Episode 21: To Solve Societal Problems, Unite the Humanities With Science

How can music composition help students learn how to code? How can creative writing help medical practitioners improve care for their patients? Science and engineering have long been siloed from the humanities, arts, and social sciences, but uniting these disciplines could help leaders better understand and address problems like educational disparities, socioeconomic inequity, and decreasing national wellbeing. 

On this episode, host Josh Trapani speaks to Kaye Husbands Fealing, dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech, about her efforts to integrate humanities and social sciences with science and engineering. They also discuss her pivotal role in establishing the National Science Foundation’s Science of Science and Innovation Policy program, and why an integrative approach is crucial to solving societal problems.  

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Josh Trapani: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University. I’m Josh Trapani, senior editor at Issues. I’m truly excited to be joined by Kaye Husbands Fealing, who is something of a living legend in the science policy community. Kaye is the dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech. She previously taught for 20 years at Williams College and served in several positions at the National Science Foundation, including playing a pivotal role in creating the Science of Science and Innovation Policy, or SciSIP, program. On this episode, I’ll talk with Kaye about her work at Georgia Tech on integrating science and technology with humanities, arts, and social sciences, referred to as HASS. We’ll also talk about her career, and of course, I cannot pass up the opportunity to get her insights on the science of science policy. Kaye, thank you so much for being here.

Kaye Husbands Fealing: Thank you, Josh. It’s really great to be here with you today.

Trapani: I’m really delighted to have a chance to speak with you, because even though our paths first crossed directly only recently, I’ve heard your name numerous times in virtually every position I’ve held in Washington, DC, over the last 17 years. And your work particularly on science and science policy, as well as on science and innovation indicators, looms large over my career and those of many people who work in science and technology policy. And I’d like to ask you about some of that work. But let’s start with the piece that you and co-authors, Aubrey DeVeny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz have just published in Issues. In the piece, you argue science and technology education must be better integrated with humanities and social sciences, and describe some of the work you’ve been doing to make this happen. One thing you mentioned that really struck me is that more than 75 years ago, Vannevar Bush, in Science, the Endless Frontier, warned against this separation. And we listened to Bush on so many things, but not on this. Why do you think this challenge has been so longstanding, and what is science missing by not doing it better?

Husbands Fealing: Great question, Josh. And I wanted to take that question in two parts. First, talk about the challenge that has been so longstanding that Aubrey and Richard and I have been working on, and then I’d like to turn it and talk a little bit about what’s missing or what we can do better. So along the lines of the challenges, the premise of our article is that creative possibilities that lie at the intersection of science, engineering, art, humanity, social sciences, that the investment has not been pulled together in those areas the way they could be for a terrific return. So Vannevar Bush wrote that to set up a program under which research in the natural sciences and medicine was expanded at the cost of the social sciences, humanities, and other studies that are so essential to national wellbeing, that to set up programs that way, we would be missing something.

He also said science cannot live by and unto itself. So I just want to expand on that a little bit, because that was really what drew me into thinking about writing about this issue regarding science policy. Richard is a humanist, and Aubrey is a terrific social scientist. So we wanted to combine those areas to really explore this idea of humanities, arts, and social sciences integrated with STEM, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. So for example, if you think about, and you go back and look at science advisors, go back, let’s just not go back that far. Let’s just go back to Holdren and look at the priorities that were written by him for OSTP fiscal years 2010 to fiscal year 2017. Here is what you see. Calls out these priorities, needs of the poor, clean water and integrity of the oceans, healthy lives, clean energy future while protecting the environment, safe and secure America and weapon-free world, economic growth, and jobs. Added to that, in the same set of priorities, STEM education, high performance computing, advanced manufacturing, and neuroscience.

So you see the difference. Some are big topics, big global issues, where clearly HASS and STEM coming together can really address issues of the human condition. So go forward to Lander and Nelson. The most recent priority memo was written by Alondra Nelson. And there we see pandemic readiness, Cancer Moonshot, climate change, security, economic resilience, STEM education, but also innovation for equity, open science and community engaged R&D. So then you see that scale back to something that is a larger context where the humanities and social sciences and even the arts come together with STEM and R&D to try to move us forward as a country.

So my observation is that there could be an increasing laser focus on competitiveness, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But with that, you see the increased focus on very specific areas in science and engineering. But these big topics; needs of the poor, clean water, safety, security, economic growth jobs, those certainly do require this kinship between HASS and STEM.

