By Jen Gong ’12, thurj Staff
The hallways winding around the third floor of the Center for Government and International Studies’s Knafel building are something you won’t find anywhere else at Harvard. The walls, lined with white boards, can literally be written on. The residents of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences (IQSS) take full advantage of this, and equations and ideas are often jotted down on the walls during long discussions in the hallways. Surrounded by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the Department of Government, and the Center for American Political Studies, the IQSS gives people from all different sectors of the social sciences a place to gather and tackle questions collaboratively.
Professor Gary King, the director and founder of the IQSS, puts it this way: progress in the social sciences used to be largely the result of individual efforts. Now, with the revolution in information technology and the growing resources available, there are incredible amounts of information we can gather that many people will have a use for. “The idea of this place is not only to sit in your office and think great thoughts or prove mathematical theorems, which happens plenty, but you come out into the hallway and you talk to others, and you work on things together, and you write on the walls,” King explains. “It used to be that the way to do social science was to go to the library. Now it’s becoming a team sport.”
Although social science problems have always been important and incredibly difficult, researchers did not have access to the data they needed. As King says, “the exciting thing about this field right now is not only that we have the hardest questions, but we are actually getting the data with which to address them.” Previously, social scientists would only be able to draw data from surveys, which were limited by the available population and funding. The popularity of the Internet, however, has made the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the members of the online community available for analysis. Whereas social scientists used to only be able to study the questions, King explains, “we’re switching to the time where social scientists can actually solve problems.” One of the major roles of the IQSS is pooling resources, including massive collections of servers and open-source software projects, and “providing the infrastructure that makes it possible to take advantage of the data and develop different methods and better theories to deal with it,” according to King.
Many of the problems we might normally categorize as purely medical or biological are also social and behavioral problems. Social scientists, King says, ask the question why people often do not follow advice that would benefit them. In addition to the increased volume of data, research in the social sciences is also gaining momentum because questions in the natural sciences are converging with those of the social sciences. King cites the human genome project as an example: in addition to the data collected about a person’s phenotype and explanatory variables, they also collect other information similar to what social scientists would be interested in. “Those kinds of analyses are very much social science statistical analyses.”
For example, in a paper published in The Lancet in 2009, King and others described the use of statistical methods to measure the effectiveness of a universal health insurance program in Mexico. This program, called Seguro Popular, sought to give 50 million uninsured Mexicans quality health coverage. Since the program would not have been able to distribute health care to all 50 million people at the same time, King and his colleagues convinced the responsible division of the Mexican government to allow them to give it to select randomized communities a year earlier than expected. Because of this, King says, “we got to figure out what the actual effect of the program was. We got to figure out when the program worked, we got to figure out what they could do better, so when the other group got it, they could actually get a better program.”
Addressing statistical questions in the social sciences as the IQSS does thus provides governments and organizations with more information about how effective the programs they fund are, and how to make them better. However, negotiating with groups that may have conflicting short-term interests sometimes poses difficulties—just one of many problems social scientists have to face. For example, in the natural sciences, researchers can often manipulate experiments to help control certain variables and change others. In the social sciences, however, data is often drawn from many different sources in an uncontrolled environment, making it difficult to isolate the variable researchers are interested in. “Social science problems are much harder than others,” King says. “Imagine you were in astronomy and planets, when you looked at them, got embarrassed and hid from you. Or imagine mice could write the rules by which biologists experiment on them. That’s our problem.”
Matt Blackwell, a fifth year graduate student in government and an affiliate of the IQSS, works with King on some of these problems: missing data and measurement error. He also runs the interdisciplinary workshop IQSS offers for social scientists interested in applications of statistics and contributes frequently to the online blog. The workshop, as King describes it, is about bringing together people from entirely different fields who have similar statistical questions to answer: “So we’ll have an epidemiologist one day, and a biologist the next day, and a political scientist the next day…We learn about things that are going on in other fields that we would never think would relevant, but turn out to be.” This range of interests is also apparent in the composition of the Institute. “It’s a pretty diverse group of people that end up hanging around,” Blackwell comments.
Blackwell’s interest in the field came from taking a statistics class for political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, as an undergraduate. His interest led him to ask his professor, one of King’s former students, if there was any work he could help with, which eventually led him to the Institute and Harvard. That kind of experience is what leads Professor King to emphasize the importance of undergraduates “getting a seat at the table.” The Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences seeks to give undergraduates that opportunity, to give them the chance to be able to work with professors and contribute to the “Eureka!” moment. “You should experience the thrill of a discovery,” King says. “Every undergraduate should get that opportunity.”