who co-manages the program in NSF's directorate for social, behavioral, and economic sciences. Priscilla Nelson of the directorate for engineering, who co-manages the program, agreed, adding, "The overwhelming response from the research community to this competition demonstrates the excitement that scientists feel about working on important human problems in interdisciplinary teams."

NSF designated human and social dynamics a Foundation-wide priority area because of its potential to promote breakthroughs in knowledge about crucial issues that the social, behavioral, and economic sciences can address in cooperation with other sciences and engineering. Human and social dynamics is one of five such priority areas at NSF.

One project, led by Steven Ruggles, University of Minnesota, will integrate census microdata from 150 censuses over 40 years and 44 countries 500 million records representing population data covering an era of unprecedented world change. The project will reduce barriers to international research and education by preserving datasets and making them freely available, converting them into a uniform format, providing comprehensive documentation, and implementing web-based tools for disseminating the microdata and documentation. These data underpin new research and policy analysis on global, transformational changes, such as economic development, urbanization, mass migration, fertility transition, aging populations, mass education, democratization, and growing international trade and capital flows.

Francis Quek, of Virginia Polytechnic and State University, will lead a team of electrical engineers, psychologists and educators to study the communication process involved in teaching and learning math concepts. In speaking, people use not just words but also gestures, facial expression, posture and other "embodied" behaviors. The research team posits that one reason blind students lag sighted students in math is that they cannot see this embodied behavior. Project experiments will link learning with how visual information is conveyed. Results from this research bear directly on the design of future distance learning systems and Internet-based instruction.

Another project, led by John Padgett at the University of Chicago, focuses on modeling organizational innovation in Renaissance Florence via social networks. The researchers have a rich database covering 200 years social, economic, and political networks and will use random graphs, dynamic network modeling, and agent-based modeling. The researchers anticipate methodological advances from using three connected approaches, as well as new understanding of organizational innovation that can be applied to newly emerging industrial districts.

Baruch Fischhoff, at Carnegie Mellon University, and a team of psychologists, microbiologists, economists, decision scientists, risk communicators and engineers will develop and apply formal integrated assessment methods to three different risk domains: radiological emergencies, adolescents' safety and violence, and animal vectors spreading disease to humans. The project will emphasize "behavioral realism" that is, in order to be trustworthy guides, models must reflect current science, capture expert judgment and pass the test of being useful in case studies.

A final example is the project on vulnerability led by Susan Cutter at the University of South Carolina Research Foundation, along with John Wilson at the University of Southern California. The interdisciplinary research team will use spatial social science methods to examine the role of inequality in people's vulnerability to environmental threats from various types of hazards. Using Los Angeles and Charleston, S.C., as testbeds, scientists will develop new methods and models to measure differential susceptibilities to risks and hazards and how this has changed over time in different places.

Even as these awards were made, human and social dynamics managers at NSF are preparing for a new competition. "The bar has been set at a high level with these awards," said Hollander, "and we expect great results out of these awards and from the next competition."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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