The much-touted concept of “interdisciplinary collaboration” was more than a concept last week at the Eric M. Mindich Conference on Experimental Social Science. Titled “Action Research in Psychology and Economics,” the conference – held at the Harvard Law School on Friday and Saturday (March 4 and 5) – was the first major event to be sponsored by Harvard’s new Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Developed by Harvard Professor of Economics Sendhil Mullainathan and psychology professor Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, the conference demonstrated how methods from psychology and economics can combine to achieve common research goals. “Social psychologists and economists approach research from a different angle but they often have a common agenda,” said Wilson in his opening remarks. “For instance, social psychologists are strong on experimental methods and theory but slower in applying their knowledge in the real world. Economists, on the other hand, are out there in the real world doing applied projects of tremendous importance. We felt there was a natural marriage there. And by talking about common interests, perhaps we can further progress in both fields.”
Tools that travel
Previously known as the Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences (CBRSS, pronounced seabreeze), the Institute for Quantitative Social Science was launched on March 1 to create and circulate statistical and analytical tools for the social and health sciences. Social scientists from across Harvard are often at work on projects that can’t be readily accomplished through any single department, explains institute director Gary King, the David Florence Professor of Government. “You solve a problem in one field and the solution also works for unrelated problems in different fields,” he explains. “Our goal is to support this type of research and provide infrastructure.”
King, together with fellow government Professors Jim Alt and Ken Shepsle, co-founded CBRSS in 1998.
The center, housed in a comfortable, 18th century Victorian on Kirkland Street, went on to become an essential resource for quantitative social scientists. The upgrade to institute status reaffirms Harvard’s commitment to their efforts. Along with the name change has come a shift in structure. The institute’s organization is threefold: Scientific programs that unite investigators working in related areas; technology platforms that provide infrastracture to support research; and educational opportunities for Harvard students and postdocs.