So for me, that sort of disciplinary fragmentation is the challenge and something that we can actually try to work through better as a group of science agencies. So let me address the what is missing part. What is missing by not doing it better was your question. And as we wrote in the paper, STEM and HASS domains intersect in the challenges and threats that people face every day. So we’re trying to get back to those issues of the human condition where the humanistic lens is needed to elucidate problems, imagine solutions and craft interventions. And we also think of it as these lenses allow us to think not only downstream about communicating science and communicating to either senators, congressmen, the populists, international leaders. We’re not just talking about the communication part of it, but we’re thinking upstream about also trying better to have that understanding of what the problem is, the discovery process.

And we think that it is important to have this discovery, design, solutions and communication process integrated into this combination at the intersection of HASS and STEM. Now, let me say just one more thing, and that is, it sounds as though we’re saying that this is easy, it’s not. It sounds as though we’re saying without it that we’re failing. We’re not, we don’t want to give that impression. In fact, accolades for our scientific progress surely are very well founded. So we’re not saying that that’s not the case or that arts and humanities need the sciences to buttress them. We’re not saying that either. What we’re saying is that there is a possible adaptivity that can accelerate progress in STEM, in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and also in the arts and humanities and social sciences if we could work together. And the other issue is that it’s also not easy because we have to develop a common lexicon. We have to develop trust across the sciences and the humanities to allow the benefits that we foresee to come about.

So we need a way of creating learning pathways, experimental pathways to see this happen, to see this take off. And I think it’s worth our attention to see how we could get about many of the discoveries and then solutions to issues that continue to plague us.

Trapani: Well, thank you so much for that great answer. That was really, really clear. And it just shows the importance of taking the holistic approach. The end of your answer actually teed up my next question perfectly, because I was wondering why it’s been so hard to develop and scale up integrative approaches to building these things together in education network. And also because you’ve been leading the way at Georgia Tech, what are some of the things that you and your colleagues have been doing to bridge the gaps?

Husbands Fealing: I want to answer your question by talking through a few things that we’re doing here at Tech and then really address this issue of the difficulties of developing these and also the scalability. So some examples of what we’re doing at Georgia Tech. For one, a two-semester junior capstone sequence where that is co-taught between computer science and technical writing faculty. So what’s interesting about this, this is an arrangement that not only sharpens students’ communication skills, but it also inspires them to situate their scientific work in a larger context. For example, by considering how it will be received in a field rife with gender or racial bias. And so having the writing experts and scholars working directly with folks in computing, and then that allows both to advance, right? Because, also these writing scholars are technical writers, which we all know we need at NSF or at the National Academies or places like that.

So having that flow between the two, HASS and STEM, STEM and HASS, that’s an example. There’s another example of EarSketch, which is now used by more than a million students worldwide. And EarSketch integrates coding education with music competition. So using music as a pathway to get the students to learn to code worldwide. And so it’s really fantastic here to see that interdisciplinarity between the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Design, putting together with college computing, and more than a million students worldwide are using something that’s in the arts music to learn to code. So it’s really important that students are trained to think across a range of disciplines to leverage their exposure to diverse methodologies, to better understand and tackle complex problems. So why is this so difficult, and how can it be scaled? I think the difficulty goes back to something I said a little earlier, which is, we do need to develop a common lexicon and we do need to develop a sense of trust across these disciplines.

Even if you’re working just within HASS, the social scientists, economists, sociologists, political scientists are not all coming from the same place and they now are working with computer engineers or working with biomedical engineers or working across different avenues. Another area of difficulty, which we can work on it, there are ways of dealing with this. How do you assess the return on investment to having this complex combination of humanities and science, or arts and engineering, how do you figure out what the return on investment is from those? And typically we’re looking at number of papers, number of patent’s, number of grants, how much are you funded in those grants? But those are not necessarily the ways in which we should be assessing the breakthroughs that come at this intersection. And there are ways of quantitatively but also qualitatively measuring those breakthroughs. And I will put on the table that one important product is this talent pool, amazing talent pool.

And it’s not just the first job that they get and then we measure, think about, well, how much did they earn. But it’s really five years, 10 years down the road, sometimes even longer, where you see the amazing results of resilience and agility of the students that are coming out of these programs.

The second part of your question here about scale up, I think that we miss opportunities by focusing only on the private sector in terms of the outputs of R&D and that there are many ways in which innovation benefits the nonprofit sector and the government sector. There is innovation in government administration and there are ways of using some of these outcomes and some of these products to really have innovation in sectors other than just the private sector. Although the private sector, obviously, industry is really one of the main recipients of our investments in R&D, and it should be. There’s no reason to argue that. But I’m just trying to say here that we could expand on that a little bit.

A second part is that, I’m an economist, so I have to say, when I think of scale, I think of economies of scale and economies of scope. And it’s one thing to say scale up the same, and it’s another thing to say, well, look for the different use cases, things that are combined, how can they be used in the environmental area, or in the health area, or in the security, all the things that we talked about at the beginning, including getting to zero poverty, things that are really primarily top of mind to the ordinary citizen. And so thinking of not only how these combinations can be used to advance science and also to advance the social sciences, the arts and humanities, but also what are those use cases? Those are the things that are salient, those are the things that sing. Those are the things that really make sense to the ordinary citizen, and therefore that support for these investments, I hope, can be better articulated when we’re able to do those types of combinations and actually do that kind of communication.

Trapani: Your background as an economist came through loud and clear in that answer, and I wanted to turn to that next. So beyond your distinguished academic career, you’ve also played important roles outside the academy, including some key ones in science policy. In particular, you played a seminal role in developing and leading the National Science Foundation’s Science of Science and Innovation policy program, as well as leading the Science of Science policy Interagency Task Group. Now, before I came to issues, I also served briefly as an NSF program director, and I can say based on my experience that most program directors don’t get to start new programs, lead interagency groups, and work directly with the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, as you did with Jack Marburger. So I’ve been curious to talk to you for a long time and to ask you if you could talk a bit about that time and how you first got involved, and what you and others who were working on it were hoping to achieve.

Husbands Fealing: Thank you. That was a great time. I got to NSF, National Science Foundation, in 2005, was a program director in the economics program, one of three program directors. In my 11 months, so forward fast to 2006, I was asked by David Lightfoot, he was an associate director of the Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences directory, and he said Jack Marburger gave a talk at AAAS in 2005 where he called out the social sciences and said, “You need to stand up and be really part of this process of trying to get the evidentiary basis for funding science,” and that we needed to stand up and take that responsibility to do so. David Lightfoot, Mark Weiss, Wanda Ward, they were all in SVE at the time, and they said, we have social, behavioral, and economic scientist, so behavioral sciences also are part of this.

And we also have an arm. At the time it was SRS, now it’s the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. So we also had this quantitative part of us as a directorate. So they said, well, what can you do to draft something that would give us the platform to start something called science metrics. That’s what they called it, science metrics. But yet they want the sociologists and the behavioral scientists and others to be part of it. So it couldn’t just be metrics. So we knew it had to be science of science, which was something that existed, which means basically, what are the frameworks, the models, the tools, the data sets that are needed to make good decisions on funding science, or to make good decisions on how teams should be assembled to do science and so on. That’s the scientific foundation for science. So Science of Science and Innovation policy made sense, because at the end of the day, we want to have the evidentiary basis for policymaking. And that’s precisely what Dr. Marburger said he wanted.

So by the fall of 2006, I had finished writing with a lot of input from a lot of folks that were, at the time, in 2006, at NSF and finished this prospectus and showed it to Dr. Marburger. Obviously, David Lightfoot did that, I was a program director and came back, and they said, it’s a go. So we wrote the solicitation that fall. We were on continuing resolution. February, the continuing resolution lifted in 2007. Solicitation went out by that summer. We ran the panel, funded a number of proposals, and we had our first wrap. So from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2007, prospectus, solicitation, proposals came in, proposals vetted, funded. It was a quick clock. I won’t give you all the details, but here are the categories that we funded in the first round: human capital development and the collaborative enterprise related to its science, technology and innovation outcomes.

So we did a lot there, including some work on the US, Mexico and Brazil. Biomedical, nano, hydrology, it’s all that foundational work behind funding those types of sciences. Another was returns to international knowledge flows, and once, test case was biofuels. A third, creativity and innovation. This is really interesting. This came out of the behavioral sciences, cognitive models of scientific discovery and innovation. Chris Schunn from Pitt was doing work where he would observe how engineers did work in labs and what were the cognitive processes that were going on so that we can understand ingenuity. So not just the commercialization, but all the way back to the ingenuity and that process. We funded that, we funded that project. Another set of projects, knowledge production systems, and looking at big systems, risk and rewards, low carbon energy technologies and things like that. And the last category was science policy implications.

And at the end of the day, everyone always wanted to know. Not only did you find the evidence behind how to fund or arrange activities in science better, but how did it affect science policy? And I’d say that we had the foundations of that even in the first round in 2007 in the SciSIP program. Very pleased about that. Dr. Marburger was very pleased about that, and forward fast to when Julia Lane, she took over after I left as program director, Stephanie Shipp and Dr. Marburger, the four of us wrote the preface of a book and then had many collaborators give contributions to the Science of Science handbook. And we finished that, I think it was published in 2012, but it was fun working on that with Dr. Marburger. So that does a little bit of background on the Science of Science and Innovation policy. Dr. Marburger really did give the charge for this, but it was fun. And yes, program directors at NSF get to do a lot of other things. So it was good for us.

Trapani: Well, that’s really remarkable. Thanks for telling that story. I don’t know that I’d ever heard it quite so succinctly and concisely, the very early days. So I guess it’s been 10 years or more though since then and I was wondering from your perspective, how has the landscape for the Science of Science policy evolved since those days, and how far do you think we’ve come in meeting some of these challenges and what remains to be done?

Husbands Fealing: I think that the advances that have been made, we have better models, I think, and frameworks that integrate across economic sociology especially. I think the original setup of this program envisioned having more domain scientists working with the social scientists especially, and behavioral scientists, and I think we’re making advances there. We’ve made many advances on the data side. I think the part where we could do more, we could do more in the behavioral space. I don’t think that we pulled in as much in the Science at Science, now has been renamed Science of Science, the behavioral piece as we wanted to at the beginning. In the prospectus, there was a real emphasis on creating a community of practice, and that would not only be academics, but it would also be individuals who are in the variety of agencies. The Interagency Task Group had representatives from 17 agencies that were part of the NSTC in the subgroup on social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

And the idea was to try to get more of the agencies to take on this Science of Science approach, but it would need funding, it would need to be a priority, it would need leadership. So I think that that’s something that’s still ongoing. I think the biggest question we get often is, well, how has this affected policy. And I don’t think that we’ve done the work to show that mapping distinctly between the science and science and policy changes. It’s hard to do. But I think that that is something where we still have a way to go. And the last thing I would add, Kellina Craig Henderson is now the AD for Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences. She and I rotated to NSF the same year, 2005, and she’s been there for a long time. And back then she really was working hard and diligently on the science of broadening participation in STEM.

And it is something still that to this day we’re still thinking about and talking about it. Dr. Panchanathan, the current director of NSF, is very focused on this. The NSB is very focused on the missing millions. And they just even created a new program called GRANTED to get R-2s and other universities the infrastructure so that they can apply effectively to NSF and get the grants to perform science and engineering activities at their institutions. And so I think the Science of Science, or SciSIP, depending on what you want to term it, I think we have an area to contribute on the science of broadening participation. And this is the time, because this is something that Pancha’ is talking about all the time, National Science Board and others. And it is in the priorities, the innovation for equity, that is in the priorities from OSTP. So I think we have an opportunity to keep moving along this line of Science of Science, or Science of Science and Innovation policy, especially at this time.

Trapani: Well, while I was there, I briefly ran the Science of Science program. We put out a special call that we called BP Innovate, and it was about building an understanding of the science behind what leads people to enter entrepreneurial activities or to not, and the sort of incentives and disincentives that are there and how that varies across people’s race and gender and geographic background. And that was a time thing, but I think it’s something that they are planning to repeat. I’ll just add that you mentioned a lot of names and places that I know. And I would just mention that Julia Lane just had a piece in Issues in Science and Technology that lays out a vision for the evidence-based policy making act.

And one more Issues plug before I move on—you mentioned the National Science Board, and last year we had a piece by the chair and co-chair of the National Science Board, and it was partly focused on the need to broaden participation. So this is very much the conversation that’s going on today. My sense is that when it comes to this field, the Science of Science policy, or Science of Science, is multidisciplinary, as you described, led by the quantitative social sciences. But to get back to your piece, you called for more than just that. You wanted more multidisciplinary, including the humanities, to be built into science policy. And I wonder if you could speak a bit just to what that would look like and what benefits you think it would bring.

Husbands Fealing: I’d like to see, for example, use cases where we can actually see the advancement of science using these activities. And also, I’d love to be able to see, and this I got from talking to our executive vice president for research who read the article and he came back and said, but we also need more science in art. And so consider that. Consider that. I want the listeners to think about what that means. So the art in science, there’re ways of visualizing, there’s something called medical humanities. So there’re ways of using those activities within the arts and music to improve not only outcomes in medicine for individuals, but also hopefully to really get at the kernel of issues in an interesting way using maybe art or visualization techniques that come from the humanities, arts and social science side. But the other challenge here was also, well, what if someone that is using materials or different types of paint understood the chemical processes or the composition in a way that actually enhance the product in the art side.

So that’s the vision, it may be out there a bit. It’s off the beaten path, but one of the things we’re trying to do here at Georgia Tech is create an area called Art Square. Now, Art Square, on a continuum, on campus is on somewhat of the periphery, but they’re building Sciences Square not far away. So imagine if we could really collaborate across those. And we’re also not far from the new Lewis Center, so the DEI aspect or DEIA aspect of this could come into play as well. So it could be a fulcrum, it could be a hub, it could be an area where we can really see advances that we hadn’t thought about by doing this. And for me, it’s an experiment. It’s something that’s worth investing in. We are doing much of it here at Tech. And so I don’t want to make it sound as though we’re not doing this, but with so much more that we can do to see this type of integration.

Another area is that we want to be able to understand how this intersection of HASS and STEM will improve policy. So it goes back to your previous question about the Science of Science and Innovation policy, that foundational element behind policy. Well, could it be crisper, more nuanced, more connected to communities if it includes the humanities part of it? And the National Academies report branches from the same tree. That is something that is important for us to remember, is that this cleaving, this disproportionate investment over these many decades, we really have to give back to the fact that maybe that didn’t need to happen, or we can do something that corrects that split and see better integration and investment in that integration. So that’s the vision.

Trapani: This has been such a wide-ranging conversation. I really appreciate your time and your insights, but I have one more question before we go. I was wondering if you have any advice or perhaps lessons learned from your experience for younger people who are interested in or getting started with careers related to science and technology policy who want to have a positive impact?

Husbands Fealing: Sure. I like that question very much because I’ve been in the business, so to speak, for more than 33 years. So I’ve been a professor for a long time and students are a top priority and it’s really important for us to have some takeaways that students can dig into.

I have three things I want to put on the table. Broaden your networks. And we’re not just talking HASS and STEM now. We’re talking just the networks that students can really utilize, not just to get access or economic and social mobility, but also to find pathways and career pathways, and those networks will really allow that to happen. The second piece is the focus on humanities or social sciences. If you’re an engineer, it’s not a distraction. It’s actually an enhancement in your area of expertise in the sciences and engineering and computing. So I’d like to just put that on the table, that oftentimes you may be chided, that, “Well, why are you doing that? Just spend 10 more hours in the lab and it’ll be better.” I want to say no. There’s a lot of benefit from looking at and having these other lenses to really do the exploratory work.

So humanities or social sciences is not a distraction, it could really be additive. And the third thing I’d like to say, because I had to really think about as you asked the question, what else would I want to put here? And I have to say, right, I have a math degree and an econ degree, and I was not a writer. I was not a person that did a lot of writing. I crunched equations. I loved QED at the end, especially when I knew I was right. And when I was a math major, the task was to solve the proof in as few steps as possible. I love that. But I will tell you the good writing, great communication, telling the story, there’s nothing more salient than that to put all of that hard work into people’s minds so that they understand what you’re talking about.

It even is important if you want to be an entrepreneur, it’s important if you want to set policy, it’s important if you want to let other students understand what you’re working on in terms of these peer effects that I talked about before. So please write, figure that out. It’s not always that easy, but it’s so incredibly important.

Trapani: As an Issues editor, I’m going to transcribe the part of your answer about writing. We’re going to put it on our homepage and I’m probably going to put it on a t-shirt too and wear it everywhere. Thank you. Kaye, it’s been delightful to talk with you. Thank you so much for being here.

Husbands Fealing: Thank you. This was a pleasure.

Trapani: This has been a wonderful conversation. And thank you to our listeners for joining us. As Kaye notes in her piece, Yo-Yo Ma once said, “Culture turns the other into us.” Science and technology has for so long seen the humanities and arts as other, and it’s time we turn them into us.

To learn more about how we can achieve that, read Kaye Husbands Fealing, Aubrey DeVeny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz’s piece in Issues, entitled “Humanizing Science and Engineering for the Twenty-First Century.” Find a link to this piece and the others we mentioned in our show notes. Subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. You can email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Josh Trapani, senior editor of Issues in Science and Technology. See you next time.

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Cite this Article

“Episode 21: To Solve Societal Problems, Unite the Humanities with Science,” Issues in Science and Technology (November 15, 2022).